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What does it take to be a captain anyway?

simpsons seacaptain
Arrrrgghhhhh….

Having just seen a transition to Andiamo’s latest captain get completed albeit haphazardly, I find myself reminded yet again about some important life lessons. The lessons I went through in my own journey to become a captain. Something even I refused to call myself for most of my early years as an actual captain. First, aboard my maiden boat “La Dolce Vita”, and then of course, aboard “Andiamo”. 

See, I developed my love of sailing and yachting with absolutely no interest in it ever becoming a “business”. I had the benefit of sailing and crewing on several different boats over the years, just for the love of it. Because it was (and still is) a big passion of mine. Despite this, suffice it to say, my humble beginnings in yachting all those years ago came from paying my dues in the charter trade. After first doing charters in Caribbean for more than two seasons (7 day charters, working 14+ hours a day, is HARD work. Even in paradise.), and one season in the Med on a private motor yacht (which, for a sailor like me, was DREADFUL, but worth the experience), I came to understand the “business” side of what it took to be a captain. And quite frankly, at least then, I wanted none of it. Being a deckhand or a first mate was hard enough. 

Make no mistake. The responsibilities of being a captain are staggering. No matter what kind of vessel you are on, the buck ends with you. Whether it’s a 25 foot daysailer, to a 250 foot megayacht. You are large and in charge. You are responsible for the upkeep, well-being and management of the boat, of the crew, and of the guests/passsengers. You have to know exactly what to do when things go to shit (because they will) and fast. Furthermore, you are responsible for the vessel’s legality, financial responsibility, safety, security, and so much more. It’s nothing that should ever be taken lightly. And quite frankly, short of being a political leader of a sizable population, there really isn’t any other occupation that carries the kind of responsibility that goes with being a captain.

Yet, in my experience, I come across many captains who take the job lightly. As if they are sitting behind a desk and going through the motions. Shining only when it’s convenient for them and the most people are watching. They treat it as just another form of employment. And unfortunately, not really understanding what the real ball game is. I guess it’s just become too “easy” for a captain to get licensed. Where little if any real sea time and experience are needed to qualify for the title. And that, obviously, is a shame. At least I think so. 

As for me, it wasn’t until I had been aboard “Andiamo” for a couple of years that I was even ok with the title of “Captain”. No matter what my six-pack license said (though it’s long since expired), no matter what the vessel documentation said. I was cruising solo much of the time, sometimes with crew, and only cared about sailing my boat and enjoying what I can out of it without too much responsibility. I simply found myself resisting the title. It wasn’t until possibly the end of the 2nd year I was aboard Andiamo, that I actually found myself being ok with other people, mostly crew and guests, calling me that. 

I came to a strange realization. At that stage in my yachting life, I had come to accept all the duties, the harsh realities, workloads, and yes, the responsibilities that come with being a captain. When I came to realize that in a serious jam, it would be up to me to make potentially life and death decisions, I would have to accept the duty and the responsibility. When it was up to me to ensure that the boat and equipment were kept up to shipshape, I accepted the duty and responsibility. Even if it meant being uncomfortable and gashing your hand open while trying to pry loose a stubborn bolt. It was all part of the deal. 

I came to understand that in order to be a REAL captain, you have to be willing to deal with disgusting smells, toilets exploding in your face, and all of the occupational hazards that come with the territory. You have to be willing to reach into a pool of muck to find a potentially live dc electrical wire. You have to be able to take very real risks to your own safety for the safety of others. That’s just the way it is. 

I also realized that I had to become a fairly decent mechanic, electrician, and all-around Mr. Fixit. When you have to resort to your own wits and limited resources to get your boat going again, trust me, you learn things fast. And I did. I still find myself amazed that I managed to get things fixed the way I did in a crunch as many times as I have. I can laugh about those times now. It was only when I had that confidence to be able to deal with literally ANY situation that arose on my vessel, that I was ok with being called a captain. And that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

You come to accept the hair-raising-ly dangerous confrontations with nature as I have on several occasions in my years of yachting. And you have to keep your cool the whole time. You have to make sure your passengers know they’re in good hands. If they see panic in you, they know they’re screwed.

I realized how little I knew even after years of being aboard yachts. How humbling it was to admit that despite my knowledge and experience, I had to keep learning, so I can be a better captain. A competent captain.  

On many occasions, I swallowed my pride and learned from the people who knew more around me.  And only years after ever first setting foot on a boat, was I even comfortable with being given that title. So when it came time for me to put Andiamo to work after my personal financial meltdown a few years back, I didn’t think twice about my ability to take on the challenges associated with that. Because I was a captain, and ready for the task. And believe me, there were a lot of them. And when I did screw up, and there were many times I did, I took full responsibility, and bore the brunt of the wrath, wherever it would come from. 

At one point, years later, I’d decided I had done my time as a “working” captain. I did so with honesty and head held up high. Andiamo had become something I had become very proud of. I realized that what she stood for transcended me, so I should do the right thing, and keep her going. I graciously stepped down off the bridge. I realized that there was still much life to live, and much to do. And despite my love for the sea, sailing, and the amazing life that goes with it, I had to make way for my other passions.

It wasn’t easy, and a big part of that was having to come to terms with the painful fact that I would have to put my beloved vessel in the hands of other people, other captains. And to be honest, that’s been a mixed bag thus far. Yet, I remain optimistic that I still made the right decision.

The point of this piece, or rambling diatribe, whatever it is, is this. There is so much to being a real captain. More than most people can comprehend, and more than most prospective captains are willing to accept.

