From the Bridge: Yacht owner trip cancellations mean work, not rest

Apr 6, 2020 by Dorie Cox

From the Bridge: by Dorie Cox

Each month a group of yacht captains gathers with The Triton for a private conversation about an industry issue. They speak freely on concerns and complaints – although that does not mean they always have gripes. In the case of yacht trip cancellations, this month’s topic, captains see them as just another part of the job.

It was The Triton that took a deeper dive into how delays, reschedules, or calling off trips affect the yacht and crew. We asked around the table for a memorable trip cancellation; the captains were slow to recall. They first downplayed the topic, then examples began to come to mind.

“I’m sitting, ready to go. We’re on generator and the engine is warm,” a captain said. “I get a call an hour and a half after we were supposed to have gone. ‘Can we come tomorrow?’ ”

And that’s when all of the crew’s preparations are undone, he said.

For a full cancellation, the crew work in reverse. They stow cushions, put down carpet runners, turn off lights, pull repair projects out of their hiding places in closets, give the flowers to the dock crew, and freeze or eat the food, a captain said. “We have a total shutdown procedure.”

The first officer gets right to it on who to call, another captain said.

Attendees of The Triton’s From the Bridge discussion for April are, from left, Capt. Chris Wills, Capt. Ryan Butterwick, Capt. Jim Horner of MY Rutli E, Capt. Spanos Harding of M/Y Julie M, and Capt. Juan Castro of M/Y Docqua. Photo by Dorie Cox

“We get on the phone with dockage and make new reservations,” he said. “And change the owner’s dinner plans.”

Yacht transit has to be adjusted.

“You can miss a tide or weather or your pilotage,” a captain said. “You can miss your tow window or a lock transit.”

“Another issue in the U.S. is vessel movement,” another captain said. “You have to give advance notice of arrivals.”

Several of the captains have a computer system to keep track of expirations for medical and training certifications to keep all crew legal and ready for trips. 

“Crew are absolutely an issue. We make sure to plan visas well in advance,” a captain said.

“Immigration wants a full 24 hours out of the country, then you have hotels and meals,” another captain said.
If the trip status changes to standby or a short-term delay, crew adjust the yacht to remain in some form of ready-to-go. If the delay or reschedule are far enough in the future, more permanent plans are made. Perishables may not last the wait. Some food goes to people on the dock, some goes to the crew and some goes home, a captain said.

Occasionally aspects of preparation can be saved.  

“We were en route and had a cancellation. We had fueled, provisioned, we’ve got some fresh fish – not all the final finals – but we were ready,” a captain said. “In this case we could parlay it into the next charter.”

Years in the industry had taught each of the captains at the table how to efficiently handle the details of trip plan changes. Big yellow legal pads give one captain a clear visual of work to be done and a Sharpie marker for completions turns that list solid black. A cancellation just means he rewrites the list to undo the preparation. One captain uses calendar notes on his phone to record everything that was put together and what needs to be taken apart.

Several captains use computer spreadsheets, such as Excel, to organize duties.

“Now I just shuffle everything to a new trip,” a captain said. “It’s easier to see everything in an Excel itinerary – the crew uniform colors, the watchperson, duties. And I can post it in the crew mess.”

Although this group accepts that yachting is built around the owners’ prerogative to cancel, reschedule and keep crew on standby, they admit such situations come with challenges.

“It becomes a problem if no one is able to plan,” a captain said. He has faced scheduling conflicts with yacht maintenance, repair projects and yard periods.

“If it is infrequent, it is a drill,” another captain said. “If it is more frequent, it is inconvenient.”

Yachts get used in a variety of ways, of course. Some owners and their families and guests are in and out unannounced. Keeping the yacht in that state of ready is similar when it is for sale or for charter, a captain said.

“We are standing by to stand by,” a captain said. But that can take a toll on crew.

“You can only stand at attention for so long,” a captain said. “It can be hard to keep crew motivated.”

Crew know that change is part of the job, but it makes it hard to clean, handle special projects or leave the yacht.

