From yacht crew put off at the dock to heartbroken owners, yacht captains see their share of yachting relationships end. Here are some lessons learned from breaking up with crew, owners and businesses.
Like a marriage ending in divorce, severing relationships can be complex. There are good breakups and bad ones. To share their true stories, the individual comments from captains at this month’s The Triton ‘From the Bridge’ luncheon are not attributed to any particular person. The attending captains are identified in an accompanying photograph.
The introduction points out two points on the spectrum of diversity. One captain worked two years with an owner, traveling 6,000 miles with their children, relatives and friends. The captain was sad to leave, but wanted to work on a charter yacht, so he made up his mind to give 30 days notice. But it wasn’t easy to tell the owners.
“We kept trying to tell them, but when is the time right? We would say, ‘Not tonight,’ and then, ‘ This isn’t a good night either,’ “ he said. “It took a week. It was tear jerking, the kids were crying, it was heartbreaking. It hurt.”
On the other end of the spectrum, another captain told of a crew member who wasn’t doing his job.
“We pulled along side, had him on the aft deck, set his bags off and had the Z-drives pinned against the dock ready to leave,” he said.
“I put him off on the dock and told him we were going offshore,” he said. “Then I tied the boat at a different dock.”
The captain had called management and told them about it and needed to wait onshore for replacement crew.
“I wasn’t going to have him on the boat any longer,” the captain said. “That’s a worst case.”
But breakups usually upset someone.
“They either want to cry or fight,” a captain said.
“There’s the good, the bad and the ugly,” another replied.
But there are many reasons people risk such endings.
“A lot of my breakups have been for personal growth or changing direction,” a captain said.
And each captain in the group had an example of firing a crew that just wasn’t working out. A captain illustrated one way to go about it.
“In a best case scenario I say, ‘You don’t seem to understand my expectations. Today I’m going to work with you, I going to teach you,’ “ he said.
He then repeats the training the next day and the next.
“Now we have paperwork,” he said. “Always CYA.”
“That’s ‘cover your administration’,” another captain said.
When it gets down to dismissal, he said to document events well, send copies to everyone, and consider recording it on your phone.
“Have witnesses, so it can’t be misconstrued,” another captain said. “It’s important, especially if you work with your significant other, to bring in a third party.”
All the captains agreed that because they are responsible for the other crew and the owner’s assets, immediate removal is sometimes required.
“Don’t tell them anything and let them off the boat, you have to for safety,” a captain said. “Now you have a security issue.”
“They have already infected other crew, it’s for further damage control,” another captain said.
“Escort them at all times and be sure you have already contacted management.”
Another captain clarified that each crew dismissal is different based on that crew’s history and what they’ve done to be let go.
“If they’re a good person, you have no reason to suspect anything,” he said.
“If they are negligent and drunk, don’t say anything and have them escorted until they leave the boat,” he said. “Don’t give them a chance to get in trouble, because they will.”
“It depends on the behavior of the crew as to whether we do a personal search,” he said.
“Here’s one thing I’ve learned,” said a captain as he got up from his seat at the table and turned his chair around. “I stand like this, with a chair between us, to prevent a physical altercation in the worst-case scenario. You never know.”
He said he watches for signs of agitation, sweating or reddening of the face. If the situation becomes tense, the captain will say, “I can call marine police or you can walk off.”
It usually goes without incident, but he said it’s important to stay aware of the level of tension.
“I had a crew that was so upset I had two crew go through her stuff,” he said. She had food from the yacht stored in her bags.
“That example shows that she just didn’t get the job,” another captain said.
Do it right
The group agreed that a good breakup comes with a few key elements. This conversation started with how captains leave a position.
“Always do it in person,” the first captain said. “Look them in the eye, tell them what you’re doing, ‘I’m shopping around, send me someone to train’.”
“I had a talk with the boss, let him know what my intentions were and he understood,” another captain said.
All agreed that ending a relationship on a good note is important.
“If they need, I may stay an extra week. Even then I still get calls, ‘How do I do this, where is this?’ ”
Whether breaking up with an owner, vendor or crew management, a captain said be clear about your plan.
“Lay out a check list: This is what I’m going to do because I’m leaving the boat.
“This is what I’m in charge of, and this is what you’re in charge of,” he said. “Make sure there’s a road map of what you will do for them, otherwise they don’t know what the expectations are.”
Breaking up with business like a shipyard usually includes a lot of paperwork.
“It’s all done at the pre-yard meeting, it’s all written down,” according to one captain.
“Lay out the conditions to meet and performance to be expected. Each meeting ends with a summary document which reviews, ‘In our meeting, you said, I said.’ “
This captain broke a long-term relationship with a yard when his expectations were not met and the yard staff did not communicate about a problem. The captain had another example of a breakup with a subcontractor.
“I said ‘stop’. I could see he was not doing it right,” the captain said. He cautioned the other captains at the table to get a supervisor before you talk to an employee.
“You don’t look like a captain,” the vendor said to him.
“You’re off the job. Do I look like a captain now?,” he said.
Another said he inherited four vendors with a job and he ran them all off in one afternoon.
“I rang the general alarm, got everybody on deck,” the captain said. “I got them [vendors] on the dock and said, ‘You’re fired.’
Get your stuff and my crew are going to watch you load out,’ ” he said.
Be sure to get security and a witness first, and make sure they have nothing that is not theirs, he said.
On a similar note, when a crew turns in their notice they need to be off the boat immediately, several captains agreed.
“That day you tell me you’re leaving, that’s it, you need to leave,” a captain said. “They need to go away that day. Their mind is not caring for the boat family or caring for the vessel.”
“Set them free to go find happiness in another place; they have a lack of focus,” another captain said.
