Yachting has always attracted young people, some infatuated with the sea, others intrigued by the prospect of working on these lovely vessels, most intoxicated by the idea of being paid to travel. While some of these men and women come to yachting eager to learn and see where it can take them, many more intend to spend just a year or two in the industry, looking for an adventure but not a career.
On the heels of yachting’s own reality show, the industry may perhaps lure even more young people seeking adventure so we talked to yacht captains this month on what they do with these kids. Do they give them a chance, knowing they’ll only be around for a short stint?
“Absolutely,” one captain said.
“All the time,” said another.
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 above.
“Entry-level crew, they tend to be gypsies,” one captain said. “They come to work on a boat for the allure and the ability to travel and get paid for it. Some are really excited about it, but others, all they do is buy dope and get everyone in a big mess. It’s happened to me two or three times.”
(This conversation soon revealed that it wasn’t always green crew who got seduced by drugs and/or alcohol, but seasoned crew, as well, and so we brought the discussion back on topic.)
“We were all green once,” another captain said. “I came [in] never having working on a yacht as crew.”
But this captain grew up on and around boats, so while he was new to yachts, he wasn’t new to boats and being on the sea. And that makes a difference to captains, he said. That kind of crew, he said, isn’t really green.
And neither is the deckhand who has worked at the Ritz. While that young person might be new to yachting, he is not new to high-end hospitality service, a skill that these captains agreed is one of the most challenging things to teach green crew.
“They don’t know what they don’t know,” a captain said. “It’s hard to teach someone what they don’t know they don’t know. It’s hard to teach them to understand that level of service, and it’s quite a big hurdle to their success in yachting.”
The captains discussed just what they mean. The simple fact of taking off one’s shoes before boarding a yacht strikes some green crew as overly uptight. Or teaching them not to walk through the main salon if there’s another way to the crew mess. When the owner is onboard, you dip your head and say sir.
“You tell them not to interact with the owner, and the next thing you see is them sitting on the couch in the main salon having a chat,” this captain said. “A lot of these kids have never spoken to someone of extreme wealth. One training tool I have is I tell them to take $1 billion, and say you only have 10 years to live. Now break that up to see what 5 minutes costs. That’s why they get mad when you keep them waiting for their bags. They have no patience because they can’t buy more life.”
This captain teaches his young crew to walk down the dock and look at that yacht as if they had paid $20 million for it.
“There better not be any swirls or scratches or smudges in the paint,” he said. “Some people say, ‘Oh, I get it.’ Some never will.”
People who are detail-oriented or those with compulsive tendencies tend to do better in yachting, one captain said. While it’s not a required trait for new crew, “that’s what makes them great at yachting.”
The other challenge with green crew is managing their expectations, the idea they got in their head by hearing their friend or someone at a bar describe their yachting experience.
“When we go anywhere, the crew think they’re going to get this marvelous time off, go diving, go to the casino,” one captain said. “They don’t know what it takes when we have guests onboard. It’s 24/7. Then I end up with disappointed people, pouting, missing their girlfriend or boyfriend or whatever, not getting to have any fun whatsoever, working their butts off.”
That’s when crew start talking to other crew, comparing captains and itineraries. And then they jump ship, leaving the yacht short of crew.
Despite the challenges, these captains do still hire green crew, who do bring some advantages to a yacht.
“We all hire green crew because the budget says we can’t hire crew with experience,” one captain said.
“Or you have a boat that no one will work for,” said another. “Or the captain has a style that experienced crew won’t work for him so he gets green crew so he can train someone his way.”
“As captains, we take a big risk hiring green crew,” one captain said. “The risk is ‘will they be able to handle the lifestyle’, ‘will they perform in the job’. If they’ve never been on a yacht, then they themselves don’t even know if they will be able to handle it. Sure that’s a risk with all hires but it’s mitigated with references and prior experience.
“If we’ve been successful, and made a good green hire, we receive for our risk someone happy to have their first job, someone willing to do those mundane tasks that bore other crew,” he continued. “In short, a positive energetic crew member, which is infectious. All this at the lower end of the pay scale.
“If we get it wrong, then we end up with egg on our face, and a disruptive force amongst the crew,” he said. “That’s a risk I’m willing to take within a mid-size to large crew.”
Is the fact that they will only be with you short-term a deterrent to hiring them?
“Not necessarily,” one captain said. “It’s not an indication that they won’t turn out to be a great crew for the time they are with you.”
“And after a year, it’s good to get new blood into the crew,” another captain said.
Some other advantages of hiring green crew, according to these captains:
“Energy, and they bring a new dynamic to the crew.”
“You can train them the way you want them to be.”
“They bring new stories to listen to.”
“And new ears to listen to your stories.”
“Their faces when they see new places,” one captain said. “It’s fun to watch people be excited. Then they get disappointed because they can’t get off the boat. But I always tell them, there will be other times, and sometimes you will get off the boat. I try to encourage people new to the industry. Keep your chin up. But know that it’s 24/7 when we leave the dock.”
There are some restrictions to hiring green crew, however. First, the yacht has to be big enough. Smaller yachts with only one deckhand or stew require someone with experience.
