Owner happiness depends on communication

Jan 5, 2015 by Peter Herm

The most successful crew/owner relationships are based upon clear, consistent communication of mutual expectations. This is not something unique to yachting, but a key ingredient of any good business relationship or marriage.

In any business, there are essentially two types of knowledge; innate and custom. In an office, the receptionist has innate knowledge. She knows how to answer the phone, be polite to callers and visitors, and use a compute, the basic things a receptionist is expected to know in any office. There are also specific things she is trained in that are custom and unique to that particular business.

Running a boat is the same.

Innately, a crew knows (or should know) that the boat should be operated safely, immaculately maintained, equipment secured prior to a voyage, and washed down immediately after a voyage. The boat should be locked when unattended and the keys not left in the tender. The fluids need to be changed at certain intervals, underwater lights turned off during the day, and the beer should always be cold.

I call these, and a long list of other things, the basics, the general innate knowledge that applies to operating any boat. An owner should not have to discuss these basic expectations, and if they do, they have picked the wrong captain or crew. Next.

The custom knowledge in boating has two components; that which is boat-specific and what is owner-specific. Every boat is different, and so is every owner. It is therefore critical that both the owner and crew communicate their specific expectations from each other. These discussions should occur not only up front in the hiring process, but also on an ongoing basis. Sounds a lot like a marriage, doesn’t it?

An owner’s and the crew’s expectations from their boat and relationship will vary. Nobody is a mind reader (except for a great stew we had once …) so it is imperative that owners and crew make time to have these discussions regularly.

Depending upon the boat’s hierarchy, this may be an owner/captain conversation or owner/entire-crew-as-a-group conversation. I follow the theory that the captain hires, fires and manages his crew, thus most of my expectation-setting is done with the captain and vice versa.

The most critical part of these expectations is that they be granular (detailed). An example: Our boat has the dreaded off-white carpet throughout. The main deck traffic areas have canvas runners. My new crew insured that if I were ever on the boat, the runners were not down.

But I am a T-shirt-and-jeans kind of owner who spends time on the boat without a load of guests. I would rather the runners be down for me. The Ft. Lauderdale yacht carpet cleaning guys drive new Mercedes for a reason, and I don’t want to make their next payment.

Once I pointed this out to the captain, runners are down. Minor, yes, and certainly not to the magnitude of warm beer issues, but it points out the need for the communication of expectations.

On the flip side of this, I saw that the towed tender was not getting used by the crew. I pointed out to the captain that in my view, this was a toy for all to use responsibly, not just the owners. I want the crew to enjoy themselves and there is no reason they should not be using the toys when appropriate. His last owner had the opposite view. Now that we have communicated with each other, I think the crew will have more fun (our mutual goal).

With this epiphany, I am now creating an owner’s version of a charter preference sheet. These are designed to give a crew a crash course in what will make a charter guest most happy in a week or two. Most of the ones I have seen focus on food and beverages and certain activities.

For an owner’s version of this, mine will be far more detailed and take a longer term view. (For example: Please use one of the idiotically large closets in the VIP stateroom for long-term storage of something. If one of my guests brings enough stuff to fill it, they won’t be invited back.)

An action item focusing on communications: Does your boat have a written job description (aka, expectations and responsibilities list) for every crew member? If not, you may want to consider writing one. And if you do, when is the last time it was updated and reviewed with every crew member? Not even the best captains or crew are mind readers, even of each other.

Peter Herm is the pen name for a real yacht owner who is an entrepreneur based on the East Coast of the U.S. It comes from Pieter Harmensz, original owner of the oldest known stock certificate in 1606, issued for a Dutch company with the largest shipping fleet in the world. Comments on this column are welcome at [email protected].