As long as there have been boats, boaters have had a love/hate relationship with their vessels. The famous saying about the happiest days in boating is true: the day someone buys his boat, and the day he/she sells it.
But in yachting, where the “boats” are major financial commitments and happy memories are made in some of the most amazing places on Earth, just what makes an owner happy to sell his/her yacht? When a megayacht owner wants out of yachting, captains must ask themselves: How did we get here?
We asked that question at our monthly roundtable discussion with megayacht captains in Ft. Lauderdale this month.
“The No. 1 reason owners get out of yachting is crew,” one captain said. “If they see different faces every time they step aboard, they don’t like it.”
“They just get used to someone and come to like them — this is especially true of the interior — and then they are gone,” another captain said. “This is their personal, private stuff. They don’t want to go through it all again.
“It’s that inconsistency when they come on the boat,” said a third.
Individual comments are not attributed to any one person in particular so as to encourage frank and open discussion from the group as a whole. The attending captains are identified in a photograph on page xx.
Another captain pointed out that captains themselves are just as liable to be the problem.
“My current owner has been with four captains in six months,” he said. “They’re ripping him off.”
“A lot of people think they’re being ripped off, but they really aren’t,” another captain said. “One bad captain, maybe, but by four? That’s hard to believe, unless they’re finding their captains on Craigslist.”
“It’s very hard to build that trust relationship with the owner,” the first captain said. “I send weekly reports and receipts. He didn’t ask, I just do it. Honestly, after what he’s been through, I’m really surprised he trusts me. He could have said I’ve had enough with boating.”
“You’d hate to see the guy get out because he’s probably going to buy a bigger boat,” said a third.
The conversation took an interesting, albeit brief, detour into captain training, with a couple captains noting that no one teaches them the management and leadership skills they need to successfully operate a large yacht.
“In the education of captains, there’s not enough emphasis on why we have a job on a luxury yacht,” one captain said.
“Driving and keeping it clean is just 5 percent of the job,” another said.
The captains seemed to agree that much about an owner’s happiness with his yacht depends on building the right relationship with the captain and the right atmosphere on the yacht.
“I never have dinner with the owner,” one captain said. “I’m old school about that. There’s a very clear line between the owner and the crew.”
“I disagree,” another captain said. “I think it depends on the personality of the owner. I worked for one guy that when he went off the boat for dinner, the whole crew went with him. We opened christmas presents together.”
“I’ve found that a recipe for disaster,” the first captain said.
“It’s their home and I’m the hired help,” said a third.
For one captain, the line wasn’t so clear, and that made for some confusing days.
“I’ve tried to keep that separation, but eventually, you do things you didn’t think you’d do,” this captain said. “We were always invited to dinner, and we’d decline. There’s only so many times you can decline before it’s considered rude. Eventually, you have a drink with them.”
One captain has worked for the royal family in the Middle East.
“That’s the easiest job because you knew where the line was drawn,” this captain said.
“The owner should dictate what kind of atmosphere they want onboard,” one captains said. “It comes down to the owner.”
“It comes down to the owner’s wife,” another said.
These captains saw a difference between running smaller yachts, which they defined as less than 112 feet, and larger ones. On smaller yachts, they said, the captain and crew tended to be more like family with the owner. On larger yachts, the relationships change, become more removed, more like employer/employee.
“My owner has thousands of employees and knows what it is to have a big staff,” one captain said. “He can afford a larger yacht but he doesn’t want one. He wants one that can be run with just two people.”
So if the main reason owners leave yachting is indeed because of crew, don’t captains have a role to play in fixing that? Isn’t it your job to keep those faces constant, to manage crew so they don’t leave?
The attending captains didn’t field this question very well, and instead deferred to the crew.
“You can’t fix it very well if she [a stew] is an alcoholic,” one captain said.
“I can teach anything I want anyone to do, but I can’t teach attitude,” another said.
“Most of us here are on 90-foot yachts because we don’t want to handle crew,” said a third.
These captains pointed out that there are lots of reasons owners get out of yachting, and many times it has nothing to do with the crew. Often, their health deteriorates or there’s a death (either their own or their spouse’s). And sometimes, their interests just change.
“They did their trip around the world and they’re done,” one captain said. “It’s OK to get in and do it and sell it.”
“And a lot of owners don’t have time to use their boats,” another said.
Do captains have a role to play in that scenario? How often do you call and suggest a trip or even week-end getaway?
These captains didn’t think so. The owners in their experience were too busy to drop everything for a weekend trip. One captain said that even after years of working for the same guy, he would never call the boss; the boss calls him.
The other big reason owners leave yachting is because of the money.
“They can afford to buy the boat, but they can’t afford to run it,” one captain said.
“Those who get in and out quick, the broker lied and the owner didn’t want to hear the truth,” said another.
These captains discussed the industry standard 10 percent of the value to operate the yacht each year. But they questioned how valid that number really is. First, what does that 10 percent cover?
“Ten percent is basic maintenance,” one captain said. “That’s not dockage, fuel, crew. And that’s when boats were expensive, not now.”
Several of the captains in the room were on yachts for sale, including one older vessel listed at about $300,000.
“It costs a hell of alot more than $30,000 a year to run this yacht,” that captain said. “New, it’s $9 million. It’s 10 percent of that.”
“The problem is the owner doesn’t get his captain until after he’s bought the boat,” another captain said. “No one ever educates these owners what it really costs to run boats.”
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 an upcoming Bridge luncheon.