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From the Bridge: Lower salary often beats experience when hiring captains

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With resume in hand, a discouraged yacht captain recently visited The Triton office in Fort Lauderdale. He said he could not find a job and asked if others said the same. Pointing to his experience and licenses, he wondered why he was not hired. Was it his age?

That conversation triggered this month’s Triton From the Bridge topic. What does affect which captains are hired? To learn more, we invited seven of them to lunch to talk about what they see in the large yacht sector for captains in search of work.

Overall, this group is not actively looking for work, but as one captain said, boats sell, owners change and even the best jobs can end – so yes, he is always looking. Every attendee had plenty to add to the conversation from a personal experience or that of a colleague. So instead of the original question – “Why can’t I find work?” – we held a broad discussion to isolate personal and market factors at play.

There is not a simple answer. In fact, the conversation ran through nearly every aspect of the yacht industry. Following are some of the factors that affect who might get or not get the job. As expected, money and experience were right near the top.

“Money should not be the issue,” a captain said.

“But it is,” came a quick reply from across the table.

“I think there are more captains unemployed because owners can hire young captains for less,” the first captain said.

Attendees of The Triton’s From the Bridge discussion are, back row from left, Capt. Daniel Doyle of R/V Sea Dragon, Capt. J. D. Hapner, Capt. Stephen Hill, and Capt. Steve Pottee of M/Y Savannah; front row from left, Capt. John Gaffley of M/Y Island Heiress, Capt. Butch Kemp of M/Y Silver Fox, Capt. Martin Secot of M/Y Leading Fearlessly and Capt. Rob Reed of M/Y Elysian. Photo by Dorie Cox

In agreement, the second captain said, “It should not be about age, it should be about experience, but the owner sees a 30-year-old with a 3,000-ton license who says, ‘I will do it for less to get the experience.’”

Echoing the original captain’s comment, another said, “New guys hurt the experienced guys, who would want to hire a 60-year-old?”

Most of the group had seen a less experienced captain get a job over an experienced one on the basis of money, but they also knew of yacht owners who recognized the value of experience and were willing to pay for it.

With just about each topic, the group could see several sides. In his early days, one captain was told he did not have enough experience to be hired. Later, as a captain in the hiring role, he chose a green crew over the experienced one solely on his personality.

Another captain said he had too much experience. He tried for a deck position to “fill the time and the bank account.” The hiring captain told him, ‘I don’t need another captain to tell me what to do.’ ”

Across the table, a captain said he understood that from the hiring side. He also had a captain apply as deck crew but he preferred not to hire another captain. On the other hand, one captain who likes to hire captains in other positions said they can drive tenders and take on more responsibility.

“They have experience and an extra eye to safety,” he said.

The overqualified captain scenario seemed a small part of the job equation when compared with the experience and quantities of captain and crew. One captain said he sees “too many candidates and not enough qualified candidates.”

“And unfortunately, the cheaper ones are less experienced,” he said. “I’ve gotten some to say they will work for $1,800 instead of the regular $3,000.”

“I had a green crew that said he would work for free,” another captain said.

Supply and demand can’t be ignored. One captain said that he sees many more people looking for work than the market can accommodate. Even before this month’s topic was introduced for this discussion, one of the captains said he felt that the yacht captain and crew job markets were “dry.”

This proved true when he tried to fill several positions on board, so he upped the ante in an ad for a first mate position. He required the candidate to speak French, and on top of that, he asked for 500-ton license holders. To his surprise, he still got 400 applicants.

“In the old days, you got 20 applications. Now you get 200,” another captain said. “Why take the chance on an inexperienced crew?”

To that, several captains said they enjoy training and working with the clean slate of inexperienced crew. And there are plenty – maybe even more of them because of Bravo’s reality TV show about charter boat crew, one captain said.

“I think ‘Below Deck’ affected the industry, with more unqualified crew joining,” he said.

Yachts are the other half of the supply-and-demand equation. This group agreed that there are many new yachts coming online and many orders being placed. Previously a builder would build for a specific buyer, but now, in an effort to keep up, they are just building boats, a captain said.

“They’re all up – the yards are just making yachts, they’re not waiting on people,” he said.

And steering the builders and yacht owners are economic influences.

“Of course the economy plays a part,” a captain said. “In 2008, a lot of owners quit hiring full-time crew.”

Then as the economy recovered, the industry picked back up. Although no one could clarify the current economic situation, a captain said, “When owners have money, they spend money. When they’re scared, they don’t spend money.”

There are captains who worked in the commercial industry but have lost those jobs and are back in yachting, another captain sad.

“The oil fields are drying up,” he said. “That means more captains.”

To get a yacht job, this group said, location is also key.

“Different vessels are in different locations – like, smaller boats are up north,” a captain said of the United States. “You really have to be in Fort Lauderdale, Antibes or Palma to get work.”

Even with an international industry, proximity makes hiring easier, a captain said.

“There are so many people here in Fort Lauderdale, why would you hire someone from Toronto who you have to fly down?” he said.

Getting back to the initial captain who visited The Triton office, most of this group felt that the age of a candidate can have an impact, but a person’s health and ability to do the job are the real issue. And that usually is a case-by-case situation.

Health can be a factor and some owners are more concerned than others, a captain said. But what most everyone has seen to be a factor is the appearance of a job candidate.

