Onboard training an effective option

Aug 5, 2014 by Alene Keenan

Onboard training is an idea whose time has come and I am delighted that it is in such high demand. I have always found that training and education designed specifically for a particular yacht is going to be more effective when conducted onboard.

Training means learning your job, and studies have shown that the transfer of learning is higher if you are using the actual environment where the job takes place. Onboard training gives the opportunity for the entire department to be involved in the learning process together.

I am called in to train for a variety of reasons: to provide a refresher course; to help crew bond and recover after a difficult charter; a “shake down” trial at the end of a long yard period; or a practice run at the beginning of the season. Onboard training works especially well when there is a high percentage of new crew.

There is time to complete daily tasks and train a few hours every day. Personal concerns and specific issues about service skills can be addressed. It can be the perfect way to provide structure and get back into a routine.

For example, let’s say the shipyard period went overtime and crew have been working long hours. Stews frequently become anxious thinking about everything that has to be put back in order for the season ahead. Clarity in how to rank tasks in order of importance may be lacking.

It helps to teach time management techniques to prioritize which tasks are important and urgent, or important but not urgent, or urgent but not important before scheduling and creating checklists. This is a valuable skill to learn.

In some cases, an onboard training regimen is not conducted like conventional training that mainly provides tips and techniques. Effective interpersonal relationships are often the missing piece of the puzzle that keeps a group from becoming a solid team, and techniques to address this are every bit as important as practicing service skills. Finding a solution to these issues often yields the greatest results. It is empowering to help the team communicate better, express their frustrations, learn to motivate themselves, and create a bond together.

The first step to designing a custom program is to identify the level of service required and determine any unique individual or cultural needs of the owner that must be met. These are the kind of things that would be put into a Service Guidelines book. It would include any personal information, preferences and special service notes for that yacht. It would also include the personal characteristics, little idiosyncrasies, do’s and don’ts, likes and dislikes that can seem frivolous to the uninitiated.

Next, we analyze any problems there are in the existing system. Often, the biggest issue is a lack of vision regarding objectives and instructions. When standards and expectations have not been clearly described to the crew, or they are unaccustomed to the level of service required, there will be confusion.

There is a thin line between clarity and conflict. By taking the strengths and weaknesses of crew into account, private concerns and issues about service skill abilities can be addressed. Whether or not learning goals are reached depends on the level of professionalism and motivation of the team, starting from the top down. High-level service is difficult and you have to face any personal demons head on. It requires organization, dedication, integrity, and pride in your work to excel.

Every yacht is unique, and has its own social structure and style. How work is done depends on the captain and how information is relayed to the heads of department. While the obligation of communication falls on the one giving orders, crew also have a responsibility to speak up. When stews are not open and honest about frustrations, things fall apart and the blame game begins. This is when leadership has to step in to clear up ambiguity and manage overwhelm.

I am an advocate for stews, and believe they need to be acknowledged for their talents and encouraged to use their top skills. In addition, they must feel safe to voice their worries and fears. Once we see where people are coming from, we can see where communication is breaking down and decide what we can do to enhance learning. Listening to the concerns of each stew can benefit the whole group.

All instructions need to be crystal clear. Where there is uncertainty, there will be inconsistency. As a result of this, micromanaging is often the norm in this service environment. Stews have to be taught to pay attention to one thing at a time and do it well. They need feedback to tell them when they do things right as well as when something goes wrong. If work does not go as expected, it could be that they did not understand the instructions clearly, or they may simply think these demands are unreasonable.

To create learning opportunities I use drills, training examples, written exercises, and dialogue. Exchange of ideas can be the most valuable part of the whole onboard experience. Team members always learn important new things about each other. Watching stews reveal details about their past job experiences, accomplishments or special skills that they have never shared with the group before is priceless. It can change the way people regard each other and bring to light a level of competency that no one knew existed.

Conducting training and education in the actual environment where work takes place makes it easier to develop the vision and direction needed to establish priorities and eliminate overwhelm. The ultimate goal is confidence and clarity. By being the sounding board and revealing areas of inconsistency, I can help stews come up with solutions. My greatest reward is the gift of helping the team. Helping stews develop communication skills, express their frustrations, learn to motivate themselves, create solutions to problems, and build a highly skilled, strongly bonded team together is a privilege in itself.


Alene Keenan has been a megayacht stew for more than 20 years. She teaches at MPT in Ft. Lauderdale and offers interior crew training through her company, Yacht Stew Solutions (www.yachtstewsolutions.com). Download her book, The Yacht Service Bible: The Service Manual for Every Yacht, on her site or amazon.com. Comments on this column are welcome at editorial@the-triton.com.


About Alene Keenan

Alene Keenan is a veteran chief stew, interior training instructor/consultant, and author of The Yacht Guru’s Bible: The Service Manual for Every Yacht.

View all posts by Alene Keenan →