From the Bridge: Captains listen, foster team work, and take responsibility with crew issues

Jan 3, 2017 by Dorie Cox

From quarrels between cabin mates to squabbles over a task, yacht crew occasionally have an issue onboard. Apart from firing someone, The Triton wondered how harmony is maintained, so we asked yacht captains at our regular monthly From the Bridge lunch.

Communication is challenged during a tiff, a captain said.

“When you are angry, you don’t listen,” he said. “They can’t understand each other when they fight.”

“You can sit them down and talk to them and try to get them to see each other’s view,” another captain said. “But it’s very difficult.”

Individual comments are not attributed to any particular person in order to encourage frank and open discussion. The attending captains are identified in an accompanying photograph.

The first captain said he invests time, often three meetings, to educate the feuding parties.

“I work with them to try to show each the perspective of the other,” he said. “It’s important you give them the other person’s eyes in understanding the other’s point of view.”

He said everyone usually finds it illuminating, whether over a small or big issue. And he said it helps to diffuse the tension.

“I’ve been successful in resolving really, really bad problems between different cultures and different backgrounds,” he said.

“You are like an outsider looking in,” another captain said.

Attendees of The Triton’s January From the Bridge luncheon were, from left, Capt. William Blackwell of M/Y Bella Vita, Capt. Marcos Gamboa of M/Y Symposia, Capt. Brady MacDonald of M/Y Missing Link, Capt. Andrew Halsband, Capt. David Nathan of M/Y Marbella, Capt. Scott Sanders (freelance), Capt. Bill Hawes of M/Y True North, Capt. Robert Scherrer of M/Y Innisfail and Capt. Andrew Johnstone. PHOTO/DORIE COX

Another captain said he first steps back to assess the scenario when crew bicker.

“You don’t always want to necessarily separate them; they might feel favoritism if you treat them differently,” he said. “But if you speak to them both at the same time, you might be fueling the fire.”

Another captain said he does the opposite.

“I talk to them together, then I digest it overnight,” he said. “I bring them both to my office at the same time and let them hash it out a little bit. Then I see how difficult the situation is.

“I say, ‘Be careful, the one you think may be on the chopping block may not be the one. It may not go the way you think it’s going to go.’ “

All of the captains said they are available to talk with crew.

“My door is always open, but I expect them to go to their department heads first,” a captain said.

Unless it’s a small crew, then they should go directly to the captain, another said.

“My door is always open,” another captain said. “But understand that to discuss an issue in my office you have to have followed certain protocol before you come.”

Why do crew quarrel onboard?

Problems can be anything that cause an issue between crew. The captains illustrated a few scenarios behind crew quarrels. We asked what they fight about.

“Nothing,” a captain said. “Crew are generally fighting over nothing.”

The group laughed and agreed.

“I had two crew that would go hard at it all the time, screaming, and it always turned out to be over stupid things that really don’t matter,” another captain said.

He said he often feels like a father figure, and the others nodded in agreement.

“I take them aside and say, ‘Let’s separate the emotion from the situation. So you’re angry about this?’ “

When the crew retell the story of why they are upset, it often sounds less important, he said. But they usually dig to the root of their issue.

“Tell me again, what are you angry about?” he said. “Oh, that’s what you’re [ITAL]really[/ITAL]  angry about.”

The group agreed that crew relationship problems usually stem from individual personalities.

“Their personalities don’t mix, and unfortunately they’re stuck in the same cabins,” a captain said. “And as much as you try to work with it, they just have clashing personalities.”

Several captains said lack of responsibility is another cause.

“The biggest underlying problem in the industry is that many crew do not take responsibility for their actions,” a captain said.

He turned to another captain at lunch and said, “Say we have a difference, we’re not getting along. We would work it out. But instead of dealing with it as mature adults, the crew spread it through the crew grapevine.”

The captain said often crew start complaining about the food, or work, or something else not related to the issue.

“They’re finding a focal point to blame instead of taking responsibility for their actions,” he said.

Tips to prevent problems

Successful teamwork prevents many crew issues onboard, a captain said. Crew who don’t work well together often have problems.

“Like the prima donnas who think they’re better than the others,” a captain said. “Like chefs who think they shouldn’t have to leave the galley, but it’s OK for all of us to get in there and help them.”

