Forget the tip; captains just want owner to be happy

Mar 31, 2015 by Lucy Chabot Reed

Captains and crew keep busy on a yacht. There’s always one more thing that needs maintenance, needs replacing, needs polishing. It’s not just busy work. There’s a method to their madness.

“Every time you change a bilge pump, that’s in the back of your mind — do I need to replace that before he gets here? — so that when he [the owner] comes on board, everything works,” a captain said when asked how much of his job is concerned with the owner’s or guests’ enjoyment.

“It’s 100 percent of my job,” another said.

The captains gathered for our monthly roundtable discussion spanned the spectrum of charter and private (and that cloudy bit in between), new and veteran, large boats and smaller. Their thoughts about owner and guest enjoyment, however, were remarkably in line.

“The concierge part of what we do is endless,” one captain said. “It’s 100 percent of what we do when guests are onboard.”

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 this page.

Looking in from the outside, one might wonder if the chief stew or perhaps the chef is more focused on owner/guest enjoyment. After all, it’s often the interior department tasked with themed events and engaging owners and guests in activities that pass the time and create memories.

But none of these captains said they delegate their role in ensuring the owner and guests are enjoying themselves. Instead, they sort of orchestrate it.

Attendees of The Triton’s April Bridge luncheon were, from left, Adam Lambert of S/Y Mitseaah, Ned Stone (freelance), Steve Steinberg of M/Y Illiquid, David Cherington of M/Y Meamina, Daniel Weaver, and Stephen Pepe of M/Y Dreams. PHOTO/LUCY REED

Attendees of The Triton’s April Bridge luncheon were, from left, Adam Lambert of S/Y Mitseaah, Ned Stone (freelance), Steve Steinberg of M/Y Illiquid, David Cherington of M/Y Meamina, Daniel Weaver, and Stephen Pepe of M/Y Dreams. PHOTO/LUCY REED

“When guests are onboard, crew lose the ability to think rationally,” one captain said, noting how even a well practice task such as docking can become a challenge when guests are watching. “So I’m managing everyone, keeping them all going in the right direction.”

“My crew don’t think outside the box when guests are onboard,” another said.

Part of that might be the fact that much of what crew do — especially on charter yachts or with owners who revisit the same places — is routine. The myriad chores and activities become rote, and deviating from them just begs for a problem.

“On charter, we’re a machine,” one captain said. “We tell the same jokes, go to the same places. Everything we did was always the same. We had a formula that worked, so we did that. If you stray from that you have to have a good reason.”

He told several stories about some of the things his crew did that guests loved, including making little cheesy mice and serving them on crackers. Got a smile and a comment every time.

So how do captains (and their crew) ensure the owners and/or guests are enjoying themselves? Is it a matter of filling their time and just keeping them busy, or do they have to do remarkable things and create memories?

The answer, they said, is “it depends.” One captain with an owner who is low-key does not want to be busy all the time and would rather sit quietly with his iPad. When a fellow captain friend helped him out on a trip as mate recently, he approached the trip like a charter, pulling out all the toys, getting everything ready so that the owner could use anything the moment he chose.

The items sat, each day, unused.

“Not til they ask you, then you put the tender in the water,” the captain on that yacht said. “My guy lives aboard for 10 weeks in the summer. You can’t keep that up for that long. It’s exhausting.”

“Same for me,” another captain said. “The JetSkis and the Seabobs will get used; nothing else gets touched. We just spent thousands on new fishing gear so I said to the boss, let’s go fishing. Naw.”

“It’s different on charter,” noted a third captain. “With the owner, we do what he wants. If he wants to do nothing, we do nothing. The owner manages his enjoyment himself. My job is thinking ahead for the charters.”

“I’ll let him suggest what he wants to do,” another said. “I’m lucky; he’s got his agenda completely planned out. My job is just to get dockage if they want it.”

That said, though, these captains agreed that having the owner onboard is not down time. It’s just that they know how to arrange things so the owner can enjoy himself, whether that’s making sure to be docked with the kayak in the water by 8 a.m. or waiting until he wakes to move the yacht.

WIth owners or guests, it’s a matter of reading their mood and reacting appropriately. It’s easier with an owner they’ve known for some time, but it still requires a sharp eye and deft tongue.

“In hotels, when you knock on the door, you have to learn what kind of greeting the guest wants,” one captain with a hotel background said. “Is it a big ‘good morning’ and ‘how are you’ or do you just roll the cart in and not say a word? In 2 seconds, I have to determine that.

“It’s similar in yachting,” he said. “You have to learn from the owner how he wants to be treated. And you have to tailor what you do all day long to his mood and attitude. You become an artist, in a way, figuring out what they want. To be Joe Charter Guy for an owner who just wants to read his iPad all day is just going to piss him off.”

“I ask constantly, is everything OK, you all good?,” another captain said.

“I keep a very close eye on the interior department to make sure they are swinging by to make sure he gets what he needs,” said a third.

Another big trick to keeping the owner happy when he’s onboard is all the communication before he gets there.

