[Individual comments are not attributed to encourage candid discussion; attending captains are identified in the accompanying photograph.]
From the Bridge: by Dorie Cox
It takes a lot of hands to complete a yacht refit, from owners, captains, crew and shipyard staff to vendors and technicians. The key to a smooth operation is the communication between them.
Captains, or project managers, can be in touch with everyone involved on any given minute of the day, but handling this hyper-contact efficiently is not simple. To share best practices, The Triton invited 10 yacht captains, each with loads of refit experience, to speak at the third annual refit-focused roundtable discussion at the Refit International Exhibition and Conference in Fort Lauderdale in January.
Although there are many ways to connect, emails are the root, as integral to the morning as a cup of coffee.
“I start the day by checking emails, then I’ll break away from being on the computer,” a captain said. “But this iPhone I can carry with me.”
Smartphones have changed the way projects run by leaps and bounds, this captain said.
“I can pretty much constantly be in communication with anybody, which wasn’t always the case. I’ve been in this since before GPS was invented,” he said.
“First thing in morning, I get those emails prioritized,” said another captain, whose current refit project has spent more than $1 million in the past two months. “Who needs a decision based on what? Our communication is sped up a lot.”
To keep work on course, this captain confirms no vendors or suppliers are waiting on the yacht’s team.
“Emails make our contractors and vendors happier and decision-making quick,” this captain said.
They are vital to record-keeping for class and flag state documentation, warranty and maintenance, and for disputes. When asked if anyone had used emails and records in a dispute, every captain nodded in affirmation.
“Learned lesson, absolutely – when dealing with a family, PA [personal assistant] or accounting department, people make mistakes,” a captain said.
But there are times when email is not the best tool.
“I find it to be a crutch that people rely on,” one captain said. “They forget to actually pick up the phone and make a phone call.”
This captain explained that one part of a refit required the window work to be completed first. The window shade parts had a three-week turn around. The captain asked the crew member when the parts would arrive. The crew member responded that he had emailed the manufacturer and did not know.
“I’m waiting for an email back,” the crew member replied.
“Call him and get the answer right now,” the captain said.
Although everyone uses email, not all captains embrace it.
“I hate email; don’t email me,” another captain said. “That will delay a project another year.”
But they are still a refit priority for this captain, who is on a yacht large enough to have a purser to handle the emails so the captain can stick with his preference – phone calls.
“I stayed up ’til 1 a.m. every morning so I could talk to the boss every day,” this captain said. “Emails mean you’re sitting behind your desk. I’m hands on in the boat. Give me a call so I can figure out how to put wipers on right now, not in two days. Every owner I deal with wants to talk to the captain, he wants dialogue going back and forth.”
Although phone calls rank next for communicating, they have limitations that emails do not.
“My boss is asleep because it’s 2 a.m. where he is,” a captain said. “That’s going to slow your refit down extremely.”
Emails are convenient in that case, because they are handled when each party is available.
“I don’t like phone calls because people tend to ramble on, they don’t stick to the subject,” another captain said. “Before you know it, it’s a 30-minute phone call that takes away from me being on the project. Most owners are running big corporations and they don’t want to be on phone with me all day, either.”
On the job, decisions must be made quickly, so when the yacht owner is not available, communication with someone on the yacht becomes crucial.
“Who knows where they are in the world,” a captain said of the owner. “To keep things moving, there has to be a decision maker on the ground in the yard. You can email everyone you want, but if a decision has to be made very quickly, you have to have people in charge that can make this decision.”
Even when the phone is the preferred mode of communication, emails are still in the equation.
“Decisions from phone calls should be backed up with a reply, ‘OK, this is our conversation, just to confirm,’” a captain said. “You email a reply to get it in writing and to get it in a chain to keep everyone informed. It’s a way to keep the owner and management in the loop.”
“Email is a good way to have everything in writing when making an agreement between myself and the project manager, shipyard and vendor,” another captain said.
“Email will sometimes proceed the phone call, but will always come after,” a third captain said. “Everything needs to be put in writing. I want no question, no doubt. I copy the world on it.”
Texts and messaging apps such as WhatsApp, work to solve problems quickly.
“Texting is to the point,” a captain said. “They find out what you need to say and they say what you need to know.”
