Command chain disrespect creates captain-crew discord

Nov 23, 2015 by Lucy Chabot Reed

It happens; captains complain about job applicants. But when captains who normally don’t complain begin to, that’s when we listen. It happened quite a bit this fall, actually, so we decided to sit a few captains down and ask them about it.

What is the state of the pool of potential yacht crew in Ft. Lauderdale today?

“Bad,” one captain said without hesitating.

“Terrible,” another said.

“Really bad,” said a third.

“I’ve been shocked,” a captain said. “I’ve interviewed six or seven guys in the past two months. You can tell right from the start, when they shake your hand and don’t look at you in the eye. I felt like they thought they were doing me a favor.”

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.

Attendees of The Triton’s December From the Bridge luncheon were, from left, Mark O’Connell (freelance), Greg Clark of M/Y D’Natalin IV, David Cherington of M/Y Meamina, Brady MacDonald of M/Y Brio, and Bill Hipple of M/Y Lady Kath. PHOTO/LUCY REED

Attendees of The Triton’s December From the Bridge luncheon were, from left, Mark O’Connell (freelance), Greg Clark of M/Y D’Natalin IV, David Cherington of M/Y Meamina, Brady MacDonald of M/Y Brio, and Bill Hipple of M/Y Lady Kath. PHOTO/LUCY REED

We got through the normal complaints of crew who show up for an interview improperly dressed (the second officer candidate who “rolls up on a skateboard in shorts and a T-shirt and flip flops; I sent him away”), and those who are only interested in the weekends off (“A few too many of them take Below Deck too seriously”).

And then the conversation got interesting. Some of the larger issues these captains have had with crew stem from what one insisted was a lack of respect for the chain of command.

“There is nothing in their training about the chain of command,” one captain said. “While on relief, the chief stew refused an order. ‘I’ve spent three years on the interior. I know what it needs, not you.’ And then she tells me ‘I work for the owner.’

“Well, no she doesn’t, and the owner said so: ‘She works for you’,” this captain said. “She’s gone now.”

Nearly everyone had a story about a crew member stepping over that line, saying things like “You won’t do anything; the owner likes me.”

“I inherited two crew,” another captain said. “A lot of times, it’s those crew who go around you to the owner because they have that relationship already.”

“The owner gets comfortable with a person and the job becomes secondary,” another said.

One captain told the story of an engineer who had been with the owner eight years by the time the captain joined the yacht.

“The guy was horrible, but he’d been there a long time and the owner didn’t want to let him go,” this captain said. “I just started documenting everything and sharing it with the owner. And I told the owner, tell me when you’ve had enough. It took a year and a half to bring him around.”

“Once they feel comfortable, they feel entitled,” another captain said of crew who believe they build relationships with the owner. “When the owner is nice to them, the more they expect.”

This problem arises from the innocent actions of the owner being kind to the crew, and of wanting to be comfortable onboard with the people serving them.

“Yeah, but don’t give them your business card,” a captain said.

“Americans are raised with the belief that we are created equal,” another said. “We’re not. We are all unique, and that means we are not equal.”

“And I’m sorry,” said a third, “but it’s not a democracy on a yacht.”

Several captains noted that they have rules about approaching the owner, and clear guidelines about what crew can say and what they cannot. One goes as far as to give crew the verbiage for responses to typical questions.

“I tell crew that it’s my relationship to manage, not theirs,” one captain said. “We have to maintain professional boundaries.”

But how do you do that when owners want to be friendly? If they ask a stew about her background or her hobbies, it’s rude not to answer.

“You have to walk that line,” this captain said. “You answer, but move on. Don’t allow yourself to grow roots. We follow the scouts; we should be helpful and friendly, courteous and kind.”

“In this case, as much blame goes to the owner,” another captain said. “They want a family onboard.”

It’s not blame so much as a challenge, they agreed. When owners are kind — such as inviting crew to excursions ashore and even to personal events such as Thanksgiving — that leads to a sense of familiarity. While those activities are welcomed and appreciated by crew who respect that they are employees, they can lead to some inappropriate conversations with young crew who lack respect for the chain of command.

