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From the Bridge: Dockage, skilled workers, invested crew top yacht captains’ wish lists

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From the Bridge: by Dorie Cox

As yachts grow in size and scope, so do captains’ wish lists. To learn more about their hopes for a better future in yachting, The Triton gathered seven yacht captains for this month’s From the Bridge lunch discussion in Fort Lauderdale in early October.

At the top of their lists are hopes for more suitable and available dockage. Although there is no one-size-fits-all dock, one captain said there are slips, they’re just not available when he needs them.

“It’s feast or famine,” he said. “The yards call me two times a month, but when I need a bottom job I can’t get in for nine weeks.”

Individual comments are not attributed in order to encourage frank and open discussion. The attending captains are identified in an accompanying photograph.

Another captain had trouble finding a spot this summer in South Florida. “I’m amazed to see so many people in town,” he said. “It’s a big problem.”

“I’m seeing a lot of big yachts doing very big work,” another captain said. “The yards used to have seasons like Easter and Christmas, but the sheds were packed this summer. I have never seen so many yachts give up the cruising season for yard work.”

Attendees of The Triton’s November From the Bridge luncheon were, from left, back row, Capt. Les Annan of M/Y Axis, Capt. Caleb Semtner of M/Y Next Chapter, Capt. Jared Burzler of M/Y Pipe Dreams, and Capt. Hristo Gyaurov. From left, front row, freelance, Capt. Stephen Lopez of M/Y Freddy, Capt. Chris Wills of M/Y Renegade and Capt. Dennis Jones, freelance. Photo by Dorie Cox

Many captains of larger yachts hope that yards and marinas will continue to upgrade services for growing vessels.

“The boats are getting bigger, but yards are not,” one captain said. “A major problem is the power – even the Bahamas is better. One job can have 16 welders. Yards need to upgrade in Fort Lauderdale, they need to expand.”

“But there’s no place to expand,” another captain said.

“We’ll see more work in Norfolk and Savannah,” a third captain said.

Get ‘er done

Once the yacht is booked into a yard, captains wish for good technicians for warranty work, regular maintenance and refits. But several captains said vendors tell them they don’t have enough qualified employees.

“Contractors are overwhelmed,” a captain said. “They can’t hire good subcontractors; they can’t get good people at all. Things are so much more technical and the workforce is not there.”

Another captain said he’s surprised there aren’t enough skilled workers. “There is an unbelievable amount of money in it,” he said.

One captain said he understands there will always be new technicians that need training, but he can’t be the one to do it. “I have had to teach the service guy,” he said. “They’ll call me and say they have a new tech coming and they’re glad I’m on board to handle it.”

The captain said he recently watched a vendor working on a basic task send photos back to the shop for help. He was not comfortable leaving the tech unattended, he said.

“I can’t babysit them,” he said.

All of this group wish they could work with technicians they know and trust.

“When I call, they say that guy’s working for someone else,” a captain said. “But that’s the guy I want to work with.”

The captain said he spends too much time trying to track down the reliable technicians he has worked with before.

“This one’s been promoted, that one is at a new company, and that one started his own company,” he said. “So now I have to go to three different places to work with those guys.”

Several of the veteran captains said they used to be able to do more of the work on the yachts themselves.

“With the technology, there are so many of the systems we can’t work on anymore,” one of them said. “I hire out because I can’t do it.”

One captain said he wishes vendors could better organize their workloads.

“Some of the vendors have trouble prioritizing,” he said. Sometimes a boat just needs to replace a filter, a wire or a window and can’t get a tech for a small job because of large jobs that have filled the service calendar, he said.

It has gotten to where vendors can be choosy, a captain said.

“I’ve had a vendor say he won’t work on the yacht – he has heard about it and knows the reputation,” a captain said. “And some are too busy.”

“Some say they’ll come on Tuesday and show up on Friday,” another captain said. “Many vendors over-commit.”

One captain said he appreciates being able to order anything on the internet, but he misses the days of vendors having more products in their trucks.

“Before the recession, companies carried stock and had equipment on the shelves,” he said. “Now they don’t do that. It’s like Amazon; they have nothing in stock.”

Another captain recalled that vendor services were good during the oil boom in the Gulf of Mexico.

“In the Gulf, I made a call at 3 a.m. and they replaced the new head by noon,” he said. “You can’t do that in Fort Lauderdale; you would be three weeks. But out in the oil patch, they’re used to working like that.”

Work with us

Large yachts can be a challenge to work with, but this group of captains hope facilities pay attention to the needs of the industry. One captain said he wishes there were a way to better handle yachts that change plans frequently.

“I lose money on dockage every year,” he said. “I prepay to get dockage, but some places, if you’re not there, they’ll put a boat in even if you prepaid.”

