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From litigation to flags, captains relay perceptions about U.S. yachting

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To find out how the world sees the United States of America in reference to yachting, we listened to yacht captains who talk to, and work with, a variety of nationalities. They relayed what they hear about U.S. crew, yachts, flags and cruising.

The conversation covered perceptions. Not necessarily factual, the topics focused on the way people think about, or understand, the United States. Everyone at the The Triton monthly captains’ luncheon was a U.S. citizen. Half of the group were originally from other countries and made the choice to become U.S. citizens.The other half were born in the United States.

One captain began with perceptions he heard when he left his home country to relocate to America.

“I got persecuted for making the choice to move here from Europe,” he said. “People would say, ‘What are you doing? America sucks.’ “

He wondered if they had only been to Ft. Lauderdale.

“I said, “What are you basing that on, where have you been? If that’s their perception of America, if you base it on South Florida, you’re way off, there is so much more,” he told them.

Individual comments are not attributed to any particular person in order to encourage frank and open discussion. The attending captains are identified in an accompanying photograph.

Legal perceptions of U.S. yacht crew

Attendees of The Triton’s May From the Bridge luncheon were, from left, Capt. Rupert Lean, freelance, Capt. Gianni Brill, freelance, Capt. Christoff Spies of M/Y Bandido, Capt. Mark Macioce of M/Y Unity, Capt. Ingo Pfotenhaur and Capt. Richard Alcott of M/Y Scorpio 12. PHOTOS/SUZETTE COOK

Attendees of The Triton’s May From the Bridge luncheon were, from left, Capt. Rupert Lean, freelance, Capt. Gianni Brill, freelance, Capt. Christoff Spies of M/Y Bandido, Capt. Mark Macioce of M/Y Unity, Capt. Ingo Pfotenhaur and Capt. Richard Alcott of M/Y Scorpio 12. PHOTOS/SUZETTE COOK

A perception that each of these captains hear most often is that U.S. crew are more litigious than other nationalities in yachting.

“You can employ one or two Americans in a crew. You know why?,” a captain said. “Because the litigious nature of our judicial system. Lawyers can sue anyone for anything. It doesn’t matter if it has merit or not.”

“But not in Europe,” another said. “If you sue someone in Europe and you lose, you have to pay the defendant’s legal bill.”

“In the U.S. you can sue someone and cause them to spend a lot of money, tens of thousands of dollars, and if you don’t win, you can walk away with impunity,” the first captain said. “And that’s the big problem with insurance companies.”

A captain born in Europe said he cannot get a job there since becoming a U.S. citizen.

“They say insurance does not cover American crew,” he said.

“People are afraid of sexual harassment suits, someone falling and other liability,” another captain said. “And to have American lawyers step in and try to shake them down for millions of dollars, that’s the reason.”

Another captain wondered how having two Americans as crew creates more possibility for litigation.

“You heard of the woman who goes into McDonald’s, spills hot coffee on herself and gets a $3 million award. They think it will carry onto yachting,” the first captain said.

“Higher premiums,” another captain answered. “They actually pay at a rate they quoted the owner, if they were going to have more than two it was more, because the risk of a lawsuit is greater. And the insurance company has to defend if there is a lawsuit.”

“It’s dictated by the insurance company, whether it’s fair or not,” another captain said.

Although everyone in the group has heard the litigious perception, most countered that they had not experienced it.

“I have done this for many many years,” a captain said, “We have all done this for years, and in all my career I don’t remember anyone suing anybody.”.

“I’ve never been in the environment of someone being sued, but I’ve worked for owners that have made me sign off on things because the owner was being sued,” another captain said.

A third captain said his crew signs non-disclosure agreements to prevent problems.

“The incidence have been negligible in the yachting industry,” a third captain said. “But what goes on in the court system with corporations… it’s the McDonalds thing. It creates the perception.”

“But it’s been proven, the issue is not the American crew doing the suing, it’s foreign crew suing American owners,” a fourth captain said.

The captains were interested in learning more about the statistics of litigation.

“There must be a record somewhere, who sues the most,” a captain said.

