From the Bridge: Yacht captains cautious to comment on bad behavior

Feb 4, 2020 by Dorie Cox

From the Bridge: by Dorie Cox

A yacht engineer wrote in to The Triton that he had been watching boats speed through the harbor in St. Barts. He wanted so badly to shout at them to slow down, but he didn’t. When a boat hit a personal watercraft and left a man seriously injured, the engineer was upset that he had not spoken up.

This triggered this month’s Triton From the Bridge lunch topic: What do you do when you see bad behavior? The diverse group of mostly veteran captains found it easy to agree on examples of right and wrong, from poor driving, failure to adhere to maritime rules, dumping overboard and letting fuel overflow.

But what actions they took varied. Captains are considered authority figures, and we thought they might use their leadership to right such wrongs and call people out on their errors. That is not always the case.

“When we see something like that, bam, that’s a training opportunity for our crew to see why not to drive like an idiot or not to do something,” a captain said.

“It’s not too often that a situation presents itself in its natural form and not staged,” another captain said. “To bring attention to that, that this is happening and that’s what it looks like.”

Attendees of The Triton’s From the Bridge discussion for February are, back row from left, Capt. Brian Hakala of M/Y Jenny G; Capt. Jay Kimmal of M/Y Status Quo Capt. Sean Felszer; and Capt. Douglas Meier of M/Y Renaissance. Front row from left: Capt. Bill Hipple of M/Y Lady Kath and Capt. Jason Brashears, freelance. Photo by Dorie Cox

Individual comments are not attributed to encourage candid discussion; attending captains are identified in the above photograph. Captains who make their living running someone else’s yacht are welcome to join in the conversation. Email for an invitation to our monthly From the Bridge discussion.

As we dove in deeper, several captains admitted their first response is not always so magnanimous.

“I fight the urge to video tape it and laugh at them,” a captain admitted.

When he was young, another captain said, he would typically make fun of the person. Now an experienced captain, he said, “The same thing could happen to any one of us, knock wood. Now I try not to bring to light a lot of bad stuff.”

Quickly, the conversation veered where so many comments go: to online posts.

“I think social media has given a great avenue to put a lot of this stuff out there,” a captain said. Then he rephrased: “I said great? Powerful is a better word. On one hand, you want to share things. On the other hand, you realize ‘It could be me.’ It could very well be an honest mistake or someone being a complete idiot.”

“I do my social media right here at this table,” said a captain who refrains from posting. 

“You never know, I never say anything unless I see the guy is a complete bozo,” another captain said. A yacht’s recent collision with the bridge in St. Maarten spread quickly online in December.

“Social media is going crazy with, ‘What an idiot, he hit a bridge,’ ” one captain said. “But you don’t know what really happened. I mean the guy has gone through that bridge 20 times and now he goes through without a bow thruster? Something went wrong.”

“That’s the thing, you don’t know,” another captain said. “I’ve had my systems go dead, I’ve had my bow thrusters die.”

This group said they try to hold off on comments until the facts are in. And several have recommended the same for others who have already posted.

“It was incredible the amount of people with no credentials, so quick to judge,” a captain said.

Anyone in the business long enough will have failures, he said. “But on social media it’s like, ‘This guy is done, he’ll never work again.’ If you post something, even innocuous, you can get flamed.”

“It’s a problem worldwide. It’s a way to say things you would never say to somebody,” another captain said.

“I feel like there’s no right way to do it,” a third captain said. “If you speak up, you’re going to get shot at. If you put your opinion out there, it’s almost like you’re putting yourself out there just to get attacked.”

“People comment, ‘Well, you should have done this,’ ” another captain said. “We don’t need hindsight, we need advice. I don’t bother getting into those conversations.”

Social media can have a positive influence, although at the expense of some negative comments. In an online yacht captains forum, a trending topic is the safety of working over the side on yachts.

“They are posting photos of crew not properly harnessed-in, working on smooth, slanted decks,” a captain said. “They’re pointing it out to the whole community, they’re not being shy.”

Posted photos of the offenders were taken in the Mediterranean, and now captains have begun to post similar photos from Florida.

