The Triton

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From the Bridge: More culture than stuff that creates home onboard

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From the Bridge: by Dorie Cox

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.

Most people head home after work each day for family, food and rest. But not yacht crew. The yacht is both their residence and office. So how can living where you work ever feel like home? We gathered five yacht captains for the Triton From the Bridge lunch discussion to ask.

The captains said there is a balance between the two.

“If you’re going to make it [be] work 24/7, not many people are going to want to hang around,” a captain said. “It’s hard to relax, you always have some kind of work. But you want to give some kind of feeling of home… the culture you create among the crew of a family feel.”

“That kind of culture gives the boat a home feeling,” a second captain said. “But obviously the boat’s not ours, so we always have to keep that in mind.”

On the other hand, crew should treat the boat as if it is theirs, said another captain.

“I want the crew to use the boat; they need to care about the boat,” he said. “They feel at home because I try to show that the boat is ours.”

Attendees of The Triton’s From the Bridge discussion were, from left, Capt. Kent Kohlberger on M/Y Safira, Capt. Pedro Camargo on M/Y Brunello, Capt. Dave Johnson on M/Y 14 To Smile, Capt. Dave Schlitz (working as mate) on M/Y Septimus, and Capt. Pablo Gonzales on M/Y Picnic. Photo by Dorie Cox. Special thanks to Universal Marine Center for providing the lunch location.

But above all, it still comes back to the job crew are here to do for us, a third captain said.

As moderator of the discussion I thought personal items might be key and asked what crew bring on board to in an effort to feel like home. Turns out, possessions are just a small part of the equation. And small they are.

“If it’s on their nightstand, about this size,” a captain said as he met both thumbs and forefingers for a square shape. “They can have anything there, that’s ok.”

“They can have something hanging over the desk lamp, a curio you got somewhere as long as it isn’t damaging the boat,” another captain said.

There are photos on a photo board, “for a bit of a homey feeling,” a third captain said.

They can have a plant or bring something from their travels, the second captain said. “But now it’s all electronic books and pictures.”

“That’s a really good point,” another captain said. “If they have their iPad, they’ve got most of it. You can have everything electronic, it’s not so much about adorning the room.”

Basically, crew can’t bring much, although many of the captains try to accommodate a few bigger things like guitars, bicycles, skateboards and surfboards. Several of the captains even have their own toys on board.

“Crew are allowed to bring on their sports gear,” a captain said. “It gives them the feeling they have freedom to do what they want.”

But there are caveats. Crew do need to ask first, a captain said. And, “in general, it needs to fit in the space in your room.”

This all is part of navigating the line between feeling at home and living in someone else’s place, a line that must be monitored, he said. He has seen crew damage their cabins and now has weekly cabin checks.

“If, when you leave, there is no trace it was there, I have no problem with it,” he said. “It isn’t about the object itself, it’s the lack of respect for the yacht. Don’t nail or don’t screw anything to the cabin. This is finely built, this it is someone else’s.”

Each item also needs to be in its place.

“When we go to bed, in the mess there is nothing – no jackets, no backpacks,” he said.

“We need to give crew freedom, because if not, there start to be problems,” a third captain said. “Like if they don’t have a social life or can’t drink, they have issues related to a lot of work.”

“It helps to allow them to have friends on or a beer at the end of the day,” a fourth captain said. “As long as I’m given a heads up, things like that are really appreciated. That’s huge,” a fifth captain said. “We want the crew to use the boat and to feel at home.”

Each captain in attendance said crew meals and events add to the comfort level.

“Occasionally it’s organized, or someone will say, ‘Let’s all go do this’,” a captain said.

And each of the yachts celebrate crew birthdays.

“We have a crew night out, they get to chose what restaurant,” one captain said.

On another yacht, “everyone chips in 20 bucks,” for a birthday present,” another captain said.

And most get a cake and do something extra to celebrate. But holidays are more of a challenge.

“What are you talking about?” a captain said. “We work holidays.”

“It is what you sign up for on a yacht,” another captain said. “We breeze through holidays like a regular day.”

Even if there is work to be done, each of the captains said they are allowed to decorate the crew area for holidays, like a small Christmas tree or Easter eggs. And sometimes crew can go to a religious service if a fellow crew member will cover their shift, a captain said.

With all the accommodations, I wondered if crew ever feel homesick.

“They wouldn’t be on board,” a captain said. “That’s for green people.”

But he clarified, if someone was homesick, he would find out the reason and would work with the crew member to address their issue.

“That’s common sense, you help out,” he said.

“The nature of this business is that people are adventurous,” another captain said. “To put yourself in this industry is a lot. It’s not for everyone, we know that. I’ve had a couple of wide-eyeds that didn’t make it. I’m interviewing smarter, I try to make sure everyone understands what the job really is. When they do, they don’t have a problem.”

Several of the veteran captains said they have learned lessons with balancing the work/home equation over the years.

“I’m really conscious of respect of the owner’s boat and respect for the owner,” one said. “Early on I expected people to behave, but I found they didn’t always do that.”

In the beginning he handled issues on a personal level but found better results with a list of rules.

“I try to keep it to one page but the type keeps getting really small,” he said, to laughs from around the table. He explained that good crew respect boundaries and guidelines and these restrictions help keep the work and home life on board healthy.

As we wrapped up the topic, the consensus among the captains was that it optimizes the yacht program to have a comfortable, homey atmosphere. And each of the captains referred to the crew as “family.”

“The main thing we have to have is respect for each other,” a captain said. And several others agreed.

“It’s more about the camaraderie of the crew as to how much it feels at home,” a captain said of life on board. “It is cliche, but a boat out of kilter really is a miserable place to work. It doesn’t matter how gorgeous the state room is. If you’re not gelling and respect each other, all the toys don’t matter.”

“It can be a crappy boat,” a second captain said. “We have a great time if everyone is pulling together.”

“You can have the worst charter from hell, but it’s still binding, we’re even stronger,” a third captain said. “You laugh, cry about it, but you did it together. It’s our second family.”

“We’re working as a team, getting the job done. It’s work hard, play hard,” a fourth captain said. “It works out really well. I don’t think it’s as much about hanging a photo of mom or your girlfriend on the wall.”

Several of the captains said how crew get along and work together ranks high in importance.

“I think a lot about that when I bring new crew in, not just if they are qualified or available, but how are the going to fit into our family,” a captain said.

“Who we hire is important,” another captain said. “It’s the crew’s values and goals. Boats have different cultures, sometimes crew don’t mesh.”

“Most important, they need freedom, they need to feel at home,” a third captain said. “But it comes back to, that it is our job and everybody needs to understand that nobody is here on vacation. We have things to do.”

But the crew culture on board is also molded by the atmosphere created by the yacht owner.

“If he wants us in the toys or he doesn’t want us in the toys, it starts with the top,” a captain said. “It’s the relationship with the owner.”

And where I thought possessions had more to do with the balance, they are just a small part of the feel-like-home equation.

“What you’re talking about is more what things you put on the wall,” a captain said. “And we’re talking about the camaraderie. When it’s working, when it’s gelling, it doesn’t matter what stuff is around.”

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

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About Dorie Cox

Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton.

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