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What does it take to be a captain anyway? Part Deux…

capt ed smith

Capt E.J. Smith, RMS Titanic


So on my previous post, I gave a rather personal view of what I learned regarding being a good captain vs. a “faux” captain. Then, to further substantiate the topic beyond my mere opinion, I included some link resources to other sites and articles about the subject. These articles cover the various requirements, responsibilities and other criteria involved in the occupation. 

On this post, I’d like to render some advice for newer, less-experienced captains. Particularly those who are looking at getting their first “real” captain’s job. Then, what to do once you get it. And finally, what to do when you decide it’s time to move on.

Take this advice to heart, and it will bode well for your future as a captain:

1. Be genuinely enthusiastic for the job. Don’t pretend. 

Don’t just say what you think your potential employer wants to hear, mean it. Many employers can tell the difference, no matter how good you think you are at faking it. 

2. If you don’t feel right about the boat or the operation, don’t take the job.

It’s really that simple isn’t it? If, after going through the interview, you don’t feel comfortable with the operation, or the boat, then perhaps the gig isn’t right for you. It’s ok to be honest about it. Ask hard questions and demand answers. If it doesn’t feel right, move on. Your prospective employer will just keep looking. Whatever you do, don’t just take a job to fill in until you find another job somewhere else. Captain’s jobs are almost always temporary in nature, anyway. That much is understood. Regardless, to “use” a captain gig while you’re looking for greener pastures elsewhere at your employer’s expense never looks good on a resume/CV. Don’t worry, future employers will know how to spot it. 

3. Be honest and detailed about your previous job(s), and your work experience.

For example, if the previous boat you were supposedly “captaining” was one where nothing was working aboard and you didn’t really need to worry about maintenance and upkeep of essential systems. That’s an important piece of information to share. Be honest about it. Never had to work on the boat’s DC electrical system due to the fact that none existed? Be clear on that. If the furthest extent of any diesel maintenance entailed changing the oil or tightening a belt, fine. But don’t tout yourself as a mechanic.

This is the kind of information that is relevant to your prospective employer, and his hiring criteria. If you think that touting a previous boat you worked on as being the same or similar model to the boat you’re trying to get work on will give you an edge, then great. It is important, however, that you be clear and specific about what you did and did not maintain on that boat. Be sure to tell the prospective employer everything regarding your experience. 

4. If you feel strongly about having a “contract”, then write one up and present it before accepting the job. 

Many boat owners understand that things are very hazy when it comes to being able to legally enforce any kind of contracts or work agreements on vessels lying abroad. For shipping companies that manage large fleets, this is not such a problem. They have agents, attorneys, and all kinds mechanisms in place to handle contracts with their crew/staff. Small, individual yachts, however, do not have such facilities. At least not without great expense and bureaucracy. Therefore, many relationships are based on that crazy, almost-extinct, concept called “mutual trust”. Again, it’s simple. The position of being a captain is one of GREAT trust, as well as great responsibility. You are being entrusted with a boat that bears real value. The employers know they need to pay you as agreed in order to keep you aboard and taking care of the boat. But bear in mind, that the employer is taking a far greater risk on you than you are with them. That’s a no-brainer.

Most hiring arrangements on boats are pretty straightforward, really. The only way a working relationship will thrive to everyone’s mutual benefit, is if all parties do what they’re supposed to do. The captain is supposed to manage the boat, the crew, and the passengers. The employer is responsible for providing an adequate operating budget, and resources to the captain, as well as pay to the captain for his professional services, as well as the crew. The relationship can only thrive if everyone is doing their part.  

Any captain job has to be spelled out clearly to a prospective captain prior to hiring. This includes pay, benefits, etc, Only then can it be assumed that the job’s parameters and requirements are clearly understood.

Let’s face it. No captain in his right mind would accept a job unless it’s clearly defined. Unless all details are placed above board. It should also be fully expected that the captain understands that no matter what is discussed, he is still going to be fully responsible for the vessel and all the systems aboard her. Of course, that it will be his responsibility to operate the boat within its set budget and required standards. There are never exceptions or omissions placed on these responsibilities, ever.  

So, if you feel the need to draw up a handy little contract, feel free. Your prospective employer will appreciate the effort to keep things above board. You can further bet that they will gladly add their two cents in to ensure all are on the same page, so to speak.

5. Understand that if there’s a time-requirement to the job as a condition to be being hired, you should probably honor it.

Short of being fired, if you were hired for say one year, you should be fully prepared to commit to that period. To “jump ship” prematurely without just cause is not wise. It tends to void any goodwill that was invested in you by your employer at the time you were hired. Needless to say, it doesn’t garner you any favor when needing the job as a future positive reference. Always better to look at the big picture. 

