By Lucy Chabot Reed
While the COVID-19 pandemic has paused the yachting industry during one of its busiest seasons, about 70% of captains who responded to a Triton Survey yesterday indicated they are still employed.
And 76% of those captains said they had not released any crew.
“I feel that it will be difficult to put great teams back together should crew members have their contracts terminated,” said the captain of a yacht more than 200 feet that has not let any crew go. “Including the management company, we have gone to great lengths to minimize additional budgets to ensure crew are employed. All of our crew have also expressed that we would all sacrifice our pay to ensure our team stays together. At the moment, no salaries have decreased. The owner will certainly benefit from this in the future.”
Less than 18% of captains replied “not exactly” when asked if they had lost their jobs because of COVID-19. Some explained that they are on rotation or are relief captains who cannot work because they cannot travel. Others have had pay cuts or are taking unpaid time off.
“I only do relief work,” said a captain in yachting more than 30 years. “All my transAtlantic deliveries have been put on hold or canceled, however I am getting some repositioning work for which I am extremely grateful.”
“As a captain, I feel that if the owner can’t keep a minimum crew to maintain the vessel through this period, they shouldn’t own a yacht at all,” said the captain in yachting more than 20 years who has seen a 50% cut in salary while half the crew have been let go completely.
Just 12% of the 101 captains who responded to our survey had been laid off.
“I lost my job to an MCA Master 500 working for 3,000 euros per month,” said the captain of a charter yacht 120-140 feet who was laid off along with half the crew. “His wage has been cut by 50% also so he is taking home 1,500 euros a month. Post-COVID, the cheap people may get jobs, and the seriously experienced guys also will, but the middle-of-the-road rank-and-file won’t.”
“I think this is going to shake up crew loyalty,” said the captain of a yacht over 200 feet. “Anyone who thought the grass was greener on another boat will have had a rude awakening. Those still in work should be very grateful.”
Jobs likely to come back
We asked the captains if other crew onboard had lost their jobs. Among those captains who had been laid off (12% of our total), about 82% said at least half or all of their crew had also been let go.
“Some owners panic and cut the fat immediately by firing crew and shutting down the budget,” said the relief captain most recently of a yacht 140-160 feet. “Some owners have cut salaries by 20-50% and will readdress in May if jobs are viable. … It gives a true representation of the haves and have nots, and how many owners fly close to the edge. When it turns tough, they scramble to make it work compared to those who truly have the wealth and continue to keep crew at full salary and benefits while weathering the storm.”
Among those captains who had not been laid off (the bulk of our respondents), less than a quarter said some or all of their crew had been let go.
“I would have preferred to keep my stew but the owner forced my hand,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet. “I still have her aboard a couple days a week at a day rate.”
“The hardest part with the industry will be the reset of our outside labor force and contractors,” said the captain of a yacht 140-160 feet with all crew aboard, “no layoffs or reductions in salary; expect to return to semi-normal operations in July.” “The industry has reductions and/or contractions based on the world economies from time to time. This time, the crunch will affect our outside resources much harder.”
Of those captains who have lost their jobs, slightly more than half were given notice, and about 18% were given a severance.
Interestingly, whether captains had lost their jobs or not, nearly two-thirds expect that they and their crew will resume their positions once travel restrictions are eased.
“I hope so,” said the captain of a yacht 180-200 feet that has released half its crew. “We built and trained all these crew; it’s a shame to have to start all over again. Training costs money.”
“I think the owners that are not already using their boats will quickly want to use them when possible, and people wanting to charter will rush back in to do it,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet that has not let any crew go.
“We operate an estate, condo, two yachts and a sum of toys,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet that had five crew. “Since COVID-19 happened, I’ve had to lay off our two stews. If matters get worse, I will be forced to let the mate go. We work with two credit cards with a limit of $25,000 each; that has been reduced to $5,000 each. I hope that is the worst to come and better days are ahead.”
Still at work
With the majority of our respondents still working, they did have some thoughts on how crew can fare during this time.
“I feel that it is very important for other captains and [heads of departments] to generate high morale in these very interesting times,” said the captain of a private yacht over 200 feet. “It is at this point where you will see who the great leaders are. And where HoDs will learn the most.
“Creating a support system and a healthy environment for crew to ensure they are working productively during this time can be extremely beneficial to the program,” this captain said. “We currently have a great team on board and crew who will be coming off rotation and crew going on to ensure people can maintain positive mental health. I truly hope other captains, owners and managers feel the same.”
“Seems like demand for crew will stay high,” said a captain in yachting more than 30 years. “Owners are cutting back on longer trips and staying close to home port. No large parties. They are self catering and stay in the back of the boat. We wear masks.”
“Economically, this will hopefully not last long, but the uncertainty and stress of not knowing what to do is demoralizing,” said a freelance captain in yachting more than 25 years who was between jobs when the lockdowns began.
And others were unsympathetic to an owner’s plight.
“Whilst I understand that some owners are ‘feeling the pinch’, it is a shame to see them cutting crew,” said the captain of a yacht 180-200 feet. “However, when they simply reduce the salary of crew — especially the lower paid crew — by 25% in order to ‘reduce costs’, it is a disgrace. I wonder how many of the management companies have had their fees cut or have been forced to reduce the backhanders they steal from the owners.”
“A lot of it is a “knee jerk” reaction,” said the captain of a yacht 180-200 feet that has released half its crew. “A good owner will knuckle down, tighten up for sure and keep the crew. There are lots of ways to save money but when you’ve invested in your crew, keep them. A not-so-good owner will ditch crew ahead of anything else, then expect the boat to be perfectly maintained and jump on the first opportunity he can, realizing he can’t.”
Many expressed concern for yachting and crew moving forward.
“What will be done to protect both crew and guests when things open back up?” asked the captain of a yacht 180-200 feet that has not laid anyone off. “It is not like this is just going away overnight because things open up. They don’t have a vaccine and probably won’t for a very long time. Could be two years before they have one.
“Owners don’t care about the well being of crew in most circumstances and will want the boats to charter charter charter to make up lost revenue,” this captain said. “Owners don’t care who comes onboard and what happens when a crew has done everything correct for the last two months and then charter clients roll in and they all end up sick. Or worse, dead. … Will crew once again be looked at as disposable and it will be money above safety once again at our expense?”
“As primarily a charter vessel, our objective is to make money for our employers,” said the captain of a charter yacht larger than 220 feet. “The COVID-19 will act as a tool to reset the the standards in our industry. I see it as a positive, allowing the industry to weed out a lot of the chafe that has accumulated during the last 15 years of growth. It also allows for a reality check for crew. We are not an essential industry, but a discretionary one. The value of our services is currently in flux and is always being re-evaluated. A correction is only natural under these circumstances.”
“The Bahamas and Caribbean are where we travel now,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet who still has a full crew. “Once they open, it’s still not going to be the same — just like here in the U.S. and around the world — until we develop an antibody to slow the spread, just like any virus flu we have had in the past. We as crew will always think about our boss and family and guests when they come onboard as to how they are feeling. Truthfully, it’s not any different when they show up with a cold for a trip, which ultimately ends up giving most of the crew a cold when they leave anyways.”
More than a few were simply grateful.
“Very blessed to still have a job,” said the captain of a yacht 160-180 feet. “I work for a great individual.”
Lucy Chabot Reed is publisher of The Triton. If you are a yacht captain and did not receive an invitation to take our survey but would like to in future, please let Lucy know. Comments on this survey are welcome below.