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By Dorie Cox
The world of yachting strives for perfection. But yacht captains said there are a few things that make it easier to accomplish. During the monthly Triton From the Bridge lunch we asked six professional yacht captains what owners can do to optimize the captain/owner relationship.
“We want you to come onboard and enjoy,” one captain said. “Let the captain help by letting him do his job. And listen.”
Several of the topics rank high in importance, but we’ve put them in an ordered Top 10 list, nonetheless.
1. Know that we can do our job
Captains run the yacht like yacht owners run their income-producing businesses. And captains like when owners let them.
“Let us do what you hired us to do,” a captain said.
To encourage frank and open discussion, individual comments are not attributed to any particular person. The attending captains are identified in an accompanying photograph.
But occasionally owners still get involved in running the yacht.
“Owners hire us as CEO of an expensive asset, and then question us on each decision,” a captain said.
Even though they hand over the business, they want to handle the money and take over operations, another captain said.
“The common trait between a lot of owners is they know how to chose the people that can do the job properly,” a captain said. “They know how to oversee, how to put this guy here and this guy there. They should do that with us. Delegate.”
On a similar note, the yacht runs better when owners listen to the captains’ recommendations.
“They ask to go out even when you say, ‘It’s too dangerous, we have a storm front coming in,’ or ‘We need to get these parts in first’,” a captain said. “They are paying you to be a professional and then they don’t let you do your job.”
“Don’t micromanage and second guess us,” another captain said.
One of the captains explained why owners might struggle with handing over management of the yacht.
“Bosses are successful in their own area; they’re very intelligent, very driven,” this captain said. “It’s difficult for them to stand back and let someone else be the boss. You’re in a paradox as the captain; you’re the boss of the boss. And that’s what a lot of the owners take a long time to get.”
2. We’ll hire the right people
Captains said sometimes owners hire crew. But there are several reasons captains think it is important for them to have that duty.
“If the owner hires the crew, they think they work for the owner,” a captain said. “The crew will go to owner, and not the captain, when they have a problem. There is no chain of command, and there has to be a chain.”
“The crew has to trust me and come to me,” another captain said.
If the owner doesn’t like crew the captain has hired, the captains said they would replace them. Several of the captains worked with owners who hired someone for their friend or colleague, but the new hires lacked key components that captains look for to have a cohesive and safe crew.
“I realize you know his mother, but you gave me a crew budget and I’m wasting money with this guy,” a captain said.
One solution is to submit resumes to the owner that have been approved by the captain.
“I am happy to send CVs to the owner’s wife for the stew and interior,” a captain said. “I don’t care who she hires after I’ve chosen the CVs.”
Several captains said of course, owners can do whatever they want, so when they do hire crew, they will be treated like the rest of the group onboard.
“Hire the right people, leave them alone and let them do their job,” a captain said. “If you don’t hire the right person, they get fired.”
Captains feel strongly about being in charge of hiring and several had stories of captains leaving their jobs over owner’s hires.
“It’s a hard job and I need people that can work,” a captain said. “You hire him back, you’ll see my resignation.”
A common issue arises with the owner’s personal chef. Occasionally they don’t have yacht backgrounds.
“The first time, I really messed that up and included him [the chef] in the crew,” a captain said. “Now I make it clear, you’re a supernumerary, not a crew.”
That example highlights that all crew are expected to be trained for safety and other yacht duties.
“We live onboard full time with them and the owner just comes every month,” a captain said. “Give us the say to hire and fire. The captain should have full responsibility.”
3. We appreciate recognition
Captains want yacht owners to realize that captains and crew appreciate knowing that the the work they do matters to owners, their families and their guests, several captains said.
“If crew see that the owner doesn’t appreciate their work, they think, ‘I’ll just go to the next job’,” a captain said.
“Recognition and bonuses stimulate all crew, especially when we work above and beyond what is expected,” another captain said.
Appreciation is a way to build teamwork and morale.
