Megayacht captains: share your knowledge

Jan 15, 2013 by Guest Writer

As a tutor of RYA/MCA courses and for other commercial certificates, I am getting to the point of not being surprised when, at the beginning of a course, I ask the students for a brief idea of their boating experience, only to learn that most of them have little or no knowledge of a nautical chart, how to take a compass bearing or how to plot a position.

Two young men in my most recent course had spent three years on their last superyacht and their captain had neglected to teach them anything about navigation, let alone show them a chart.
It seems that there are two basic kinds of captains: those willing to share their knowledge, and those who won’t.

I once relieved as captain on a 50m motor yacht that had a crew of 12 and, after a brief hand-over, the captain took off for his leave. The console on the bridge was a little unusual and not everything was labelled, and so I asked the first mate what the unlabelled switches and buttons were.

“Don’t ask me,” he said. “We are not allowed to touch anything up here.”

When I asked him to lay off some courses on the chart plotter, I received the same reply.

It quickly became apparent that the only person who knew about everything on the bridge was now in an airplane 35,000 feet somewhere over the ocean. Little comfort was had from all the gold braid that was in his wardrobe.

The vessel would have been in serious trouble had that captain been incapacitated during a voyage, but obviously his insecurities overrode any other concerns that he may have had.

The crew were then surprised when I posted an itinerary in the mess room as they said they rarely knew what was going to happen more than a few hours ahead, let alone the next day. Needless to say there was minimal training done for emergencies and a complete reliance on the captain’s knowledge of electronic navigation.

If deckhands who want to pursue a maritime career do not receive any encouragement or training on the vessels they work on, then it has to be up to themselves to ask questions, read the appropriate books, and do some exercises in preparation before attending a maritime school in order to obtain a certificate. Have your brain already operating before you sit at a desk with a tutor in front of you starting to unravel the marvels of coastal and celestial navigation.

While electronic navigational aids are certainly a wonderful invention, they should in no way replace the ability of a seaman to navigate his vessel when all the fuses have blown. This was experienced by a superyacht that recently sailed into Auckland that had all its electronics “cooked” by a lightning strike that hit the water about 30m away. It’s a good example of why a navigator should keep his basic navigational skills alive and well.

If you are a captain, you should encourage your crew to learn everything there is to know about the running of your vessel, not only within their own departments, but also the basics of how every department works. Not only will it create a better understanding and appreciation of each others’ jobs, but it will also be the foundation of a more efficiently run vessel.

Emergency drills should be held regularly and should be as realistic as possible, with crew members swapping roles. Real emergencies have little respect for peoples’ normal roles and capabilities.

Captains should also hold regular and in-depth training sessions with their crews. These could take anything from half an hour to half a day and should cover everything from chart work, how to use the chart plotter, radar, radio and all the other electronics on the bridge. Boat handling, handling the tender, rope work and berthing situations are just some of the other topics that a good crew should know and understand.

Yes, the running and managing a superyacht can keep a captain really busy at times, but if he has a well-trained crew, he can spread his responsibilities with confidence and make his load somewhat lighter.

One of the problems with marine education for superyacht mariners is that there is no structured learning program for them. Relying upon getting taught all that is necessary by sitting in a classroom for a couple of weeks does not make for an in-depth understanding of subjects.
So before you come ashore to attend a maritime school to obtain a certificate, find out what subjects you will be covering, buy some books and make time for some study. And of course, ask your captain for advice.

Capt. Michael Pignéguy is a relief captain on charter boats and superyachts around the world. He is an RYA instructor and examiner in Auckland, NZ, and the author of three boating books (