Every summer, some newspaper from some little town around the Great Lakes or up the U.S. East Coast will publish a story about a large, lovely yacht docking at the local marina. It’s big news in some places, and the mayor comes out to say hello or the fire boat will set off its water hose as a wish of welcome.
I read those stories and wonder why Ft. Lauderdale never does that. We never actually do anything, as a community, to welcome yachts, captains and crew to town. And if anyone should be grateful to see them, it’s us.
So I asked a group of captains gathered for our monthly From the Bridge roundtable discussion about it. We worked up to that scene slowly by first discussing what they bring to a community, and what a community gives them in return. I eventually found out what makes them feel welcome when they come to town, any town, and it has nothing to do with fire hoses.
“The biggest thing we bring in [to a community] is money,” one captain said.
“And jobs,” another said.
“Not always,” began a third. “Sometimes, we come to a nice Greek island, drop anchor, spend the night, drop off our garbage and leave. That’s the other side, but usually we bring a lot.”
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 page A10.
“In a small town, a boat with six, seven, eight crew will dock and spend $1,000 a week at the supermarket,” one captain said. “Then the crew go out to eat and drink, we buy fuel. I prefer to pay a few pennies more [per liter of fuel] and give the local guy business.”
Just how much yachts give to a community depends on the nature of the visit, they agreed. In a place like Ft. Lauderdale, when the owner and guests are usually not aboard, there won’t be as much shopping or periphery items such as flowers. And dockage can range from a few thousand dollars a month at “a cheap dock up the river” or tens of thousands a month at a signature marina such as Bahia Mar.
“It depends on what level you want,” a captain said.
“I spent $1,100 a night in St. Thomas, every night,” said another.
One captain on that “cheap dock” saved the owner 70 percent in dockage during a recent stay in Ft. Lauderdale but then convinced the owner to “put some of that money back into the boat” on some needed repairs. It worked.
“Owners don’t come to Ft. Lauderdale unless they’re looking at a boat or meeting with designers,” one captain said. “The money they’re spending is through us.”
And it’s significant.
“Every time I go to Costco, I see a boat go through there, shutting down a whole lane,” one captain said.
“Whole Foods just started a delivery service for yachts,” said another.
“If my stews come back with a $1,200 bill from Publix, it’s no surprise,” continued the first.
“We’re in the shipyard now and we’ll spent $3,000 a week on food for the crew,” said a third, who feeds more than a dozen crew from the grocery store and local sub shop.
After a few minutes enumerating those expenses, it hit one captain.
“I hate to say it, but the only thing we bring to the table is money, but that’s the main thing,” he said.
“And jobs, too,” said another.
“That’s right,” the first captain said. “Because of yachts, Whole Foods has to hire a couple extra people, where the one [north of Ft. Lauderdale] doesn’t.”
Their presence in a town like Ft. Lauderdale has created businesses that can cater to yachting, offering a niche business and custom service.
“And it’s not just here,” a captain said. “In the Bahamas or Caribbean, it’s a necessity. We are their tourism.”
“Look at St. Maarten; it’s exploded over the years, even though yachting is only there four months of the year,” another said.
One captain who cruises in the Bahamas stays at the same marina in the Abacos every year.
“When we show up, that whole place comes alive,” he said. He uses local kids to help with the fish, and brings them things they need.
“And I buy fuel — tons of fuel; it really makes a difference,” he said. “And we’re not a big boat. I joke with the missus that she’s her own economic stimulus package. She makes a point of going into the local shops and buying something everywhere we go.”
“We’ve got a responsibility to do that, to buy local rather than arriving and having everything flown in,” another captain said.
“When I can, I spend locally, but I’m never going to compromise the boss’s experience,” said a third.
“Aside from the monetary [part of what yachts give], I try to give everybody [onboard] a little talk,” one captain said. “ ‘We’re here in their country. We can’t have what we want all the time. Let’s have a good time and relax.’ That attitude will come back to you in spades.”
And what do communities give to yachts and yacht crew in return?
“In the Caribbean, it give us an experience the boss enjoys,” one captain began.
“The facilities to help you make the owner’s experience that much better,” said another.
But that’s the location part of it; it’s not anything the community actually does. What do communities give you?
“Friendships,” said a captain. “I have dockmasters I’ve been seeing at the same marinas every year who have become friends.”
“That gives us an ease of operation with those relationships,” said another.
“I will stop to see Louis at Coinjock, buy fuel and have a steak,” the first captain said. “I might not need it, but I’ll get it from him because we go way back.”
These captains talked about the friendships they’ve made, often with the same dockmasters throughout the U.S. and the world, and the help they and their staffs have given them in making memories for the owners and guests.
“With guests aboard, that type of thing can make or break an experience,” one captain said.
“It makes my life much easier when I need to rent cars, get the owners around and get what I need,” another said. “We foster relationships over the years.”