“Thanks go a long way, absolutely; crew appreciate being told thank you,” this captain said. He said one of the yachts he worked on with the best crew and captain relations had to do with financial recognition from the owner.
“I attribute it to the fabulous bonus program that we had,” he said. “I like the idea of a bonus.”
One reason owners may not offer appreciation is that they don’t know what happens behind the scenes.
“Most owners do not appreciate how much work goes into it when they are not onboard,” a captain said.
One owner told a captain, “I don’t know what you do.”
“I said, there is no way the boat looks that good without a lot of work,” this captain said.
“You should park it next to a crap boat,” a captain suggested.
Several captains said there are plenty of occasions when it seems clear crew should be recognized.
“What I would like is when the boat struck is by lightning and the crew break their backs to get everything back online for him to use. Come down and recognize the crew, not just the captain,” one captain said. “You want, after some ridiculous yard period or challenging charter, to be recognized after such hard work. Most owners ignore that.”
There are many ways to show gratitude.
“It doesn’t have to be money,” a captain said. “They can say this is extra money, a gift or time off.”
Time off got a reaction from most of the group. Would they rather have a bonus or two weeks off?
“Two weeks? I would take a weekend,” one captain said. “That would be a bonus.”
4. You’re our boss
Yachting is unique in that owners and their employees live together. That can blur the relationship between business and personal lives.
“A lot of owners want to be buddies,” a captain said.
“If he invites me to dinner, I ask if this is a business dinner to discuss the boat, the budget, or his plans for the season,” another captain said. “It needs to be clear if it is time for professional dinner or lunch.”
A common mistake is for owners to think they need a close personal relationship, a captain said.
“Something that has worked for me is to realize this is not a best-buddy relationship,” he said. “It is not necessary and is counterproductive. It’s a job. You don’t need to be aloof or distant, but there is a clear line.”
“You’re not, you never will be, their friend. It is business,” another captain said. “But you can be friendly.”
These boundaries vary with the personalities.
“Each particular situation might call for a different approach with each owner,” a captain said.
“It’s not a matter that is clear cut, but don’t compromise where the job line is,” another captain said.
A common delineation captains use is the manner they address their boss, several use Mr. with last name.
“I’m rarely on a first-name basis with the owner,” a captain said.
“I prefer the formal,” another captain said.
The majority of the captains have addressed owners with both formally and informally. One captain pointed out a more subtle way to make a distinction.
“A disadvantage with the English language is there is no formal and informal tense like in other languages,” a captain pointed out. He said languages such as German, French, Spanish and Italian clarify relationships.
“I use a first name, but maintain the formal tense,” he said.
5. Pay like you want to be paid
Each captain in the group has had trouble getting paid at some time during his career. This topic reached an easy consensus: it is important for captains and crew to be paid as agreed.
“Pay on time,” a captain said. “It’s what they do in their own business. It’s what they expect from their vendors. It’s what they should do on the yacht, too.”
Several captains said they understand there can be reasons why payments are late or incorrect.
“Owners may not realize, because they have people doing that for them,” a captain said.
One of the captains can see another perspective, many owners come from a different financial background.
“Some of the people that you’re working for don’t understand people that live paycheck to paycheck sometimes,” he said. “They don’t realize you have a mortgage and they haven’t paid you for three weeks because they’re onboard. They figure they’ll pay you when they get home.”
But meanwhile, you still have bills to pay, he said. No matter he said, it should be a priority. A couple of the captains have taken legal action due to non-payment and two of the captains said that they have paid the crew out of their own pocket.
6. Keep enough crew
Certain-sized yachts require a certain number of crew and the captains want to run with that number.
“Size does matter,” a captain said. “You move to a bigger boat and want to work with the same crew? I can pull that off, but your asset will get run down and the crew will be tired. If the boat starts to slip in cosmetics and maintenance and that’s OK, then OK.”
It makes a difference to both the yacht and the crew, a captain said.
