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Part 2: Building a good culture
So this was supposed to be part 3 of my blog series about how to improve crew retention. However, part 2 about onboarding and managing the crew as individuals has proven to be far more challenging than I originally envisaged so to buy myself another two weeks I have swapped the order around! There is also a significant crossover with this blog.

Part 2 in the series is arguably the most important because if you have a happy yacht with a great atmosphere on board then you can probably get away with average recruitment and management to a certain extent. I think the biggest thing that improves longevity outside of material things like leave and salary is running a happy yacht. There are so many factors which go into running a happy yacht and you won’t have control of all of them. But as Captain or HOD you will be able to influence some of them. So the essentials to running a happy yacht are the following in my opinion. And my apologies if I am stating the obvious but there should be a couple of pearls of wisdom in here.

However you lead, others on the yacht will follow suit. Work hard, treat people well, put in extra hours as required and work to improve your skills / knowledge and this will trickle down in a positive manner. Equally if you scream, shout, talk to people like they are idiots then I guarantee everyone else on the yacht who has these tendencies will feel it is acceptable to do so too. As a leader you have to hold yourself to higher standards than the crew.

Everyone responds a lot better to a positive management style. An arm around the shoulder and encouragement where possible. Obviously some crew need the stick occasionally and it can’t all be carrot. But be economical with dishing out the bollockings.

Sadly there are still boats out there which have an unsavoury subculture on board where the interior are treated disrespectfully. Every department and every person is of equal importance to the successful running of the yacht. Even more disappointingly we still hear occasional stories of yachts where sexual harassment is apparently acceptable. If you have any influence you should do your utmost to stamp this sort of behaviour out.

Have an extremely clear policy on what is and what isn’t acceptable behaviour on board. Also have a very clear policy on what the punishments will be for transgressing. Make sure everyone knows what it is and stick to it. It doesn’t have to be draconian either. It can be relatively light hearted. Not up on deck on time because you are hungover? That means you pick up the watch on Saturday and you aren’t allowed to be feeling delicate again.

Work out what culture you want on board. I would identify 5 or 6 behaviours which are essential for all crew to display and make this part of the Crew Handbook, on boarding etc. Some of these points are obvious eg teamwork or respect but you need to ensure that everyone is on the same page and your HODs encourage these behaviours at all times. Any additional champions of this philosophy amongst the ranks is beneficial too. This needs to be repeated by the Captain and the HODs often until it seeps into the sub conscious.

Whilst as a Captain or HOD you can’t be completely open about everything all the time you need to establish a base line of truth about what you say. If your crew don’t trust what you say then it will always be a challenge to manage them.

Sounds so, so obvious but this is probably the easiest way of upsetting the crew very quickly. When the crew can see that there is clearly one rule for one and another for someone else then rumblings of discontent will spread. It reflects badly on you as a manager and….. it just isn’t fair.

Everyone works better in an environment where people care about each other. Everyone is in it together so foster this attitude across the board. Unsympathetic, selfish personalities are less than ideal on a yacht.

Nip problems in the bud early doors. If there is a crew issue it is far easier to resolve it by tackling it as soon as it happens. If you are relying on it sorting itself out then you may well be disappointed. Then a month later what was a minor problem is now a serious one, others have been dragged into it and taken sides and there is now a divide in the department. Act sooner rather than later and definitely don’t rely on the maturity of crew to sort it out.

Reward people for going the extra mile. Again it doesn’t have to be a material thing but if someone goes above and beyond the call of duty then give them extra responsibility. Sit them down and tell them how pleased you are. Everyone loves to be appreciated for what they do. We did a survey a while ago and this was something which particularly came up in the interior department was that many Stews felt underappreciated and their work was unrecognised.

A lot of people will thrive if given a specific job which is theirs to own. Obviously if they aren’t the brightest or the most reliable then don’t give them something that matters! This also helps improve longevity in another unexpected way. Some crew have a slightly deluded view of their own ability. However if they aren’t capable of stepping up consistently when given the opportunity then it should be a wake up call about where they actually are professionally. The penny then may drop they aren’t ready to be a bosun or Chief Stew.

Factor in as much training as you can on a regular basis. Have a capping rail to varnish and time to do it in? Then get the whole deck team involved so everyone has some exposure to it. Doing a short crossing in rough weather and no one can work on deck? Then get all the deck team in the bridge and go through the rules of the road. Quiet winter with no guest use and just routine maintenance going on? Then devote every Friday morning to training. Also think outside the box. If there is a flower supplier who you spend thousands with then see if they will give you a couple of hours of floristry training.

Everyone has to be a team player and no department is more important than another. A great and easy way of demonstrating this is everyone helps when a delivery turns up. No one is too important or busy to pick up a box. Another very simple one is that the department doesn’t finish for the day until everyone’s jobs are done. Not everyone downs tools at 5, except the one person only ¾ way through a job. Get others to help and finish the job quicker.

But not one which is too alcohol focused. If your crew are hitting the bars hard mid week then you have an issue. Excess alcohol leads to poor performance, increased risk of accidents and lots of other bad things which can range from the serious to the not so serious. The list is endless.