Next, the talk veered to the Jones Act, or the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, which regulates maritime commerce in U.S. waters and between U.S. ports. A captain said he has been involved in lawsuits, in the commercial industry, in reference to the Jones Act and he explained that it applies to yachting for American crew and American flagged vessels.

“If you get hurt onboard, the owner of the ship is responsible for your medical care and your repatriation to get back to the United States if that’s required,” he said.

“People do get hurt in boating and I am glad to hear we don’t hear it so much in yachting,” he said. But just how is the Jones Act perceived by people in yachting? The captains have heard positive and negatives.

“It goes both ways, but it is good for me because I’m protected,” a captain said. “My boss has to carry an insurance policy for every crew onboard, for both the owner and the crew’s protection,” another captain said.

“We never call the insurance, the boss pays. He says, “Here’s the credit card, whatever the bill is, whatever it takes,” another captain said. “Sometimes I don’t even ask because I know what they’re going to say, especially the American owners.”

A captain talked of a stew who fell off the boat after drinking at a bar. She said she was injured and the captain said he had to make report because of the Jones Act.

“I told her this is what happens: the fact that you were at a bar, drunk, you’re going to get blood-alcohol tested. Then, if you make the claim, you can’t stop it,” he said.

“Once a claim starts, it goes both directions and it protects both people.”

We paid, it was cheap, if we had gone the insurance route, it would have been more. This way, the boss was not overexposed and the stew kept her job, he said.

“As an American we have to report it, I can’t decide not to,” another captain said.

The perception is that Americans are over-litigious, but it protects the owner as much as the crew member, a captain said.

“If you don’t, it becomes, “he said, she said.” It’s a very professional way to do it: You got hurt on this date, where you were coming from, what were you doing, were you at work, all that stuff gets documented,” the first captain said. “It starts a chain reaction.”

 Perceptions of Americans as crew members

Most of the group had something to say about different nationalities of yacht crew. A European-born captain recalled a yacht owner’s perception of American crew when he was hired as an American captain on an American-flagged boat. During the initial interview, the owner asked if he considered himself a typical Florida captain.

“This is an American saying this to me and I wondered what he meant by that,” the captain said. So he answered, “Yes I would think so.”

“Well, that’s not good,” the owner said.

“His perception of an American captain was that they’re lazy, not hands-on type people. I told him I was not that and I did get the job,” the captain said. “But he did throw that question which brings up an important point, whether they are captain, engineer, deckhand… that is the perception.”

“It’s five o’clock, time to get a beer crew,” another captain said.

“But, I don’t think there’s any difference to European or other countries. It’s really up to who you are,” another captain said.

Another captain agreed and said he had good American crew, it depends more on the person than the country.

“There are people who would say there are no good American crew out there,” he said. “I would completely disagree. In my experience there is shortage of good American crew.

“I’m tired of hearing there’s no good American crew,” another captain said. “I had good crew working for me chartering, I would hire them again in an instant.”

“I’ve had great Americans and bad Americans; I’ve had great South Africans and bad South Africans,” another captain said. “It’s more. It’s work ethic and more. But a lot of American crew that don’t know service, came from wealthy families and don’t know how to serve. It’s easy to say Americans are lazy because they’re spoiled.”

One captain said there are also different regional perceptions.

“When I first started it was, ‘New England captains, they’re always on the take,’ then it was, ‘Florida captains, they’re getting a kickback’,” he said. “In reality it doesn’t matter where you’re from, good people and bad people are everywhere.”

U.S. yachts and owners

We asked the group what is the perception of the number of U.S. yacht owners.

“Where are yacht owners from? I would say most are from the United States. A lot are here sitting in Ft. Lauderdale,” a captain said. “We have the largest number of wealthy gazillionares. It’s countries with highest number of high net worth people that have the highest percentages of yachts.

“If we were in Europe, we would say something different,” another captain said. He said the majority of owners are from Northern Europe, the United States and Russia in that order.

On a similar topic, what is the perception of how many yachts are built in the United States?