The captain clarified he did not mean with guests onboard when each crew is busy with his own job. But he said he encourages the crew to work as a team.

“Instead of putting labels on everyone, we work together to do dishes and other jobs,” he said. “If I’m good enough to do get down there, then the rest of them should come.”

He said crew get along better when they see how life is for each other, when they try each other’s job.

“Like a full washdown, we can all get in there together and do it right,” he said. “Everybody learns more about each other and the boat.”

He trains the stew in the engine room and eventually puts everyone at the wheel.

“They can learn how the boat works, hear everybody else on the radio and understand procedures better,” he said. “So everybody knows a little about everything instead of one section.”

Another captain agreed and said problems come when crew have a lack of training.

“Many crew don’t know anything about their [crew mates’] job,” a captain said. “I’ve heard, ‘That’s not my job, not in my job description.’ I was shocked.”

Another captain said avoiding issues starts at hiring people with the right personalities and backgrounds.

“People willing to be part of a team,” he said. “I don’t hire individuals, I hire a team.

“When you’re on a boat, everyone has to compromise one way or another,” he said. “If you don’t, if you’re not part of the team, you do not last working for me.”

“To accomplish a lot of these jobs they have to work together as a team,” another captain said. They can’t do it by themselves and they come to understand that, he said.

One captain takes his crew to escape rooms, adventure rooms often used in team-building exercises.

“You have one hour to solve the riddle, generally getting out the door,” he said. “It pulls on every person to get together and problem solve.”

But the key to success is to let the crew be in charge, he said.

“I don’t like to be the ringleader,” he said. “I ask, ‘What do you want me to do?’ “

Another crew held a pool tournament and invited their captain.

“I like it when I’m not leading,” he said. “Let someone else do it, so I’m not in charge. Let them put it together.”

Another captain said his crew often plays paintball.

“Afterward, they’re relaxed and it’s good team-building, it helps a lot,” he said.

But none of this works when workloads are heavy.

“When they’re on during the charter season, they are busy and trying to get it all done, which means they are working together,” a captain said. “When it’s not that busy, you need to do the activities.”

When crew are busy, there is no time for nonsense, another captain said.

One area where many captains seemed disappointed was about building camaraderie with off-duty activities. Several said best intentions don’t always work as planned. For example, a yacht owner wanted to do something nice for his crew and sponsored a day of meals and activities at the end of the busy season, a captain said.

“I had crew come up and say, ‘That’s my day off’,” he said. “They think I’m making them go to work.”

“My crew did their own crew day and I wasn’t there,” another captain said.

Another captain was disappointed when he bought hard-to-get tickets to an art exhibition and none of the crew attended.

“I gave them as a gift from me, but they thought was a work thing,” he said.

Another captain said his crew go to escape rooms many weekends.

“They would rather do that than crew dinner,” he said.

Another captain said he has found crew do well to get away.

“Sometimes it’s better when they have been on charter and busy, I think it’s good thing to go off by themselves, to clear their head and vent,” he said.

Issues flare up when crew are bored or tired, a captain said, and the group nodded in agreement.

“Things go better if you keep the crew busy,” he said. “Give them jobs, let them stretch their imagination and abilities. Keep the work flowing in an orderly way where people don’t get exhausted.”

Another captain does that by cross-training.

“If we’re in the yard, I will have some of the interior crew move to the deck.”

And that idea of training crew in other jobs brought up mentoring.

“A lot of the young crew are used to being professional chamois artists because no one is mentoring,” he said. “In the old days, we did it our own teak work and we took great pride in it.”

“If people would take more pride in their work there would be fewer and fewer problems,” another captain said.

One captain relies on department heads to foster such pride.

“The chief stews are mentoring the stews and the deck officers are mentoring the deck crew,” he said.

A captain said he finds his crew issues are minimized by hiring people who are kind.

“If they are kind, all these other little problems … they’ll work it out,” he said. “It’s in their nature. They don’t want to be on anyone’s bad side, and they don’t want to hold a grudge against anybody.”

Another captain agreed. “The type of person that puts their hand out and says, ‘I’m sorry’. People like that tend to be solution-oriented.”

When enough is enough

When all of that is not enough to quell the quarreling, captains still have the final say.

One captain explained his rule, “The first time I tell you kindly, the second time more seriously. The third time, if I have to yell, I have to fire you.”

