Frustration pushes captains to brainstorm training solutions

Aug 8, 2016 by Lucy Chabot Reed

When we started hosting captains lunches 12 years ago, we soon learned that the top issues captains dealt with were crew retention, loyalty and longevity.

It’s striking how little things have changed.

When we talk of this issue today, however, some blame millennials, as if 20-year-olds today are any more flighty or any less focused than 20-year-olds of previous generations. Young people are young people. Some are focused and dedicated, some take longer to get there.

There’s enough blame to go around. Sure, maybe their parents could have been more strict with them. And yes, technology certainly is a distraction. But onboard leaders play a part in this issue of crew development, too. Yes, crew members must want to learn. But even the most distracted can be inspired and motivated with the right leader.

Two captains reached out to me over the span of two weeks to talk about their inability to find solid young people who want to make a career in yachting, and how to retain the ones they do find. For both of them, their frustrations had reached a boiling point.

Their solutions — independently reached but identical — was to change the face of crew development, recruitment and training. To create an institutional development program such as the kinds that exist in commercial industries and in the corporate world.

Lofty goals, and I told them so.

“It may fall flat on its face,” Capt. Glen Allen of Fleet Miami said of his idea to start a training program for his roughly 35 crew employees, “but I can’t sit around and do nothing.”

That’s when I decided to get them in a room together to see what would come of it.

Capt. Jeff Alexander and his long-time colleague David Anechiarico, a veteran of the human resources industry in corporate America, have spent a lot of time recently on deliveries philosophizing about the state of crew. Their solution is to offer leadership and team training onboard.

“There’s a guy who comes in to fix your radio, there’s a guy who comes in to fix your engines, there’s a guy who comes in to paint your boat,” Capt. Alexander said. “Where’s the guy who comes in to fix your crew?”

I met Paul Ferdais about two years ago when he called with the seemingly novel idea to be that guy. A first officer himself and seeing a lapse in his training, he left yachting to study leadership before becoming a captain. Once he learned the tools, he felt they were too powerful to keep to himself, shared with only the handful of crew on his vessel.

Instead he started a company to offer industry-specific leadership training to yacht captains and crew. Now, two years later, he struggles to get students. Few argue that the training is needed; the catch is to get someone to pay for it.

Each individual owner, with a crew of four or six or even 12, is unlikely to invest in this training. Managers who oversee vessels are hesitant to pay for the training out of their own pockets and don’t want to add another cost. Captains can’t justify the expense when trained crew invariably leave to move up in their careers.

And crew are resistant to pay for training that isn’t required since so much of their time and resources are spent to keep current with the regulations.

The HELM deadline promises Ferdais some full classrooms this fall, but one-off classes are not how leaders develop, he says. Becoming a leader — a good leader — is a commitment. It takes patience,  it takes practice, and it takes time.

“People think it’s common sense to know how to deal with people,” Anechiarico said. “But it’s not. It’s a skill like any other, like driving the tender.”

Graeme Lord, who manages yachts for American owners, spends a lot of his time training owners and managing their expectations with their captains, crew and yachts. His efforts might be the most effective of all since not many of us have the ear and trust of owners, nor the wisdom to guide them in the best way.

“Ninety-five percent of owners get out of yachting because of crew, and most crew feel unsettled because owners don’t commit,” he pointed out.

That creates an unstable platform upon which to build careers. His advice: Both captains and owners should be honest about what the boat will offer as it relates to the job, and be clear about what is expected in return.

“Every human wants stability,” he said. “Tell crew: commit for five years, and here’s the career path you can follow.”

The trouble is, for most crew in the mid-size range of vessels — the majority of both boats and crew — that career path is limited. A deckhand might move up to bosun or first mate. But the first mate will not become a captain. To attain that promotion, he/she usually must leave. Most crew have nowhere to go except up in size.

With a system such as Fleet Miami, which has 11 vessels from small day boats to 45m charter yachts, it’s possible. Except that it’s not.

“I’ve got it all — owner’s buy in, instructors, pupils required to do it — and it’s still not working,” a frustrated Capt. Allen said.

I’m afraid it’ll take a crisis and the resulting reaction to get results. Licensing agencies and flag states have never bothered much with leadership training, the HELM requirement the recent exception. Even the high-cost of crew turnover doesn’t persuade captains, managers or owners to embrace this concept of leadership training.

But the first time some smart lawyer attaches the lack of leadership training to an accident, owners may be forced to address it. And pay for it.

“We need a change of mindset,” Capt. Alexander said. “Can we do that one person at a time? Maybe not, but we can try.”

Not sure what will happen from this mild introduction and too-short psychology session. I do know that several of the people in the room that day have since met for follow-up lunches and coffees, hopefully taking this a step farther.

I guess my point is, each of us has to do something. What will you do?

Lucy Chabot Reed is publisher and founding editor of The Triton. Comments are welcome at lucy@the-triton.com.

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About Lucy Chabot Reed

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

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