In the sand. If you are Captain or HOD you can’t be out boozing and fraternising with all the crew, all the time. Go out on a Friday and have a few pints and then go off and do your own thing. Whether that is with the other senior crew or friends. You will make your job significantly harder if you are too friendly with the troops as some of them will always take advantage of the situation. Once the line has become blurred it is hard to get it back. You are no longer the Chief Stew you are now a mate. That’s when the problems arise.

I can’t actually believe I have to say this but I’m going to as so many fall foul of this. If you are the Captain or a HOD you can’t sleep with the crew unless it is a serious relationship. Even worse is the senior crew member who tries to sleep with the crew and is rejected. That just makes things very awkward for everyone….so just don’t.

Buy some kit for crew to use on the foredeck eg kettlebells, skipping ropes, sandbags. Or hire someone who loves running who also takes other crew out on the run. Or a PT whose is responsible for putting on a training session 3 nights a week on the dock after work. If you are training then you finish at 4.30. Not interested in training then you work till 5.

If the owner won’t let you use the toys then buy some crew toys and do watersports either pre or post work when you are in an appropriate location. I was very lucky and when we were in the Carib on Leander we started work early, took a short lunch and no breaks and in exchange we finished early and took the RIB out wakeboarding every day after work. The cost to the boat was some fuel for the RIB, so it was minimal. But great for crew morale and was good management IMO.

Encourage this and incentivise it if you can and the crew will love it. Fitter crew will perform better at their jobs and it is also a real positive for happiness, mental health and general well being.

Encourage suggestions on how to improve systems, ways of working more efficiently etc. It makes people feel like their opinion is valued. Also means the crew start thinking like leaders and applying a critical thought process to their work. If there is a project coming up then ask the crew how they think they would approach the job. Educate them to how it should be done. These sort of team meetings also make it easier to spot where the talent lies in the deck team from a leadership perspective.

Crew hate to be kept in the dark. If there is a deafening silence regarding an issue then I guarantee the silence will be filled with crew mess whispers. Crew mess whispers can cause a huge amount of damage very quickly. So as Captain or HOD everyone needs to be on the same page and there needs to be a plan to share information in a consistent manner. Sometimes things need to be withheld from the crew which is fine but it has to be consistent. If the Chief Eng tells his partner, actually we might not be going to the Carib, she then tells her dept we aren’t going to the Carib and then the entire crew know a day later.

I personally would make it very clear to all HODs that all work related conversations remain in the office. Any leaks will be viewed very dimly and will be a disciplinary offence. Loose lips sink ships and most leaks stem from a HOD telling someone they are close to something they shouldn’t know. When these leaks occur they have to be addressed to stop the damage.

Operate an open door policy. If anyone has any concerns they need to be able to approach you and discuss it. Whether that is someone from another department or another HOD. You need to make it clear that all conversations are completely confidential and you are open to discussing any issues and will endeavour to resolve them in a supportive manner. Having this in place instantly reduces turnover. Crew leave without actually telling anyone in power what their issue is. A lot of the time it can be resolved but only if the Senior crew behave like this.

This will be covered in far more depth in the next blog but we will touch upon it briefly now. Put aside 30 mins for everyone in your department and find out how they are feeling, what’s going well, what they would like to learn etc. Give them feedback on where they can improve.

Cliques can build pretty easily amongst departments or nationalities. So try and ensure there isn’t one nationality which dominates the ranks. Crew can fall into patterns for example all the boys sit at one table in the crew mess and all the girls at another. Any team building, training or social events mix up the teams or the seating so people get to talk who don’t get much exposure to each other. On large (over 3000gt) yachts the crew can number anything from 30 to 80 and large numbers of them will have no idea who others are and will have little cause to talk. This contributes to the high turnover on many of these vessels. Hopefully if the owner can afford a 120m yacht there is also a decent budget for the crew. I would really try and build something which encourages inter departmental interaction as much as possible.

If you have a bad apple on board then remove them. It could be someone who is always whinging about something which is no good for morale. Or it could be that crew member who leads others astray. In the words of someone far wiser than me ‘fit in or F*** off!’. One further point on this; it isn’t always obvious who the bad apples are as they can be underhand and devious. They load the gun but someone else cops the bullet to use another shooting analogy. Too many crew get away with being terrible for the culture on board a yacht because they are likeable, or they are good at their job. On a yacht the ‘job’ encompasses everything, not just what someone does in their working hours. Their social skills, habits and attitude count for just as much as their ability to varnish.

This isn’t an all encompassing list but it covers many of the important points about developing the culture on board. I am sure most of you will read this and probably think ‘I know all this’. And it’s true you probably do. Or alternatively you will think ‘he doesn’t understand my boat, we can’t do those things’ which is true. But I can confidently say the vast majority of boats aren’t hitting most of the points above and every yacht could do more. I can also confidently say the vast majority of yachts have more turnover than they would like and there is a lot more they can still do to reduce this.

There is nothing ground breaking in here. But you have to make the time to plan these changes, implement them and be consistent with them and that takes effort.


If you would like to chat about this article, career advice or more – Feel free to drop me an email

Part 2: Building a good culture

About the author

Tim Clarke

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