By Dorie Cox
Capt. Christopher Monroe expected his new job to feel unfamiliar. At 49 years old, he had made a significant course correction for a new tour of duty. Formerly a U.S. Navy commander, Capt. Monroe’s last post was on a 506-foot U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer.
Now, he would join a 120-foot yacht – signed on as a volunteer first mate and deckhand. Once onboard, he noticed just how different life would be when a 19-year-old deckhand offered him advice on how to coil a line.
“It might be easier if you throw it over your shoulder,” he told Capt. Monroe.
Right from the start, as he prepared for 22 days in the Bahamas, he was well aware of other differences. The deckhand had packed a GoPro, a skateboard, and a drone.
“I think underwear,” Capt. Monroe said with a laugh.
To help Capt. Monroe with a transition into work on yachts, the veteran yacht captain that had hired him created a custom training position. The yacht captain helped leverage Monroe’s credentials and watchstanding skills while allowing him to learn the deck side of things.
With 10 years in his Navy career and 286 sailors under his command on the destroyer, Capt. Monroe speculated that his experience might intimidate a yacht captain. Instead, he found mutual respect. And when the yacht stew asked if he would vacuum the salon, Capt. Monroe knew no one was intimidated.
Looking back to the course that brought him back around to smaller boats, he recalled growing up along the coast of Maine where his parents owned a sailboat. Seeing a potential future, he enlisted in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC).
“My passion ripened in the Navy,” Capt. Monroe said of life on the water.
He thrived in military service and followed the well-defined path to commander. When he retired in 2013, he chose a practical field – law school and a career in corporate law. But those two years didn’t pan out as he expected.
“I was sitting at a desk, billing in six-minute increments,” Capt. Monroe said. “I realized I would be happier at sea.”
It was then he decided to go back to boating. Years in the Navy gave him plenty of sea time and he aimed to get his personal interests aligned with a professional pursuit. He is still licensed as an attorney and the GI bill helped pay for school and helped manage the transition.
Interestingly, even with a high-ranking position in military service, Capt. Monroe had no mariner license.
“The Navy does not operate with licensed officers,” he said.
To remedy that and to gain credentials, he attended 36 mate and master courses over nine months at Maritime Professional Training in Fort Lauderdale and STAR Center in Dania Beach, Florida. He was surprised at the cost and time involved. He reckons he spent more than $30,000 and, considering his experience, he saw the process “a huge barrier” for military veterans.
“We don’t presently have a good way to get credit,” he said. Just his time counted and that military seatime was valid for seven years.
Since he left his command in 2012 and worked in law, the sea time clock ticked on. Finally, he sat for his U.S. Merchant Marine license in November – with just four months to spare on the seven-year window.
It was there he met a yacht captain in his Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) class.
“How would you like a delivery job for four days? No pay, just for the experience?” the captain offered.
And Capt. Monroe stepped on a “big” white boat. Many things were different on a vessel considerably less than all of his vessels over 3,000 gross tons – this one was more than 350 feet shorter.
But what first surprised Capt. Monroe was how similar the two careers turned out to be.
“Primarily, your purpose is safe navigation and collision avoidance,” he said. “That’s what we’re good at.”
And he landed on the 0400-0800 watch, with the stew as an extra lookout, and the 1600-2000 watch. “That’s what I’m used to in the Navy.”
He continued to be an early riser, thanks to his Navy training, and the yacht captain stressed the hours of work and rest.
“I would get instructed to go down to rest,” he said.
The engine room is similar; he learned how to dewater and start the fire pumps like he did in the military.
“The things guests never see, but every crew can do,” Capt. Monroe said.
Similarly, safety was first on the yacht, also. The systems are comparable, from water production to sewage systems, including handling of damage control, and the self-contained breathing apparatus is almost identical, he said.
“In the Navy, we are good stewards of the tax investment, but I was impressed by the stewardship,” he said of the yacht’s program. It is a similar level of trust, with both taxpayer assets and a millionaire’s yacht.
Citing crew duties as small as stowing the cushions after each trip and putting them out again each morning showed a level of detail he had not considered would be onboard.
“There was an amazing amount of care,” he said. “And professionalism, a unity of effort with everyone dedicated to a common purpose.”
As to differences, those were pretty clear with life onboard a 120-foot vessel. On the destroyer, there were more crew on duty at any given time.
“In the bridge, we would have at least a dozen guys,” Capt. Monroe said. “You have helmsmen, lee helmsmen, and I would have a navigator.”
Bridge resource management differs because there are so many people, Capt. Monroe said. On the yacht, “we did with three what I would do with dozen on the destroyer.”
At the helm, ship handling was a world apart. Military vessels do not have bridge wings or crew on the stern calling distances. The speed slowed from 30 knots to 8-10 knots on the yacht.
“I was using way too much rudder,” Capt. Monroe said. “The captain said, ‘You will spill his [the owner’s] drink.”
“And I have never heard the report, ‘We’re touching fenders’,” he said. “We do not do that; ships do not drape fenders.”
Capt. Monroe has embraced his new course and enjoys a more casual approach.
“Decisions were made at the owner’s breakfast table,” he said. “It would be, ‘Let’s get underway.’ In the Navy, we would have a plan of the week. That’s part of the joy of yachting.”
Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome below.