Defining the job of a yacht captain is tough. Every boat is different, every owner is different, and every program is different, so every job ends up being different. We knew enough not to ask that question.
But we thought we might get some interesting feedback when we asked the captains assembled for our monthly lunch what they consider the highs and lows of being a yacht captain.
And, of course, they didn’t disappoint. A few knew their high answer instinctively.
“Finishing a successful trip, coming back to the dock, and everyone’s safe,” one captain began.
“And happy,” added another.
That whole-body release — almost as if, after three days or three weeks, the captain can exhale the tension and worry of all the things that could have gone wrong — naturally brings a good feeling.
“That’s a pretty good feeling when you get to the dock and you don’t have to worry anymore,” a captain said. “It is a fine time while under way, but very nerve racking, hoping all goes well, the hotel restaurant part, people safety (crew and guests), fuel, engines stay running, no hidden underwater objects to hit, weather, wind, the list goes on and on.”
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 A14.
While its good to return to the dock, other captains offered other parts of the job they consider the high points.
“The travel, seeing new places, meeting new people,” a captain said. “I really enjoy the new places.”
“One of the things I enjoy is the responsibility of it,” another said. “There’s a lot of responsibility, from the cruise to the organization to the safety to the charter. There’s a number of different responsibilities and that’s sort of fun.”
“I like leaving on a new adventure when you have that feeling of ‘where are we going, what are we going to see?’ ” said a third.
One captain with hospitality training said he most enjoys the part where he gets to make sure that the guests are taken care of, refreshing drinks and ensuring the appetizers are appetizing.
“We’re in the hospitality business,” this captain said. “That’s what we need to focus on with owners, that five-star service.”
“I like it at night, alone on the bridge, there’s a full moon and the water is calm, you’re driving and the boat is cruising along,” one captain reminisced, clearly remembering this exact moment. “That’s when life is good.”
“As long as you don’t hit anything,” another captain added, bringing back that ever-present worry to the job. Other captains chuckled in agreement.
“But you see things that other people in other jobs don’t get to see,” said a third.
Interestingly, no one mentioned the technical act of driving. But after the lunch, one captain e-mailed in his explanation about why they seemed to agree that coming back to the dock safe and sound was the best part.
“No one really wanted to say how much fun it can be,” this captain said. “I thought back to my most exciting time that was a new experience, driving a real Lamborghini Gallardo, the small one with a 10-cylinder engine with paddle shifters, and an F1 RPM up to 14,000 reves. As in a big yacht or even a nice sportfish, an owner hands you the keys to their toy in the $5 million to $20 million range, so if the captain wants to do what the machine is designed for — high performance — and you return to a parked position as you left with it, it is a very happy moment.”
As for the best part of their day, most of the captains agreed that it is the quiet of early morning, when no one is awake and it’s quiet, when they enjoy that first cup of coffee before anyone can ask them questions or, presumably, bring them problems.
But a few, again, preferred that moment of release at the end of a day.
“I like when you’re in service, at the end of the day, when the day went well,” one captain said. “You accomplished your mission. It’s nice. That’s a good time.”
When I asked about the best part of a season, this time the captains preferred the beginning to the end.
“It’s a new change,” one captain said. “At the end of the season, you’re ready to be gone but when you first get down to Sint Maarten, yeah, I’m ready for it.
“The beginning is a new adventure, even if you’re going back to the same place,” this captain said. “For those who live up north, they get the seasons for a change. For us, we change locales.”
So what’s the worst part of being a yacht captain? We had to ask, knowing that it is the highs and the lows of life that give it meaning. The answers flowed a little more easily and a little more varied.
“The stress,” one captain began.
“Crew,” another said. “Making sure new crew get along with the old crew. When I bring on day workers, I explain to them that as important as the job you do is for you to fit in with the crew I already have.”
“I can’t pick just one,” said a third.
One captain pointed out that there are downsides to everything in life, so how do you choose which is the worst?
“At this point in my life, being freelance, where there’s no rhyme or reason to it,” this captain said.
“Sometimes, not knowing what’s coming because you can’t plan ahead,” another captain said. “And not having information to make the best decisions. I don’t think they [owners, guests] understand the logistics that go into doing what we do. We want to make people happy.”
And when they can’t, that’s a low point.
“The lack of a personal life, said one captain who already offered his worst part, now offering another part that is hard to manage. “When a crew member gets sick, it can’t happen on charter. If their sister is getting married, they can’t go. If there’s a death in the family, they can’t go. The boat comes first, your personal life second.”
So looking at the highs and lows of being a yacht captain, is there a normal job in there someplace? We knew the answer to this before we asked. Still, the captains offered some interesting perspective.
“My job — doing maintenance and checking systems — is the same on each boat,” one captain said.
“The job is the same,” another confirmed. “Accounting, engines, crew, owners; all of those things exist on every boat, but every one of those things is different on every boat. On a new boat, the accounting is run differently, and the crew is different. and the owners, one is easy going, the other is tough. But every boat has those things.”
“You sort of have standard procedures for working on boats, and you adapt them to every boat,” said the first.
If there is an ideal yacht captains job, it is only so for a person at a certain point in their life, which might explain why that magical match of “perfect” owner and “perfect” captain is such an elusive dance.
One captain with a job close to home as he raises a family remembers fondly his first jobs of long hours and months away from home.
“That was the best job for me at that point in my life,” he said. “You evolve as a person and in your career.”
So despite all the things we encourage yacht captains to complain about in these lunches, they filled an hour mostly talking about all the things they like about it, too. And among all the good bits are the hard bits, interwoven so tightly that sometimes they can’t be separated.
“There’s a lot of good things,” one captain said about being a yacht captain. “When you go back and look at photos, you see pretty mountains with a colorful sunset and you say ‘how beautiful.’ But you didn’t say that when you were there. You were sweating and running around, making sure everything was going to go right.”
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.