From the Bridge: by Dorie Cox
Yacht crew pack in a boatload of duties each day, usually several tasks at the same time. But there are limits to multitasking when it comes to crew meals, according to captains at this month’s Triton From the Bridge lunch. Although they would like to hold a meeting or focus on crew bonding during mealtime, they try to avoid anything more than eating.
“It’s inevitable that meals turn into a little talk about work, but we try not to be a meeting,” a captain said.
“It is just a meal,” another captain said. “If you want a meeting, keep it separate.”
Dining together is an important part of crew dynamics on board and that is why captains want the time to be positive. But several reasons prevent breakfast, lunch and dinner from being optimal for work or official team-building, including the high probability of some crew members not present, interruptions, and yacht duties.
“It’s functional feeding,” a captain said, as many captains nodded in agreement. Meals are often just enough time to grab some nutrition. He looked around the monthly Triton discussion group as the captains had scheduled a dedicated hour-and-a-half out of their day with no interruptions.
“What we’re doing here at this captain’s lunch, we don’t see on yachts,” he said. “Crew meals are not like other jobs where you sit and eat and say, ‘Oh, we still have 15 minutes on our break.’ It’s not like we have an hour off for lunch.”
“Sometimes, they just can grab two bites before they have to go work,” another captain said.
Meals in the crew mess vary
To better understand what is going on with meals, we asked for a look inside the crew mess. It varies, but often it is a buffet in the morning and chowder or something on the stove during the day, one captain said.
“It’s catch-as-catch-can. Food is set up for over-the-bar stuff,” he said. “The crew try to eat an evening meal together but usually someone is on watch.”
During charter or with owners on board, all bets are off, a captain said.
“Meals are always a problem with guests on,” another captain added.
“If guests are on board or we are underway, I’m not coming down,” a captain said of his work on the bridge. “It’s a grab-and-go kind of thing.”
“We just try to grab a meal during break… We try to have a lunch, but people are still on their shifts,” a third captain said.
In the midst of changing schedules and unplanned issues, most of the captains still set regular meal times.
“We try for noon and six so the crew know what to expect. That’s important,” a captain said.
Everyone in the group said typically breakfast is informal, with each person eating when they can. The midday meal is a more common time for groups of crew to aim to eat together and most captains schedule dinner at a time when the majority of crew can take a break together.
But there are still crew who “grab when you can,” like the stew that has to move clothes in the laundry to keep on schedule. Or the chef – his or her place at the table is even more rare, a captain said.
“The chef rarely sits for a meal, they seem to graze all day,” he said. “I think they’re the hardest working, they’re up early and off duty last. The first person might be up at 5:30.”
The idea for this topic stemmed from a captain’s suggestion, and the fact that family meal time has changed in society. Half of this group grew up with a regularly scheduled evening family meal, often a bit family business, school updates and some fun. They said there were many benefits and seemed nostalgic to have their yacht families be able to do the same thing.
“It is a time to ask about life in general, find out if people are happy or not happy,” a captain said.
But most of the group agreed that societally, the ritual seems to be more uncommon these days.
“I think it’s a generational thing,” one captain said. “When so many of both parents started working, it changed.”
Meals on yachts seem to mirror the decline. Work loads, different crew duties, and obligations, as well as watchstanding, are a few of the reasons for the difficulty of daily meals for the entire “yacht family.”
A captain brought up a hindrance to the feeling of a family meal – cell phones. Even though they are part of life for yacht crew, they seem to separate people and halt conversations.
“I do not like the phone on during meals,” he said “We haven’t made a rule, but I prefer if they’re not glued.”
“We have a loose phone policy,” another captain said. “I try to be flexible, but I don’t like five people on their phones with no conversation. It’s a great time for light conversation.”
The reason most of the captains have steered clear of strict phone policies is the crew reliance on their devices. He said mealtimes are often crew members’ only opportunity to look at their phone.
“That can be the only time they have to talk to their family or their boyfriend or girlfriend,” the first captain said.
Aim is for low-stress meals
A meeting is work, a meal is supposed to be a break. This group said dining should not be about plans, schedules, rules, and discussion of crew problems.
“So often I have to bite my tongue,” a captain said. “We sit for lunch and it is a great opportunity to bring up this or that but, I have to remember it’s a meal, not a meeting.”
“If you want a crew meeting, call a crew meeting,” another captain said.
Light communication is the goal, said a captain whose crew tries to meet for lunch and watch a comedy news program.
“It’s the high point of the day,” he said. “If no guests are on board, all the crew join. It is bonding, but the time is limited. It’s usually eat and get back to work.”
“If the trip is over and it feels like a weight is lifted, a meal can feel like a bonding experience,” another captain said. “But more often it is eat and go.”
Often a crew member or two are missing from a meal or they are partially engaged in a work task during dining. And although crew often relax during meals, it does not equal a day-off or time away from the boat. This group of captains said stronger crew relations can happen anytime crew are together, but especially when they are off duty together. For real bonding, they said they step away from work.
“We go for a crew swim or we take the tender out,” a captain said.
“Water activities are great,” another captain said.
Another captain said the entire crew goes on excursions, a local activity in a new port, or an activity that appeals to everyone.
“We have a barbecue on Friday or we just plan a social meeting,” another captain said.
Overall, off-duty activities are the key to crew relations, a captain said. But he has seen good intentions not run smoothly.
“Yes, it is a bonding time, but sometime it’s just the opposite,” a captain said. “There are so many variables – it depends how long the crew has worked together, how long this particular trip has been, the experience level of the crew. Often, if it’s after a trip, people really want to go their separate ways.”
As we wrapped up the discussion, the captains agreed that meals are for feeding the crew. They fight the urge to handle ship’s business and build camaraderie, but they welcome every time crew get to know each other a bit better.
“I think it’s the captain’s No. 1 job to create that family feeling,” a captain said. “If we haven’t done that, we have failed in our job as far as crew dynamics.”
Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome below.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org for an invitation to our monthly From the Bridge discussion.