As much as yachting has changed in the past decade, some facets of it remain stubbornly the same. Time off, especially on yachts with smaller crew, can be challenging to squeeze in. It’s still not uncommon to find crew who have worked several years without a holiday.
Sure, we can blame them for not taking a stand or criticize them for allowing themselves to be taken advantage of, but the reality is that it still happens. Some yachts don’t offer much downtime outside of use and maintenance, and some crew — captains especially — haven’t figured out how to step away without quitting first.
So we asked yacht captains gathered for this month’s From the Bridge roundtable discussion how they arrange relief for time off.
Not everyone has been successful at it. One captain who has been with the owner for 12 years told a harsh story of what happened about three years ago.
“When I had my daughter, I told him months ahead that I will not be here on the due date,” this captain said. When the time came, the owner decided he wanted to use the boat that week. “He billed me for the relief captain for two weeks. I had been with them nine years by then. It hurt.”
There was a bit of silence in the room when he finished, a shaking of heads and questions as to how he dealt with it.
“I’ve never been a grass-is-greener kind of guy,” this captain said, “but it kind of reminded me of the relationship we have. So yes, I got relief, but I had to pay for it.”
“When I had my daughter, she came two weeks early,” another captain said. “I had the owners onboard, and we pulled the hook, got to shore and he had a cab waiting for me. He flew a relief captain in the next day on his dime.”
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 44.
Most of the captains had their own story to tell about the challenges they’ve faced arranging relief. One captain who lost both his mother and father in the same year needed to go home three times. He didn’t have a large network of fellow captains to help him out, so he hired guys he didn’t know over the Internet.
“The first guy came on board and said ‘oh, this is for me’,” this captain said. “He told the crew I wasn’t coming back. Another guy got drunk every night.”
“There are two kinds of relief guys: the guy who can’t get a full-time job, and the guy who’s really good and has a reputation. If you are good enough, you can pick and choose when you work.”
Can the crew relieve you?
“That’s what we always did,” said one captain who spent a career as a first mate because the program was so good. “The whole crew was great, it was like we were on cruise control. As first mate, I was good friends with the captain, and he knew I wasn’t going to take his job.”
“Crew can absorb your relief if they are trained well enough,” another captain said.
“The problem with that [moving the mate up] is the insurance company,” said a third. “If he has the license, then that’s the ideal situation.”
Not everyone agreed.
“If you’re talking about a relief taking your job, that’s the one to worry about, the mate,” a captain said. “The mate is willing to work for half the price.”
But most other captains disagreed, pointing out that when crew dynamics are good, that won’t happen. Neither should it happen from an owner’s perspective.
“If the owner is willing to do that …,” one captain began.
“… then you have the wrong job,” another finished.
One captain showed the stronger side, where he trained his mate to take over for him. And now, as the owner moves up in size, the mate will take on even more responsibility.
“As a captain, all I did was teach him,” this captain said. “He’s been with me five years, he’s got the licenses. So the insurance company said go for it.
“I would never be scared of that,” this captain said of the mate taking his job. “The best relief is your first mate. I would much rather move the mate up as relief captain and hire a relief mate.”
Several captains in the room had spent time in the commercial sector, and coming back into yachting makes them realize how dysfunctional the time off situation really is.
“I’ve been doing both for many years, and I think it’s completely [screwed] up and retarded that we, as an industry, can’t sit down with owners and management companies and set up a rotational system,” one captain said. “People need to have time off.”
“The real problem is that none of us get to have a home, a domestic life,” another said.
“That’s who we’re screwing, our families,” said the first.
“I’m making $40,000 less a year than I was a year ago because I want to see my kids,” said a third.
“I started a long time ago, when if you wanted time off you had to quit,” said one captain who also has experience working commercial. “You learn out there that there are structures. The yachting industry has a bad opinion of captains and crew having rotation.”
Relief is a start, but the real solution, he said, is official rotations. And the key to that, this captain said, is to point out to owners what he called the “hidden costs” of quick fixes and temporary solutions such as relief. A full-time captain might average out at about $200 a day, while a relief captain might cost $500 a day.
“But more important is how the relief crew treat the boat,” this captain said. “When something happens, they say ‘That just broke, I’m sorry about that.’ A lot of people focus on the cost of uniforms and things like that, but it’s more how they treat the boat.”
And he told the story of relief crew unfamiliar with equipment who ended up sinking a Jet Ski. Their liability is limited to “I’m really sorry,” resulting in significant hidden costs.
“We all know how the capital value of a boat can drop dramatically if you don’t have the right crew onboard,” another captain said.
Yes, owners can be demanding, and sometimes they can be insensitive to the personal lives of their crew. But these captains didn’t seem to have much patience or sympathy for that situation, and instead accepted responsibility.
“If you want to blame anyone, it’s the captain,” one captain said. “Years ago, engineers stood up and said ‘I won’t work for you’ and ‘I won’t work for that’.”
As yachts got larger, engineers were recruited from the commercial sector, where rotations are standard. And because they were in demand, they were able to demand that sort of system on yachts, as well as better pay.
The key, they reiterated, is teaching the owner about the value, in this case of rested and home-life-happy crew.
“If you are willing to tell your owner that it’s OK that you take time off and get paid, you’re teaching him,” one captain said. “There’s no school in that, but I can tell you it’s not easy.”
“I’m my guy’s sixth captain in three years,” another captain said. “You’re not going to teach him anything.”
“Some owners, you can’t,” the first captain agreed.
“But this industry is so different boat to boat,” said a third. “It’s up to me to say ‘no way, I’m gone,’ and lose my job.”
“If he won’t give you time off, that’s a good decision, but you had to make it,” the first captain said. “You actually have to make the choice.”
“There should be a happy medium” between time off and quitting, one captain said. “Crew need to have a life. It’s good for the crew member, and it’s good for the boat.”
These captains talked about how committed to a vessel they can become.
“As individual captains, we tend not to take time off; we epitomize workaholics,” one captain said. “Why? Because we don’t plan it.”
“I think it’s reputation, too,” another said. “And you like the job.”
“When I talk to the owner now, it’s <<ITAL>>our<<ITAL>> boat, and he loves that,” said a third.
“It’s more than that,” another captain said. “Ten months a year, it’s my home.”
One captain just joined a new program where the yacht is owned by several friends, and each one wants to use the boat every month. He’s begun the process of explaining that both the yacht and the crew need down time.
“I don’t care if I get fired,” he said. “If I do, it wasn’t meant for me. They need a 24-year-old who wants to be married to the boat.”
Several of the captains are married and starting families. And they’ve gotten to the point where they only want to consider jobs where the owner will understand that.
“It’s on my resume: married with kids,” one captain said. “I don’t even want to talk to them if they can’t make room for that.”
“I don’t care about the money; I want to be happy,” another said.
“Somehow, we have to get our message across,” said a third.
“We need brokers to be involved,” a captain said.
One captain on a yacht that splits between charter and owner use said the owner’s opinion about crew and time off changed when his charter broker got involved.
“The broker told him, ‘keep your crew happy’,” this captain said, noting that he’s had minimal turnover in the past three years, thanks to a nice salary, flights and school covered, and four weeks of vacation a year. The charter season is busy and the crew are happy.
“The boss got it,” he said. “Your crew are the most valuable thing on your boat.”
Lucy Chabot Reed is editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome at email@example.com. 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.