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From the Bridge: Down with salaries, experience; up with regulations, connection

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Individual comments are not attributed to encourage candid discussion; attending captains are identified in the accompanying photograph. Captains who make their living running someone else’s yacht are welcome to join in the conversation. Email to editor@the-triton.com for an invitation to our monthly From the Bridge discussion.

From the Bridge: by Editor Dorie Cox

The yacht industry has changed. And it continues to transform. To spot some of the trends, we gathered a diverse group of yacht captains at this month’s Triton From the Bridge discussion, including a captain with 20 years of working with the same yacht owner, a captain preparing for a new command and several freelance captains considering their next positions.

“The biggest trend that I’ve seen is a massive change in education, certification and licensing,” one captain said. “Before, it was, ‘You’re a captain? Come on down, we’re going to the Bahamas, jump on.’”

Attendees of The Triton’s From the Bridge discussion are, back row from left, Capt. Tom Ferland of M/Y Watercolours, Capt. Bill Wassmer of M/Y Lexington, Capt. Dennis Jones, freelance, and Capt. Josh Abrams, freelance. Front row from left, Capt. Devon Tull of M/Y Carpe Diem and Capt. Stephen Hill, freelance. Photo by Dorie Cox

“It’s not just retrieve the tender, jump on, and off they go,” another captain said. “Now, it’s an actual operation and a procedure. It has become more of a commercial type of industry.”

This sometimes seems to value regulations over experience, a captain said.

“There are so many overqualified candidates, they have every certification and spend so much time in school,” a captain said. “But they do not actually have time on the job.”

“We have a 30-year experienced veteran engineer, with no certification, now competing with a school filled with engineers,” a captain said. “They are demanding these guys get certifications, so the schools are filled. But he’s competing with engineers that don’t know what it’s like to be on board.”

And lack of time at sea can affect the safety of others.

“I’ve met a captain who can’t go to sea without a chart plotter and following the line,” a captain said. “There is a big ship on his course and he doesn’t want to leave his blue line. I said, ‘Move over,’ but he can’t figure out by his surroundings.”

One captain had a near miss with a crew member unable to identify boats by their light configurations. He put the yacht engineer on watch during a trip through a fishing area frequented by pair-trawling boats with nets strung between them.

“I said, ‘If you see two targets, wake me up,’” the captain said. “Fortunately, there is some sort of captain thing, I woke up in the middle of the night and he was heading straight in between the two boats.”

Years ago, the trend was for crew to work through the ranks to get sea time on small boats, but today many want to work on bigger boats, a captain said.

“I actually saw a social media post where someone was asking for suggestions on how to bypass sea service requirements,” he said. “The whole point is to get some experience before you get certifications. You need to work as a deckhand for a while before you progress up the ladder.”

But the captain has sympathy for new crew.

“When I started, I was frustrated, I wanted to get as far as I could, as quickly as I could,” he said. “But an old captain said, ‘You have to put in your time.’ And it’s true.”

He is disappointed, he said, to see that “now it’s 20-something years later and owners want young and energetic instead of experienced.”

“I’ve worked hard and put in my time to get to this point in my career so I could be a salty old sea captain,” he said. “And now you’re telling me you want a young kid at the helm?”

This trend has decreased salaries, said a veteran captain who had been on several job interviews recently.

“Two out of three were offering salaries below the industry standard,” he said. “And that was working off the salary of 25 years ago – it’s still $1,000 a foot.”

“I think it’s because these younger guys that have gone to school are looking to get their foot in the door and are willing to work for less,” another captain said.

“Many yacht owners are younger and want to hire younger crew,” a third captain said. “An older captain costs more money, so they say, ‘I’m going to go with this guy with the same certifications.’”

“It’s supply and demand,” a fourth captain said.

But captains’ salaries have not kept up with the cost of living.

“My rent, car insurance, gas and food have gone up,” a captain said.

Despite more crew coming out of maritime schools and looking for work, captains say there are more yachts being built and that means more work.

“I can always get a job, but it’s working on real tight budgets,” a captain said.

And how captains find these jobs is changing. Although most still get jobs through personal contacts, it has a new look. The internet is now that word-of-mouth we used to have, a captain said.

“Now it’s social media,” another captain said. “It has changed from when you would just leave a note on the boat.”

Also disappearing are the days of finding work through a broker.

“Now I find that all of the brokers’ offices have their own crew agencies,” he said. “It’s no longer going through being friends with the broker, they have to have regulations now. But occasionally there are still some connections.”

Several captains noted a trend in who is steering the increase in requirements. It’s not governments or flag states as much as expected – it is insurance companies, several captains said.

“Until fairly recently, there was no one policing agency and now it’s becoming the insurance companies,” a captain said. “If I’m going to insure this $5 million boat, I want to make sure there is a qualified captain and qualified crew on board.”

“Plus, that $5 million boat is now a $50 million or $500 million boat,” another captain said. “The boats have gotten so big and so valuable, somebody had to step in, and the insurance companies did.”
The increase in yacht sizes and value is unprecedented and has some growing pains.

“Insurance companies don’t have the knowledge to insure a $100 million boat,” a captain said. “This has never been seen before.”

That conversation led to another trend.

“The design of boats has changed radically in the last few years,” one captain said. “Everything is plumb-bowed or axe-bowed, stand-up windshield or reverse-shear windshield. It almost doesn’t look like a boat anymore.”

“And that giant glass in the hull?” a captain questioned.

There was unanimous concern from the table on that trend.

“Yes, it scares the crap out of me,” a captain said.

“How is that floor-to-ceiling glass going to hold up when the wave hits?” another captain said. “It makes me nervous of some of these boats.”

“Absolutely, how many of these new boats are even seaworthy or hold the right capacity?” a third captain said. “Especially in the smaller and mid-range boats.”

Several new trends in yacht designs seem to compromise safety, according to several of the captains.

“You can’t get behind some of these engines now, because they have put something else in there,” a captain said. “They made it smaller to fit an ice machine.”

“Before, a 6-foot sea was nothing, but we were in 2 to 4 and we had to pull back,” another captain said. “These new yachts are designed to go fast in the bay where it is being sold, but not when the seas kick in.”

Many of these design trends are yacht-owner driven.

“They want this and they don’t take any consideration to how they restructure the boat,” a captain said. “It’s not what the owner needs, it’s what he desires.”

As we wrapped up the conversation, the group shared a few more trends. Every captain noted new destinations and megayacht marinas being built around the world.

“The Adriatic, Croatia, Montenegro are one example, there are a lot of new marinas and they are becoming far more attractive,” a captain said.

“Same in the Bahamas, it has changed since the first time I went to Albany,” another captain said. “There were 12 boats over 120 feet, it was new, and and it made Atlantis look old. Now, that’s a big change.”

“And much bigger boats. I just saw a 300-foot sailboat with a seaplane,” a captain said.

After discussing regulations, jobs, salaries, designs and destinations, several captains pointed out one trend that has changed the essence of the industry. Most of the captains said they took to the sea to sail away, but now yachting is centered around being connected.

“Wi-Fi is a must,” a captain said. “The boss’ first question is, ‘How is the Wi-Fi?’ You have to know someone in some places to make sure you can get coverage.”

“And now it is, ‘What will we do there?’” another captain said. “The day is passed when yachting was for yachting’s sake and to get away from business. The owner’s needs are immediate and he expects an immediate response.”

“Now it is, ‘If I go down island, how will they reach me?’ It’s all about being connected,” a third captain said. “It is no longer yachting to get away from it all.”

Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton. Join the discussion with a comment welcome below.

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About Dorie Cox

Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton.

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