Veteran yacht captains say jobs hard to find

Jan 31, 2016 by Lucy Chabot Reed

With age comes wisdom. And with time comes experience. But wisdom and experience don’t automatically bring jobs, as a group of yacht captains noted in our monthly From the Bridge roundtable discussion.

Neither does it bring a clear reason why.

“In the last 10 years, it’s been extremely difficult for veteran captains to get jobs,” one captain began. When asked why he thought that, this captain fingered management companies — and in particular, the managers in charge — for wanting to maintain control over a yacht, something a veteran captain is less likely to give, he said.

“There’s a vested interest from someone who supplies something to the boat,” he said.

“If they’re not careful, owners end up getting the wrong information,” another captain said. “Instead, hire a captain, who is ethically bound to give you the best information.”

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 February From the Bridge luncheon were, from left, Mark Howard (freelance), Ned Stone (freelance/relief), Scott Rudisill (freelance), Mike French of M/Y No Comment, Herb Magney of M/Y Island Heiress, Mark O’Connell (freelance), and Oliver Dissman of M/Y La Tache. PHOTO/LUCY REED

Attendees of The Triton’s February From the Bridge luncheon were, from left, Mark Howard (freelance), Ned Stone (freelance/relief), Scott Rudisill (freelance), Mike French of M/Y No Comment, Herb Magney of M/Y Island Heiress, Mark O’Connell (freelance), and Oliver Dissman of M/Y La Tache. PHOTO/LUCY REED

The problem with simply hiring a captain, of course, is that many yacht owners — especially those new to the pastime — don’t know of any, nor where to find them. So they turn to their broker, the only person they know in yachting.

“Most of the time, owners have a built-in expectation from their broker,” one captain said. “It’s like: I just bought a boat and made you all this money; set me up with a crew.”

A broker is often an owner’s most trusted source of information, and they end up making a significant business deal together.

“In business, you trust business decisions,” another captain said when asked by he thought owners relied on brokers more than their captains. “We’re just the chauffeur to them.”

Another captain noted that while he got his job from a broker friend, he knows there’s a hidden agenda as to why he was chosen.

“I can already see that I’m the guy to put the deal together for the bigger boat,” this captain said.

“People who place captains have a vested interest in placing them,” the previous captain said. “Brokers usually want control over the owner, and so they will hire someone they can control.”

“That’s the way of the world,” a third captain said.

“Perhaps, but it’s not right,” the other replied.

The rub, of course, is that networking with yacht managers and brokers is how many veteran captains find work, even if it’s rife with rocks. But it’s not the only way.

“People like us who have been in the industry a while have hundreds and hundreds of people to reach out to,” one captain said.

“And we have friends who might not have been in great positions years ago who now are in top positions,” said another, who noted that a mid-level crew member of his years ago is now a fleet manager at a brokerage house.

They discussed a few other groups to network with, such as lawyers and insurance brokers, but acknowledged that those relationships just get them in line for a job. Even if it gets them an interview with the owner, they still end up going through a broker or manager.

“You’ve got this block put up by the management between the captain and the owner a lot of times,” one captain said. “A broker called me in on a new build. Three days later, he tells me the management company wants to interview you first. Two days later, the manager gives it [the job] to his friend.”

“I had exactly the same experience,” another said.

They discussed their desire to interact directly with owners when looking for work, and half-joked about creating a way to do that.

“Maybe there’s a social media app here – captains direct to owners,” one captain said, and everyone liked the idea.

In most fields, experience takes a professional far, but age begins to hold them back. It is no different for yacht captains. When asked if their age plays a part in finding work, they didn’t hesitate.

“Yes,” one captain said.

“A big part,” another said.

“Absolutely,” said a third.

“They say we have too much experience,” one captain noted. “How can you have too much experience when someone has a valued vessel of $100 million?”

“With a whole bunch of lives on it, as well?” interjected another.

“Who would you get? The best person you could find,” continued the first. “I like the argument brokers tell you: Oh, you’re too old. You tell me the age of all the pilots on these 747s and 380 Airbuses. How old do you think they are? 29? 30?”

“There you go again, throwing logical thinking into the most illogical thing anyone does in their life – and that is buy a yacht,” another captain joked (only just).

“Sometimes, they have an image of what they want,” a captain said. “In their mind’s eye, they have a young captain enjoying their yacht with them.”

But why is that captain young?

“I don’t know,” this captain replied. “Why do we have our picture on our resume when every other industry has done away with it? We’re the last industry in the world that does that. Why? I don’t know.

“It’s only recently that the ideal captain is 35-45 and gay, because there are no family entanglements,” this captain said. “I’ve always figured you sell your soul, not your services, to a yacht owner. If you can’t commit to them because you have these damn children, it can be a problem.”

“I think there’s some truth to that,” another said.

This thinking flies in the face of the comments from several younger captains at last month’s From the Bridge lunch who noted that they put on their resumes that they are married with children, noting that they want balance between work and their personal lives. (However, they were employed on smaller yachts, if that makes a difference.)

The veteran captains this month could not explain that, but noted that it’s something they would never do if they wanted to work again.

“And I will be taking my age off my resume,” one captain said. “They make judgments about me based on that. If you’re not 165 pounds, they think you are unfit.”

While age is an immediate and visible factor when looking for work, I wondered if experience was a factor, and whether having 20-plus years of it was a good thing or a bad thing when looking for work.

