From the Bridge: Cushy job on a frivolous toy? Yachting really is work

Jun 4, 2019 by Dorie Cox

By Dorie Cox

More than six years ago, a Bravo reality TV series debuted about yachts and the lives of the captains and crew at work on board. Some 85 episodes later, “Below Deck” is often cited as an example of yachting, even though most captains decry it as a warped representation. That is just what started the discussion at The Triton From the Bridge lunch where this month’s diverse group of captains shared their thoughts on perceptions of yacht captains, crew, owners, and the yachts themselves.

The economic impact of yachting is often misperceived, a captain said. He told of a passer-by who guessed the cost of a multimillion-dollar yacht.

“I bet that cost $100,000,” the man said. With nods around the table, everyone acknowledged a yacht can spend that much on fuel for one trip.

“People think I work on a cruise ship,” another captain said, to a round of agreement. The majority of the group has been asked if their job is like “Below Deck.”

“I say it is similar in that there may be arguments between crew. It’s hard to live and work together 24/7,” one of the captains said. The series highlights unprofessional behavior that does not happen on 95% of the yachts, he said. A voice of support for the series came from a captain who said the show is a rare peek on board and it is the only reference people outside the industry have.

“I think the show is great. People in Ohio and Indiana and Wyoming have no clue,” he said. “This is the greatest sales tool we have for the industry.”

“Remember ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous’?” another captain asked, in reference to a show that ran from 1984 to 1995. “That was the only place you would see a yacht.”

That program showed glamour and opulence where captains see safety, service and hard work.

Attendees of this month's Triton From the Bridge discussion for this issue are, from left, Capt. Philippe Dermauw, Capt. Mark Kurka of M/Y Miss Stephanie, Capt. Bob Terrell of M/Y Siete, Capt. Bill Wassmer of M/Y Lexington, Capt. Grant Maughan (freelance), and Capt. Tim Hull. Photo by Dorie Cox

“They say, ‘Sounds like you have a pretty cushy job,’” a captain said. “Then I tell them the hours, the manning, that I'm guarding a $70 million asset that I'm responsible for – responsible for everything, even everyone's safety – and they look at it differently. When you talk about the stress of the job, they are surprised.”

The captain explains his duties, but such conversations have no framework for someone with no experience of the industry, he said. To dispel the myth that his job is a vacation, one captain points out his 50- to 70-hour work week.

Although he has been around the world, one captain said, it surprises people when he tells them, “I visit, but don’t experience” the tourist sites.

“I’ve never gone to dive with the sharks or seen the swimming pigs in the Bahamas,” he said.

There is one group that has a more realistic view of the work involved with a yacht.

“People with service people in their world understand better,” a captain said. “If they know in any other context what it takes to receive that type of service, then they get the general idea that it takes a lot of time and money. ... But then throw in weather, motion, and they don’t.”

Surprisingly, several captains said that even yacht owners don’t always understand what captains do.

“Yes, I have to justify my job to the crew and to the owner,” a captain said. “Like on a crossing, they think you’ve been sitting on your a-- for three weeks. It’s not like that at all.”

“Oh yeah, owners don't understand,” another captain said. “And crew don't know what the captain’s doing or the first officer’s doing. They think we're lounging while we're doing ISM (International Safety Management Code), chart updates, hours of rest.”

“A lot of people don’t understand the captain ends up being the father, grandfather, uncle,” a third captain said.

These misperceptions roll over to the jobs of yacht crew, also.

“Crew think life on board will be like ‘Below Deck’ – fun and romp and more drama,” a captain said. “And a lot more interaction with the guests and more parties with the guests.”

Public perception of the industry often does not get past the yacht itself.

“‘Who owns that?’ That's the first question,” a captain said.

The type of questions depend on the prevalence of large yachts in the area, a captain said. Every captain said they have been asked if they own the boat. Yacht ownership confounds people who don’t realize that it differs from running a yacht and sometimes the public assumes it is the charter client’s boat, a captain said.

“Guest and crew have acted like it was their boat,” a captain said.

”I’ve had crew do that. And they didn’t stick around for long after that,” another captain said with a laugh.

Occasionally, yachts appear in movies or music videos, but people know more about cruise ships and do not realize there is something in between, a captain said.

Conversation veered to just what people do say.

“Locals can be negative – ‘It's ruining our view,’” a captain said.

“They complain about anchoring. Environmentalists hate us, they say the yacht pollutes the air and the water, and that we waste water washing the boat,” said another captain, noting that such a view can be complex to discuss with someone outside of the industry. He feels defensive because “the crew and owner are some of the most environmentally conscious people.”

It can be time-consuming and futile to explain how yachts operate, a captain said. Instead of engaging, one captain said he often avoids such conversations. As a reply, several captains share their yacht’s economic impact, that the yacht and crew spend a lot of money on products and services, and at times keep areas financially viable.

One of the captains shared his experience on a new build.

“It was the yard’s first yacht. All the people in that small town were incensed that this rich guy could build this yacht,” he said. “At the end of two years, we’d spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in restaurants, pubs, taxis, rental cars, supermarkets and shops. It turned around when they saw how good it was for their business. At first they had looked down their noses at us.”

This triggered a related tale.

“The boats were in the harbor and a local congressman decided rich people needed to be taxed,” a captain explained. “We said, ‘We're not coming back,’ and they lost the revenue. Stores and businesses started shutting down.”

