A group of yacht captains with experience at the helm of yachts from 100 feet to more than 250 feet gathered to address a common assumption: Captains and crew want to work on larger yachts.
Each month, The Triton’s From the Bridge lunch meets with a different group of captains to discuss a yacht issue, so we asked this mix of veteran and newer captains if they agree that many in yachting want to go big.
We were surprised at the answer: Bigger is not always better when it comes to life at the helm.
“I like 90 feet. It’s a good manageable size, you get to do a little bit more and you don’t have a 10- to 12-person crew to deal with all the personalities,” a captain said.
“I’m fine with smaller yachts with less than 9 to12 crew,” another captain said. “I’m comfortable in the 120 to 160 range.”
“I want a 150 to 160 to take them wherever they want to go, to take them there safely and correctly,” a third captain said.
Don’t larger yachts come with more salary, more opportunities and more prestige? Was this just captains making the best of a situation?
“It’s so much more fun on the 90-footer,” said a captain with larger yacht experience. “There are less crew – which are a huge hassle – less paperwork, and there are more options on places you can go.”
“I thought about moving up, but I like this,” said a captain of a yacht about 100 feet. He hopes to stay with the owners for a long time and spend less of his time managing crew. If something changes with the owner, then he hopes to work on private yachts, but “definitely this size range.”
Marinas and dockage can be more of a challenge for the larger yachts, a captain said, “A 70- to 100-footer can get in to more places.”
Plus, there is a kink in the numbers equation: More and more yacht owners want bigger boats, but there are not that many places to put them, a captain said.
The conversation turned to the reality of life on larger yachts. For the crew, sometimes their daily duties are different from what they imagine. Often they see just a small part of vessel life, as opposed to more encompassing work on smaller yachts where each crew typically gets opportunities to learn navigation, deck operations, interior, driving and even galley time on a smaller boat, a captain said.
“On the bigger boats, you can have night shifts that may not even get to go up on deck,” a captain said. “Sometimes you have no interaction at all with the guests, or maybe your job is to wash the bow only. That’s not yachting.”
“On a big boat, you can be pretty isolated.” another captain said.
“I know a second engineer who worked nights and had no clue there were even guests on board,” a third captain said. “Zero interaction.”
Larger yachts are often anchored or on commercial docks, and this makes it harder to connect with the crew on smaller boats that are together in marinas, he added.
But stories like this do not stop many crew from aiming big.
“Crew say, ‘I hear they got new big tenders, I want to work there.’ That’s an interesting way to approach this career,” a captain said. “I think they will eventually learn that that may not be the best way to go.”
Several captains agreed. But where larger yacht programs do entice captains is with potential for time-off. A refit followed by a charter trip had a captain on a smaller boat with few crew at work seven days a week with long hours.
“I don’t mind the work if it is repaid to me on the weekend,” he said. “We could be sitting in cubicles.”
Across the table, a captain pointed out the large yacht alternative, “You can have a third engineer and get weekends off. On smaller boats, with say four crew, if you leave, there goes 25% of the crew.”
If another person is off, now you’ve lost 50% of the crew, he said.
Aside from time off, it is assumed that captains might want to work on bigger boats to make more money. For years, it has been commonly said that captains earn annual salaries based on $1,000 a foot of yacht length. But many in this group don’t see it that way.
“You get what you ask for. That $1,000-a-foot needs to go away,” a captain said. “I know some are getting $1,200 or $1,400.”
One captain recommended that captains work with the owner’s salary offer by bringing incentives to the discussion, like engineering, accounting and management skills.
“If you don’t ask, you don’t get it – but do prepare to justify it,” he said. “Ask him [yacht owner], ‘Do you want your company CFO paid less than scale?’ ”
“They will pay, maybe not off the bat,” another captain said. “With the right recommendations and experience, you should be able to ask.”
Whether they prefer big or not-so-big yachts, we wondered if these captains had set a course for themselves early in their careers.
“I did not see the future, I did not ever have a plan,” a captain said. “I was not specifically looking for anything, I just bounced around. It was always the program more than that boat. If the boat was going to England or Italy or Australia, enjoying life, that was more important to me.”
He went to school, went to regattas, and always had two or three events scheduled for the future. And that grew into his current career.
“My name was bouncing around and I found new opportunities,” he said.
The captains said that even short-term plans quite often go off-course, with boats sold, economic fluctuations such as the 2008 recession, or yacht owners leaving the industry. Each of these captains’ futures continues to remain a bit unpredictable.
“More than 10 years is impossible to plan,” a captain said. “Maybe five you could probably do.”
One captain had set his sights on a specific sized yacht, but even that shifted.
“I always knew – well, I thought – a 70 to 80 foot,” he said. “Now, 90 is the new 70.”
Akin to a personal plan, we asked if captains see clear paths to follow in yachting.
“Well, a license is a path. If you want to be the captain, you do need to do this and this,” a captain said. “Even as deck people, you minimally have STCW, so you begin to see a path.”
Many of the nautical training courses are best done in a certain order, a captain said. But compared with attending college for a degree, there is no mutually agreed upon end-goal in yachting, he said.
There is no governing body that sets rules with entry-level or career paths, another captain said.
“It’s not like you’re a deck for two years, or this for two years, right?” he said.
But senior level positions typically follow a path, another captain pointed out. He cited the example of a chief stew who works his or her way up through the second and first positions and wants to remain a chief stew. A veteran captain said the path into and through yachting is different for each person, and flexibility is key.
“I do try to plan, but I always keep a bag packed. I don’t bring more to the yacht than I want to carry to the airport,” he said. “I have gotten jobs because I’m available.”
Even with his plans, he was disappointed with a change in his course because he expected a recent boat to be his last one, “I was hoping to retire with that boat.”
As we wound up the conversation, each captain responded to a final thought: Whether on a large yacht or small, are they where they want to be?
“Well, I am happier doing this than any other thing,” a captain said. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t keep doing it.”
“I would work on a smaller boat if the program was what I want,” another captain said.
“Am I in my dream job? Yes, but I would like to be on that charter boat that’s clean cut, impressive, that boat that is just knocking it out with the happy crew with all the doodads and really look like they have it going on,” a third captain said. “They’re dressed to the nines. You can tell when it just clicks.”
Another captain summed up what many in the group felt: “I think so, but who knows what’s down the road. I’m happy now.”
And sometimes others see that. One of the captains said he has had yacht crew say, “How do I become you?”
Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome below.