Initially, they acknowledged that experience is a plus but almost immediately, they came back to it being a burden in the way captains are hired today.

“When the owner says, hey, we’re leaving, and you know it’s not safe, and he says, I own this boat and I say we’re leaving, who’s going to say no to that owner?” one captain said. “Someone with experience.”

But that doesn’t necessarily mean older.

“If your career started in your early 20s and you’ve been out and about, away from the dock, then yes, you can have experience in your late 20s, early 30s,” a captain noted. “We call them watermen.”

This sparked an interesting conversation about experience, and how it’s much more than time on a resume.

“But can they, in two years, acquire the hours it takes – 10,000 hours, 20,000 hours – to be good at it?” one captain asked. “No, they can’t.”

“There are decisions you have to make when you are fatigued, when you have to be self-reliant, when you have multiple opinions coming at you about what should be done from a couple of engineers,” another captain said. “Having the experience to sort through that information and make a decision — and make a decision that is respected — you can’t get that in two years on the water.”

“And you cannot get experience by going back and forth across the Atlantic on a 60m yacht,” said a third. “You are not going to learn the command skills, the decision-making skills, by doing that.”

“I don’t think owners have a clue what can go on out there,” another said.

There was some discussion about the MCA changing its rules to require that some of the sea time for captains be on boats of less than 24m to make sure there is some boat handling actually taking place.

“Quick question: How many of you, when you’ve got your first officer or deckhand or whoever, running the 25- to 42-foot tender, log their time as master?” one captain asked the group.

The assembled captains mumbled. One said, “I don’t.”

“I always do,” this captain said. “If my first is in charge of the 36-foot Intrepid, and it’s got a separate registry, that’s his boat. He’s taking the guests out, I’m not on it. He’s responsible for it. I sign him off. He can log that time, for that reason: Under 24m, you’re running a high-speed, high-horsepower boat, taking people out. You’re in charge.”

“Even if it’s only for an hour or two?” a captain asked.

“No, but if they’re running it for the day, taking the guests out,” the first captain said. “See what I mean? That’s valuable time for somebody trying to get their ticket.”

“That’s true experience there,” said another.

“For pilots, it’s not only hours in flight, it’s how many touch-and-gos,” said a third. “In boating, it’s that last kilometer that can be so calamitous.”

That experience of not only boat handling but of decision making — and being responsible for the decisions — is what veteran captains bring to a job. And it’s what they say they want to impart to an owner.

The captains also discussed the awkward situation of looking for a job while working on a boat. The subject of loyalty arose first, and it made several captains uncomfortable to discuss looking for work while working. But other captains said it’s important to remain in the field, as one is never sure about the status of their job, their vessel or the owner.

“It’s always easier to find a job when you have one,” one captain said.

“And don’t leave your job until you have another one,” another said. “Unless you want time off.”

“I have a friend who’s on a great big gigantic Feadship, everybody’s sort of dream job, and he entertains, every single time, conversations with brokers about what’s coming up. He will always have interviews to see if it’s something he would rather do.”

“Is it just because, or is there something he’s actually missing, or is he just looking for a better offer?” another captain asked.

“It’s not just about the money, but you never know what could be a better fit,” the first captain said.

“Or a better program,” said a third.

“I never turn down an opportunity for an interview,” a captain said.

“Me neither,” interjected another captain.

“For the sake of just an interview with somebody who has done something to amass the kind of influence and wealth,” the previous captain continued. “I’m going to sit front seat when I know there’s a thousand people who would love to just chew off a minute of this person’s time.”

“You always learn something from an interview,” another said. “Say you haven’t looked for a job for two or three years, so you haven’t interviewed for two or three years. Now, when you are going to look, it’s like oh my God, I’m sitting here in this interview with this guy and I haven’t done this for so long.”

“It might not suit you today, but you know what? It might be a perfect fit for you in 24 months,” said a third.

“And we don’t know who they know,” said the first. “So I won’t turn down an opportunity to sit down with some incredibly fascinating people.”

At this point in their careers, what would their dream job be?

Several noted that their lower-use boat was perfect for this time in their life when they juggle family and home responsibilities. And one likes every day to be different, working with different vessels and different owners.

“Dream job? Three on, three off, worldwide cruising program,” one captain said.

“Yup, and to have an owner who doesn’t have any PAs [personal assistants],” said another.

Nearly everyone in the room groaned.

“That person who doesn’t know a thing about a boat and tries to manage your boat,” a captain said.

“They don’t understand anything you send them,” another said.

“If you ever get one of those murdered, it could be me,” said a third, and his fellow captains all laughed.

“I think being the junior captain in a rotation, too, would be a dream,” one captain said. The senior captain had too much strategy and politics, he said. He’d rather just run the boat.

But rotation jobs were harder for older captains to land, especially if there is already a younger captain in the mix.

“A younger guys doesn’t want an older guy to rotate with; they feel insecure because of their inexperience,” one captain said. “That’s why a lot of these rotational jobs don’t go to older captains.”

“There is a shortage of leadership tools, skill sets, in this industry,” another captain said. “That’s why we have HELM being offered, and it’s mandatory.”

But no one can learn leadership in five days.

“No, but you get aware,” this captain continued. “Before, it wasn’t even acknowledged. At least now there’s tools.”

One captain summed it up philosophically with a quote from Carl G. Jung: Life really does begin at 40. Up until then, you are just doing research.

Lucy Chabot Reed is editor 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.

View all posts by Lucy Chabot Reed →