One captain recounted this exchange he had with an owner:

Owner: You don’t have plans to fire so-and-so, do you?

Captain: No. Why?

Owner: Well, he just asked to borrow $10,000 to buy a house, and I don’t want to loan it to him if he won’t be working here.

The eyes of everyone in the room popped open wide.

“They are wonderful people,” one captain said of owners, “but they are their own worst enemies.”

Another captain recounted how, after the first cruise of the season, the owner peppered crew with compliments about how wonderful they were.

“I’m shrieking in my mind,” this captain said. “You can tell us how much you enjoyed yourself and how nice the boat looks, but don’t tell the crew how wonderful they are after just two days. I don’t even know how wonderful they are.

“And then the crew start to get complacent,” this captain said. “They [owners] don’t understand how that can backfire.”

“It’s like that famous saying: familiarity breeds contempt,” another captain said.

“It’s a fine line when you live where you work,” the first added.

Another complaint from captains about crew is their drinking, of course. But beyond that weakness, one captain pointed out that the resulting behavior reflected back on the yacht, the captain and the owner. Then he told the story of a recent first officer he hired, a solid and competent mariner, a social and nice person.

“He’d put on the game face when the owner’s onboard, but otherwise he would be out of control,” this captain said. “He had no regard for getting kicked out of a bar, getting in a fight. I’ve never experienced that before from an officer, from someone in a place of responsibility. He was qualified and experienced. He could have had my job in a couple of years when I retire, but he didn’t know how to control his drinking.”

“I don’t think crew these days see themselves as representing the boat,” another captain said. “When they are off duty, they don’t think about the yacht. They don’t take ownership of that responsibility. They don’t think about that stuff.”

“I think that happens because they can get a job on another boat like that,” said the first, snapping his fingers.

“People have lost the desire to be at sea,” a third captain said. “That kind of mariner has been lost. They want the benefits that yachting provides — the travel and the adventure — but they don’t want the work.”

So how does a yacht captain sort through the pool of candidates to make a wise hire?

“Ultimately, it’s the interview, not the CV, that attracts your attention,” a captain said. “I consider it [the CV] a fairy tale until I speak to their previous captain, then I move it into the nonfiction category. Then I interview their references.

“In the interview I want to know, will they look me in the eye, will they be dressed right, will they ask good questions?” this captain said. “You get a feeling in the first 5, 10 minutes that this guy wants to work, or they saw ‘Below Deck’ and they think this will be fun.”

“That’s if you have the luxury of a face-to-face, which we don’t often get,” another said.

The final part of our conversation began a bit grimly.

“I don’t know how we get past this,” one captain said.

“Our industry is being wider known, so you get a ton of new people,” another said.

“But we’ve got to produce results, that’s what we get paid to do,” the first replied.

“I think it’s worth incorporating into one of the modules to teach the chain of command,” a third captain said. “Whether you’re dealing with them as a police officer on the street or a captain on the bridge, we’re dealing with a severe lack of respect for authority.”

In that chain of command, they agreed, the owner plays a part.

“I had one owner, when a crew member complained to him, he said, ‘you don’t work for me; you work for him’, pointing to me,” one captain said. “When they short circuit that, they invite a whole set of problems.”

One captain came to the realization that he just needs to be tougher with new, young crew.

“I’m guilty of giving people too many chances, seeing too much potential,” he said. “So from now on, it’s one warning. The second strike, you’re out.”

“You have to have a willingness to mercilessly turn people until you have the right people,” another captain agreed.

Did these captains have anything positive to say about the state of the pool of crew today?

“There are plenty of bodies out there,” one captain noted.

“All my deck crew are focused on fitness, and less about drinking,” said another.

“I’ve seen that, too,” said a third. “At 6:30 any morning, you can look out on the docks and see crew heading to some kind of exercise class.”

“The most successful programs,” another said, “will always be about attracting like-minded people.”

Lucy Chabot Reed is editor emeritus of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome at Captains who make their living running someone else’s yacht are welcome to join in the conversation. E-mail us for an invitation to our monthly From the Bridge luncheon.


About Lucy Chabot Reed

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

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