“When you get to 10-12 crew, there’s room for people to come in for a year,” one captain said.
“I won’t hire green crew on a small boat because I have to watch them and I don’t have the time,” another captain said. “On a big boat, you’ve got a mate and a bosun, and they’ll watch and train them.”
And sometimes, green crew get seasick, which makes them ineffective as team members.
“There’s not much you can do about it, but that’s another strike against green crew,” a captain said.
Whether they know the crew is short-term or not, these captains usually give all their crew 90 days probation to see not only how they perform in their job but how they fit with the rest of the crew.
“Everyone is excited to get a job and will tell you what you want to hear in an interview to get the job,” one captain said. “Within 90 days, you’ll know what they really want to do.”
“Ninety days, it’ll prove them,” another said. “Either they do well and learn and improve or they fall.”
“It’s hard to keep up pretenses for 90 days,” the first captain said. “If they don’t like working for you, you’ll know.”
“The problem is, 90 days later, I’m on charter in the Caribbean,” said a third. “It’s not always easy to let them go then and find somebody else. so it might be 60 days.”
When working with young people, often there is some level of responsibility — whether implied or pronounced — to the whole kid, not just to the work and job, but to their career and life skills development. Do captains feel a sense of responsibility with green crew?
“It’s huge,” one captain said. “We’re responsible for their health and safety. We’re their parents in another country.”
But they don’t want you to be their parents, do they?
“That’s not true,” another captain said. “They’re looking up you, the serious guys.”
“You’re the perfect parent, really,” said a third. “They idolize you. You are what they want to be.”
An example one captain gave was how frequently young people will ask him to hold back some of their salary, afraid that they will simply spend it all. Or they come to the bridge looking for career advice, and not just about their yachting career, but in their lives ashore.
“We are their parent,” another captain said. “We have to tell them to go have a shave, go have a shower. They take that well. I’ve never had anyone object to that direction.”
“There are times you have to act like a father, a big brother, whatever they need,” a captain said.
“But you can’t cross the line and be their friend,” another said.
“And then there is that 10 percent, though,” said a third. “I’m not running a daycare.”
These captains recognized that handling green crew — hiring them, managing them, moving them along — is all part of their job, even if they do so reluctantly.
“It’s not what I signed up for,” one captain said. “I signed up to be a captain and take care of a boat.”
“But 1 percent of what we do is driving,” another said.
“The hardest part to learn is managing people,” said a third. “That’s what all this is. … We’re not just managing them eight hours a day, but managing their lives.”
And perhaps that’s the hardest part green crew have with yachting, the fact that they don’t have much control over their own lives, even when they step off the ship for some down time. Because the moment they step back aboard, it’s back to work.
“If there’s a fire in the middle of the night, they’re expected to wake up and respond,” one captain said. Not easy to do if they are sleeping off the effects of the evening’s down time.
“Some of these kids are escaping their lives,” another captain said. “Those are the ones you have to look out for. My first question [in an interview] is what are your goals in life? And the second is why are you here? The first one is hard for them to answer.”
“Unless you get the kid who says I want to become a captain,” said a third.
It’s the minority of green crew — perhaps those escaping their lives — who are the ones who get seduced by their earnings, their freedom, and the wealth around them and who indulge in drugs and alcohol. More than anything, excessive drinking is what trips green crew up. And each captain has his own way of handling it.
“No drinking onboard, ever,” one captain said, later softening to admit that he allows the occasional drink off duty when there are no guests aboard. “If I let it happen, then it will definitely happen when I’m not around, and then it could get out of hand.”
“I’ve found that the dry boats I’ve been on just leads to binge drinking,” another captain said. “It’s almost like ‘you can’t have it’ so they want it even more.”
All these captains agreed that there is no drinking with guests onboard, so their rules about drinking only have to do with down time.
“They represent the vessel wherever they are,” one captain said. “If you are going out for a couple beers, have just a couple.”
“Some people can handle it; some just can’t,” another captain said. “A lot of times, more than two drinks pushes people over their control level.”
“People need to earn the right to be able to have a drink,” this captain continued. “To sit on the sundeck and have some down time. You earn that; it’s not just a given.”
“You have to earn your stripes,” another agreed.
When it comes to guiding young crew, these captains had some advice.
“Listen to what you are told. They’re so anxious to learn, but it’s very difficult for them to follow direction.”
“Be eager, willing to learn and able to listen.”
“Be willing to take instruction. Don’t think you know everything.”
“Keep your nose clean.”
“Work hard; stay sober.”
“Recognize that it’s a job, the same as staying at home and working at a gas station.”
“If you are looking to travel, buy a cruise ship ticket. You won’t get to see a whole lot of the places we go.”
“It’s not as pleasurable as you think. You can see things, but it’s from the deck of a boat.”
“And they’re always checking their phone. Put the phone away.”
One captain said he can’t really explain why he hires one person over another.
“I really think I’ve hired everyone between the door and the seat,” he said. “Hiring someone for me is a gut feeling. Are they coming in with ego or are they coming in with humility and ‘I’m willing to learn’? We’re all looking for the one willing to learn.”
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.