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From the Bridge: Duty calls; workload cuts into vacations

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From the Bridge: by Dorie Cox

Yacht captains are in control on board; they set and enforce the rules. So when regulations and contracts stipulate vacations, why don’t they take them? The answers from this month’s Triton From the Bridge discussion group show some of the challenges and priorities – and fears – of captains in the yacht industry.

The summertime conversation started with laughs at the mention of the word “vacation.”

“Vacation? What’s that?”

“It’s in the contract, but we never get it.”

“Vacation is what other people take at our expense.”

When was the last time these captains took one?

“I can’t remember when,” a captain said.

There are several reasons why many captains don’t use vacation time. At the top of that list is simply the job. Duties pile on with the yacht, the crew, the owner, the shipyard or a number of other factors. And the captain is responsible for all of it, according to these captains.

The excuses continued as they explained why vacations drop down on the priority list. One is that some captains make sure crew get vacations first.

“I just couldn’t get it for myself,” a captain said. “It is absolutely better for crew morale for them to take vacation.”

A unique hurdle is that because yachts are vacations, some owners feel that the captain can’t possibly need more of a vacation.

“Owners think we are on vacation all the time. ‘When I’m not here, you’re not doing anything anyway,’ ” one captain said. “Like the boat just stays this way magically?” 

 “That’s a big problem – owners don’t think we do a lot,” another captain said. “They probably think we do 20% of what we do.”

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.

Similarly, owners may not see captain vacation time as a priority.

“In the contract, vacation is laid down in stone,” a captain said. “Owners, they won’t honor that. If they want to use the boat, they use it.”

Also, there is a private fear that taking a vacation could cost a job.

“When the captain is off, he’s worrying about what he may come back to,” a captain said. “I’ve heard so many times when the captain gets the call not to come back and they keep the relief captain.”

Attendees of The Triton’s From the Bridge discussion this month are, back row from left, Capt. Jon Brunold, freelance; Capt. Jeromy Mold; Capt. Herberth Uribe of M/Y Lumiere; Capt. John Wampler, contract captain; Capt. Brett Eagan; and Capt. Phillip Nash; front row from left, Capt. Carl Moughan, freelance; and Capt. Scott Redlhammer of M/Y Serque.
Photo by Dorie Cox

Vacation means off-duty

To ensure that everyone was talking about the same thing, we clarified the meaning of the word “vacation.” Several in this group started with what it is not.

“If you’re in communication with the [relief] captain and crew every day, that’s not a vacation,” one captain said.
“You’re in courses?” a captain said. “That’s not a break.”

And vacation is not when the captain and crew are in the shipyard, between charters, or underway.

“By definition, a vacation has to be pre-planned, with a date set in stone, agreed to by owners, with provision made for someone to fill in – otherwise, it’s not a vacation,” another captain said.

“A long weekend is not a vacation, it is just time off,” a third captain said.

Errands, meetings and calls during off time also take away from a real break.

“I’ve gotten calls on vacation to go pick up supplies: ‘Can you grab that for us and drive it up?’ ” a captain said.

Pre-planned family events such as graduations and birthdays count as vacation, and unfortunately, even funerals, several captains said.

“Depends on the boss,” one captain said.

Captains warn of consequences

Each of the captains said they see the need to balance the work-vacation equation. Although they understand it is their responsibility to make vacations happen, they could use some help from owners and the yacht industry.

“What we’re talking about is that this issue has been institutionalized in the industry – where captains don’t get to take vacations, so that’s the norm,” a captain said.

“Everybody knows what the problem is, we’re all aware,” another captain said.

What seemed at first to be a light topic could have some serious ramifications if someone gets hurt, a captain said.

“There will be an accident or something, and they will drill down to the fact that the captain has been overworked and he’s flat out,” a captain said. “He hasn’t seen his family, he’s exhausted.” “Something’s going to have to happen for the industry to change,” another captain said. “Yeah, the guy hasn’t been on vacation in years, he got tired.”

“Captains cannot be working flat out like they do,” another captain said.

“There could be a huge lawsuit. That will change it,” another captain said of industry regulations. Incidents often guide regulations, he said, and an accident could continue to push yachting toward more commercial protocol. 

It is “coffin technology” that lets an accident define the course of action, another captain said. 

Similarly, there are challenges to meet the work and rest hour requirements set in Maritime Labour Convention’s Hours of Work and Manning (Sea) Convention, especially during charters, a captain said.

In the case of an injury or accident, such liability could fall to a yacht owner.

“The owner may be in big trouble; he can be liable or exposed,” a captain said. “It is our duty to educate him. We have to explain the risk to the owner.”