Similarly, the impact of yachts was felt during the U.S. economic recession that began in late 2008 when many owners mothballed or sold their yachts and businesses closed, a captain said.

“They count on us, like Mardis Gras,” a captain said.

“It’s like a coal mine,” another captain said. “We also support the grocery stores, the merchants. Towns that are used to us get it.”

We looked at the current economy’s impact on perceptions of yacht use and expenditures. The captains reported differing scenarios. Economic growth in the owner’s specific business has spurred use on one yacht. The owner is “spending more, going farther, using a lot of fuel,” the captain said. On the other hand, another owner has stopped using his yachts during the past three years and the captain knows of two other owners in the past year and a half who have docked their yachts and maintain no crew.

“Right now, they’re watching the economy closely,” he said.

Several captains who have worked with the same yacht owners for years said they attribute changes in expenditures to maturation of the owners and their businesses more than the economy.

“We've gone a little more in the last two to three years, but I think it’s due to his business,” one of them said. “The owner seems confident, but did the same thing with the previous administration.”

That owner is using his money differently, he added. “He can use it for his enjoyment more than putting it back in his business.”

Two captains said they do not see much change in spending or use.

“It's still about the same. Depends on the client – some are pinching pennies where they should not, and some ‘get’ yachting and know where funds need to be spent,” one of the captains said. “I’ve seen both sides the entire time I’ve been in the industry. I’m not seeing much change.”

As we aimed to spot a trend, the majority of this group said the level of wealth required for yacht ownership is insulated from Republican or Democratic policy fluctuations.

“Once you get to a certain realm, these guys figure out how to make money on both sides of it,” a captain said. “And they figure out how to hold it.”

“You can see people come in and out of wealth rapidly if they don’t figure out how to survive both types of atmospheres,” another captain said.

“There is a certain level of wealth that has a bulwark from the market. They can afford not just to buy a yacht, but to own and maintain it,” a third captain said. “They do not have a problem with ticks in the market. A lot of the people are using their boat more over the last decade, but they don’t have as much time as they think they have. A lot of money, but not enough time.”

This captain attributes some increased expenditures to compliance.

“Regulation in the industry has helped to get money for maintenance and things like education for crew,” he said. “It’s changed from the days where ‘I got this boat and shouldn’t have to spend anything on it.’ They find they have to do it for class or law.”

To wrap up that conversation, all of the captains said misperceptions have led many yacht owners into buying.

“We still get people who buy boats, but can’t afford them,” a captain said. “They have misperceptions. ‘This costs double what the broker said.’ That is a classic story.”

We looked for a pattern in perception of how yacht owners are seen. Even before the recession, one owner did not want anyone in his company to know that he owned the boat. On another yacht, the crew wear casual attire instead of uniforms in public to avoid appearing as service or security staff. While charter guests want to be seen on the aft deck, the owners rarely do, a third captain said.

“It's a real mix. Some clients flaunt their ownership in select locations,” a captain said. Large yacht owners that have worked their way up through smaller boat ownership ease into a comfort level.

“They have their income and fun money, and they don't care,” he said. “They're also hanging with comparable people or aspiring-to-be people. They might flaunt their money, but they don't look at it like flaunting. They are comfortable with their use.”

“When we travel marina to marina, it's not an issue,” another captain said. “Everyone is a boat owner. We’re not leaving the circle. We don’t have to explain as much.”

In light of the variety of misperceptions, we asked how captains feel about taking the time to educate people.

“You judge who you’re talking to,” a captain said. “Some people you want to explain it to and some I give a quick answer. If it’s passing on information to younger crew, somebody who’s truly interested in the industry and I can see they have potential to be a good crew person, then I like to give them as much information as possible.”

“We’re senior captains, it is our job to train,” another captain said. “We’re not going to do this forever.”

“We’re not?” a captain responded with a smile. Everyone laughed.

“It is a duty to teach, but before I explain, they have to earn it,” a captain said. “I'm way over teaching someone who's been on three months and thinks he’s a master mariner.”

As the discussion time closed, suggestions were made to tackle some of the misperceptions. One was for a new show, similar to ‘Dirty Jobs’ that ran from 2005 to 2012 and highlighted a variety of misunderstood careers.

“Our group knows about yachting, but we do need something like another ‘Below Deck,’” a captain said. “We need another program like that, but without a director.”

It would be good to improve our image to promote yachting, it does make a huge impact, a captain said.

Invite people on board to meet crew and see the working side, a captain recommended.

“I think we need to educate the right people, and in the right way. And we don’t get that, we have to build that ... to get good crew,” a captain said.

Such education will pay off for the industry, a captain said with the example of how Carrefour, a European store, has an aisle specifically for yachts, he said.

“We've created that with Publix, and same with Sam’s or Costco,” another captain said. “The truck backs up, forklift unloads with a pallet. They understand it because they’re using this like a small business. That’s what yachting needs to do.”

Although perceptions have real ramifications for the industry, clearing up misperceptions is a challenge, a captain said.

“There are problems with perceptions,” he said. “We can’t talk about what we do, that’s why it’s called a private yacht.” It will always be a problem, he said.

“We’re not allowed to tell a lot of what we do. It’s almost like it cripples the industry. You can’t say anything about it, in a sense. But if we don’t have enough public knowledge about the attributes of the industry, I think it hurts us from a developmental and political side.”

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


About Dorie Cox

Dorie Cox is a writer with Triton News.

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