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Crew Coach: Age, experience make captains more desireable, not less

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Crew Coach by Capt. Rob Gannon

A subject has come up recently with a couple of captains I have been working with in my coaching service. The subject of age — and the particular issues and options that seem to confront captains of a certain age — was expressed in similar terms by both of these captains.

They were both convinced there is some age discrimination out there regarding captain opportunities on larger yachts. The fact that these conversations happened so close together and were so in agreement and expressed without any doubt got me thinking: what’s going on here?

Well, there is quite a bit going on here. Both captains agreed that the general culture of the industry was a big part of this issue. This is an industry that, like it or not, revolves around appearances. The look of both crew and yacht these days is youthful, contemporary and sexy.

My captain-clients are mid-50s and 60. They are both in good shape physically. The miles at sea show on their faces, but isn’t that a good thing? Isn’t that a respected thing? Maybe not so much. Both are running yachts now but feel the opportunities are drying up as the years roll on.

They also expressed observations on some of the new owners of large yachts these days. Some of these new multi-millionaire owners are younger than their captains and have no experience with yachting or its history. Some come with egos that get in the way of learning anything from a veteran captain, making procedures and standard practices blurred and sometimes conflicting. They like the brand new and the shiny, and sometimes that can even extend to their captain. Old classic yachts are fading from the scene. Are older classic captains facing the same fate?

Is this attitude in yachting just a reflection of the larger attitude of our society regarding aging? Let’s face it; American culture is somewhat obsessed with youth, not only youth but new things as well. There are billion-dollar industries pushing products and services to look younger. We get rid of cars as fast as a pair of sneakers. Perfectly good televisions and major appliances are shown the door in favor of the latest models. Don’t even get me started on phones.

Regarding our population, too many don’t respect the wisdom of the elders, certainly not like the Eastern and older cultures. There is a wisdom that comes from experience. With that being said, wouldn’t an inexperienced new owner of a multimillion-dollar yacht want an older, wiser, more experienced captain at the helm? I’m sure some do but there certainly seems to be a perception out there that many don’t. Is it a money thing? Do they not want to pay the more experienced what they can command? I don’t know but that seems really short-sighted and foolish considering the responsibility involved.

If the captain is physically and mentally able and an asset to the owner but his/her age alone is an issue, is that not classic age discrimination? I’m not sure what else it is. A healthy, fully functioning captain in his 60s should have no trouble with the demands of the job, certainly not the physical demands of a fully crewed megayacht. I had some tough, long ocean passages on sailing yachts that challenged me physically in my prime physical years. This is not that; running a large power yacht does not demand that kind of physical endurance.

But it does require experience. Experience with leadership and getting things done, experience with sound decision making and seamanship. Experience that only comes with time and miles at sea. Let me add here that I realize this can be an issue with stews as well. I haven’t had the conversation yet with a veteran stew but I’m sure they’ve come up against this as well. This is something I believe is shared by both sexes in the industry.

So what’s the deal here? Are my veteran captains mistaken? They sounded convincing to me; I certainly don’t doubt them but the whole issue seems so contradictory. It seems that larger, more expensive and complex yachts with more crew to manage would require more experienced captains (and chief stews). But only up to a certain age with a certain look?

Enjoy the voyage.

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12 thoughts on “Crew Coach: Age, experience make captains more desireable, not less

  1. Charter Captain

    As a late-20s master commanding a 50m+ yacht, I would have to look at both side of the coin. I have sailed commercial shipping and now yachting. I have more miles under my Sperrys than all my crew totaled. Older masters in the sector I feel are not into change (MLC, ECDIS, STCW2010, ISM). On modern super- to gigayachts, the systems are extremely tech-based and full of ISM paperwork. When I sailed as X/O with senior master, they had the officers do all the paperwork and passage planning, not because of rank but because they had no experience with ECDIS, ISM and ISPS. Just like many of these new young yacht owners, they want the newest tech onboard and a master that can assist them with the IOS system onboard.

    I still have many mentors that are senior in age I call regularly for advice and to double-check an Atlantic crossing passage plan, speak about crew issues, and to learn from. And they call me to ask about renewing their STCW and how to update their iPad.

    Thanks

  2. Paul

    Let me just say there is age discrimination out there, without a doubt, I am in my 60s and have found my job pool drying up. A captain should be hired on his experience and physical capabilities, he/she should not be judged just by age alone. Just because we are older does not mean we do not know how to operate all the high tech equipment on the bridge, I know ECDIS, ARPA, chart plotters, weather faxes, GMDSS, internet, word, excel. One’s age should not disallow them a job opportunity, it should open up more doors for them. I know I would want an older, more experienced master running my megayacht. These miles of lines on our aged faces should speak for themselves.