“It can be a morale killer if you are constantly a yo-yo,” a captain said.

“If it’s all the time, it can be a deal killer – crew get discouraged,” another captain said.

And with this group, all captains with families on land, there is a negative effect on their private lives.

“It affects personal plans and you are never able to go home,” a captain said. “It can turn to resentment.”

“And the feeling, ‘We could have done something today,’ ” another captain said.

How the yacht owner handles trip changes can impact who works best with the program.

“If that’s the way you want to use the boat, that is great. Of course you can, it’s your boat,” a captain said. “But that does not work for me. I can’t do that, and if you want to change every day, you need new crew.”

“But there is a crew for every boat,” a second captain said. “There are crew who don’t mind.”

“They are tolerant for a while,” a third captain said. “But not forever.”

“If they are good crew, they’ll knuckle down and do it,” the second captain said.

“But the big if is if they are good crew,” the third captain replied.

Freelance, seasonal and multiple crew are options that several captains have tried.

“Rotation is a way to meet crew needs,” another captain said. “Not many want to work every single day with never a day off.”

For the captains with liveaboard crew, several try to schedule days off by using extra crew.

“But that [day off] is where the boat is, not at home,” one of the captains said.

Cancellations and trip changes mean extra work for support businesses.

“But it’s usually handled well by anybody who supplies yachts. They know they will reship,” a captain said.

If an order is stopped in time, say: “It will be the same order again a different time,” another captain said.

Everyone had an example of missing a shipment because of trip changes.

“Often the stuff will be sitting on the dock and the boat has been there and gone,” a captain said.

“They just have to resend, and now it’s arrived after we leave. Then they send it to the new place and miss me again,” another captain said. “Eventually I have to stop and figure out where I’ll be in two weeks.”

It can be hundreds of dollars in fuel to return to a destination to pick up a shipment, so several captains said it can be cheaper to overnight deliveries to a new spot.

We asked the group if yacht owners think about the ramifications of their cancellations. There are misunderstandings, captains said, especially with unannounced or last-minute calls for a visit.

“Boats can’t be kept in ready condition, the cushions have to be stowed sometimes,” a captain said.

“I don’t like being surprised,” another captain said. “It’s not that we’re doing anything wrong, but we want to present the boat at its best.”

“We’re not partying,” one captain said with a laugh.

Many captains feel the yacht’s appearance is a reflection of the program and a stop-in visit may catch crew varnishing, the curtains and pillows out for cleaning, or the carpets being steamed. Also, captains don’t want the owner to think about the budget when they are on board.

“It’s fine that you come when you’re in town, but when you see your boat torn apart, you see all the repairs and work,” a captain said.

“Your boat is to show off. If you stop in, then you know about all the projects,” a captain said.

“Some owners don’t want to see the imperfections in the yacht.”

“Sometimes they [owners] will think, ‘This is broken and not worth it,’ ” another captain said. “But these things always go on.”

“They don’t need to know every single detail,” a third captain said. “It’s a boat. Boats break.”

“Some never forget what they see behind the walls,” a fourth captain said.

With the variety of costs or challenges that come with cancellations, do captains tell the owners how they feel? No, rarely do they say a word.

“If we talked about the problems a cancel causes, it would go in one ear and out the other,” a captain said.

The captains take it on themselves to weather the challenges of doing things such as making new dock reservations.

“And there are fewer choices for yachts over 100 feet,” a captain said.

There is also the extra tip money required to save a slip or the loss of a deposit because of a late cancellation.

“I know some people honestly think that a cancellation means we take a break,” a captain said. “In reality, we have to undo everything, go back and restart our projects, and reschedule contractors.”

“Bosses don’t understand that,” another captain said. “I just hold my mouth.”

“He’ll say, ‘Take the day off,’ ” a third captain said. “He thinks I actually get the day off.”

Through it all, these captains keep a smile and hope the ups and downs balance out.

“If I owned a yacht, I would cancel all the time,” a captain said with a laugh. “I only want to hear ‘OK.’ He is the boss. We say, ‘Fine, I look forward to seeing you soon.’ ”

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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