6. If you don’t feel you are up to the job once you start, be honest and let your employer know. Immediately. 

Your employer will respect you for your honesty, and make other arrangements. It’s to everyone’s benefit to do so. So unless you’re absolutely prepared to tackle the job with the zeal and enthusiasm that presumably got you hired, don’t let things linger. However, if you just pretend you are doing everything up to speed, when you’re not, then there will be a problem when you do end your time. If you’re not performing maintenance that you’re supposed to be doing as part of your job, then you haven’t been doing your job. If you were given a schedule and were expected to follow that schedule, and you don’t, then you didn’t do your job. If you smack a reef with the boat, and don’t properly report it, that can be a problem. Any potential damage would need to be adequately assessed and brought to the attention of your employer. So not only did you not do your job, you are of course, also liable for the damages.

After a review and feedback from the crew and clients, your employer may give you some constructive criticism and input to improve. If you don’t take these to heart and make an effort to improve, then it’s simple. You’re not doing your job. Let’s not forget, accountability is definitely applicable in all these instances. Just like I said in my last post, being a good captain is really not easy. 

7. If your employer requires you to carry liability insurance, there is a probably a good reason. 

Be assured your employer wants you to fully understand your potential liability in any hazard or casualty situation. Requiring you to have your own liability policy makes it clear that you will be held accountable for any issues or damages incurred by you.

Remember, as the captain, the buck stops with you. Your employer wants to be sure that you will be able to pay for anything you do wrong with the boat. So if your employer requires you to carry insurance as a condition for hiring, you should thank him. It protects you, your financial state, your career, as well as the boat’s owners from any screwups you may incur while aboard. 

costa concordia

8. If you are indeed responsible for an error or issue, particularly if it results in unnecessary costs, owe up to it. 

Anything that can be attributed to the actions (or inactions) of the captain bear his responsibility. So it’s far more professional, and mature, to just step up. Dodging responsibility, trying to blame other factors, or making excuses out of thin air never works. Just ask the captain of the Costa Concordia. When it’s evidently clear to all involved that a specific issue or problem was due to the captain, then enforcing accountability is a normal course of action. Not doing so at the outset, will not do your future professional career any favors. Bank on it. 

9. Understand that communication with your employer is key, and your responsibility. 

It’s important to keep close communication. Especially when it comes to boat management and maintenance, with your employer. Keeping clear, keen logs and records is clearly expected of the captain. If you have any issues that you feel need attention, then it’s best to communicate with your employer. To just leave it by the wayside, until it festers and explodes into a potentially bad or dangerous situation, is NEVER the right choice. Trust me on that one. Remember, as the captain, the responsibility always lies with you to properly communicate. Not with your employer to badger you for information and updates. 

9. Maintain professional demeanor at all times. 

In the event of a dispute over accountability/responsibility issues, it’s always best to keep your cool (you really should probably keep your cool right from the very beginning), and not fly off the handle with threats and accusations. Discuss the issues like a rational human being with your employer/former employer. Remember sticking to the facts is always best. 

10. Don’t take your liability personally.

It goes with the job. If your employer is even remotely competent, you will surely be held responsible for any unnecessary costs or boat downtime that you cause. If you don’t perform proper scheduled maintenance, then that maintenance becomes deferred. It still needs to be done, but now at probably a greater cost due to the fact that it wasn’t completed as scheduled.There are very real costs associated with deferred maintenance. That should go without saying.

Remember, it is your employer’s right to expect that you have been managing the vessel properly. If you haven’t, then you are liable for the issues that ensue as a result. It’s best to not take this enforcement of responsibility and/or liability as a personal attack or a jab at your “self-esteem” or jumping to a conclusion that you have been ripped off. You are accountable for any unnecessary losses that you cause. Period.

Sometimes business can be unpleasant, but that doesn’t mean it’s personal. 

11. Bad-mouthing your former employer after your time aboard is finished will never do you any favors. Nor will bad-mouthing them to their own clientele. 

What future prospective employer will want to deal with the drama of a captain-candidate badmouthing his previous gig? Especially when it can be easily determined that he was indeed responsible for the problems that ensued during that gig?

In this day and age of the internet, it’s important to understand a key fact. That it’s virtually impossible for a captain to hide his previous employment record or history. So why leave a trail of wreckage and discontent? Rest assured, it’s never a career boost. No disgruntled employee is ever worth the baggage to a future employer. Especially when there is no shortage of qualified candidates vying for the same job.  

I hope these suggestions help you budding captains out there. Any questions or comments? Feel free to ask…