Owner’s View: Effort in captain-owner interview pays off

Jul 7, 2020 by Melvin Miller

Owner’s View: by Melvyn Miller

As is the case with owners of yachts, I have found it difficult to describe an average captain of a crewed yacht, but I do understand the temptation to stereotype minorities.

It is appropriate to use the term captain when addressing the driver of any of the 12 million registered recreational vessels in the U.S. Since there are only 10,000 yachts on the planet over 24m that employ crew, the captains of those yachts are a tiny minority of the drivers, but there are very significant differences among this tiny minority.

Some commonality is provided by considering certain sub-classifications within this tiny minority, one of which is the path that led to command. Deckhand to bosun to mate to command, all on yachts of 40m or larger, is a common path, as is progress from a 50-ton to a 100-ton to a 200-ton ticket to a larger ticket and command. 

These two paths can produce very different captains, but far too few owners note such differences when reviewing a CV.

Another useful sub-classification is the communication style of the captain, which is not described in a CV and rarely divulged fully in an interview. Some captains speak only when spoken to and some are more social. Some captains resist conversations about operational or crew details, some use such conversations to demonstrate their expertise, and some engage the owner as an equal on such matters.

A third useful sub-classification is the delegation style of the captain, which is rarely described in a CV but sometimes discernable in an interview. Very few captains have sufficient galley skills to manage a chef, so most captains fully delegate that function and hope for an acceptable result. Many captains have served as a bosun, and some of them may prefer to give specific orders about exterior appearance or use of the toys. Some captains may have served as a captain/engineer on a smaller yacht and may give specific engine room orders instead of delegating fully to an engineer.

Licensing authorities and insurance underwriters do not care very much about these sub-classifications or where an individual captain might lie on the distribution within each of them, but my observation is that the satisfaction of an owner with a captain, or the satisfaction of a captain with an owner or a program is determined primarily by where the captain fits on the broad distribution of captains and where the owner fits on the equally broad distribution of owners.

Long-term owners already know if they want the broader management experience of the captain who came up on tri-decks, or the broader engineering experience of the captain who came up from smaller vessels, and those owners will pre-qualify applicants from their CV. When speaking to a less experienced potential employer, an experienced captain might try to ascertain if the owner prefers a captain/engineer or a captain/hotel manager.

Long-term owners already know if they want a captain who speaks only when spoken to, and the amount of information detail they expect. It is difficult to change one’s conversation style, and the wrong style can lead to owner annoyance that amplifies other issues. Therefore, captains might ask potential employers about typical conversations the employer had with previous captains, or with subordinate managers in the boss’s business.

The issue of delegation is more complex. An owner of a flush deck Hatteras, run by a couple, understands the separation of responsibilities, but the owner of a tri-deck with 11 crew does not. The hierarchy of command on the larger vessel implies that the captain is ultimately responsible for the continuation of the owner’s unique motivation that permits the continuation of the program, and so the captain may be blamed if any crew member does something to decrease that motivation. 

Given the variation in the details of owner motivations, it seems impossible for the captain to provide a crew that will never disturb that motivation, but that is the nature of this unique business. A smart captain might want to investigate the potential employer’s tolerance for crew development or turnover, rather than run the risk of a suspiciously short command.

Far too often, the captain just wants a job that meets a specific combination of compensation and free time, and is reluctant to ask too many questions. Far too many owners do not know what to ask.

It is a small and unique industry populated by very unique owners, captains and crew. Long-term owners understand and accept the need to work a little harder in the hiring process. Many shorter-term owners did not.

Melvyn Miller is an American yacht owner from the U.S. East Coast. He has owned and operated yachts for six decades and employed crew for more than 30 years. Comments on this column are welcome below.