Here’s the long and the short of it. If you are great with the passengers and guests, but can’t fix your engine, sorry, you’re not a good captain. If you can make an amazing lobster pasta or mix a hell of a mojito, but don’t manage the ship’s maintenance schedule, or its safety equipment, nope, not a good captain. If you can speak umpteen languages, and know volumes about nautical history, but can’t keep your rig tuned, or your sails properly trimmed, or your sheets properly whipped, then you’re not a good captain. If you can fashion a hell of makeshift sling for someone who broke their arm taking a spill on deck, but can’t keep your boat’s systems maintained and operational, you’re not a good captain. Being most excellent at one or even several facets of the job does not make up for the lacking in others. You have to be at least reasonably good at them all. Sorry those are the rules of being a good captain, I didn’t make them. They just are what they are.  

Now that I’ve delved into the captain’s job market as a prospective employer, I’ve come to some disheartening realizations. Some people who go through the whole route of becoming a captain, refuse to take that vocation seriously. They refuse to take the responsibility with any significant weight. I never cease to be amazed at the number of people out there who call themselves “captains”, yet don’t acknowledge the harsh realities that go with the job. When you realize you can’t handpick the duties that you consider desirable, and reject that ones you don’t, it’s time to make a decision. Do you really want to become a captain? Or you do just want to pretend to be one, until it’s proven that you’re not really one? Unfortunately, many people choose the latter.

Over the years, I’ve been asked many times what it’s like being a yacht captain. I’ve answered virtually the same way, every time. It’s the best, and the worst job you’ll ever have. At the same time. But if you love it, there’s nothing like it. I’ve had SEVERAL jobs and careers in my life. And by far, the most rewarding has been my years as a captain. But those rewards came at a price. A price I was willing to pay for as long as I was willing to be called a captain. 

Anyway, if you’re interested in what’s really involved in being a yacht captain, here are some clips and links. I’m pasting in text from the first one (but including the link) because the page it comes from is ghastly and hideous. But what it says about being a captain, is dead on… 

Thanks for reading, the captain orders you to carry on. 🙂

Captains

USCG / RYA License or insurability required

Responsibilities are :

* Management of Yacht *
* Navigation and Operation *

A captain’s job description is multi – faceted and dynamic. One day he or she may be at the helm piloting the yacht to a safe anchorage; the next in charge of a multi million dollar refit with 20 or more people scurrying about, organized into various jobs amidst the chaos. The position ranges from being in charge of a full time staff of one (him or herself), to being the CEO of a large operation with many departments, personnel, and a large budget. Some captains are perfectly able to manage themselves and/or a crew of one or two, but do not have the skills, are incapable of managing larger yachts and crew, or simply prefer to work on a smaller yacht. Others work best in a large yacht environment and function much like a conductor guides an orchestra. Just as expenses grow geometrically as a yacht grows larger, so does the job description and responsibility. Here we’ve listed a basic set of qualifications and skills that ProCAPTAINS suggests for the captains of today and tomorrow.

Practical Experience – Actual time spent at sea in a position of authority. Whether a captain began on small boats and gradually made his way to larger vessels or began as a deckhand/mate and worked his way up the chain of command practical experience is a must. A captain must be familiar with every aspect of the vessel in his or her command. On a smaller yacht the captain must wear many hats, often taking on the role of the engineer, mate, steward, and even cooking as well. On a larger yacht with more crew, his day to day duties will be more “captain oriented,” though knowledge of all aspects of the vessel must be maintained.

Licenses – A professional captain must have proper licensing and documentation for the size of the vessel in his or her command. U.S. Coast Guard, R.Y.A. or equivalent, to meet with approval of insurance companies.

Personnel Management – This can be the most difficult skill of all and mastering it starts from hiring the best crew. ProCAPTAINS can assist you with presenting the best candidates for a position, but the final decision on who to hire is up to the captain. Working and living on a yacht places unique demands on people and it us up to the captain to make sure that each crew person is working to their full potential AND can live and work together under sometimes stressful conditions. Some captains are much more suited to a smaller boat, bigger is not always better. There is a fine balance between hard work and play; too much or too little of either one can cause problems.

Public Relations – A captain’s ability to interact socially and professionally with the owners of the yacht is vital. In many cases the owner is a substantial business man, accustomed to dealing with highly skilled and educated people. He is unlikely to expect less from his yacht captain. The captain sets the tone for the rest of the crew and the image of the boat. The captain often must also be able to interact with charter and yacht brokers, yard personnel, foreign officials, port authorities, and
countless others.

Emergency Management – Safety is always the number one priority and a captain must be able to say “no” when a situation is deemed unsafe, even if the decision is unpopular with the owner or charter guest. Plans must be made in advance to react to emergencies so that all crew are able to function and assist to the best of their ability. The captain must at all times remain vigilant to ensure that safety procedures are followed.

Accounting, Budget, and Inventory – The captain must be above reproach when it comes to handling the owners funds. There is no faster way to alienate an owner than to be unable to account for his money. The larger yachts of today often have operating budgets in excess of one million dollars per year. Fortunately the many wonderful and easy to use accounting programs available for computers have helped to simplify this task.

Engineering Knowledge – The captain must have full engineering knowledge, even if he commands a vessel with a qualified engineer in the crew. The complex systems on a modern yacht demand a high degree of technological expertise.

Environmental Regulations – Compliance with all environmental regulations is vital. Substantial fines for violations is reason enough but without a healthy environment there will be no future for any of us. The rules are there for a reason.

Insurance Considerations – The captain should be well advised regarding the insurance on his vessel. He should make every effort to make sure that safety is always a chief concern for his crew, passengers, and the vessel. All logs and records must be properly maintained and he should have a working knowledge of maritime law as it applies to his situation.

Enjoy It – A love of the sea and a genuine appreciation for this lifestyle is essential. As with other demanding professions you must enjoy what you are doing.

Other worthy links:

Wikipedia – Sea Captain

E-how

BrightHub