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From new to veteran, yacht captains make own choices for retirement

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Older employees in most industries often have mandatory retirement ages and company pension plans. But for a recent gathering of yacht captains, it’s the opposite; work as long as you want and be responsible for your own finances.

Each captain shared his unique experience on the topic of retirement at this month’s The Triton From the Bridge roundtable discussion.

Most of the long-time captains did not plot their future early in their careers. Several said they still haven’t.

“I never expected to spend 35 years in this,” a captain said of yachting. “I always thought I was going to get a ‘real job’ someday.”

This diverse group began working on large yachts during the 1970s, 80s, 90s and 2000s, with one captain beginning his career less than 10 years ago. As always, individual comments are not attributed to any one person to encourage frank and open discussion. The attending captains are identified in an accompanying photograph.

Early years as hired crew in the burgeoning industry of large private yachts explained a lot about how each captain has arrived at his current status on retirement.

Attendees of The Triton’s April From the Bridge roundtable discussion were, from left,.Lee Shull, freelance, Odel Dow, Gordon Ward of M/Y Adler, David Cherington of M/Y Meamina, Bill Tinker, freelance, Harry Furey, freelance, and Keith Talasek of M/Y Virginia Del Mar. PHOTO/SUZETTE COOK

Attendees of The Triton’s April From the Bridge roundtable discussion were, from left,.Lee Shull, freelance, Odel Dow, Gordon Ward of M/Y Adler, David Cherington of M/Y Meamina, Bill Tinker, freelance, Harry Furey, freelance, and Keith Talasek of M/Y Virginia Del Mar. PHOTO/SUZETTE COOK

“I can remember when a 65-foot yacht was a big-ass boat,” a long-time captain said. At that time most of the group thought of it as a job, not as a long-term career.

“It was a way of life,” several captains said simultaneously.

“The world has changed a lot, it all got more expensive and bigger,” said a captain who has served on yachts since the late 1970s. The increase in the number of rules and regulations has made it feel more like a corporate career, they agreed.

“This was never an industry, it only became an industry in the past 10 years or so,” a captain said. “I guess they decided we needed a degree of professionalism. It was a bit like Pirates of the Caribbean at one point.”

Most attribute their lack of retirement plans to the instability of work as a yacht captain, both in their early years and now.

“Your job’s always in jeopardy,” a captain said. “Maybe the boat’s going to sell, the guy’s going to run out of money, there’s going to be a recession.”

“There have been upturns and downturns in the industry,” another said. “Remember the time it was terrible and people couldn’t give away their yachts?” asked one captain.

“You stay with one family for five years and they either die or get tired of the business, so you go to the next one,” a captain said. “There are so many things that change on each boat.”  

“It’s a very shaky profession,” another captain said.

This type of work environment does not foster savings accounts, investments, retirement accounts or pensions, several captains said.

“It was never something you could depend on,” a veteran said. “You couldn’t say, ‘I have a strategy for the next 20 years.’ “

“You’re constantly running from boat to boat, you can’t build a career,” said a captain newer to yachting. “You don’t have a long-term thing.”

So, we asked if these captains have a plan now.

“Oh yeah, I think about it every ten years,” a captain said. “I’d think, ‘I better plan for the next ten years.’ “

The group laughed in agreement.

Retirement includes finances and how these guys will spend their time. At some point in their careers about half the group started saving with the help of a spouse or mentor.

As to what they will do with their time, one captain has expanded his hobby into a business and wants to occasionally work onboard. Another wants to travel, but after he can no longer work on boats (which he doesn’t really envision) and one expects to take extended breaks ashe has done several times before.

One of the captains has not begun to save money, but expects to as his yachting career grows, and one is rebuilding after facing a forced retirement due to health reasons.

The rest of the group came into yachting after unrelated careers and a couple of them expect to add another career to their cvs after this. But none of them has a solid plan.

But nevertheless, each captain takes full responsibility for his situation.

“When I finish, there’s no Social Security, no net, no payment coming my way,” a captain said. “So whatever I make is what I’m going to have to live on.”

A part of the retirement equation that causes anxiety for most of this group has to do with age and aging.

“My thought process every day, all the time, is where’s my value five years from now, 10 years from now?,” a captain who less than 50 years, old said. “This is a young industry.”  

“In 20 years you’ll still have value you don’t realize,” one of the more veteran captains said.

“Thank you, but for me it’s troubling,” said the first captain. “Where am I going to be with all these guys and girls coming up? Hopefully there’s still a place for me.”

