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From the Bridge: Captains offer tips on how to start, grow and make it in yachting

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COVID has changed everything about yachting. Cruising grounds closed; cruising itself was severely limited. Onboard operations changed in multiple ways, the least of which is a new schedule for cleaning and sanitizing nearly everything nearly constantly. And that includes the deck and engineering departments, not just interior.

COVID has also changed what it means to join the yachting industry. New crew — many of whom are attracted to the travel and social aspect of working with like-minded people — must reconsider their reasons for getting a job on a yacht. But if it still fits them, the rewards for taking a job on a yacht are numerous.

Eight captains joined The Triton in a new virtual format in our not-so-new From the Bridge roundtable discussion in September to offer advice to new crew joining yachting in the age of COVID.

“Junior crew like to go out and have a good time,” one captain said. “God bless them; I was there once. But that social life now has to be reconsidered. You’ve got to figure out if it’s important to socialize, on every single aspect. It used to be you get in from being away for six months and you reach out to your friends and say let’s get together for a drink, or you have a party on the back deck. Those have to be on hold for the foreseeable future.”

“The industry has changed; each boat has changed,” another captain said. “Crew coming in now have got to realize it’s not like ‘Below Deck’, if it ever was. They are not going to go out and party every night.”

Comments are not attributed to any one captain in particular in order to encourage frank and open discussion. The captains in attendance for this discussion were: Alan Brown, Kelly Esser, Paul Ferdais, Kelly Gordon, Bill Hipple, Dave Johnson, Herb Magney and Steve Steinberg.

New crew

To new crew specifically, these captains offered this advice:

  1. Be patient. 
  2. Find a mentor, someone who is going to push you. I got lucky. You’ve got to be pretty social and willing to talk to people. 
  3. Learn to live without your phone and computer. 

“Realize you don’t need to push that button to find out what’s going to happen next,” one captain said. “Read more, enjoy the view of the boats going by in the harbor.” Satellite internet connections are expensive, several captains agreed. If the boat has it, it might only be for the owner and work issues. “It used to be special to have internet,” another said. “It’s not a given; it’s a privilege if you get it. Don’t expect it to be there.” 

“Turn the computer off,” another captain said. “Go dockwalking and be face-to-face with people. And remember, just because we said no on Monday doesn’t mean we will say no on Wednesday. I know who shows up early and walks the docks. I know they want to work.”

  1. Never underestimate the captain’s ability to find stuff out.
  2. Be ready to work. “A lot of crew come in with the impression that this will be the best time of their life — and it can be — but they forget that first, it’s a job,” one captain noted.

“Get into all facets of boats, power and sail,” another said. “Do as many deliveries as you can, power and sail. I recommend to new people to try sailing and get as many deliveries under your belt as possible. Spread your wings.”

“The thing about deliveries, I’ve hired permanent crew just off delivery,” said a third. “I’ve hired a lot of people that way. They did their delivery and instead of flying home, they wanted to keep working, so they walked the dock.”

“Say yes to all of it and you’ll be amazed at the amount of information you collect,” another captain said.

  1. No job is too dirty, too small, or too insignificant. 

“Never say no,” one captain said. “Do what you are told. If you show up with a smile on your face, you rise to the top. There’s not a lot of those people around.”

“Put in 100% effort to do whatever job you need to do,” another captain said. “Focus on the results. When we see you doing the dirty jobs and see you helping others, that’s how we recognize who is going to be a leader, who is willing to invest in.”

“You can’t pick and choose which tasks you want to do and don’t want to do,” said a third. “Do what you’ve got to do to get the job done. Those who do have potential.”

  1. Protect your reputation. 

“Yachting is not as big an industry as you think,” a captain said. “The cream rises to the top, and captains share information. You develop your reputation every day you are in this business. And know that other people are always watching and taking notice.”

  1. Networking is key. 

“In the maritime industry, no matter what part you are in, it’s a very small industry,” a captain said. “Everybody knows everybody. Keep your connections. If you want to grow in this industry, you have to grow your network.”

“If you don’t like networking, this is not the business for you,” another said. “You have to learn how to get along with people, and how to get to know people quickly. Be friendly. If you’re an introvert, be an outgoing introvert.”

“Your vendors can be your lifesavers,” said a third. “Once in the shipyard, you are now a project manager. Without those relationships, your tasks become very hard.”

Newly serious

For crew who are newly serious to making yachting a career, the captains had this advice:

  1. Discuss with the captain or someone experienced in the industry your intentions and let them help you build a path. “Don’t just listen to what the schools tell you,” a captain said.
  2. Be ready to put in the time. 

“Six months of taking courses and driving the tender don’t make you ready to be a captain,” another captain said. “When I work with a kid and the next day he doesn’t know any more than he did the day before, it’s clear the only training he’s getting is what we did onboard. You’ve got to put in some effort in your off time to learn more. And come back the next day asking questions.”

  1. Collect sea time and keep track of your records properly.

“I was not diligent about collecting certifications and licenses,” one captain said. “I never kept my sea time. I wish I had captured all that info.”

  1. Pick a place to start but keep your vision open that that path might not last forever. Learn as much as you can. Don’t pigeon-hole yourself. Keep your ears and eyes open.
  2. Don’t miss an opportunity when the door opens. Speak up when you know something that could be helpful to your superiors.
  3. Keep your head down, do what you are told and more responsibility will be given to you.
  4. Learn to drive a variety of boats. Learn something from every opportunity.

“Not everybody gets to be an astronaut,” one captain said. “It’s a lot of work and takes a lot of dedication to get to sit in the wheelhouse. We might make it look easy, but don’t try this at home without experience.”

Path to the wheelhouse

For crew who want to work their way up to captain, the captains had this advice:

  1. Find a mentor.
  2. Help out in other departments. 

“You’ve got to be willing to do it all because you need to know a bit about every department to be an effective manager,,” a captain said.

“The boys all want to be captains, but they have to do heads and beds, too, and change the blackwater pump,” another captain said. “To be a good captain, you have to have a breadth of knowledge.”

  1. Don’t waste time.

“If I could speak to my younger self, I would commit sooner,” one captain said. “My path was working well. I stayed a year and moved on, moved up, until I got to mate. Then I was hesitant to commit to full responsibility. I guess I was intimidated about driving the 160-footer.”

“Advancing your career is something you have to manage and think about,” another captain said.

“I got on one boat and stayed eight years,” said a third. “While it’s good to have longevity, I could have gained experience on other boats and learned more things if I had moved up. I could have gotten farther faster.”

“I’ve seen more ambition from people coming into the industry lately, kids that are carefully managing their careers,” another captain said. “If things don’t go their way, they move along faster. I see these kids carefully managing the progress of their careers.”

  1. Don’t be afraid to ask.

“I’ve done all the boat driving I need to last a lifetime,” a captain said. “If they are interested, I can teach them. But you have to indicate that you want to learn.”

These captains all agreed they enjoy helping coach and mentor the next generation of yacht crew, and take pride in seeing their former deckhands run boats of their own. To get there, though, young crew must take initiative, with a smile. 

“At 22 years old, you just don’t know enough to know if you’re going to like something or not,” one captain said. “Try everything. I can make anybody do the work. It really comes down to their attitude.”

Lucy Chabot Reed is editor/publisher of The Triton. Comments are welcome below.

About Lucy Chabot Reed

Lucy Chabot Reed is publisher and founding editor of The Triton.

View all posts by Lucy Chabot Reed →

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