But emails trump texts for long-term record keeping and for detailed, clear messages.
With a text or message, “you can ask a quick question and it can come across as harsh, or the wrong point being made,” said a captain who prefers email and phone calls to texting with vendors.
But these brief methods of communication shine with crew, especially with group texts to the entire team, a captain said.
“For the example of underwater welding, get it on the group text,” the captain said. “It works in emergencies and it’s handy on charter, ‘Help! Guests on shore, hurry, now.’”
Low tech still works
Not much can replace the old-fashioned meeting with people gathered together. And similarly, a physical information hub gives everyone a central place to come in person for information.
“I want a crew meeting every morning, five minutes,” a captain said. “In a large refit, I have an office with a big white board. Crew know, at any point, they can come in and check the board.”
“You’re going to have meetings when you need them,” another captain said. “I don’t need meetings with my crew every morning; they know what they need to do. But I will have meetings three or four times a week.”
Another vital low-tech element of refits is paper: work orders, change orders, contracts and emails – all printed out by many captains.
“Most things require a signature, so it’s on paper,” a captain said.
Several in the group said they print everything, as well as keep digital copies.
“I edit the contract, make notes, then print. I’m old school,” a captain said. “I want to sit across from that person and be very clear of the work, the scope, how it’s going to be done. And the timeline. When the shipyard comes to me, I want them to sign off. There is accountability with email, but when you’re sitting across from me, I can say, ‘What do you need from me?’”
“Clipboards are stacked up and we have boxes and file cabinets full,” a captain said.
Once documents are signed, they are scanned and put in the cloud and on external hard drives.
Just how to keep the gigabytes of data organized brought laughs from the captains and the audience. It is a big job suited to the end of the day while unwinding with a cold beer, according to one captain.
“It all goes in my library,” this captain said. “At the end of the day, I’ll index and categorize the photos and my notes.”
Most captains initially organize the overall refit job with some form of a spreadsheet. Cloud-based programs such as Smartsheet, Office 365, or Dropbox allow for one current, always correct document.
“All of us are on it and the owner can click on real time,” a captain said. “Everybody gets the same data. Department heads can edit, and you can see who and what is being edited.”
Color labels are the key, according to one captain.
“The spreadsheet has categories – owner requests, class and safety, and crew maintenance,” this captain said. “Red means not started, yellow means we’re working on it and green is done. I send it to the owner twice a week. He doesn’t read it, he sees colors.”
Such a document must be guarded so it can’t be changed without managers knowing what is correct and current.
“All of this has rules; you have to set expectations,” another captain said. “A few chosen people have access to make changes and updates. With one click you can make it not editable.”
Besides keeping the job organized, spreadsheets also help share progress with the owner.
“The owner wanted weekly summaries,” a captain said. “He got into the habit of setting aside an hour of his time so he could call me to go through the list.”
The captain shared a hard-learned lesson: “Unless you want phone calls all weekend long, don’t send it Friday afternoon. Try Friday morning so that you can discuss it before the weekend.”
Smile, you’re on candid camera
The communication tool that the captains said they, as well as owners, enjoy most is the camera. This group embraces photos and videos, and said they use cellphones to capture images to solve problems and record work.
“Refits are a can of worms, and I’ll have tons of pictures,” a captain said. “One or two truly show what I’m dealing with and will get sent to the owner.”
“I text pictures to the owner if I need an immediate response, like, ‘This is what we just found and I would like to talk with you at your convenience,’” this captain said. The captain then offers suggestions – followed, of course, by an email to confirm it in writing.
Photos and videos can add the fun factor to refits. Aside from record keeping, they can keep yacht owners engaged.
“I always have one crew filming every day. On Friday they send an entire 5-minute film with music, whether Zac Brown or Jimmy Buffett,” a captain said. “I only video what he wants, whether its new fabric or the bar top. He doesn’t care about class and safety – he wants that fun.”
Several captains said that since owning a yacht is a choice, they see keeping the owner happy as their primary responsibility.
“We’ve got to keep them motivated, keep up the anticipation of what we’re doing,” a captain said. “After all of this work and communication, it boils down to this one thing. The worst thing is to have the owners unhappy. We’ve got to keep them entertained for the amount of money we’re spending and they’re not on the water.”
Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome below. 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.