“So it’s becoming more common for people to talk about it,” he said. “Before, it was, ‘Look at that idiot, he’s about to fall off his boat.’ But now we have people taking pictures, posting and saying, ‘This is wrong.’ ”

Just a couple of the captains admitted that they regularly post comments online.

“I say what everyone else is thinking,” said one of those captains.

“I offer advice as much as I can, especially to the people who ask for it in an intelligent way,” another captain said.

“I try not to, because it will come back and haunt you if you jump to judgment,” a third captain said. That opened up the conversation to why some captains hesitate to comment.

“That’s where social media is a real problem and your comments can come back to bite you,” he said. “I represent a boat, a charter boat – we’re supposed to be in the happy business. You can’t be on there, cyber cop, telling everybody what they did wrong as captain. Unless it’s something simple like, ‘When we’re in the river, you’ve got to listen to Channel 9, you knucklehead.’ ”

More important than correcting someone is the protection of a captain’s career and reputation.

“I can’t give myself a bad name – it can affect charters, careers. And I’m not a cop,” he said, and gave an example: “That captain on –, he’s a d–k, he called me out on this.”

“You put that out there on social media and don’t erase it, it’s on your record. And if you come across as argumentative and know-it-all, you’re not going to get a job,” another captain said.

Comments do come more easily in the case of legality. A captain recalled a stew on a neighboring boat who dumped floral arrangements into the water.

“That is bad behavior and against the law,” he said. “What’s wrong with you? You can’t just throw this stuff in the water.”

So what did he do about it? He did not say anything to the woman; he went to the marina office instead. Although the years at sea have armed each of these captains with plenty of advice to offer, they often hold back on commenting directly to offenders. Instead, they seek a boss, manager or other authority figure. 

“I wanted them to see what these people had done,” he said. Although the boat left the marina, he hoped the marina staff would educate the crew to prevent that in the future.

There was a deckhand with a fuel can and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth and no fuel flag raised, a captain said.

“Right then and there, I called the local coast guard and told them to go down to the boat. That’s just too asinine,” he said.

There was a captain who did not monitor the fuel capacity when refueling.

“He jams the nozzle in and I ask, ‘How are you going to know when it’s full?’ ” a captain recalled from his early days. “ ‘When it overflows.’ I’m like, ‘No.’ Did I do anything? I’m a fresh new guy. I just made sure I didn’t work for him anymore.”

Similarly, if the bad behavior can cause an injury, captains may comment. An experience in a trial covering a crew member’s fatal fall off the side of a yacht left a captain with a strong desire to prevent a similar circumstance.

“When I see people doing the same thing, I go to them and say, ‘Guys, you’ve got to have shoes. Let me tell you what happened,’ ” he said.

Occasionally, he feels like he gets pushback or disinterest, or the “Dude, who are you?” attitude, but he persists.

“I’m telling you a fact, it’s not my thing,” he continues. “He didn’t have shoes, he didn’t have a harness, he fell off, he’s dead. You might want to take something from that.”

Everyone agreed.

“If I see something really wrong and I know the captain, I’ll call him up and say, ‘You might want to check your deckhand who’s hanging off the rail on the back of the boat while it’s running,’ ” a captain said.

But these veteran captains are generally cautious to comment on other captains’ bad behavior.

“I will never do that to a professional captain,” a captain said. “He might come back and say, ‘Who the hell are you?’ What I will do is say to others, ‘Hey you might want to watch out for —. He doesn’t have his radio on, he doesn’t have his lights on, or he seems dazed and confused in the port. But I’m not going to go and tell somebody how to run their boat.”

“I don’t want to generalize, but more of the people who don’t know, don’t want to be corrected,” another captain said.

“Yeah, they don’t know that they don’t know, either,” a third captain said.

“It’s not my business and it’s a total negative to me, it’s a no-win,” the first captain said. “Nobody listens, it’s not going to solve the problem. It’s one of those things you can’t control and you shouldn’t try to.”

Captains are quick to comment when it comes to vendors or businesses involved with the yacht. Even if they choose to stop working with a company over a problem, they also tell someone about inappropriate behavior.

