By Lucy Chabot Reed
A yacht is an organic thing. Sure, it’s made of metal and fiberglass, pipes and hoses, but it also has a heart. That heart – the crew – makes up the life of the thing, and wise owners would do well to take care of it.
“It’s like going into the garage to choose the horse or the motorcycle,” said Michael Saylor, owner of several yachts and Fleet Miami. He shared his insight in a leadership seminar titled “Captain and Owner Communications, a Two-Way Street” during the Fort Lauderdale boat show.
His analogy was simple: If the horse is sick, it will lie down and cannot be ridden. A motorcycle, on the other hand, gives few signals of its distress and can still be ridden, until it can’t.
“This,” he said, with a sweep of his hand in the main salon of M/Y Usher, “is an organic creature with a beating heart. When you push it too hard, you are going to give it a heart attack. And before it gets to that point, it will get sick and diseased, and all your valuable crew will leave.”
By most accounts, Saylor is an unusual owner, hiring his captain 10 years ago because he had “gray hair,” saying he wanted someone with experience running his yacht. Over the past couple of years, Saylor and Capt. Glen Allen have worked together to create team building and crew leadership courses.
The seminar at the boat show was organized as part of the YachtInfo series through the International Superyacht Society.
In the cozy salon, about 40 people gathered to discuss captain-owner communications. Many times, however, it is the lack of communication, or miscommunication, that makes the relationship a challenge. Saylor told the story of a simple exchange between him and Capt. Allen over the painting of one of the small vessels in the fleet: The vessel is fiberglass and therefore doesn’t really need painting, he said, but having it lie unpainted alongside the big boat, with its gleaming paint job, sends a message. And that message is that this owner either does not care to maintain the image of well-run yachts or cannot afford to. In either case, the message rings loud and clear to crew and makes it harder to keep the best ones, and hard to hire their replacements. Then, little by little, the program is affected.
The same is true when the owner disregards a captain’s safety-related advice.
“The crew will know you made the captain do something unsafe, and that undermines the captain’s authority,” Saylor said. “The chief officer will quit, and another won’t join the program.”
His key advice to captains was not to shirk away from their duty to educate owners.
“The captain needs to walk in and say, ‘I don’t know what the broker told you, but…’ and talk big picture about how you want to operate,” he said. “You can take an ignorant and arrogant person and turn them into a knowledgeable and thoughtful person. Tell stories of the stuff you’ve dealt with, and tell the owner, ‘You don’t have to learn from your own mistakes, you can learn from other people’s mistakes. You can avoid problems vicariously by these stories.’
“Don’t fail to fight that first battle, because there will be 1,000 more after that one,” he said. “Establish your relationship at the beginning.”
Saylor’s final bit of advice was in sizing up an owner from the beginning, before even taking a job.
“If I was looking for a job, my first questions would be, how chaotic is his business life,” he said, noting the relationships with wives, ex-wives, family members, even friends. If they argue or are fighting all the time, that won’t make for a fun match. “You don’t want to work for those guys. … That’s a cancer coming into your yacht operation.”
Finding the right owner to work for is much like finding a spouse. Don’t be afraid to talk about money and lifestyle.
“Ask, what’s your maintenance budget?” Saylor said. “Or did he get a really good deal and he’s going to charter it to offset costs? If so, then it’s going to be 10 times harder for you. Some people can operate an 80-foot yacht, but they have a 160-foot yacht. Someone’s got to have integrity in this situation. You have to say, ‘I don’t really think you are prepared for this’ – but you are going to marry him anyway?”
Lucy Chabot Reed is publisher of The Triton. Comments are welcome below.