“You have to couch it in an example: If there is ever an accident – it could be something minor on board – and there’s an insurance claim, they will go into every aspect of the yacht,” a captain explained. That could start with an inquiry.

“It’s incredible how intrusive they become as to what goes on on the boat,” he said. “If they can start pointing to a culture of avoiding the rules, they’ll say, ‘Well, look how they run the boat; they were probably tired. That caused this.’

“Suddenly the owner is in big trouble,” he said. “I think that is something they can understand.”

Here’s where the captains’ conversation became a pep talk to the captains themselves, as well as advice for others.

“You go to owners and say, ‘The flag state says we need to do this and this,’ why not with vacation?” a captain asked.

But accident and liability conversations are not the easiest to have with an owner.

“It’s easy for older guys to go to the owner and say, ‘We have to have this time off, it’s set by regulations, there’s nothing we can do,’ ” a captain said. “But for the up-and-coming [captains] who are worried about their jobs, they haven’t learned how to have these conversations with the owner.”

“You have to be able to explain that to him, not be afraid to,” another captain said.

“But how do you sit with the owner with the CFRs [U.S. Code of Federal Regulations] and start saying, ‘Look at this?’ ” a third captain said. “Half the time you’re not dealing with the owner, it’s the comptroller or someone else.”

As for support from the industry, yacht management companies can help.

“A lot of management companies may force you to take vacation, and that gets better for us,” one captain said. “Management companies can be like goalies, keeping everyone in between the lines.”

Limited choices for vacation schedule

In an effort to move forward with solutions, this group agreed that vacations should be taken, but they struggled a bit with how and when. There was a resounding “no” from around the table when asked if yard periods are a good time for vacation.

“No, that’s a bad time, that’s a terrible time for vacation,” a captain said.

“You’ve got to be there,” another responded.

“I’ll even stay aboard,” a third captain said. “A lot of owners don’t understand. They’ll lay off the crew during the yard period. That’s a terrible thing.”

Forced to answer exactly when they can take a break, several said long periods at sea and delivery trips can work, a captain said.

“An Atlantic crossing is a good time for the captain to hand off,” one captain said. “It can be defined, you can do pre-planning and have a decent vacation.”

“During down time, between charters,” another said. “But I usually send crew off – I can suck it up and stay.”

Sometimes the choice is not really a choice.

“It’s not unusual, the secretary calls and says, ‘If you want any time off, you have to leave today because you need to be back in five days,’ ” a captain said.

Easier said than done.

“Planning to leave a boat for any extended length of time takes time,” another captain said. “You have to get your ducks in a row. You can’t just leave.”

Crew rotation is the answer, a captain said. Several of the group have had experience with two sets of crew that alternate work and vacation time. For example, junior crew get five months on, one month off. Many crew like the ability to schedule leave or training, and it helps with crew retention, he said.

“Crew would not leave,” one captain said of rotation crew on a previous vessel. “You could not dynamite them off there. … When that happens, you get to take a real holiday, you can plan.”

Rotation enhances job security for senior officers, such as rotation captains.

“He doesn’t want to steal your job, he wants to keep the rotation schedule,” the captain said. Another captain recommends cultivating a close and trusted captain relationship with a colleague who does not want the job to ensure a worry-free vacation.

The commercial airline industry clarifies types of days off in a system that could suit yachting, a captain said. There are “hard days” off where employees are not subject to calls, and “soft days” off where they are subject to recall, he said.
Are vacations really that important to captains?

“Absolutely,” a captain said. “It’s time where you’re not forced to do stuff. Vacation is the sense of being rewarded for all my hard work.”

“It takes a week to wind down because we never switch off – every noise, every movement, everything,” another captain said.

“Waking to every little noise in a cold sweat,” a third captain added.

Each of the eight captains said vacations are vital to their health and sanity, to have the opportunity to relax and “veg out while someone is taking care of everything.”

“Decompression, time away from the boat, time away from crew,” a captain said. “You have a lot of young people that don’t understand how beneficial it is, and how it can make their lives so much easier and enjoy their jobs.”

The stress of captain responsibilities takes a toll, said a captain who has cut his hours. Since then, his blood pressure has gone down.

“I’m healthier,” he said. “Look how many captains passed away young – heart attacks, strokes, accidents.”

On a final note, whether vacations happen is ultimately up to the captain, one said.

“Perhaps a lot of it is that you are king of your castle,” he said, and then included himself in the group. “Maybe we’re a bit wrong there. We don’t want to hand over the reins? We think, ‘They’re not going to do as well as me’ – and then, if he does?”

But taking time off is part of the risk captains have to take for industry safety and personal health, he said.

“It’s how we get the owners to accept it, and how we get management to push it and say it is absolutely necessary if you want this boat to operate at 100%.”

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

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