Every boat is different

Jun 6, 2015 by Guest Writer

Allow me to say that it has been a pleasure reading the thoughts of an owner. [The Owner’s View column by Peter Herm launched in December and appears every month on page A3.] Crew often do not get such candid thoughts from our bosses, and particularly not from owners other than our own.

His most recent column [“Yachting runs full speed into turnaround, guests, crew schedule,” April issue] struck a chord.

I started as mate/engineer on a 92-footer more than 20 years ago. Eight months later, I took over that vessel as captain. I ran it for the next three years, then another 100-footer for four years, and on up in size to my present vessel (205 feet).

My first two boats were owned by businessmen who liked to drive, known in the industry uh-ohs (owner/operators or O.O.s). The second vessel chartered but the first was private. I’ve had fun owners, insane owners, family owners and father-like owners.

Mr. Herm succinctly states that every boat is different; true. There are a lot of similarities but each program has its idiosyncrasies from traveling “from Maine to Alaska and back with seven crew and the generators ran non-stop for 18 months” to a dockside queen that only leaves the dock to go the shipyard once a year.

As he has no doubt read before, a captain/owner relationship often simulates a marriage.  There often is (and should be) give-and-take and most definitely communication between the two. This promotes a positive end result of owner happiness and crew longevity. It sounds like he is on the right track to wedded bliss.

Kudos to his [previous] captain; personally, I would run screaming from a three-owner program. However, if the partners and captain have a satisfactory arrangement, then that’s fantastic. The fact that this owner asks questions is encouraging. It is wonderful that he doesn’t assume that when he is gone, the crew is merely enjoying whatever port where they are berthed, laying by the pool and eating bon-bons.

Sometimes the work is more intense when the owners are not there. This is the time for:

  • short distance repositioning of the vessel
  • repairs that couldn’t be accomplished with guests on board
  • reprovisioning and ordering/receiving of large food orders
  • deep cleaning, inside and out
  • various service contractors that need to come in for compass swinging, carpet cleaning, interior varnish touch-ups, air conditioning tune-up, repairing the Jetskis from guest damage, marble polishing, electronics tweaking and myriad other services
  • flag state and other inspections
  • exterior paintwork from repairs to full new coats
  • exterior varnish
  • office work such as new hires, inventories and payroll/accounting
  • interior shopping including office supplies, uniforms, guest amenities, crew toiletries, etc.
  • oh, and maybe a day off for the crew (if it isn’t taken up with a medical or dental visit)

Needless to say, they are rushing around to get ready for the next round of guests and not just lounging about.

“What is acceptable guest time on board over a normal year?” Boy, that’s a minefield of a question. So many boats … so many different ways to run them. Personally, I think two weeks a month is a satisfactory compromise. Most of my boats have been slightly less than that, on average. Other factors to consider in this monthly number are longer-term time off for crew (proper vacation), repositioning (particularly, if you are going to Europe) and major yard periods.

Most crew will agree that while working 12 weeks straight is hard, it is achievable if there is light at the end of the tunnel.

And by the way, bless this owner for adhering to the 48- to 72-hour turnaround. A lot of owners are standing on the dock as the charter guests depart. While a lot of work is needed to prepare the vessel for an owner’s arrival, believe it or not, it is actually a bit of a break for the crew from having guests on board. That permanent smile can be absent, the “fourth wall” façade can be let down for a bit, a beer or two can be had, and loud music can be played while scrubbing toilets. Ahhh, it’s the little things.

Mr. Herm’s last question is a doozy: Where do you find a great chef who is not crazy? I have the great fortune to have married an amazing chef, so she goes where I go. Or rather, she gets hired and I come along to drive the bus.

More owners need to realize how much effort goes into providing basic sustenance.

Add to that a desire to do it well, keep it up-to-date and in vogue, and adjust it for various diets.

Then, add the crew. He mentions seven crew; I’m assuming 10 guests (possibly 12). If the chef makes breakfast for the crew (which generally is an unexpected pleasure), that’s 17 people s/he feeds three times a day. Solo. Can you imagine how much work that is?

I honestly didn’t understand the galley my first few years on a yacht. On our second boat, there was a down period for the vessel where the chef went to the owner’s vacation home for a week to cook for him. Being the Intrepid Husband (and Chief Bottlewasher), I went along to assist.

Holy cow. I had no idea how fast things had to happen and in a certain order and on a specific schedule. Food to be purchased, veggies to peel, odd crunchy things to boil and soften, sauce to be made, meat to be seared, etc.

In remote locations, provisions are often difficult to obtain, which takes even more time. Even if we use an agent, it can be trying. I mean, how can anyone translate “one case of broccoli” into “four straggly bunches of green onions?” Yet it happens constantly.

And the piece de resistance … do all this while holding on for dear life as the boat pitches up and down in 12-foot head seas.

To me that sounds a) remarkably like torture, which the Geneva Convention expressly prohibits, and b) like an incredibly difficult job. Mr. Herm must bear this in mind as he searches for a good chef; they are a rare breed and sometimes difficult to capture.

One last thought. He mentions the possibility of purchasing an additional vessel to create a fleet for the partners. Not a bad idea. But another solution would be to look at crew rotations. If the partners use the boat so much, one way around crew burnout is to give them more time off. There are good and bad sides to rotation but if a second vessel comes into play, a fleet requires it.

And he must please remember that if the current captain assumes responsibility for the fleet, he should be compensated as such, not just as the captain of one yacht.

Speaking of which, might I suggest some recognition? I don’t know how Mr. Herm treats his crew nor how they are compensated (both with salary and other benefits). Thanking them orally is easy. Showing that he appreciates their efforts is beneficial. Telling the captain to take the crew out for dinner after they depart from a long trip is a nice way owners can show their crew that they care. They get to enjoy a night out and know that their boss thinks they are worth it.

I don’t think I need to end this with a wish that Mr. Herm has a great cruise. It sounds like he is completely competent to achieve that.

Capt. Mac McDonald is skipper of the 205-foot Oceanco M/Y Lady Lola. Comments are welcome at editorial@the-triton.com.