Captain skill level is crew concern

Apr 30, 2013 by Lucy Chabot Reed

When a junior crew member steps aboard a megayacht, ready for his/her newest or perhaps first yachting adventure, the abilities of the captain aren’t atop their list of concerns.


But perhaps they should be.


Despite the size of the license and command, not all captains perform their duties in the same responsible manner. Determining the skill level of the captain, however, is no easy task. So we asked captains assembled for our monthly From the Bridge luncheon how crew — new or veteran — can quickly size up a captain’s skills to feel safe onboard.


“The first day, with the safety orientation,” one captain said. “That highlights your professionalism and sets the standard you have onboard. And drills. The yacht should conduct drills at least once a month. If it goes over a month, they should be worried.”


As always, individual comments are not attributed to any one person in particular so as to encourage frank and open discussion.


“When I come onboard and the yacht is already crewed up, I tell people about who I am,” another captain said. “I have a 10-minute speech. I go through my CV and talk about my management style. I tell them, ‘This is the boat I want to give the owner.’


“I think you have a responsibility to tell the crew who you are,” this captain said. “This is not a normal job. They’re putting their lives in your hands. You have an obligation to tell them about yourself.”
“I have a binder for crew,” another captain said. “My CV is in that and all crew can look at it whenever they want.”


Other captains aren’t that prepared, but they do expect crew to ask around, check the Internet, learn about previous boats the captain has run and how they did.
“You can talk as much as you like,” one captain said, “but some time needs to elapse for crew to see your skills.”


“No, I don’t tell them about myself,” another captain said. “I do have a 29-page procedural manual, safety stuff. That tells them a lot about how seriously I take running the boat.”
“When I was coming up through the ranks, you could see how they [captains] conduct and how seriously they perform drills,” said a third. “You knew they were a safe and respected master, chief officer. Time was made for them; they weren’t just squeezed in.


“When a crew member sees you take your drills seriously, they develop respect and confidence in your skills,” this captain said. “I’ve been on boats where drills are logged real good [but not truly performed]. Crew see that, too.”
This captain recalled a time when, as an officer, he joined a yacht for a passage. Though they were scheduled to leave within 48 hours, the captain didn’t have any drills planned. He didn’t make the passage.
“That’s an open book for disaster,” this captain said.


“I’d rather quit and have a reputation than take a bad job just for the money,” said another captain, who agreed with the action of stepping off the yacht. “That’s a management level problem.”
But there are other ways junior crew can size up the safety of a yacht and the management skills of a captain without taking the drastic step of quitting.


Begin by asking other crew members when they did their last drills or where the medical kit is. If they don’t have answers, that should be cause for concern, these captains said.
“A good, easy question is ‘where’s the muster station?’” one captain said.l “If you get the deer-in-the-headlights look, that’s a red flag.”


“If I’m a junior deckhand, new on the boat, I would go to my supervisor and ask, ‘did you do a drill before I got here?’” another captain said. “You’re protecting yourself and that’s appropriate.”
“The response you get says a lot,” said a third.


Another captain would look for the fire plan, the escape route, the station bill. All those things should be current and posted in the crew mess. If they are not up-to-date, that might indicate a lack of attention to safety issues, one captain said.

The conversation then took a turn away from operations and toward management, a topic area not all captains were comfortable in.


“We all have the technical skills to run the yachts we run,” said the captain who gives the introductory speech. “What they need to know is does this individual generally have the management skills needed? I don’t see a problem at all with crew management. You’ve got to be a good manager.”


“It’s not always our responsibility to prove ourself,” another captain said. “They need to do their due diligence, too.


So is it OK for crew to ask the captain about his/her skills in their interview?
“It’s the age of information,” a captain said. “I check on an owner before I work for him. We check up on them; it’s only fair that they check up on us.”


“The only way you can judge someone is in action over time,” said another. “When crew say to you, ‘wow, you have a lot of crew meetings, you have more drills than and captain I’ve ever worked for’, you’re taking all those negatives and fixing them.”


No one likes meetings. But several captains said they turn the chore of meeting and imparting information into quick, efficient, and productive time, so crew don’t mind so much.


“Without guests aboard, we have an 0800 crew meeting every day,” one captain said. “No breakfast, coffee is OK. Department heads tell what’s going on for the day in their department and I give a three-minute rundown of the day, just what’s changed. Everyone is there, and we’re all on the same page. It’s also a way for me to see whose eyes are clear, who’s ready to work.


“Over time, crew appreciate knowing what’s happening.”
The same theory — efficient and productive — works for drills.


“You schedule them on company time, maybe on a Friday from 1-4,” one captain said. “It’s the end of the week and tell them, when we’re done, you can call it a day. That’s how I approached it.”
“And instead of just having a fire drill, incorporate an emergency medical drill with it,” another captain said. “Stick a guy with a broken leg on the gangway. Everybody’s got a duty. At the same time, you’ve drawn out [several] drills in one meeting.


The conversation developed into one of crew management techniques and how important it was to treat crew professionally. It started when one captain noted that he provides crew references along with his CV when looking for a new command.

Usually, owners are confused by that, but this captain persists.
“It’s how you treat the people below you that shows your character,” this captain said.


Contemporary management skills typically encourage staff to evaluate a manager’s performance. That idea can irritate some yacht captains who follow a more traditional line of military-like command onboard, viewing criticism as insubordination.


“There are situations where you make decisions, of course, but if you don’t have some level of respect for a crew member as a person, they’re not going to have any respect for you,” this captain said. “Depending on the circumstances, there’s a right place and a right time for crew to being their concerns to me. Having your deckhand feel comfortable enough to communicate upward to the captain is significant in the long term. If I scream and yell, it’s just a matter of when I’m going to fail, not if.”


“Crew are always observing you and how you react,” another captain said. “Whether it’s the management company calling and yelling at you or lighting strikes off the bow, they’re watching. Let’s not forget that this job is 5 percent driving, 95 percent managing.”


“I try to never react to something,” the first captain said. “Stop, think, then act. Take 5-7 seconds. You’re also training your first officer in their careers. They’re taking their first lessons on how to be a captain by seeing you performing in your job.”

Lucy Chabot Reed is editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome at If you make your living working as a yacht captain, e-mail us for an invitation to our monthly Bridge luncheon.


About Lucy Chabot Reed

Lucy Chabot Reed is publisher and founding editor of The Triton.

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