“I tell department heads, ‘If I start to micromanage you, take that as your first warning’,” another captain said.

A captain has what he calls a “fatherly chat” with every crew member.

“It revolves around responsibility and conflict resolution, etc.,” he said. “They know what to expect coming in.”

“They’re told up front, ‘If the two of you can’t resolve it as mature adults and it eventually ends up on my desk, one of you will not be staying’,” he said. “It’s that simple.”

“And it could be as simple as, ‘I don’t like the fact that your toothpaste is multicolored and is all over the sink’,” he said.

“My point is they’re being warned ahead of time, ‘You don’t want to go down that road. You want to make the effort as an adult because we’re assuming you’re an adult,” he said. “Work it out yourself before it becomes an issue for anybody else.”

And you can’t use the crew mess as your forum, he said.

“You cannot talk to everybody in the room and get them on your side,” he said. “Nor as department heads can you take sides.”

“Be careful,” he said echoing an earlier captain. “You who thinks you won’t be gone, you could be in the wrong.”

Many captains consider managing crew as the most difficult task onboard, and although most aren’t specifically taught how, they develop the skill, a captain said. Many of the larger yachts, compliant with international laws like ISM and MLC, employ a set of forms and processes.

“But most of us wrote our ISM before it even started,” a veteran captain said.

Several captains repeated that to minimize crew issues, pick the right crew.

“Sometimes a good attitude is better than skills,” a captain said. “I can teach the job but I can’t change how they were brought up. They can change themselves but you can’t do it for them.”

“Don’t be part of the problem,” another captain said. “If you’re not part of solution, you’re part of problem.”

“I was eight years old when I learned to take responsibility,” another captain said. “Put your hand up and say, ‘I did it’. Take responsibility for yourself.”

Captains take responsibility

None of the captains said they have perfected how to deal with crew issues.

“It never stops, it’s ongoing and I’m still learning,” a captain said. “There are nights of no sleeping because of the crew.”

“The big enemy of a captain is thinking you know everything and stop learning,” another captain said.

“I read self-help books, it’s real important that I’ve got my act together,” a third captain said. “Just because I’m the captain, everything I say is not in stone, in gold.

“Eventually you can become a control freak,” he said. “The more responsibility you’re given, if you don’t use it right, you can create the problem.”

“I think you need to watch yourself before you watch everybody else,” another said.

Although the conversation started out with advice for crew, this group of captains turned the advice back on themselves. One captain who likes to teach crew different jobs onboard realized he could do better with work orders.

“It got me to think about creating a detailed job description with the systematic order on how things will unfold,” he said. “It drove more responsibility on me to communicate.”

Another captain agreed and said that clarifying expectations pertains to crew’s personal lives, also.

“It helps to have clear tasks, write it down so everybody knows what to do: Put your toothpaste here, you have to tidy up your bed,” he said. “It’s like the military.”

Crew issues happen because everybody has different definitions, he said.

“Different cultures have different lines of where boundaries are,” he said. “Examples are like how is a bed made, when is a bathroom clean, how dry is the shower in respect to the one who’s using it next. It is relative.”

Another captain aims to prevent issues before they start.

“I create a specific atmosphere on the boats I run and I need people that can do the job and absorb the atmosphere,” he said.

“It starts at the top and trickles down. When the guy at the top is calm, cool and courteous … ,” another captain added.

“The captain needs patience, kindness and to be a mentor no matter what,” a third captain said.

“Lead by example,” another captain said. “You don’t sleep till 10 and ask the crew to get up at seven.”

And as the discussion wrapped up, ideas continued to come from the group.

“Talk to people before there’s a problem,” a captain said. “The definition of being upset is unmet expectations. If they don’t know your expectations, they will be upset.”

“I admit I did that wrong,” another captain said. “I need to learn how to fix that and address it, admit it to yourself.”

“Train crew to have your back and you have theirs,” a captain said.

“First thought, best thought,” another captain said. “When you start second guessing, that’s when it goes wrong. Then ego gets involved.”

“If you’re upset, don’t make a decision right then,” a third captain said. “Would it be justified firing you? Yes, but I will wait until tomorrow.”
Dorie Cox 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. Email us for an invitation to our monthly From the Bridge lunch


About Dorie Cox

Dorie Cox is a writer with Triton News.

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