“The perception is the U.S. is losing shipyards and big builders,” a captain said. “Lack of business, cost of doing business and cost of workers. It’s definitely cheaper outside the US., like Turkey.”

Another captain felt that most yachts are built in Italy.

“At last count they had 78 building yards. Then Holland was next,” he said. “It’s a shame we don’t have many American builders left.”

“I saw a list of new builds predicted and Italy was first,” another captain agreed. “We’re losing American builders, I’m not sure why.”

“They’re not building anything until it’s ordered,” another captain said. “Where is America on the scale, I would say 20th. We have good repair yards but not good building yards any more. I think our repair yards are leaving as well. I think we’re losing a lot to development.”

“These are the rumors, but it makes sense that they’re worth more as 40 story condo tower,” another captain said.

Several captains agreed that another perception is that no non-American would buy an American yacht.

“More Americans buy foreign boats,” one of the captains said. “If we had the money I would tell my boss to buy a foreign boat, they are better quality.”

The perception is that people that work in the U.S. yards are not as qualified, several captains said.

“They aren’t third generation boat builders,” he said. “Here in U.S. it’s, ‘We’re busy, so we need to hire a dozen people now.’”

 The perceptions of a U.S. flag on a yacht

What perception comes to mind at the sight of a U.S. flag on a yacht?

“You have to have U.S. crew,” a captain said.

“You don’t see so many American flags,” a captain said. “They can’t do it because of taxes, insurance, regulations and class societies.”

“I think if you have enough money to build a big yacht and are proud to be American, you should put an American flag on it,” another captain said. “You want to buy American boat, you can’t buy a Feadship because it’s not American, but you can put an American flag on it.”

“I worked for American owners that said their boat will always be American,” a captain countered.

Another captain asked how long ago that was? The previous captain said it was about 20 years ago. And that scenario doesn’t happen as often now, he said.

“Now we have Americans with foreign flagged boats and hire foreign crew that don’t pay taxes, that get to enjoy all of great America and piss and moan about how bad it is,” a captain said.

 U.S. as a yacht destination

Yacht often follow a seasonal path and we wondered about the perception of cruising in the United States.

“Yachting started in Europe and the Caribbean then yachts migrated to South Florida,” a captain said. “But they don’t cruise U.S. waters often.”

“One of the drawbacks is there are lots of charter yachts in worldwide yachting charter fleet and charter yachts can’t charter in U.S. waters. They can’t engage in commercial activity in U.S. waters.”

“That cuts out a lot of yachts from coming into the U.S.,” he said.

“A lot of European yachts go into mothballs before coming into this area,” another captain said.

“There is such great cruising in the U.S.,” another captain said. “I don’t think there’s enough realization of what U.S. waters offer.”

“I think European crew discourage their owners, they don’t have the knowledge,” another captain said.

Is the perception that it is hard for Europeans to come into U.S. because of visas?

“No, they come in as visitor. The crew has to have visa, for sure but the U.S. is welcoming and helpful,” a captain said. “You can go to Rome, Paris, Madrid and get visa, you can get one on the way here and on the way back, even if you never had visa.”

“They’re easy to get and very rarely are you denied,” he said.

Another captain said he heard it depends on the crew visa, whether B1 or B2.

“There are a lot of people deported on B1 or B2 , they think they are working legally and they are not,” another captain said.

To wrap up the complex topic, several captains agreed that they lacked facts. The conversation was about perceptions, justified or not.

“We are stereotyping, but how can you fight these stereotypes?,” a captain asked.

Another captain said, anyone sharing a bad perception doesn’t know the facts about the United States.

“If they want to really understand, they need to dig a bit,” he said.

Each of the captains wrapped up the lunch with good points about America.

“I’ve been all around the world on boats and on land; I think it’s the greatest country in the world,” a captain said. “There are so many other places where things are so bad.”

Everyone at the table agreed.

“Be proud of your country and stop spreading rumors,” a captain said. “As yachties we do this. I am guilty of this too, we love telling the bad of everything in the industry. Let’s focus on the positive instead of the negative.”

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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