From the Bridge: by Dorie Cox
Some yacht owners are in it because of their love of boats. They have spent a lifetime on the water, steeped in yachting traditions. For another group of owners, boating is completely new.
“I had a new-to-yachting owner that saw the yacht as a floating condominium,” one captain said. “He was not interested in the boat itself.”
We asked a group of captains whether they prefer working with new or veteran owners at this month’s Triton From the Bridge lunch. Many of them said they enjoy working with an experienced owner, one who appreciates the yacht.
“It’s more fun for me with a true yachtsman,” said a captain with an experienced owner. “He is excited about the boat and always looking at boats. He comes from a long line of owner-builders.”
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.
One captain said working for an experienced owner afforded the yacht a more realistic budget. “He realized what it took for upkeep,” the captain said. “It affects the quality of the boat.”
But just because owners know a lot about boats doesn’t mean that everything runs smoothly. One captain worked for an experienced owner who seemed to forget how much it cost to run one. “He nickeled and dimed me to death,” the captain said.
This problem is common with new owners because they don’t understanding what is involved in running a yacht, another captain said. “With new owners it can be hard to get money.”
But even when they are slow to spend, most yacht owners don’t compromise in regard to safety, mechanics, crew living or dockage, a captain said. But he said he did once wait years to do interior work that was badly needed for charters.
There is a another combination of characteristics that work well. “They don’t have to know about boating, but they have to understand what the job entails to be a good owner,” he said.
One captain who worked for an owner who had owned many boats said the challenge was not the budget, but crew relationships. The owner knew about yacht ownership and customs, but he began to let them lapse, the captain said.
“Things were too relaxed and it became too familiar with the crew,” he said. “Now the owners prefer for the yacht to have more formality.”
There are some new-to-boating owners, however, that captains do like to work with: The ones who let the captain make the decisions.
“They hire you to run the boat,” a captain said.
The use of the terms “old” and “new” needed to be clarified, one captain said. There are old owners — old in age or old in tradition, custom and knowledge. And there are new owners — new to the industry or young owners with a lifestyle of boating.
“Old or new is not a matter of age,” a captain said.
“It has nothing to do with years,” another captain agreed. “I had a first-time owner, an older guy, with his first yacht.”
Years of boat ownership do not automatically make for a great yacht owner, the captain said. He once worked for an experienced owner who admitted he was “a horrible boat owner.”
If presented a choice, would captains prefer a veteran or someone new to boating?
“At this stage in my career, I prefer an experienced owner,” a captain said. “It is a lot of work to break in a new guy.”
Another captain agreed and said, “You have to work to earn their trust. They’re quick to fire and haven’t had enough experience to realize it’s hard to find a good captain.”
Captains optimize relationships
Often captains don’t get to choose what type of owner they work with, so several have learned how to facilitate the owner-captain relationship.
“It’s our job to manage their expectations,” a captain said. “Figure out why they are in the business. Whether your guy wants to know about the boat or, like my guy, spends five minutes in the wheelhouse and is gone. Find out what they enjoy — that’s what your job is.”
Whether it’s the owner or captain who takes the lead to educate varies. One captain takes that responsibility himself.
“We need to find out what fits with them and learn how much they want to know,” he said. “I like to keep them informed and in communication.”
Occasionally the owner leads the way.
“Some owners say, ‘Here’s exactly what I want’,” a captain said.
But when an owner is less familiar with boating, the captain needs to step up.
“I think we should educate them on what they need to know,” a captain said.
There is no way for the owner to understand why the boat needs to replace something not yet broken, why another crew member is needed onboard or why a yard period is necessary unless the captain explains it, he said.
“This is how we earn their trust and confidence,” he said. “If we don’t interact with them, they won’t know. We need to look for opportunities to keep them in the loop.”
One captain worked for an owner with a lot of personal boating experience, but he still took the lead. “I hope I’m teaching the owner,” he said.
No matter how strong the education and communication lines are, though, some owners — old or new — don’t want to know how or why the yacht runs.
“I had an owner that didn’t want to know anything,” a captain said. The captain was concerned the owner would be upset when crew were fired, but instead learned that the owner did not want to know details, only that the position was filled. “I told them I had to let go the chef and stew. The owner shrugged and said, ‘We’ve got to eat.'”
One captain worked with a new-to-yachting owners that initially wanted to be involved in running the yacht. But as time passed, that changed.
“I started to fire a crew and they asked why,” the captain said. “I said, ‘Do you really want to know?’ and they said no.”
“Owners have to mature, too,” he said.
Often it is a matter of learning to communicate on both sides. One captain talked about his early years with a novice owner. “I was wet behind the ears at the beginning and we grew up together,” he said. “We faced a lot of battles and we made lots of mistakes on both sides.”
The captain told of a trip where he had a complete vessel failure: “I took responsibility, handled it, and at the end of the day, I said, ‘That was bad.’ The owner agreed and said, ‘But I’m keeping you because of how you handled it.’ We learned to manage expectations. It’s a tough job.”
It can take time for owner-captain relationships to mature and sometimes crew change before that happens. Everyone in the group hopes to get tips during a yacht handover that can make their job easier.
“I hope to get personal information on the owner, like don’t hit them up with questions before 10 a.m.,” one captain said.
“Or make sure the books are in good shape because the details of the finances are important to him,” another captain said.
Or when is the best time to talk with the owner about important yacht decisions — for example, not when certain guests are onboard, a third captain said.
Even seemingly small bits of advice can help the new captain have a good start. One captain said he learned an owner prefers just one question in each email with the topic in the subject. “That way he can search for it.”
But an owner’s relationship with a departing captain may not be the same as with the incoming captain. One captain shared a handover where the new captain and crew assumed the captain left because relationships had soured.
“Often leaving a boat is a bad situation,” he said. “There were no problems; I explained that the owner and I had come to an impasse. And I explained enough of what had happened to me to be helpful without causing brain damage.”
“A handover should always be positive,” another captain said.
“You should explain that this is what worked for me, but this may not be the same for you,” he said. “It helps to have the insight from a previous captain.”
No matter if the owner is new to boating or not, the job of captain is the same.
“Both old and new owners can be a pain, but not if we remember the ultimate goal is to make sure they’re happy,” a captain said. “I can’t say which one is better, it’s very individual.”
And he offered some advice.
“Get to know them and find out how to fit their style with yours,” the captain said. “I had one who wanted to be a problem-solver, to be involved in how things worked. But some owners want solutions, for you to handle it without him.”
Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome below. 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.