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From the Bridge: Captains navigate complex equation for crew wages

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From the Bridge: by Dorie Cox

Yacht captains are familiar with the rates for maintenance, repairs, dockage, insurance and other yacht bills. Budgets are a large part of what they manage on a regular basis. One part of that equation is not so clear: yacht crew salaries.

To understand more, we asked a group of captains how they feel about crew salaries during this month’s captains From the Bridge lunch.

They feel stressed. Whereas an engine part has a set price, a crew salary is derived from a more complicated formula. The struggle to find appropriate rates revolves around owner impressions, market impact, crew expectations, and variations between crew members themselves.

“I’ve had crew ask for as much as $450 a day down to $250,” a captain said. “I say we’re offering $150, so if you’re interested in the job, that’s what it’s paying.”

One captain broke down how such a rate is chosen.

“I try to be as upfront as possible,” he said. “I go to the owner, I give him a high ballpark and get the approval. Then, when I do the interviews, I have a scale and range to pay based on their experience.”

Attendees of The Triton’s From the Bridge discussion for this month are, back row from left, Capt. Alexis Del Salto; Capt. Ned Stone, freelance; Capt. Brett Eagan; front row from left, Capt. Jason Brashears of M/Y Avanti; Capt. Jay Kimmal of M/Y Status Quo; and Capt. Rupert Lean of M/Y Excel. Photo by Dorie Cox

Everyone at the discussion agreed that they want to learn about the person before there is any talk of compensation. To start the interview, one captain describes the yacht program and job duties. That can weed out some applicants from the process.

“Is this program acceptable to you? If it’s not, go ahead, get out of here,” he said.

If they are interested, he first finds out what they are looking to get paid. Then the conversation continues if that number is in his range and they have the experience he expects to pay them for.

“You want them to have room to grow, too,” a captain added. Another agreed, and said, “If I know I can pay someone $4,000 a month, I’m going to hire them for $3,500. Then have a 30-day or 60- or 90-day review.”

“Show me you’re worth what we’re going to pay you,” a captain said.

And there’s more to compensation than just money. Crew are usually provided food and a place to live, and some include insurance, vacation and other benefits. And the big perk for charter crew – tips – has to be added to the equation.

“We have to discuss potential tip revenue. They want these big daily numbers but don’t understand they will make tips,” a captain said. “I say, ‘You understand you’ll be making another couple thousand?’ ”

An unforeseen vacancy on board is another issue. The captains who have taken a temporary urgent job said that in the case of an emergency, crew salary requirements can evaporate.

As an example, a captain had a crew member leave, she took another job offer and left – on a New Year’s trip. So the replacement made more than a salaried crew.

“I realize she is doing me a favor,” he said.

Yacht owners guide much of the rate determination, and many can’t help but compare the pay rate of the yacht staff with their land-based business workers, a captain said.

“My boss looks at their salary for a year and he compares it with his business employees,” he said.

Industries such as construction, farming, restaurants and retail usually have more clear cut salaries, so when compared, yacht crew can appear to be over- or underpaid, a captain said. Since captains usually join yachts with crew in place, they have little to say about the salaries already set. But when it comes time to hire additional crew, it can be a challenge to balance the numbers.

“I’ve seen crew that deserve more, and I’ve inherited crew making a lot,” one captain said.

It makes it crazy difficult, said a captain who was hired into a well-paid crew.

“They were paying the crew outrageously high rates – crew with no experience,” he said.

The opposite was in play for a captain who felt a crew member deserved more money than he was being paid. The captain went so far as to threaten to quit his job to keep the engineer.

“He can walk next door and get double,” the captain said.

“Then it’s up to the captain to say, ‘I found this person that will make the whole program work effortlessly and you will enjoy your time on the boat,’ ” a captain said.

On the other hand, some owners want handsome guys and beautiful girls, and don’t care about their experience levels, a captain said.

“But the captain must be serious and make the decisions. He has to say, ‘We need experience on board,’ ” he said.

“Or say we have to hire this person as well,” another captain said.

Aside from general competition for good crew, supply and demand can come into play. A captain recalled such a scenario from early in his career.

“I remember in the Med when there was a shortage of stewardesses,” he said. “A young, virtually no-experience one asked for $250, but at that point [as captain] I made $350. She was getting it.”

Another factor that impacts crew salary comes from yachting itself. A variety of online charts on crew agency and brokerage sites imply an industry standard for rates, but the uniqueness of each program and crew member make such a standard number difficult to determine, a captain said.

Then just how do captains come up with salaries? Mostly from conversations with each other and help wanted ads, several said.

“I get my barometer from daywork123.com,” one captain said.

“I get it from the person I’m trying to hire,” another said.

When asked about salary surveys, one captain said he personally inflates his rate when he responds, so he felt like the other factors held more weight in the equation.

But one of the biggest variables captains face comes from the person on the other side of the interview table. After the process of choosing finalists to interview, captains then assess each applicant.

“I have five resumes that are not the same,” a captain said.

“I adjust for experience, CV congruency, and compatibility with the yacht program,” another captain said.

“You have to feel people out when you start doing your interviews, they have crazy demands,” a third captain said.

“That hits the nail on the head,” another replied.

The conversation then veered to how crew talk about their compensation with each other.

“That’s the crew-house mentality,” a captain said. “The one with experience says, ‘After six months I went to the boss for more,’ and now the new crew skip all these steps in learning and go straight to, ‘I need $220 to $250 a day.’ ”

“When they ask for a lot of money right off the bat, but they don’t have the experience and don’t have references from the boats they’ve worked on, watch out, you’ve got a time bomb,” a captain said. “A hand grenade. And hand grenades blow up your charters.”

To reach a number, several captains said they can’t help but to factor in their own early days as inexperienced crew. Incoming new crew should work their way up the pay scale, a captain said, “I put up with it, I did my time.”

“Sometimes I’ll bring that up as a leverage on what they want and what I think they should be paid,” another captain said. “When I started in 1981, I was paid $100 a week. That’s because I wanted to get into the industry.”

But most importantly, everyone at the discussion agreed that they want to pay each crew member a good salary.

“You want to treat people fairly,” a captain said.

“You don’t want to underpay crew members,” another said.

“You have to live with them, there’s nowhere to run,” a third captain said with a laugh.

“Not in the middle of the Pacific,” another captain said with a laugh. But he added that “when there are other yachts, that’s where the stress comes in to bring the right amount of money to the table.”

Several in this discussion group said they sometimes have to negotiate with the owner for the crew they want to hire.

“At the end of the day, you have to sit with the owner and explain what qualifications are required,” a captain said. “Don’t even try to save money on crew wages.”

“We can’t hire someone cheap,” another said.

This prompted several tales of damage and injury under the watch of inexperienced crew hired over experienced crew to save money, something none of the captains liked.

“Divide the salary by the cost of the hole in the boat,” a captain said.
Overall, this group of captains considers crew salaries worth the conversations to get them right. Most of them treat the yacht owner’s money as if it were their own.

“I don’t overspend, so when it comes to a crew, I’m trying to hire them at the best price for the boss – but the best price to get the best crew and make the crew happy. So it’s stressful to try to balance,” a captain said. “I don’t want to just give away money. All my bosses have budgets, it’s not a written budget, it’s ‘Get me the best deal you can.’ ”

Heads nodded in agreement around the discussion table.

“The most stressful part of being a captain is dealing with the money you spend, making it happen and getting what you expect to get back,” a captain said. “Driving the boat? That’s not stressful.”

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

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About Dorie Cox

Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton.

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