“We can be restricted by the owner’s request for younger, more attractive and thinner crew. You do have to be good-looking,” a captain said.

“We are under pressure to hire good-looking people,” another captain agreed.

SUBHED: Wait, there’s more

After a job seeker navigates all of the previous variables, they then face yacht businesses and institutions that have a hand in who gets hired.

For years, crew agencies have been gatekeepers of a sort. The agents receive, decipher and vet resumes and CVs and, for a fee, put forward the people they see as best candidates for a specific boat. Several captains think that times are changing and that crew agents are less relevant in the age of the internet. They said many people search for candidates and respond to jobs online.

But many in this group still work with crew agencies even though they said agency ads are on the same crew job websites.

“Quite often they [crew agents] use the same internet and Facebook [pages]. All the crew are looking at the internet,” a captain said.

Although hard to pinpoint exactly why, one captain said, agents are more obligated to share more resumes than they used to.

“I think they [crew agents] throw all the applicants forward,” a captain said. “I don’t think they are really doing that much controlling about any other factors.”

“I have had a resume submitted and the crew agent tells me not to hire them,” another captain said. “They were obligated to put the resume forward.”

Maritime schools and training facilities also affect the hiring of captains and crew. They are often the first official information crew get as they head for the job market. But several captains said that many crew come away from classes with unrealistic expectations. Some crew think that a certain course or certificate will guarantee a job, a captain said.

“Some [schools] are like a mini-mill and they get crew to pay high prices for courses they don’t need,” another captain said.

Certificates and training are helpful and often vital for crew, but green crew may not understand the full significance of such courses. As an example, one captain said a candidate said he could paint yachts after taking an Awlgrip class.

“I said “You can’t paint, you had a three-day class,” the captain said.

There is an increase in mandatory and additional training requirements. Some of that is from international laws and flag state rules and some from insurance companies.

“Back 10 years ago there were a few Master Mariners, and today deckhands are requested to have from offshore to 200-ton licenses,” a captain said.

“Much of that is mandated by minimum safe manning requirements. It’s harder to employ a green person with insurance and manning requirements,” another captain said.

“Insurance companies have a big hand in who gets hired,” a captain said. “Used to be I submitted my insurance for a delivery, today they are scrutinizing much more. Now they need to know your crew member’s mother’s blood type.”

“That’s because of more claims and incidents and lots of loss,” another captain replied.

Similarly, yacht management companies dictate the type and numbers of crew on board, a captain said.

“I’m seeing a lot in the 80- to 110-foot range with no full crew,” a captain said. “Some may have a permanent captain, but the management company does the hiring and you get less crew that have jobs.”

The equation is not good for the industry or the yachts, the captain said. It doesn’t work.  Temporary crew never learn the boat enough to manage and maintain it, he said.

So even after more than an hour of fast-paced conversation and brief thoughts on many influences, the group agreed there is no way to pin down who will get this job or that.

“This whole conversation is complicated,” a captain said.

Although yacht captain jobs are affected by many aspects of the yacht industry, much of who gets hired still comes down to connections and personal relationships.

One captain summed up the job scenario thus: “When you get a good one, keep it.”

Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome at editor@the-triton.com.


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About Dorie Cox

Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton.

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2 thoughts on “From the Bridge: Lower salary often beats experience when hiring captains

  1. Fred

    I was surprised that there was no mention of attitude when discussing the Captains position. Some older experienced Captains only want to manage crews or hire third parties to do necessary maintenance. OtherCaptains take a hands on approach perhaps to the benefit of the Owners budget. The difference in a Captains compensation can be significantly narrowed or minimized by the maintenance he is ready, willing, and able to perform.

  2. Joan Elly

    Yachting tends to be a young person’s career [“Lower salary beats experience in hiring captains,” April issue] and it can get discouraging to look for a job after you hit the big 4-0. There are job opportunities for experienced crew, just not as many. But, age can bring experience, wisdom, knowledge and respect.
    There is a boat, for example, that is known for its “geriatric crew.” The crew on this yacht can attest to the fact that age is not a factor in doing an excellent job. The average age of this crew is 50.5 years. They have 121 years of yachting experience and 150 years of marine-related experience. Is this crew ready to retire? No! They can be found on the zip lines in Spain, at the casinos in France, wreck diving in the Virgin Islands, golfing and hopping fences after a night on the town in Puerto Rico, riding ATVs through the jungles of Panama and Costa Rica, biking in Fort Lauderdale, fishing in Canada and winning culinary competitions in the Med.
    This crew is multi-talented. There are three culinary-trained chefs on board. The captain has been seen washing down the boat on more than one occasion. The deck crew is capable of meal service, interior duties and videography. The engineer has sailed as mate and captain, and is also eye candy for the guests. This flexibility may help explain the longevity of the crew here. The chef has been with the program for 27 years, the captain for 15 years. The captain worked in the shipyard where the yacht was built and was at the vessel’s launching back in 1999. He is amazed by the compliments from other captains and dockmasters of how well the boat is maintained and how well he handles the boat.
    Though some crew have put up with age-related comments from younger, inexperienced crew on other boats or at local pubs, it usually leads to unexpected opportunities and opens new doors.
    Being over the hill may be an uphill battle in this industry, but the view from the top is well worth the effort.
    If you are “experienced” (read 35+) crew, don’t give up the ship. There are owners and captains who are looking for crew with experience, stability and maturity.

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