Owner’s View: The essence of command

Jul 29, 2020 by Melvin Miller

Owner’s View: by Melvyn Miller

The hardest thing to teach new managers is that the essence of management is to convince or coerce subordinates to do that which they would not do if they were not paid to do so. In tight labor markets, and consistent with current common wisdom, managers prefer to convince because the extent of coercion is limited by the ability of the subordinate to quit.

The essence of command is to give authoritative orders, which implies that a commander may have powers of coercion beyond the denial of compensation. There is no confusion about these terms on a naval vessel and on most commercial vessels, but it does not seem to always work that way on crewed yachts, where the captain’s word is not always law.

The captain of a 50m yacht is often paid more than the captain of a 40m yacht, who is usually paid more than the captain of a 30m boat. Modern boats almost self-navigate and bow thrusters and big props with big pitch allow a big tri-deck to back into a slip quite easily. It is not more difficult to drive a larger yacht, but it apparently is much more difficult to manage a larger crew of yachties.

The problem may be in the dichotomy of the business. A crewed yacht is simultaneously a luxury hotel and a regulated vessel. Very few yachties came up through the ranks of a five-star hotel, and very few earned their tickets on commercial vessels or as port pilots, so most have acquired some skills in a series of relatively short-term jobs on these dual-function yachts, reporting to different supervisors who may not have been hired primarily for their mentoring or management skills.

A captain who started on a two-person flush deck, and moved on to a three-person RPH and then to a six-person tri-deck probably has experience as a deckhand and engineer, and knows how to pour wine, but his crew on the tri-deck usually has much less, and much more vectored, experience. 

An inexperienced owner, especially one who insists that the captain wear epaulets, may be pardoned for believing that the captain can command, and thus can mandate the desired performance. The very high turnover of yacht crew and owners may imply that it just ain’t so.

Insurance underwriters and licensing jurisdictions judge captains by the risk they pose when operating or maintaining the vessel. Experienced yacht owners may be more concerned with the captain’s ability to manage in the crazy yachting dichotomy, as indicated by the relative turnover of owners and crew.

I have heard far too many chefs, chief stews, engineers, and even bosuns complain that the captain should just steer the damn boat and leave the galley, interior, engine room, and brightwork to experts. Aside from the problem that many of these self-proclaimed experts may lack some expertise, their attitude makes it almost impossible for the captain to truly manage, let alone command.

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.