Running a megayacht takes finesse. There’s a fine line between the owner’s enjoyment of what is hopefully a hobby and the business of operating a multimillion-dollar corporation.
And many times, that line blurs between what’s fun for the owner and what’s right for the professionals who run his yacht.
We asked our assembled captains at this month’s lunch when that line gets crossed and when owners might behave in unprofessional ways. Given that yachts belong to owners, can they do whatever they want or is there some behavior that is inappropriate on a yacht?
We kept the conversation restricted to professional behavior, not an owner’s personal behavior. We weren’t interested in making moral or social judgments, but rather to focus specifically on what owners may do or say that could hinder the safe and professional running of his yacht. And whether they even know that what they do impacts their professional crew.
The conversation began with a venting session about age. The captains in attendance are experienced and in the job market. They were baffled that owners would opt for youth over experience when hiring a master to run their yachts.
“You’re in an interview and you feel it’s gone well, but then you don’t get the job, even with 30 years experience,” one captain said.
They didn’t completely blame the owners, but rather the hiring party: the management company.
“It all started with brokers trying to figure out, ‘how do I keep my relationship with the owner beyond the buying and selling?’” this captain said. “So they developed management companies. Captains knew how to manage boats before that; we still do.
“The problem is, the manager doesn’t have as much experience as you,” he said. “So now they don’t want the 49-year-old; you’re a threat to them. They’re going to grab a 28-year-old.
“Younger guys they can control,” another captain said.
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 a photograph on page Axx.
While the captains understand why that behavior occurs, the problem is that owners permit it. They trust their broker, their management company, these captains said. And that results in unfair if not inappropriate professional behavior.
“It’s not about being anchored in St. Tropez,” one captain said. “It’s about fire, flood and the lives of your wife and your children. What’s going on now is a dumbing down of captains who are truly learning not to manage boats. What will we have 15 years from now?”
Another captain relayed the story of yachting friends, a husband-and-wife team, who took their job seriously and worried over every little detail, but who recently have stopped.
“They’ve given up stressing over it now because they know they could lose their job like that, not because of anything they did,” he said. “If the management company changes tomorrow, will be on the dock tomorrow.
“Management does have its place,” this captain said, “but it’s nice if you have the owner and bring the management company in for what you need.”
Beyond inappropriate hiring requirements, these captains discussed a range of inappropriate owner behavior.
“There are different levels,” one captain began. “There’s the kind when Mr. says dinner’s at 7 and Mrs. says dinner’s at 8 and they won’t budge; the chef just wants to know when’s dinner.
“Spontaneity can be fun,” he said. “Suddenly, there’s six more for lunch and the chef has to make that work. But in general, as an owner, if you can’t think at least an hour ahead, it’ll make us nuts.”
At the other extreme is the kind of behavior that puts safety at risk.
“I was on a delivery with the owner and he wanted to leave,” another captain said. “The weather was bad and I told him no, we’ve got to wait. He insisted and I got off the boat. He changed his mind.”
Another captain related a story of when the owner insisted he move the yacht to another slip in a marina. The captain resisted, noting that there wasn’t enough water in that slip. The owner became angry and raised his voice.
“I backed up, away from the helm and said ‘I stand relieved’,” this captain said, at which point the owner understood how serious the captain was and stopped insisting.
Somewhere in the middle is a host of owner behaviors that make a captain’s job harder, everything from being involved in crew matters to not paying bills on time. One captain felt strongly that the owner not protect crew or make them “untouchable.”
“If I’m responsible for the boat — and I’m not a power freak, but that’s my job, I take it — you can’t not let me fire crew and hire who I want,” one captain said. “You have got to give me the power to be responsible for the boat.”
“The owner tells you you can’t touch them; they’ve been with me for 13 years,” a captain said.
“They walk around with an attitude because they know they are untouchable,” said another.
That changes the crew dynamic and makes the chain of command difficult to enforce, they said.
“The chief stew calls the Mrs. when there’s a problem on the boat,” one captain said. “That’s something we have to handle. I tell my crew that if I ever do anything that is unsafe or puts the boat or crew at risk, by all means, call the owner. But don’t call to complain about me or that Johnny got in a fight with Sally. Those are issues we have to deal with. The owner doesn’t want to hear about that.”
So how do you handle those kind of crew?
“You have to get rid of the person,” one captain said. “The person has owneritis. Only the owner can have owneritis. Anyone else [with it] needs to go. We’re all just worker bees.”
“It’s up to the captain to have a quiet chat with the owner,” another captain said. “Safety comes first, but after that, communication is key. Without communication, it’s going to fail.”
That flow of communication between the captain and the owner — something that managers often interrupt — must be there on many levels, these captains agreed.
“There has to be trust between the owner and the captain,” one captain said, noting that he didn’t mean blind faith. “Look through the books, that’s OK; they should. But you have to have a certain level of trust that I have your best interest in mind or the boat won’t work.
“If you’ve got someone between you, it’s a problem,” this captain said. “You’ve got to be able to pick up the phone and call the owner. Now, I may only do that a couple times a year, but when I need to do it, I need to be able to do it.”
Another time an owner might behave inappropriately and not realize it is with time off. Beyond simply granting of vacation time, owner should understand that crew coming off a booked charter season of 24-hour turnarounds there is no down time.
“Nine weeks later, the crew is exhausted,” one captain said. “So the last charter is over and 12 hours later, the owner shows up.”
Without communication, this captain said, the owner doesn’t realize what he’s putting his crew through. He may stay onboard for six months and says to give the crew a three-day weekend.
“That’s where crew rotation comes in,” another captain said.
“Treating crew well and getting them to stay is important,” the first captain said. “The owner can help with that with down time.”
Asking about other types of inappropriate owner behavior sparked a series of stories.
“Backing into slip, it’s windy, the current’s ripping, the owner did a backflip into the water,” one captain said. The owner made it back aboard safely, “but I had to tell him to hold the performances until the engines have stopped.
“The owner is the owner; he can do what he wants,” this captain said. “But when he tells me at 3 in the morning, after he’s been drinking and he’s on the dock with his buddies, that he wants to take the boat out for a drive, I have to tell him he can’t.”
One captain told the story of pulling into a quiet Caribbean bay late one afternoon. Small sailboats and other cruisers were already there, anchored, sitting on deck with cocktails in hand, waiting for the sunset. The yacht arrives and the owner starts playing loud music and wants to party. It makes it hard for that captain to go ashore and get anything done without dirty looks.
Another behavior that has embarrassing results is when the bills aren’t paid on time, the captains agreed.
“An owner can ruin your reputation,” a captain said. “You have to quit the job because everyone is going to hate Capt. You.”
“The first thing is always safety, then it’s their enjoyment,” another captain said. “But we don’t end up working long term for [jerks].”
Lucy Chabot Reed is editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you make your living working as a yacht captain, e-mail us for an invitation to our monthly Bridge luncheon.