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Crew Coach: Age, experience make captains more desireable, not less

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Crew Coach by Capt. Rob Gannon

A subject has come up recently with a couple of captains I have been working with in my coaching service. The subject of age — and the particular issues and options that seem to confront captains of a certain age — was expressed in similar terms by both of these captains.

They were both convinced there is some age discrimination out there regarding captain opportunities on larger yachts. The fact that these conversations happened so close together and were so in agreement and expressed without any doubt got me thinking: what’s going on here?

Well, there is quite a bit going on here. Both captains agreed that the general culture of the industry was a big part of this issue. This is an industry that, like it or not, revolves around appearances. The look of both crew and yacht these days is youthful, contemporary and sexy.

My captain-clients are mid-50s and 60. They are both in good shape physically. The miles at sea show on their faces, but isn’t that a good thing? Isn’t that a respected thing? Maybe not so much. Both are running yachts now but feel the opportunities are drying up as the years roll on.

They also expressed observations on some of the new owners of large yachts these days. Some of these new multi-millionaire owners are younger than their captains and have no experience with yachting or its history. Some come with egos that get in the way of learning anything from a veteran captain, making procedures and standard practices blurred and sometimes conflicting. They like the brand new and the shiny, and sometimes that can even extend to their captain. Old classic yachts are fading from the scene. Are older classic captains facing the same fate?

Is this attitude in yachting just a reflection of the larger attitude of our society regarding aging? Let’s face it; American culture is somewhat obsessed with youth, not only youth but new things as well. There are billion-dollar industries pushing products and services to look younger. We get rid of cars as fast as a pair of sneakers. Perfectly good televisions and major appliances are shown the door in favor of the latest models. Don’t even get me started on phones.

Regarding our population, too many don’t respect the wisdom of the elders, certainly not like the Eastern and older cultures. There is a wisdom that comes from experience. With that being said, wouldn’t an inexperienced new owner of a multimillion-dollar yacht want an older, wiser, more experienced captain at the helm? I’m sure some do but there certainly seems to be a perception out there that many don’t. Is it a money thing? Do they not want to pay the more experienced what they can command? I don’t know but that seems really short-sighted and foolish considering the responsibility involved.

If the captain is physically and mentally able and an asset to the owner but his/her age alone is an issue, is that not classic age discrimination? I’m not sure what else it is. A healthy, fully functioning captain in his 60s should have no trouble with the demands of the job, certainly not the physical demands of a fully crewed megayacht. I had some tough, long ocean passages on sailing yachts that challenged me physically in my prime physical years. This is not that; running a large power yacht does not demand that kind of physical endurance.

But it does require experience. Experience with leadership and getting things done, experience with sound decision making and seamanship. Experience that only comes with time and miles at sea. Let me add here that I realize this can be an issue with stews as well. I haven’t had the conversation yet with a veteran stew but I’m sure they’ve come up against this as well. This is something I believe is shared by both sexes in the industry.

So what’s the deal here? Are my veteran captains mistaken? They sounded convincing to me; I certainly don’t doubt them but the whole issue seems so contradictory. It seems that larger, more expensive and complex yachts with more crew to manage would require more experienced captains (and chief stews). But only up to a certain age with a certain look?

Enjoy the voyage.

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