“Every time I talk to the boss, it’s good news,” one captain said. “I’ll tell him ‘Guess what? We’re getting new tires for the Jeep and a new engineer. I don’t know who it is yet, but he’ll be great.’ I don’t tell him that the engineer ran over the spikes in the wrong direction again.

“Never mention bad news,” this captain said. “If I had to buy something, I tell him it was only $1,200 when it used to be $1,500. Sometimes you have to dig really deep to get the good news but before I call him, I always say, what can I smile about today and end the conversation with two good things. So that, after five years, he still thinks owning that boat was a good experience.”

He likened his performance when the owner or guests are onboard to the mentality of “do you want fries with that,” that psychology of telling the owner and guests what they want and that they will love it.

“It’s a routine for all our guests,” this captain said. “I tell them they’re going to enjoy themselves. I’ll tell them what the chef is making in a way that makes them can’t wait to try it.”

He gave an example of how he would make split pea soup sound luxurious and tempting. Looking around the room, every other captain was attentive and engaged in the story.

“I tell them they’re going to love it,” he said.

“Dude, you’re good,” another captain noted, and the other captains chuckled.

“The owner’s enjoyment is 100 percent our role,” the captain said. “You have to make it exciting. It’s how you sell it.”

“You have to read that,” said another. “You walk by and look at them, and you can tell if you should leave them alone or walk in to ask if they need anything.”

“The toughest ones are the ones with short attention spans,” a third captain said. “Those guys need something new to do every 45 minutes.”

“With wealthy people, is it just me or has anyone else noticed that they suddenly cross a point in wealth when they don’t do anything for themselves,” another captain said. “They have other people figure it out. We are part of that support network.”

“In my case, the owner will figure it out; it’s the wife who wants to know what to do and where to go,” another captain said.

This got us into a conversation about destinations and how well-versed captains needed to be about the places they go. While they do expect to be experts and tour guides everywhere they go, the idea doesn’t bother them.

“You research before you go somewhere,” one captain said. “I’ve always been a captain, I’ve never been crew. No one has ever taken me to places. It’s just research. You write the passage plan and you figure it out.”

“Even when we’re going someplace I’ve never been, I feel well-versed because of all the research we do,” another said.

“I don’t need to have been there before,” the first captain said. “That’s what we’re supposed to be able to do. Proper planning prevents piss-poor performance.”

So what’s a captain’s biggest hurdle to the owner and/or guests enjoying themselves?

FIrst, and without hesitation, the captains said “their own attitudes”, followed quickly by “impetuous behavior,” that desire to be in St. Tropez “right now” when there’s no chance of getting dockage and it’s going to be a sloppy ride in.

Overcoming the owner and guests preconceived expectations of what it’s going to be like. Often, they said, they have guests who want to see more places than is practical during their relatively short trip, or the weather is bad, preventing as much movement as they had planned. Managing those expectations can make or break a guest’s enjoyment.

But that captain who has mastered the psychology play has this figured out, too.

“A preconceived conception is a preconceived result,” he said. “So I tell them, you’re going to hate it. We’re going to get beaten up for eight hours, your wife and kids will be seasick, but arriving in St. Barths, you’ll be early and the only one to have made it through. At the end, you’re going to feel like a rock star.”

Then, of course, it’s up to the owner to decide.

One final hurdle these captains noted is keeping all the technology working, which has become such a vital part of the owner’s and guests’ enjoyment onboard.

“So much stuff is breaking all the time,” one captain said. “There’s so much to keep up with.”

Do owners and guests really need all that stuff to enjoy the yacht? The question wasn’t even fully out before the captains enthusiastically said yes, then complained about how frustrating is it so have intermittent or slow wi-fi. One boat has 16 hot spots and two redundant networks, just in case one goes down.

“Most owners and guests see the boat as an extension of their home,” one captain said. “And it needs to function like their house does, details be damned.”

Some tips on how to get owners and guests engaged:

  1. Resolve the five senses. Provide something for all of them. Make coffee, play music. One captain plays “Baraka,” a film with no dialogue, only music and stunning photography that mesmerizes guests.
  2. Think ahead. Preempting is easier with guests than with owners. “We’re playing chess, they’re playing checkers,” one captain said. “I’m eight steps ahead of them.”
  3. Make sure the boat’s prepared and it works. Make sure we’ve planned ahead for the trip, and we’re on time.
  4. Always say yes.
  5. Keep attitudes at bay with all the crew.

“The hardest part is watching them when they don’t do anything,” one captain said. “You can’t make them happy. The owner is set in his ways.”

“When the boss is happy and you see a genuine smile, that’s when your job is the best,” another said.

“The biggest kick we get is when they say, “That was great, thanks’,” another said. “I don’t need a bonus or a tip. I’m flying if I can get him to enjoy himself.

“We try so hard to get the right chef, make sure the pumps aren’t breaking (and worrying, should I replace it before he gets here?), all this to see a smile on their face,” one captain said. “When you get it, it’s magic.”

Lucy Chabot Reed is editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome at If you make your living working as a yacht captain, e-mail us for an invitation to our monthly Bridge luncheon.



About Lucy Chabot Reed

Lucy Chabot Reed is publisher and founding editor of The Triton.

View all posts by Lucy Chabot Reed →

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