From the Bridge: by Lucy Chabot Reed
This month’s From the Bridge captains lunch took a different turn than we expected. Previously, a captain suggested we ask “What does it cost to hire someone?” He was talking about crew agency fees, background checks, uniforms. Hard costs, dollar figures.
But at our luncheon, the assembled captains talked about everything but.
“There is a the real dollar cost but the other cost is our time,” one captain said. “That’s worth something. For all the things I do, one of the most important is collecting capable people to join the team.
“You can’t teach some stuff,” this captain said. “It’s the things they learned when they were 6, saying please and thank you. We want nice people to work with us. If they bring those skills, we can teach them the other stuff. I mean, how hard is it to be a deckhand?”
As always, individual comments are not attributed to any one person in particular so as to encourage frank and open discussion.
The captains agreed that they hire less for skills and experience, and more for those soft skills that help make a crew member a good fit into an existing team.
“I hire for attitude,” another captain said. “I can teach them what I want them to know.”
“I’m hiring now for maturity and responsibility, and a mix of older and younger,” said a third. “I want it to be like a family.”
And finding crew with the attitude and personality they seek takes time. Then, of course, so does the on-board training, which reflects another intangible cost.
“How long does it take them to get up to speed? A month?” one captain asked. “There’s our oversight during all that time. I’m taking my time out from the bridge to teach them how to launch the tender, how to set the boarding ladder, how to anchor, how to throw lines. Since we don’t go out much, we do training sessions under way where we take the boat out.
“These are days spent with crew training when nothing else gets done on the boat.”
It’s that time — either their own or that of a department head — that these captains agreed was one of the biggest costs in hiring new crew members.
“Monetarily, whatever it takes to get a uniform on that crew member ends at some point; it’s finite,” one captain said. “And after two weeks, you can say, ‘this girl gets it.’ But it can take two months, and you’re asking yourself, ‘man, is she ever going to get it?’ Sometimes, it seems like it can go on and on. There’s a real human cost to that.
“For me, there’s an emotional component; it’s not the money,” he said, noting that the tedium of working with crew members that don’t “get it” quickly can wear on not only the captain but the rest of the crew, who end up covering for the newest member. “I find that part the most challenging. That human-guidance factor is so open-ended. You don’t know when it will end. You can’t just say, in 3-to-4 weeks, this person will be on autopilot and I can relax.”
“When I was single and living on the boat, spending that time wasn’t a cost to me,” another captain said. “I had all the time in the world. Now, I want to go home and spend time with my family.”
Once the right person is hired and trained, there’s still the anxious period where they are first left alone to be responsible, the nights lying awake in bed, wondering if the vessel and her crew are safe.
“I’ll drive by to check up on them,” one captain said. “At some point, you have to let them do their job. You hope that’s learned, but it’s not always.”
“There is no greater satisfaction for me than to be able to trust the people I work with,” another captain said.
Another cost is what hiring new crew does to the owner.
“The owner doesn’t want to see new faces,” one captain said. “If they see new faces, it’s my failure as a captain.”
“They feel much more comfortable with familiar faces,” another said.
“I’ve had 80 crew on the boat in 10 years,” said a third. “The owner is worried that the turnover was because of him, or me.”
While this captain accepted responsibility for the turnover, he noted that the yacht is rarely used. That makes it hard to keep crew for any length of time.
The other captains agreed. They all acknowledged having slower programs, where the boat sits still for long portions of the year and sees the owner and/or guests only sporadically. And their boats are physically older.
“No matter how painful the conversation is, we have to remind the owner that the boat is such a unique operation,” one captain said. “When it’s not moving, it’s really hard to keep people. Young people want new boats; older boats are harder. When someone would leave, he’d be mad at me, asking ‘why did they leave?’ They’re young. They’re looking for the next thing.”
And there’s only so much they are willing to do to keep crew, including financial bonuses.
“At a certain moment, part of it is they have to want to be there,” one captain said. “We could give them more money, but we don’t want to be needy. If they want to leave, that’s it. Maybe they should go.”
We did chat a little about the real, hard costs of hiring crew. First, theses captains said they will not fly job candidates into Ft. Lauderdale for an interview. Other places, perhaps. But “if you want a job on a yacht and you aren’t in Ft. Lauderdale, you must not be too serious,” one captain said.
Also, they acknowledged there is a real cost for background searches, paperwork, drug tests, and uniforms, but several said the yacht’s corporation will withhold the first two weeks pay to offset the costs. That pay is returned at the end of the crew member’s tenure with the yacht.
When interviewing, one captain said he takes notice of the applicant’s uniform size to see if the yacht that size in stock. The other captains do this as well.
“It makes a difference” who gets hired, one said.
In terms of crew agency fees, which can be one month’s salary, the captains weren’t fazed.
“How long does it take to hire someone, a month?” one captain said. “That’s money not spent anyway.”
At one point, the conversation detoured into a discussion about replacing crew, not just hiring them. The costs involved in reaching the decision to replace someone — and then actually firing them — were even higher, these captains said.
“I had a couple that had to go, but the problem was they ingratiated themselves in with the owner,” one captain said. “I delayed it longer than I should have. I kept weighing the costs of letting them go, the disruption to the program, to the boat.”
“It’s more of an emotional expense, even more so for the owner,” another said.
So why take so long to fire crew that don’t work out?
“Better the devil you know,” one captain said.
“Especially if they owner has an attachment to him,” said another. “You have to have a difficult conversation with the owner. You don’t want to tell him everything you know, but you have to tell him to trust your judgment, that it’s time for them to go.
“You just want to get back on an even keel,” said a third.
“The hardest part is firing crew,” another captain said. “I hate that part. I try to get them to quit. Having crew leave is a reflection of the captain, of my failure. Listen, this is not a game. These are companies, and the big ones have operating budgets bigger than 75 percent of the businesses in America. The owners expect us to run them that way.”
“It’s not the dollar value,” a captain said. “It’s the aggravation, the stress, the downtime, the upset to the program that becomes the real cost.”
Lucy Chabot Reed is publisher and editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome below. If you make your living working as a yacht captain, e-mail us for an invitation to our monthly Bridge luncheon.