“I don’t just not use him again,” a captain said. “I call the business owner and tell him what happened so he knows what’s going on in the field. The guy representing him may be a failure to me and to him, and he wants to know about it. Although I may not ever use him again, but he’ll know why.”

“I have never not used a contractor, or fired a contractor, that did not know why he got fired,” another captain said. The group agreed.

“I’ve come down on contractors in a marina,” a captain said. “He was supposed to touch up and the spray gun comes out. I do not confront them, I go to the dockmaster if this happens. ‘You guys are equally responsible for letting it happen because it’s in your rules.’ ”

With all this talk of commenting on other people’s behavior, do these captains want comments on themselves? Several captains quickly said they welcome reports on their crew.

“I’ve had people tell me ‘I saw your crew in town,’ and tell me something. Oh yeah, I appreciate it,” a captain said.

“Which one?” the captain said with a laugh.

“I’m always grateful for a correct, always,” another captain said.

“That’s because we’re older,” replied a captain.

“When you were young, did you want to be corrected?” a captain asked the group.

“Hell, no,” was the first reply.

“But every one of us will say of our younger self, ‘If only I knew then what I know now,’ ” a captain said.

“If I could have met this me when I was starting,” another captain said.

“You know, I only recently learned that I don’t know everything,” a third captain said with a laugh.

As we wrapped up the conversation, a captain pointed out the wealth of information in the industry.

“We need to take the industry in the direction that the older guys are more of a resource for correcting the younger ones,” he said. Does that mean this group feels a responsibility to speak up when they see bad behavior? They do, but it manifests in different ways.

“Do I have responsibility? I think we all do, that’s No. 1,” a captain said. “I hold myself responsible to mention anything I find that might be unsafe, or it can be treated as a learning experience for someone else. I think that’s what we all try to do. If you see something, say something, right?”

“You see a holding tank being dumped out, degraded toilet paper in the water, that is a legal standard. You are amiss if you don’t point out a legal violation,” another captain said.

“But if you see the engineer standing over the stern with a bottle of soap in his hand, I think subtlety is the key,” another captain said. “You have to be really subtle.”

“It’s not like someone passes going twice the speed, you’re just like, ‘Easy buddy,’ ” a third captain said.

“Anything that happens, you point out and say, ‘Make sure we never let that happen to us,’ ” a fourth captain said.

But overall, this group does think twice on how they comment. The ceremony of lowering flags at sunset in Newport, Rhode Island, was cited as an example.

“If you don’t take your flag down when the yacht club hits the cannon, you get ostracized,” a captain said. “There’s no book that says you need to do this, it’s the community in general. A lot of times we try to raise ourselves up in the yachting industry. No one told that captain, ‘You better have a deckhand stand and drop your flag.’ But when the rest of the fleet does it, all of a sudden, that captain is like, ‘S–t, I’m doing something wrong.’ And then he’s going to drop the flag.”

Without making a comment, people can figure out their error.

“Nobody told him. He’s going to pick it up, or he’s going to inquire, ‘Hey, captain, what am I doing wrong here?’” he said. “This is 180-degrees different from walking over to his boat and telling him what he’s doing wrong.”

Every one of these captains prefers to let his own actions be the example.

“I’m a strong believer in lead by example, so I really train my crew. If there is something that can be better, it can go deckhand to deckhand, instead of the captain calling them out,” he said. “They see it. They call me and say ‘Captain, you see that going on? When they’re in the bar, it’s better when they say, ‘Dude, you know you were hanging over the back of the boat when the boat was in gear?’ ‘Oh is that bad?’ ‘Yeah, that’s bad.’ Instead of me doing it.”

“If you are a bad driver on the road, it’s the police’s responsibility, it’s not you, as someone driving your car down the road, to pull somebody over and say, ‘Your blinker’s going,’ ” a captain said. “But in the yachting community, because it’s private, it’s almost like community pressure.”

In a more passive way, most of these yacht captains prefer to work as role models to guide others instead of using direct comments.

“I believe we are a self-training organization to a certain extent, and the only thing you can do, really, is the best job you can,” a captain said.

“It’s that simple,” another captain said. “That will spread out.”

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


About Dorie Cox

Dorie Cox is a writer with Triton News.

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