“In your age bracket there still is,” the veteran said.

“But it’s tough when you’re older, you’re automatically discarded,” a third captain said.

“But in this industry, we need people with this experience to teach because there’s no one with experience coming up?,” another captain countered.

“It’s an image-driven industry, you’ve got to retire when you get older because you don’t look good on the boat,” another veteran said. “There’s an image of what stewardesses should be, like the young spiky heads. I’m fine with young spiky heads, but I’ve been called to take over from them. They’re great once they grow up.”

“Some of these people [owners] are businessmen who have multimillion-dollar companies and projects yet they turn over to someone with practically no experience but that fit the corporate image,” another captain said.

“Can’t be captain forever. The older we get, they don’t want us on the boat,” another captain said. “We’re slower, not fit.”

Another veteran captain disagreed.

“That’s the fallacy of the owners,” another, more veteran captain said. “It should be the opposite;

I’ve had people tell me I outwork all the kids on the boat.”

Whether they have their own retirement plan or not, captains have advice for new crew, or possibly their younger selves.

“Start saving, save early,” a captain said. “Most ones I see spend everything they make. They’ve got a girlfriend, a motorcycle, they’re going on vacation…”

“Or they’re at the bar buying drinks for everybody,” another captain said.

“Hey, we did that, too,” a third captain laughed.

“Sometimes I think, ‘You guys are crazy’,” another captain said of younger crew. “They think they will continue to make this big money, they need to understand one day they’ll end up here [older].”

One captain said he talks to his crew about saving their money.

“They all get paid well, live free, have free accommodations and free food. There is no reason why they shouldn’t be investing,” he said.

But some younger people don’t see money the same way as the older generation, a captain said. He held up his smart phone and said, “They use this to pay and don’t understand until the money is gone.”

“They don’t know what an IRA [individual retirement account] is, they don’t have the faintest idea,” said a captain who has a clear financial retirement plan. “For Americans especially, this is the best tax break the IRS gives you.”

One attendee recounted an early financial lesson he learned as a deckhand. His captain at the time asked what he had done with his charter pay.

“I went out and blew it. Yeah, we had a great time,” he said.

“Tell you what, when you get your money for charter, I want you to give me half of it,” the deckhand’s captain said. At the end of the season the captain gave back the money and recommended he put it in a mutual fund.

“I thought, ‘What do I need mutual fund for?,’” he said. But the captain explained to him about investments.

“Oohhhhh, now I understand, compound growth happens, that’s excellent,” he said.

Now this captain shares that lesson with his new crew.

“You can still have a good time with half that money, but save half,” he tells them.

“Make a plan, it doesn’t have to be set in stone, but if there is a guideline there, you can actually do more,” another captain said.

With a lack of industry mandates as to retirement ages and personal savings accounts, most of the captains in the group agreed that they are their own decision makers. As are all crew in the industry.

We asked if the yachting industry should create rules on retirement and got a resounding no.

“No, that’s a nanny state… it just wouldn’t happen,” a captain said. “Not that it’s not a good idea, but who would regulate it?”

“The only way is if it is unionized, but that won’t work,” another captain said.

The closest to a regulation is in the employment agreement, a captain said.

“It does say in the crew contract that a crew member is liable for their own taxes,” he said.

Should there be a mandatory or recommended age to retire?

“No age limit. Retire when you don’t like it anymore,” a captain said. “If you don’t like it, you are not doing good job.”

“The U.S. Coast Guard has some say with medical,” another captain said. “Especially if you’re looking at high blood pressure.”

“If you can pass your ENG 1 then you’re good to go,” another said.

Most of the group has seen captains leave the field because of medical reasons.

“Oh yeah, a lot of them,” a captain said. Several captains said they would prefer to have more time off and work on rotation rather than leave the business.

But at the end of the discussion, the group seemed to find consensus in their personal abilities.

“It [yachting] became a real job and with a real job comes responsibility,” he said. “You are responsible for your retirement, you’re responsible for maintaining yourself, you’re responsible for moving forward,” he said. “You’re responsible for saving your funds, I mean who else is going to take care of you?”

“We are the independent source that built the world, the mariner, no matter what kind of boat we’re on, we’re mariners,” another captain said.

“That’s what this whole industry is, it is independence,” a third captain said. “No one should take care of you, you should take care of yourself.”

Dorie Cox is associate editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome at editorial@the-triton.com. Captains who make their living running someone else’s yacht are welcome to join in the conversation. E-mail us for an invitation to our monthly From the Bridge luncheon.

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