At this point, one captain thought of all the friends he’s developed over the years running yachts and must have felt blessed, because he said: “I don’t think yachting does enough.”
He offered praise for charitable groups like YachtAid Global and events like the Marine Industry Cares Foundation’s annual Spin-A-Thon that benefit less fortunate children, but said not enough captains and crew participate in them.
And he joked that yacht crew do go to the National Marine Suppliers party each year to raise money for breast cancer.
“When we refit the yacht, we donated bags and bags of stuff to the local homeless shelter,” one captain said.
And another captain who ran a yacht with a lot of corporate events — the kind where the buffet can never look picked over so there was always more food than needed — used to donate the leftovers to a local halfway house.
I stopped them here and pointed out that we were again talking about what yachts give a community. I was trying to find out what a community gives yachting. Somehow, that got one captain to remember a negative experience of a fellow captain whose yacht dropped anchor in the Turks & Caicos and damaged a reef.
The captain, he said, dropped the anchor exactly where officials had told him to.
“They don’t want yachts there,” this captain said. “They threw the book at them. They make it very clear they don’t want yachts.”
The other captains acknowledged that sometimes yachts are the target of opportunity, and each had a story about some government official with his hand out as the big shiny yacht pulled into a marina.
“But those times are few and far between,” a captain said.
So what makes you feel welcome? Do you like the big fuss, with the story in the newspaper and the fire boat spraying a fountain of welcome?
“It depends on the owner,” said one captain, who told a story about an owner who, after his boat was featured on the front page, removed all his name boats and replaced them with subtle names, turned off his not-required AIS and cruised a bit more incognito.
What about from the captain’s perspective? What makes <<ITAL>>you<<ITAL>> feel welcome when you arrive with the yacht?
“Not getting stiffed,” one captain began.
“Yeah, when I see people with their hand out, I say ‘You know what? We’re here for one night. We’ll go somewhere else’,” another said.
So that kid on the dock will cause you to take your thousands of dollars in dockage and leave?
“It might just be a kid on the dock, but that’s our first impression of that community,” one captain said.
“If he’s doing that, he’s learned it from someone else,” another said. “It started somewhere, and it’s hard to break the cycle. Everyone learned from someone else.”
They then talked about the marinas on the U.S. East Coast where this behavior is the worst.
This habit makes captains feel unwelcome. I still wanted to know what makes them feel welcome, so I asked again. There was a pause.
“The community inviting you to do stuff, hosting a crew movie, crew golf, crew olympics,” one captain said. “IGY is really good at that.”
What about goodie bags you get from the marina?
“We throw half of it away,” a captain said.
What makes them feel welcome, they said, was a friendly face, not a grouchy face, standing on the dock with their hands behind their back, looking very professional.
“That’s our first taste,” one captain said. “Our impressions of a community comes from the marina.”
They also felt welcome when the nearest bar or restaurant includes things like free wi-fi and sells phone cards so visiting crew don’t have to run all over town to get what they need.
One captain told a story about a visit to Croatia in the early 1990s soon after conflict there ended. People would come down to the dock and welcome them.
“Everywhere we went, people would walk by and say thank you for being here,” he said. “They were so happy to see people coming back to their country. The local agent brought us to his house for dinner.”
That’s what he remembers, 25 years later.
In Harbor Island, the guides will stop by newly arrived yachts with Johnny cakes or Bimini bread, and stone crabs to welcome them.
The captains smiled and laughed about those welcomes for a bit, before realizing that those, too, were few and far between.
“Too many places are starting to take yachting for granted,” one captain said.
“They’re expecting you to spend, to give,” said another. “They figure, he can afford it, I’m going to charge him more.”
“Something that cost $5 yesterday is $10 today because it’s for the yacht,” said a third.
One captain changes out of his crew shirt to go ashore sometimes in the Bahamas, “otherwise, I get charged double.”
And they did have some good stories, too.
“The customs guys in La Ciotat were really polite,” one captain said. “They apologized for not taking their shoes off. And it was a fair process. Other places, you are treated like a criminal from the get-go.”
Their interactions with government officials in the U.S. and around the world varies, with plenty being terrible. One captain told of a visit to the Dominican Republic years ago when all the officials were standing on the dock with their receipt books.
“I said no to each one, and when the last one got off the boat, he went like this,” this captain said, dragging a finger across his throat. “I will never go back there.”
“The best thing that’s happened in Ft. Lauderdale for yachts is the economic impact study they did years ago,” one captain said. “It really opened people’s eyes as to how much yachts bring to the community.
“Ft. Lauderdale has come to appreciate what we bring, but the county, not so much,” this captain said. “Years ago, they wouldn’t share a small piece of the port to help haul the largest yachts, so where did they go? They went to Jacksonville, Miami and the Bahamas.”
Lucy Chabot Reed is editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome at email@example.com. If you make your living working as a yacht captain, e-mail us for an invitation to our monthly Bridge luncheon.