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Hiring yacht crew challenges captains

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Hiring crew is one of yachting’s biggest challenges, according to some captains. They aim to pick the right candidates, but often misinformation and misconceptions mar the experience.

Each month The Triton delves into an issue to share lessons learned. During the December Triton From the Bridge lunch, seven captains discussed hiring.

The majority of captains said they hire well, but every one has had trouble finding the right crew.

“It’s the hardest bit of the job,” a captain said. “I’ve scaled back on crew so I don’t have to deal with 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.

Even with years of experience, not one of the group has a perfect hiring record. The frustration has several of the captains reverting to smaller yachts.

One captain now hires dayworkers when he’s not on charter.

“If they don’t work out, I say don’t come back,” he said.

“I also want to go on smaller boats so I have less ‘family’ problems,” another captain said.

The captains said they have navigated the hiring process on their own, learning from others in yachting and from their own mistakes.

“That’s a class they [schools] are missing,” a captain said.

The group quickly agreed they don’t want another mandatory course.

“I enjoyed the HELM class [Human Element, Leadership and Management], but it did not cover hiring,” another captain said. “It did talk about personnel skills and type of people you’re looking for.”

One captain said he learned from his crew.

Attendees of The Triton’s December From the Bridge lunch were, from left, Jared Burzler of M/Y Pipe Dreams, Capt. Steve Hubbard (freelance), Capt Rick Lenardson (freelance), Jeremy Creswell, Tim Hull, Alexis Del Salto (freelance) and Martin Secot of M/Y Arthur's Way. PHOTOS/DORIE COX

Attendees of The Triton’s December From the Bridge lunch were, from left, Jared Burzler of M/Y Pipe Dreams, Capt. Steve Hubbard (freelance), Capt Rick Lenardson (freelance), Jeremy Creswell, Tim Hull, Alexis Del Salto (freelance) and Martin Secot of M/Y Arthur’s Way. PHOTOS/DORIE COX

“I’ve had great chief stews and I watched them,” he said. “They manage their department and have learned how to do it well.”

And even though they have been disappointed, all the captains said they have learned lessons from their own bad hires.

“My questions have changed because the industry has changed,” one captain said. “I’ve backed off, I used to ask too many questions.”

“I am more picky now in my hiring,” another captain said. “At first I wasn’t so worried about the person’s personality, but now I realize how important it is that they mesh. Now I introduce them to the crew and see if there is any adverse reaction.”

He now asks for input from the crew on what attributes they would like new hires to have.

“Initially, I wanted people who could do their job well and didn’t consider the team aspect as much,” the captain said.

Several captains agreed they hire best when they consider crew dynamics on top of work ethics, personality and skills.

“I hire on personality, I can teach them how to buff and tie a knot,” a captain said. “But you can’t teach somebody how to get along with others. I need people who can smile. We’re in the customer service business.”

Captains improve hiring

With experience, the captains said they have improved their hiring skills.

“I have written questions and come to the interview as prepared as they are,” a captain said.

Captains ask about previous boats, skills and goals. A couple of the captains said they don’t have written questions, but know what they will ask.

“My interviews are similar,” one captain said. “It’s like departing the dock. It is so familiar.”

“I don’t have the questions, but the crew agency does, they know what I’m looking for,” another captain said.

A captain that has struggled with hiring said he has learned a major lesson.

“I don’t take any of it for granted anymore,” he said. “I’ve gone back to basics: Can you swim? How’s your health? What do you eat? Nuts and bolts stuff.”

“Are you on drugs or medications,” another captain added.

“And your drinking?” the first captain said. “An alcoholic destroys everything.”

“Do you have a problem with 18 hours?” another captain said of long crew schedules.

A captain that said he hires well shared his strategies.

“I look at how they work,” he said. “Not someone who tried, but someone who did it. I look for ones that work in certain industries. If they worked in resorts, they can handle long hours.”

He ranks longevity as a priority.

“If I see they jump around jobs, I usually have a bad experience with those,” he said.

Most of the group follow a similar routine when hiring: first a phone call and then a face-to-face interview in a neutral location.

“It’s kind of like a date,” a captain said. “You talk on the phone and go for coffee. You don’t bring them back to the boat until the end, after you work out they’re not a crazy.”

“I won’t consider hiring someone over Skype or the phone,” a captain said. “I have to sit down with them and have a cup of coffee.”

After several interviews, the captains take the crew to the boat. One captain stages a  walk-through to learn more about the candidate. As he described his plan, several captains said do the same thing.

“I see what they touch,” the captain said. “I’ll ask them what’s wrong with this picture, to see what they catch.”

A captain said he sees red flags, for example, “if they sat on a bed and didn’t straighten it when they left.”

“You want to see how they think, what they notice, like if the stew says, ‘this has great storage’ or the deckhand says ‘the boat is well laid-out’,” the first captain said.

“Or if the chef says, ‘we need to update this galley, what’s the budget?” another captain said.

“I always start in the pilothouse,” a captain said. “So if they don’t need to see the rest of the boat, I walk them out.”

Hiring difficulties

Even when the captains do their best in hiring, there are other factors that come into play. One captain thinks it has a lot to do what the yacht can offer, and less on how he hires.

“I’ve worked with yacht programs that have management attached, I’ve tried the internet and crew agencies,” he said. “I’ve had great crew that I’ve kept a long time and I’ve rolled through them.”

“If it’s a high-caliber program with good travel and charter and owners, you can get and keep high-caliber crew,” he said. “These days, crew choose us, we don’t get to choose them. I can’t offer training or big salaries but other boats can.

“That’s why you have to be honest,” he said. “I miss a lot of talent. If someone wants to come work and learn the hard way, I’ve got the boat for them. But no one wants to do that. Those days are gone. There’s not the discipline.”

