From the Bridge: The dream, the law, the reality: What it means to be a captain

May 1, 2018 by Dorie Cox

From the Bridge: by Dorie Cox

Each month for more than a decade, The Triton has invited a group of captains to lunch to discuss a yachting topic. The common denominator for the hundreds of attendees is their title:  captain. This month, we thought we’d try to clarify just what the word means.

Most of the captains we talk with hold credentials from a governing body such as the U.S. Coast Guard or the U.K.’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency. But the title encompasses much more.

“Right now, it’s nebulous what I am as captain,” said one of this month’s attendees. “Am I supposed to be the accountant? Project manager? We joke that we’re the preacher, the father, the coach and the financier.”

“It’s all there, all of the above,” another captain said.

“And dog sitter,” added a third.

All six of this month’s captains laughed as they listed tasks they have been asked to do that they did not expect when they started their careers. These range from babysitting for guests to personal house projects for yacht owners. We asked what they expected their job to be when they signed up.

“We want to drive boats, that’s why we got into this,” a captain said. “We all had a dream – not for the money. Our parents said be a doctor or lawyer, but we had a dream. I didn’t get my license to be an accountant.”

Everyone agreed their job starts with the basics, the topics they were tested on before being awarded a license, such as navigation, rules of the road, weather and ship handling.

“By definition, our roles are defined as all the responsibilities as master of a vessel,” a captain said. “The regulatory and administrative responsibilities are clear.”

In former careers – including with the military and law enforcement, and on dive boats – most of these captains felt their job descriptions were clear. But yachting is different, a captain said. It has a subjective aspect to it.

“Obviously, our primary job is safety, but at end of day you’re forced to wear a bunch of hats,” he said.

“What we used to think of as a captain just sailing on a vessel, I don’t think there’s any reality to that anymore,” another captain said.

Attendees of The Triton’s From the Bridge discussion for this issue are, back row from left, Capt. Brett Eagan, Capt. Ryan Ducey, Capt. Taylor McGinnis and Capt. Eric Bergeron. Front row, from left, Capt. Janz Staat and Capt. Herb Magney. Photo by Dorie Cox. Individual comments are not attributed to encourage candid discussion. Captains who make their living running someone else’s yacht are welcome to join in the conversation. Email for an invitation to our monthly From the Bridge discussion.

Most of this group has written job descriptions for other crew positions on board, including deckhand, stew and engineer. It seemed to follow there would be one for their position as well. As it turns out, there is not. Every owner has his own expectations for his captain, a captain said. That’s why some in the group have managed refits and repairs, helped sell the yachts they worked on, booked guest charters and handled compliance issues.

“We’re translating expectations for insurance, flag state and the owner,” a captain said.

“The title of captain is general, not specific to what you’re going to do every day,” another captain said. “It’s just a guideline. How do you quantify what is so varied, from every person to every boat? It’s realistically impossible to take 10 different boats and say this is what you’ll do and what your job is. It’s impossible to put us in a box.”

When we get our license, we swear an oath to uphold certain responsibilities, a captain said. “There are inherent industry expectations, a baseline,” he said. “But none of those other things are on that list.”

“Those are all assumed,” another captain said.

Many yacht owners run businesses and consider the yacht a corporation. But the yacht is a corporation where people sleep and live, which often makes for more personal relationships, a captain said.

“I’m the positive thing in [the owner’s] life; he looks at me as running his vacation program,” a captain said. “So it’s a whole different relationship with myself than the other people in his corporations.

“It is a very unique thing,” he said. “If you talk to people outside the industry, they don’t understand what we do. It is a strange industry. Plus, throw champagne into the mixture.”

If there is no all-encompassing definition of a yacht captain’s job, then how do captains learn what to do?

“We learn on the job,” a captain said. “If you want it that bad, you just learn and you do it.”

He recalled his early years as a mate and then as a relief captain. When he was temporarily running the boat for another captain, he knew he could still call the primary captain.

“There was something in the back of my brain that said, ‘He’s still responsible,’” he said. “Maybe that was my coping mechanism.”

When he accepted his first full captain position, everything changed.

“It doesn’t matter your experience or how long you are a mate,” he said. “It’s not until you get in the seat and you’re responsible for everything, then all of a sudden, it has a different feel to it. There’s no school you can go to, there’s no amount of being second or third in command. You just do it.”

Most said they have learned from others.

“I had a couple of good mentors along the way, and I’m watching other people,” a captain said. “And I’ve learned from my mistakes. Definitely learn from everyone else’s experience.”

That’s why these captains’ lunch discussions and news media like The Triton are so important, he said.

Another captain recalled limited resources during his early years in the industry. He said he turned to corporate companies for leadership tools.

“They said, ‘You live and work together? You’re idiots,’” he said with a laugh. “That was the first indication that we have something different and unique here.”

Today there is no shortage of books and information to research on your own, he said.

“You learn what other captains’ standard operating procedures are, and hopefully you have a good mentor and look for courses,” he said. “Unfortunately, the apprenticeship programs are not around anymore like they used to be.”

As yachting grows, educational opportunities are getting better, a captain said.

“Before, there was job security in not sharing your knowledge,” he said. “But now, I think everyone is getting more mature in the industry. Captains are willing to share. Ten years ago  nobody did that, it was job security.”

When we first asked the group what being a captain means, they used terms such as responsibility, leadership, communicator and vessel knowledge. They said these words define what makes a good captain. But with no measurement tool to define the job of captain, how do crew know you are a good one?

“Well, you tell them,” a captain said with a laugh. “Over and over and over.”

The group laughed and added a few more ideas in jest.

“Positive reinforcement,” another added.

“If you don’t believe me, then I put another ad in the paper,” a third said.

Joking aside, a captain said, “It’s about whether my crew respect me and my program. It’s not about if they like me. It’s the title, the person and the program you set up. And it’s about managing expectations.”

From there, he said, it is about communication. And again, it is subjective.

“If you don’t meet the expectations eye-to-eye, we can discuss it,” he said.

“Communication is key,” another captain said. “If crew can talk to you, they can inform you what’s going on. You know if they are skating or getting things done.”

‘Communication breeds a happy crew,” a third captain said. “It’s a big part of the job. There doesn’t have to be complete unity, but it’s somewhere in there. And communication with the owners. If someone feels they can approach you, problems become smaller. If you have a good ear, you can be a good leader.”

If not, problems between crew can grow.

“When friction is on the surface, even if they don’t hear you yelling, the owner and guests can feel it,” a captain said. “Even if you’re trying to hide it.”

Respect is another measure, a captain said.

“I’ve seen yellers and screamers,” the captain said.

“Yes, that’s management of fear,” another captain said. “That doesn’t work.”

But, good management comes back to perception, a captain said.

“Some say, ‘He’s an a-hole,’” he said. “And the other says, ‘He’s a great captain, I would work for him the rest of my career.’”

As the conversation wrapped up, one of the captains shared an online post for a yacht captain position. It was just a list of the basics. And it ran more than 600 words long. But it said nothing about driving the boss’ kids around.

“We really should have a job description of the things we’re supposed to do,” a captain said. “But being the head or lead, you can’t always define that. You’re going to have to go out of the box and do a lot of different things.”

“You can write up a contract and it can say all kinds of things, but it doesn’t matter,” another captain said. “How many expectations or limitations can you throw into that, or scenarios that you can’t even think of? And two years down the road it has expanded. It is never less, always more.”

“As far as job description, it’s more a list of expectations,” a third captain said. “And it comes with a clause at the end that says, ‘May encompass many other things as needed.’”

Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome below.


About Dorie Cox

Dorie Cox is a writer with Triton News.

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