It’s a common refrain that the No. 1 reason owners get out of yachting is because of crew. I’m not sure what that comes from, but it’s repeated as gospel throughout various sectors of the industry to justify everything from better recruitment techniques to management to leadership training.
Hidden inside of that assertion, however, is the charge that captains are somehow responsible. They are in charge of the crew, after all, so if crew discourse is the reason owners get out of yachting, the captain must surely be to blame.
So I asked a small group of captains gathered together for our monthly captains luncheon if they accept that blame. They don’t, for the most part. And a few questioned if that claim is really true to begin with.
“I’m not so sure crew are the main reason people get out of yachting,” one captain said. “Some of them go bankrupt.”
“It’s about communication more than anything,” another captain said.
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 the accompanying photograph.
“It depends on two things, really,” a captain said. “A: a conversation the captain has with the owner about how the yacht should be run and how the crew should be treated. And B: the master’s orders in dealing with the owner’s decisions. If you’re seen as an ass, you’re not going to keep crew.”
“If you’re not an ass, you’re not going to keep them,” another captain said. “Some might say that a captain enforcing standing orders makes you an ass. I have a 40-page standing orders. People think they sign on the dotted line and then it doesn’t matter. But I enforce it. My guys know they need to follow it, because they’ve seen a few people come and go.
“It’s very important to have a distinctive line,” this captain said. “It doesn’t matter if they step over with their pinky toe or if they jump over it. At least everybody knows where they are.”
And so the conversation began looking at crew today, what they bring to the job and how they handle being managed. When there is an issue, I wondered what is that’s coming up?
“It’s a cultural thing at times,” one captain said. “Different people have different expectations about how they envision their life and their job. I had an engineer who didn’t ask for time off, he told me when he was taking it. I had to sit him down and tell him, you don’t tell me, you ask.”
“Discipline,” said another. “Their lack of self-discipline in terms of hygiene, drugs and alcohol, things like that. Those are the issues I see on not only my boat but others as well. The industry seems to attract people who think this job doesn’t take a lot of discipline.”
“I’m getting older, and there’s a generational gap now,” a third captain said. “Millennials have a whole different perspective of what’s expected and what they’ll do.”
This, of course, took the conversation off to discussing the vagaries of 20-something crew, especially as they are managed by baby boomer captains. But we brought it back to crew management, and how this group handles these issues.
“It’s self-policing,” said one captain who said he’s been lucky to have good crew. “If you have the right crew, they watch each other and keep other crew in line. And if that doesn’t work, we get rid of them.”
Do they ever have a lack of skills?
“Absolutely,” one captain said, and most agreed. “But that’s not a problem. I’ve never lost any crew member because they had a lack of skills. They were taught, and they like it.”
“It [surviving onboard] has more to do with the person’s willingness to know, willingness to work, than their skill level,” another said.
When crew mess up, perhaps they didn’t do their watch properly, you correct them, make them do another watch again tomorrow. But they learn, this captain said.
“It takes a little juggling but you have to do it, there has to be an effect,” he said. “You don’t have to be mean about it. Just say, this is the deal, you have responsibilities and you have to do them to be part of this crew.”
“Everybody wants to have a job on a boat but not everybody wants to work,” another captain said. “They just don’t know how to hustle because they just aren’t hungry.”
“I don’t think I should have to change, about what they think they’re entitled to,” said a third. “I completely understand that they have a job to do.”
“In my case, they don’t last,” said another. “The common denominator is money. You have to pay for what you want.”
And that brought the conversation back around to the owner, what the owner is willing to pay, and how to keep crew happy with their position, job and salary.
“When they are paid well the job becomes great for people,” one captain said. “You don’t want to leave.”
“They take pride and want to do a good job,” another said.
“If people feel valued,” the first said, “they’ll self police.”
“The atmosphere onboard comes from the owner,” a captain said. “I had an owner come on his boat when it sold and he chartered it. He said ‘we never had this much fun when we owned it.’ That comes from the owner, the way he ran his captain and the boat.”
“You hire the right captain, you respect them and they respect the owner, you leave it to them to run the yacht and not micromanage,” said a third.
So how does an owner interfere in a captain’s management of crew? The main way, several captains said, is by telling them who they can and cannot fire or hire.
“When they say ‘this crew member is here and will not leave’,” one captain said.
“I’ve had the opposite where the owner says fire that guy and he’s good,” said another.
That situation created a real epiphany for one captain.
“It was an ego thing for me,” he said. “I had to get over it. At first, I didn’t get it. Then I realized it’s the job. I could choose to leave, or accept the fact that that crew member was absolutely outside of my authority. It was more about my relationship with the owner than it was that crew member’s relationship with the owner.”
What about brokers? Do they interfere with a captain’s management of crew.
“To a certain extent, it’s a broker’s role, isn’t it? To stay in touch with an owner and find out about any crew issues and help the owner figure them out?” one captain asked.
“With my bosses, they’ve been involved with their broker for years and year,” another said. “Before an owner gets out of yachting, there must have been some failure along the line where the broker should have intervened.”
“I just really don’t think it’s true,” a third captain said about the claim that owners get out of yachting because of crew. “A lot of them don’t know how expensive it is. They are told everything to sell the boat.
“They may be misled a little bit, but for a lot of them, it’s not about the money,” another captain said.
“Everyone wants a smooth-operating boat,” said a third. “And that comes not just from longevity, but also knowing when to let them [crew] go if there’s no room left for them to grow. That’s when you tell them it’s time for them to leave.”
Performance reviews, given after the first three months and then annually, is a great way to have that conversation with a good crew member without making them feel like they are being fired.
“It’s a formal environment to critique where they are doing well and where they need improvement,” a captain said. “And it’s the time to say to them, ‘for your own career’s sake, you might want to consider moving on’.”
One captain will occasionally tell his crew a riff off that old adage from John F. Kennedy: Ask not what your boat can do for you, but what you can do for your boat.
And that brought the conversation full circle back to crew again.
“I spend a lot of time living with the fact that they’re not as experienced as the people who used to come into the industry were,” a captain said.
“The route into yachting is an accelerated one,” another said. “The skills of seamanship don’t exist in youngsters today.”
“I’m not sure we’re attracting the same quality of person that we did 15-20 years ago,” said a third. “So many refuse to be of service to another person. That’s not their calling.
“I do remind my crew this is a service industry, and that they are there to serve,” a captain said.
“Professionalism is something you have to demand,” another said. “You have to be old school about it, but you have to stand your ground.”
So as captains who make an effort to minimize issues with crew, I asked this group if they believe the claim that owners leave yachting because of crew.
“I don’t even know where that comes from,” one captain said.
“A guy who makes enough money to own a boat, do you think he’s going to let crew ruin his yachting experience?” said another.
“He’s going to say, ‘get me a whole new crew’,” said a third.
But not everyone was so sure.
“I can see it,” one captain said. “If showing up on the yacht is a chore because of the crew drama, he’s not going to come on the boat.”
“I can see it with the guy who‘s just bought his first 100-footer and the broker told him he can do everything he wants to do with two crew,” another said. “He’s going to get frustrated real quick.”
“There is an agreement to agree in yachting,” said a third. “We all want the same thing at the end of the day, for the owner to enjoy his yacht.”
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.