Breaking up is hard to do
Everyone had a story of a bad breakup. A captain recalled when he was a deckhand and left on bad terms.
“The yacht was supposed to charter, but the captain kept turning down trips and was Mr. No,” he said. “I was going home for Valentine’s day and had my stuff on the aft deck when the captain asked, “Are you coming back?”
“Nope,” this captain replied.
Sometimes captains have served as mediators in other crew’s breakups.
One of the captains occasionally gets a call when someone needs to be removed from a boat.
“The U.S. Coast Guard, the police and the fire department had called the owner to remove this captain,” he said. “I was called to go get him off. To do an eviction.
“I got the papers to confirm it,” he said. “Then it was, ‘You’re off the boat; take the company car and credit card and go to a motel.’ ”
That same captain was himself once escorted off a yacht.
“I was accused and they claimed mismanagement. Lawyers told me to stand my ground until I was fired,” he said. “I told them, ‘I am fired when my name is off the insurance and management papers. Until that day when my name is off the policy, I’m responsible for this vessel.’ “
The captain explained that the owner is not the person designated as responsible for the boat, the captain is. This brought up the steps captains take when leaving a yacht.
“Many times the master leaves the boat and his name is still on the [insurance] policy,” a captain said. “The next guy runs it into the rocks and it goes on his [the original captain’s] loss history record.”
“Yes, that’s why I contact the insurance company myself,” another captain said.
“If you change captains, you have a security risk onboard,” a third captain said. “You need to change the VSO [vessel security officer].”
The topic of reputations and referrals followed.
“I think you can find out anything about someone in this industry with three calls,” a captain said.
“But it’s not necessarily accurate; you can’t qualify the source,” a second captain said. “We run into it all the time.”
He illustrated how limited the information from a referral can be. By example, he said he called the references listed on the CV of a crew and everyone said he was a nice guy.
“But the guy couldn’t tie a cleat, he couldn’t coil a line,” the captain said. “And all his references checked out.”
The captain said in the next call he made to the crew agency for new crew he asked if the crew could tie a cleat.
“They said, “Of course, why?” I said the last one couldn’t,” the captain said.
“First thing I do is check out the list of references for captains I know and call them,” another captain said. “I got one crew’s attention because I called vendors. If crew really did these types of jobs then they know these vendors. And I asked his landlord for a character reference.”
“Legally you can’t say any information, you can only say that they did work for you and for how long,” the first captain said.
“You tell the truth to your friends, but it’s all on the down low,” he said. “Be careful of defamation of character, there can be serious legal implications.”
“You don’t want crew to say, ‘I’ll never get a job becauses of him’,” he said.
“It happens; lawyers have been retained exactly because that has happened,” another captain said.
“That’s why the Would you rehire? box,” a captain said referring to crew information gathered by placement agencies and a check box labeled, “Is this crew member eligible for rehire?”
“That’s why the question,” another captain said. “If the box is not checked, you’re not saying anything bad, but you’re telling the whole story.
“The information is unspoken,” he said. “They may ask, ‘Do you have a written letter of reference other than sea time?’ If there is no letter, then they did something wrong and there is no letter of reference. If they haven’t got that letter, beware.”
“I rarely issue a letter; I have them call me,” another captain said.
“The little black list is retained behind closed doors,” a third captain said.
“I pay new hires cash for three days. It gives us a chance to get to know each other, during the “dating period” to see if they are a good fit, if the crew is cohesive.”
“A lot of times they may not work for you, but they will work for another captain,” a captain said.
“Most of the time it’s not someone doing something evil. It’s just not working,” another captain said.
“Reputation is important. But if you’re worried about your rep, you wouldn’t fire anyone.”
Several of the captains had tales to tell about references crew use on their CVs.
“Some have put my name on as a reference when they didn’t work with me,” a captain said. “They should ask first.”
“I would call to check and say I’m putting you on my list, what is your correct phone number or email?,” another captain said.
“Most of the time we’re not told we’re on the list.” a third captain said.
The captains said breaking up in yachting can be different than in other fields.
“It is a small community and this industry is less structured, there are no real rules,” a captain said.
“I mean how many yachts are there? Last count was like 65 or 75,000 working yacht crew on yachts 25m and above,” another captain said.
“It’s fairly small, even if it’s 100,000 or quarter million,” he said. “Some universities are that big.”
Another captain pointed out that there are some rules governing crew dismissal.
“Flag states cover the topic, but it depends on who’s doing the employing, who they are regulated by and where they are paid from,” he said.
“The officer’s handbook and ship business modules explain some rules, like that you can sell what they have for their ticket home,” he said.
“There are rules on dismissal governed by international law.”
Professionalism is key
Throughout the conversation, the topic of professionalism was often mentioned.
“Always be professional until the end,” several captains said.
“But the problem is a lack of professionalism, that’s why we’re breaking up,” a captain said. “That isn’t going to change.”
“I have found it’s usually a broad spectrum loss of hearing and that’s why they’re in that position,” another captain said.
“Whether it’s a teamwork issue, lifestyle, following command, communication or protecting the asset, it always boils down to work ethic and professionalism,” the first captain said.
“We make it clear when we hire that you are under no pressure to say you know something you don’t know,” he said. “If we hire you it’s based on what we think you know and work ethic.
“We will help, train and try to help you improve,” he said.
“If you lie, it’s back again to professionalism. It’s always the same reason.”
“Always leave with professionalism,” another captain said.
“That has made me professional and allowed me to have success in my career,” another captain said. “Don’t burn bridges.”
“Still shake hands and smile.”
“Give ample notice and always leave on good terms,” a third captain said. “I worked under a captain who was a deckhand that I trained.
“You never know where people will end up or who you will work with.”
Dorie Cox is associate editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.