He said even when he is in a slip in a marina somewhere along the northern part of the U.S. Atlantic coast, dockmasters often ask him to relocate in the marina as though it were a small boat.

“They say, ‘Can you move? We need to get a 180 in here’,” he said. “I understand, because the guy’s got 120 days to make all of his money for the year.” But it’s not so simple to move a large yacht with passerelles, lines, electrical systems, water hookup, and more, he said.

Tenders are another issue they wish dockmasters could be more helpful with.

“A new problem is, we have huge tows now,” a captain said. “I’m happy to tie a tender to the hip, but many of the marinas don’t have the space and you have to put it in a slip.”

Many of these new large tenders require power and need a slip anyway, another captain said.

“You can’t tie it to the hip if the marina is busy,” a captain said. “They’ll give you a call at 7 a.m. to move it off. But the boss wants to step on and go. We chamois the tender before we do the yacht.”

One captain wishes coastal communities would learn more about how to share local resources. He took the tender up a river in the Chesapeake Bay area when looking for dockage for a yacht larger than 100 feet, and found a vacant seawall.

“In so many places, people really have no idea what a yacht is,” he said. “The guy said it was 20 bucks and I’m thinking, ‘Twenty dollars a foot?’ He says, ‘No, it’s a flat 20 bucks.’ So we brought this huge boat up and parked it there.”

“I would like a list of all those type of places,” another captain said.

One captain said he wishes marinas would realize that large yachts need to be sure they have a berth reserved. He said he’s had trouble with the trend now for many marinas to require online reservations.

“I’m nervous when I book online,” he said. “I always called the dockmaster. You need to know the depth, the layout of the area, how to get in, the gangplank setup. And to confirm you really have a slip.”

In light of the recent hurricanes, several of the captains said they hope they will be able to find dockage for the upcoming cruising season. One captain said he fosters relationships with marinas to get priority for dockage in the future.

“The money is still a ‘Good Ol’ Boys Club,'” he said. “But there’s less of these handshake deals – those relationships are going away. And with the loss of dockage from the storms, it will be interesting to see if the marinas take their loyal customers or the new money.”

More facilities for large yachts will probably always be on yacht captains’ wish lists because, as one captain said, there are a limited number of facilities along the Atlantic coast of the United States.

“In America, if you’re over 120 feet, you’re screwed,” a captain said. “Up North, the season’s short, so it doesn’t justify having the large slips.”

Not like it used to be

Many captains wish yacht owners had a more realistic picture of the industry, especially those who buy large for their first yacht.

“They used to buy a small boat and graduate up,” a captain said. “But when your first boat is 300 feet, you don’t know what to expect. New owners expect things immediately and don’t realize how yachts and crew really work.”

This steered the conversation to another topic on captains’ wish lists: good yacht crew.

“When you need 20 top-rate crew, it takes a while when only 20 percent of them are decent employees,” a captain said.

Most of the captains said crew have the required certifications and classroom training, but less hands-on experience.

“Crew don’t serve apprenticeships,” one captain said. “They don’t pay their dues and do what needs to be done.”

He recently hired new crew for daywork, and he advised his regular crew to give them little assistance. He watched how the new crew handled themselves. The captain was surprised to find all three day workers just sitting in the crew mess before 5 o’clock, ready to leave. They did not get hired.

Most of the captains in this group said they are willing to invest in crew who will plan a future with the yacht, but that is not easy to find.

“There is no crew loyalty,” a captain said. “They get paid well and we want to teach them, but the grass is greener over there. I see a lot of crew that will jump ship for a couple of bucks and don’t realize they should invest in a program.”

“Another crew problem is wages,” another captain said. “They expect too much; it’s unrealistic and they have false expectations.”

“There’s no loyalty to the yacht,” a third captain said. “But there is loyalty to the industry – these crew have way more credentials. But it’s just paper.”

Despite wishes for appropriate dockage, reliable vendors and invested crew, this group ended the lunch discussion with several wishes that already have been fulfilled.

“Provisioning a yacht is usually fairly easy,” a captain said. “You can get the same steaks no matter where you are. I can pay a guy to drive up parts and load up the truck with provisions. The numbers-to-money ratio works.”

“The amount of fuel we can hold is good,” another captain said.

“We can do better inventory and it’s much easier,” a third captain said. “And most people are computer literate.”

“VSat and communications system bills are down, and communication is better,” a fourth captain said. “Electronic charts are better. The technology helps a lot and makes yachting safer. Well, if it’s all working, the implication is that it’s safer.”

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. The next one is Sunday, Nov. 5, at noon in Fort Lauderdale.

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Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton.

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