“Fifteen years ago there weren’t that many yachts, and if a job came up they would take it,” another captain said. “But now there are so many boats, and boats that need a lot of crew, they have good options. The cream of the crop go to good programs.”

Several captains think they don’t have time to hire well.

“It’s always a rush, someone’s sick or has to go home,” a captain said. “I’m always scrambling rather than have time to selectively go through them.”

“Unfortunately, it’s uncomfortable when it’s under the gun and I need someone tomorrow,” another captain said. “It’s when I don’t have time that I’ve found I’ve made a few lousy hires.”

“When you have to have somebody, you pick the best of the worst,” another captain said.

A captain who feels as though he does fairly well at hiring said there are unexpected challenges.

“Everybody comes in with somewhat of a good reference and somewhat of a good background,” he said. “You’re willing to give them a shot and for the next six to eight weeks they give 110 percent, if you’re lucky.”

But then something changes when they settle in onboard, he said.

“Then it’s like, ‘Are you kidding? This isn’t the same person that I hired’.”

“It’s an absolute lottery,” said another captain who has had similar experiences. “You get someone that looks great, the interview is great, you get them onboard and it’s a nightmare.”

“It’s a roll of the dice,” another captain said. “You literally can’t trust what they say on their CV. You have to live with them to find out.”

One captain had a mate’s CV with a reference to a yacht he was captain on.

“That’s funny,” he said. “I don’t remember you.”

Another captain said a candidate put his friends as references.

“One actually had a friend pose as a captain of a 120-foot boat for his reference,” he said.

“There are so many boats, they can say anything,” a third captain said.

Several captains initially said they are good at hiring, but reevaluated as they talked through recent hires.

“I think I’ve just had bad luck,” one captain said. “I’m doing the proper phone calls, the proper questions. I mean, we’re all asking the same questions and calling their references.”

“I don’t know how you can be good or bad, but if you had to grade me, my recent history says I suck,” he said.

Another captain cited successes of past crew, but realized he was not without challenges.

“I’ve had a number of crew over the years; I’ve watched them become captains and I’m still in touch,” he said. “But it’s mixed, good and bad. I’ve had few great and a few lousy.”

The captains don’t blame the yacht owners for their hiring difficulties.

“I’ve worked for some [owners] who want to pick crew and others don’t care,” a captain said. “You give them what they want. He said, ‘I’ve got a pretty boat and I want pretty girls.’ We just work around it.”

“That’s the understanding; keep them happy,” another captain said.

Several captains said the owner often hires the chef and interior crew, and let the captain hire the deck crew and engineer.

“I like when the owner is involved,” a captain said. “If I get someone and I am on the fence, I say the owner has to review the hire.”

Many of the captains feel like they optimize the interview process and offer a realistic picture of expectations.

“I want to be as honest as I can, I want longevity for two years,” a captain said. “I need to tell them everything. And I try to let them know the real deal.”

“I say I’m asking for 18 hours a day,” another captain said. “I don’t expect you to ask, ‘When’s my break?’ “

“I ask them, right off the bat, to tell me about themselves, what they’re thinking,” another captain said. “I’m looking to find how they respond to vague questions to gauge their work ethic. If they say they’re good at Playstation and like going to the bar … . I want to hear they’re active in sports and they have drive. Some of what’s important does come out.”

But no matter how honest the captains say they are, crew have misconceptions.

“They think the grass is always greener,” a captain said. “They think they’ll change a little bit and everything will be great.”

“That and things like ‘Below Deck’,” another captain said. “Yachting comes with misconceptions.”

The hiring situation isn’t completely dire. All of the captains have successful hires and long-term relationships with great crew.

“I’ve only had a few bad ones,” a captain said. “But we all have our dream team that we want to put together.”

He explained that there are some crew he really would like to hire, but when the “dream” chef is available, the captain doesn’t have an opening. Or when there is a vacancy, that chef is on another boat.

“To get them all together at the same time is impossible,” he said.

But he left the group with a positive story of three college kids who came to the yacht for a job.

“The kid I called back said, ‘Why didn’t you hire my brother, he has a better resume?’ ” the captain said.

“You had tomato-picking on yours,” the captain told him. “The kid said he wasn’t going to include it, but that’s what sold me: working hard all day, outside in the sun, from sunup to sundown. He turned out to be one of my best.”

Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome at editor@the-triton.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.

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About Dorie Cox

Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton.

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2 thoughts on “Hiring yacht crew challenges captains

  1. Fred Brodsky

    Crew is the greatest challenge for an owner and it is what keeps me with a vessel that can be run and maintained with a couple. On longer cruises we hire a second stew for relief and support. No matter how explicit you are, issues always arise and there must be a balance of give and take. As soon as crew gets an attitude, they are off the boat. Life is too short to deal with attitude, as one of the Captains mentioned. You can teach and educate someone willing to learn, but it is very difficult to change personality or attitude.

  2. bill

    As a Calif based owner I have had the same challenges with hiring Captains. The person you hire changes after a few months. First Captain start “hitting” on my adult daughters. Next Capt wrapped chain around the running gear and told the crew not to tell me. The following Captain thought my yacht was his personal hotel; he had his family on board several times without telling me and using the master stateroom. Temp Capt to deliver yacht from New York to Florida was an evil dictator and the crew wanted to abandon ship, he also removed the petty cash (several thousand dollars) from the yacht.
    The charter brokers know these guys and were extremely surprised by their behavior.
    Finally, I have a great Captain and 5 crew. They respect each other and everyone brings exceptional skills and a great work ethic. They know that they can make serious money with charter gratuities. Last year, a well-known celebrity Honeymooned on my yacht.

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