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From the Bridge: Yacht accidents leave a mark on captains’ careers

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By Dorie Cox

Yacht captains often are fired after the yacht they run is involved in a crash, fire or sinking. At this month’s Triton From the Bridge luncheon, we asked what kind of mark an accident leaves on a career in yachting.

“You’re fired,” a captain said. “I know it happens because I’ve taken over on such a yacht within 24 hours.”

As always, individual comments are not attributed to any one person in particular so as to encourage frank and open discussion. The attending captains are identified in an accompanying photograph.

Attendees of The Triton’s October Bridge luncheon were, from left, Herb Magney of M/Y At Last, Rupert Lean of M/Y Askari, Scott Lockwood (freelance, formerly of M/Y Gallant Lady), Patrick McLister (freelance), Ben Schmidt (freelance), Rick Lenardson of M/Y Status Quo, and Brett Sussman of M/Y Escape. Photo by Dorie Cox

To avoid debates of fault or cause, we defined an accident as an unplanned or unforeseen event and we kept the conversation to any generic occurrence.

“I would say most guys get fired,” another captain said. “I personally know two; I got called to work on one boat.”

A third captain said he had heard of many captains fired, but that it depends on the owner.

“When they are immediately fired, post event, it can be a temperamental situation,” he said. “It depends how involved the owner is with the boat.”

Several captains in the industry for decades said that firing is not always the case.

“Twenty-five years ago, you went on a bigger boat,” one said.

The veterans recollected stories of corporate yachts that retained their captains no matter what happened.

“If you’re a company person, you stay employed,” one of the veterans said. “If you’re on your own, you’re out of work. If you’re a team player, they’ll keep you after an incident.”

One of the other veterans said cover-ups were often part of the equation years ago.

“If you participated [in a cover-up], your reward was your full-time job,” he said.

Does this still happen? Absolutely, said several at the table. But it’s harder to hide events today, a captain said.

“Years ago, things could be pushed under the carpet,” he said. “But today it’ll show up on online forums.”

“Your boat could be on YouTube before you call the boss,” another captain said.

All of the captains agreed that it’s best to confess to involvement when seeking employment after an accident. One captain said it is the insurance companies that require a no-claim declaration or a zero-loss statement, which states the captain has had no losses or claims on previous boats.

“These days I go on all types of boats, and they all require a no-claims statement,” another captain said.

The industry is cautious after accidents, he said, and most incidents are involved in litigation.

“We may be prosecuted for negligence,” another captain said. “If you’re ever in an accident and you’ve made a false statement…, you’re done. The insurance companies will find out anything that has happened. So you need to say what you know.”

“It’s like the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) because they will do a background check,” another captain said. “Even something like a Coast Guard boarding will show up.”

Whether investigations rule that a captain was at fault or not, an accident will continue to follow him, a captain said.

“Any incident on a boat, a boat’s issue, is yours as the master,” he said. “I handled claims filed on the boat I was on. Was it against me personally? No.”

But, when insuring a yacht or hiring for a vessel, insurance companies do due diligence to investigate a yacht’s history. Crew names may show up in paperwork even when they had nothing to do with the incident.

In a case like this, this captain said, owners and insurance companies decide how much liability to place on the boat versus the captain. These accidents are looked at on a case-by-case basis.

“If there is no money involved, then it is not on their radar,” he said of most insurance companies.

There is no avoiding media coverage in this Internet age, a captain said. The industry learns about more incidents more quickly than it did even five years ago, a captain said. Using examples of online forums, the captains talked about how guilt can be presumed by the public.

Does this speculation have any effect on the captain’s reputation?

“It can spread fast and all the crew will be talking about it,” a captain said. “And if it’s on the Internet or in print, it’s true, right?”

“People’s opinions may overcome and dominate the facts,” another captain said.

“Speculation is slander,” said a third.

One of the captains said accidents get discussed at the local tavern either way.

“People will always say, ‘we heard…’,” a captain said.

The group discussed if they were in the public court and what they would do if their incident was online where accusations were being made.

“It’s up to you and the owner as to how much is disclosed in response,” a captain said.

Another captain pointed out that pending investigations and litigation usually prevent any discussion.

“Nobody can say a thing,” another captain said. “Remember when the Man of Steel accident happened? That crew is on lockdown by the insurance company and the lawyers. They can’t say anything.”

In February 2010, six people in the tender from M/Y Man of Steel, a 164-foot Heesen, had an accident in Staniel Cay in the Exumas, Bahamas. Subsequently, the crew involved were barred from commenting during investigations.

Should the media leave accidents to the lawyers?

“No, reporting brings awareness and helps us,” a captain said. “It’s good because it leaves the crew to think, ‘what can we learn from this, what would we have done and what will we do?'”

Several captains said they discuss accidents in the news and talk about at them at safety meetings.

Another captain mentioned a July 2010 accident involving a duck boat anchored in a waterway that was hit by a towed barge in the Delaware River in which two people died. News reports were beneficial when they shared facts from the incident after a final ruling this July, he said.

“They laid it out completely and maybe transparency like that will help,” another captain said.

“Learning from accidents like that could help others for the future.”

Often yacht owners ask captains their opinion when hiring crew, so we asked if the captains in attendance would recommend hiring captains involved in an incident. About half the group said they would not hire a captain previously in an accident.

“Probably not,” a captain said. “There would be a lack of trust.”

“If the accident was completely avoidable, I wouldn’t hire him,” another captain said.

A story was told of a captain who hit a reef and was given another chance. But it was discovered that he had hit reefs with other boats and never mentioned the incidents. That, a captain said, is a case where he would not be hired.

“When you’re on an interview or you have made good relationship with the owner or the broker and they are interested in you, that’s when you make your declarations,” a captain said.

There is hope for finding work after an accident, a captain said. He illustrated with a story of a mate who was driving and hit a reef. The captain in charge took full responsibility.

“I asked the owner what he wanted me to do,” the captain said. “Want to send me packing? I’ll go.”

But the owner said, “Do you let him go because he screwed up or keep him because now he is super vigilant?”

They kept the mate.

Dorie Cox is associate editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome at editor@the-triton.com. If you make your living working as a yacht captain, e-mail us for an invitation to our monthly Bridge luncheon.

About Dorie Cox

Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton.

View all posts by Dorie Cox →

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