“If we run it into the ground, the yacht suffers,” he said. “And you won’t keep crew if you’re running them into the ground.”
7. Don’t make us break the law
One topic that got a response from nearly every captain at the table was about yacht owner actions that could get a captain into legal trouble.
“Once we know about it, like in the case of drugs, we will lose our license,” a captain said. “Dogs find your drugs onboard, then the crew and guests get arrested, the boat gets seized. I don’t want that.”
Several captains had heard of other captains quitting when owners continued to bring illegal drugs onboard, as well as stories of charters cancelled or nearly cancelled. None of the group had faced legal action on behalf of the owner’s wrongdoing, but each captain had heard stories, including not declaring more than $10,000 in cash to customs officers, owners inviting more guests onboard than are legally allowed, and people refusing to wear a required inflatable flotation device while operating a personal watercraft.
8. Put it in writing
The captains said communication and contracts are important in every business.
“Put it in writing when everybody reaches an agreement, when there’s a meeting of the minds,” a captain said.
“If you don’t tell me what you want, I will run it in the manner I am accustomed to,” another captain said.
“Don’t leave us to guess,” a third captain said. “Those owners are the hardest ones to work with. If we have a conversation, that’s good. I will also send a quick email to repeat and clarify.”
On top of written information, dialogue is needed to discuss the little things, a captain said.
“Have them tell you how they want their gin and tonic, how they want the stews to run the boat or what level the boat should be kept,” he said.
9. Be clear of your intent
It is important for captains to know what the owner wants to do with his boat do they can schedule maintenance, crew and how to prepare.
“Then we help him understand how we can do it,” a captain said.
“Once he explains his request, then you tell him that’s impossible or in order to achieve this, we need this and this,” another captain said.
A third captain clarified. We understand it is your boat and you can do what you want with it, but let’s optimize the scenario, he said.
“The owner wants to travel the world, you say, ‘Of course we can. Here’s what we need to do it’,” he said.
Often owners don’t know the best ways to run the program, a captain said. And that is what captains do.
“For example, look at usage of boat, when you up the usage of the boat, up the rest of the equation,” he said. “There are certain maintenance requirements that have to be done.”
To facilitate the discussions, several captains submit plans to the owner.
“I put together a maintenance schedule and give him a copy. Then he can say, I see you have maintenance, can that be pushed ahead or pushed back for a trip?,” the captain said. “If I say no, there are reasons. It’s all about communication.”
“He may want to go party in the islands, but it is the time of year when no one is there,” another captain said. “If I know his itinerary, I can take whatever measures to meet that request.”
10. And a few other things…
The captains realize it is the owner’s yacht, but there are technical reasons for making product choices. It’s not always simple to buy equipment and toys for a boat.
“You can buy the wine, the glasses, furnish the inside, but don’t buy parts,” a captain said.
“We know you want things to go well, you see something and you want to buy it,” another captain said. “They’re trying to make it easier for you, but they’re buying the wrong stuff.”
“They waste money when they get eager and excited,” a third captain said.
“The problem is that owners don’t know what they don’t know,” another captain said.
Sometimes, yacht life becomes all work and the human factors are ignored, a captain said.
“They don’t look at us as people after awhile,” he said. “When something happens like a death in family, some owners don’t care. Just realize we have wives and kids.”
Several of the captains said they need time off, and that means no work.
“Maximize our downtime,” a captain said. “If we’re off, we’re off. Don’t text stuff.”
“We have a lot of work to do and need a day off,” another captain said. “Please respect our down time and don’t call on our day off.”
As the conversation wrapped up and the captains thought about what was most important for owners to do for great relations. There were a few words that summed it up.
“Communicate,” a captain said.
“Be correct,” another captain said.
“Listen to us about the yacht, the weather, the schedule,” a captain said. “Listen, that’s it.”
Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome at email@example.com. Captains who make their living running someone else’s yacht are welcome to join in the conversation. Email us for an invitation to our monthly From the Bridge lunch.