  3. Cesare

    Paul’s comments are on target but I find those of Charter Captain condescending to the older salts out there. Heaven help him with all his technology if the lightning strikes one day and he has to actually look past the video games and out of the windows. I truly hope it does not. But a little humility might not go amiss with this rather brash sounding youngster.
    But I digress. The main reason, I believe, that older captains are discriminated against can be laid at the feet of the all-consuming management companies who through their brokers convince the inexperienced owners (who now abound….sorry, but true) that without their 24\7 shoreside support their floating hotel will never be run properly.
    With young, non-wrinkled captains this may well be true. Thats why management companies employ them. Help is always just a phone call away to your manager. And the owner pays, and pays, and pays in all the hidden ways. Such companies don’t want a captain to call up one of his career long, reliable contacts to quickly supply a part or assistance at a port at the true value. Heaven help the captain who puts his owner first and carefully organizes all his department heads to determine just what is required at the next refit, and who then shops the work around to the best, fairest shipyard.
    No, this is where the management companies (not all, true, but the majority) make all their serious money by insisting that nearly all works and supplies must go through them. What’s 10,000 a month management fee compared with 10 or 100s of k’s of kickbacks? Sorry, commissions. Then multiply that by a 10 boat fleet.
    The youngsters have not had time to learn shipwide management skills and don’t have the life skills to maintain a proper captain\owner business relationship and in the process help reduce running costs. They are thus beholden to the company that gave them the job, to keep the job. Us oldies have and do and are being squeezed out. It’s just money….but it’s the owners money and they are being milked and they don’t see it.

  4. Randy

    This trend is not recent – it started many years ago as an older yacht owner generation was being replaced by a younger owner generation. The wisdom & experience of seasoned mariners was something valued by the older generation of yacht owners but that mindset seemed to fade with the younger owners new to the game. When younger owners trended towards scheduling being a priority over weather concerns and keeping an itinerary superceeded a sea conditions I opted out and crossed over full time into the tug & barge side of the industry. There was a lot to be said for the tradition & respect that went with seasoned veterans – that seems to be a distant memory.

  5. Charter Captain

    As the brash sounding youngster with all my fancy electronics, if the worst case lightening strike was to happen I would be just fine. Randy is closer to correct with younger owners wanting crew closer to the age of the primary and most of the guests. My boss is 45 and wife late 30s and very active. I know he would not want a crew member older than he is commanding his yacht.
    Management company are a funny situation, as we charter heavily, we are fully managed by the same central agent we use for charter. They did not place myself onboard but have offered me larger newer vessels to progress in their fleet. Management companies are a very double-edged situation. I was just offered to take over a slightly larger vessel which had a 60+ year old master due to his desire to have more leave. I have no home, no wife, no kids, and no personal life (just how owners and management like it). The 60+ master has a wife, kids, house, and desires to enjoy them. Which he deserves, but this active programs wants a captain 100% dedicated to the program and vessel and not going home, the owners want a captain onboard every night. So a younger captain with less desires and looking for more experience is a logical fit vs. the senior master.
    No one is right or wrong, but in yachting, the owners will always get what they want and what they pay for. If the elderly owners want Long John Silvers and his white beard commanding his yacht, he will get it; if the California 22-year-old tech billionaire wants a young captain to drive the boat from an iPad, there is a captain for him.

  6. Doug

    At 50 I’m not feeling this but then again I haven’t been looking for work for a while. I have seen management companies trending toward younger captains. I’m guessing that this is because of wages and obedience. Another reason might be lack of family ties. I have heard owners say they are looking for no baggage. No wife and kids that will need the captain home every 3-4 weeks. Of course there are exceptions with every operation, but this seems to be a big thing with the globe-trotting yacht owners. Even if they don’t say it.
    As far as what Charter Captain said, young or old, the captain needs to be on top of the technology the yacht has onboard. I know many young crew that would crawl into a corner and mumble when the internet goes down, having no idea how to reset a router. I discharged a young mate because he couldn’t tell me how far a contact was away on the radar without looking at the AIS info. So being young doesn’t equal tech savvy, and being old doesn’t mean you are clueless either. I’m sure Charter Captain has lot of experience, he just needs some help sounding like a Captain. Rest assured, he will be a “old” captain one day too.
    Now – can someone help me. My IPad is telling me it needs an update. Is it looking for the weather or sports?

  7. CD

    There is merit in most of the comments, though one apparent fact in the industry is that there is a huge dilution of knowledge in yachting. I am hearing and seeing comments that could only be justified by ignorance and experience. Too many rock stars are resulting in a “proportionally” sharp rise in incidents.

  8. Graybeard Old Salt

    I hope Charter Capt grows up to my Medicare Card age one day and has to cringe at the youngsters like him brandishing their youth in our faces.
    It seems the place now for a classic old captain is on a classic old boat. I find with age I take a lot less chances with someone else boat and put up with a lot less cr@p from owners. Older crew are prone to have their stash of F- you money where if the owner is impossible we are not afraid to tell them NO. So many yes-men (and women) just tell the owners yes to everything no matter how stupid or dangerous it is.
    I sort of feel a bit sorry for Charter Captain and those crew who really do have no life. I can only hope they stash away enough for time to live a full life off of a boat when the time comes to carry that oar ashore and go inland until someone asks what is that thing on his shoulder.

  9. WHM

    The crew coach seems to think age discrimination does not exist; yet every comment here says it does- even from the 20 something captain. A quick look at daywork123 and other crew job sites will reveal owners stating younger workers are what they are looking for; if this were any other profession in the USA the employer would be in very hot water with such clear discrimination. It’s tolerated and that’s a stain on the industry.

  10. rob

    You may want to read the piece again if you think I don’t believe it exists. I do and was really looking for conversation about experiences and just asking about the why, the possible reasons.

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