For those of you who don’t know me, I spent 25 years in yachting, the latter half of which was spent as a Captain on three yachts, during which time I encountered hundreds of situations that required me to adapt or find new ways to lead onboard.
With a recent survey revealing how junior crew rate the leadership skills of Captains 6.2 out of 10 on average, I thought that sharing my experiences could perhaps give some other Captains some fresh ideas.
I don’t claim to know everything and I’m certainly not saying I’m an amazing Captain, but I had good crew retention onboard all the yachts I ran, and the key underlying theme of my approach was to use life skills effectively to lead onboard.
The first piece of advice I can give is to lead by example and never ask anyone to do anything you wouldn’t be prepared to do yourself.
Other methods I’ve found effective in leadership are:
Always share useful information
Too many captains withhold and retain important information for the sake of feeling superior to the rest of the crew. The yacht’s schedule can change daily/hourly, and we are expected to adapt quickly to changing situations, so why not let them in on what’s happening?
As long as the information is accurate, share it, and the crew will appreciate it. Plus, it allows them to plan ahead. Honesty is always the best policy – crew respect honesty if it’s delivered fairly with good reason.
Say yes more often
Some of the most enjoyable yachting experiences I’ve had have come from a single crew member’s idea. So if they come to me and ask if they can organise an event, run a crew yoga/fitness session in work time, prepare after-work cocktails for the crew, lay the table and mock up a guest dinner or organise a crew outing using some of the yachts equipment and toys, I always said yes.
Why wouldn’t you? It’s team building, training, upskilling and fun. It was always with the owner’s blessing, and we always sent photos of the events we held.
Professional communication is of course key, but I also enjoyed talking to my crew, and taking a genuine interest in them, their aspirations, their families, their feelings, and their concerns.
I especially enjoyed mealtimes when the whole crew was sitting down together and discussing the topics of the day, news, etc. I scheduled my crew meetings for just after a meal as the crew were all relaxed, in a good mood, and receptive to news, good or bad. Any outstanding issues were raised and discussed in a calm and constructive manner, and often in good humour.
It’s impossible to talk and listen at the same time. I used to joke with the crew sometimes: ‘Excuse me for trying to talk while you’re interrupting.’ Ask good questions and you will receive good answers.
Encourage the chain of command
There should be a chain of command for anyone to be able to lead onboard, and I always encouraged crew to speak first with their HOD, who would then come and talk to me if needed. However, my door was always open, and the crew were always made to feel welcome. The only exception was my nightly FaceTime call to the family which was respected not only by the crew, but owner and guests as well.
Ask, don’t tell
There’s a big difference between asking and telling someone to do something. I did my best to speak to the crew kindly and respectfully, the same way I would expect them to speak to me.
One thing I’ve learned from being a father and a husband is if something needs to be done, get them onside first by asking nicely if they can help, because our natural instincts as humans are to help each other. Once they are onside, the rest is easy.
Embrace cultural diversity
We are a very multicultural industry, living together in close quarters, so a good understanding of different cultures is important. Two crew members can communicate the same information in very different ways, so an understanding of different cultures is important to prevent misinterpretation. Again, if you invest time into getting to know your crew, you will communicate and enjoy each other’s company a lot more.
There will invariably be times when a crew member is underperforming and, on the surface, this can appear to be a lack of ability or disinterest in the job. But it could be they simply struggle being at sea and unfortunately, aren’t suited to yachting.
In this scenario, a good honest chat needs to be had to determine the root cause, and if necessary, make that difficult decision with them. If the correct questions are asked, a crew member will make good decisions based on their own answers. I’ve had to do this a few times throughout my career, and only ever received letters of thanks afterwards for caring enough to steer them down the best path.
Get your hands dirty
This one is probably open for debate, certainly depending on the size of yacht, but I really enjoyed assisting other departments from time to time. Launching and driving tenders, shelling quail eggs, washing glasses, blowing up balloons and setting up for parties were some of the best times as a charter Captain.
Some would say, why are you doing it, they get paid to do that, etc. For me, it was a nice break from sitting in front of a computer screen, a good excuse to get some much-needed sunshine, but also an opportunity to participate, and work alongside the crew. Quite often a fresh pair of eyes can easily identify a problem, or find a solution, plus I found it fascinating who the born leaders were, the creators, the working bees.
The guests also seemed to enjoy seeing the ‘old man’ attempt a somersault off the bridge deck or arrive at the dinner table in fancy dress with tray of Limoncello produced and bottled onboard by yours truly. I also felt that by getting my hands ‘dirty’ so to speak, it really demonstrated some of the personal qualities I wanted all my crew to display.
Coming together as a community
Particularly during lockdown, there was a huge focus on mental and physical fitness, with daily exercise and activities worked into our routine while stuck in port. At 4pm every day we sounded the yacht’s horn in recognition of the local health authority’s good work. All yachts in port did the same and we soon found ourselves communicating with each other from opposite ends of the port. It connected us.
Crew activities on and off the yacht contributed to crew longevity too. My yacht was one of the first to arrive in St Maarten after Hurricane Irma, and I remember the feeling of disbelief as I drove through Simpson Bay Bridge. What could we do? With the support of the yacht owner, we went Christmas shopping for children at a local school, shipped in air conditioning units from the US for the school’s office staff, and provided sewing machines and cotton for the locals to make new school uniforms for the children.
After the Australian bushfires, we held a charity BBQ event in Antigua to raise money for the re-homing of displaced koalas. It was hugely successful, and hundreds of yachties and locals dipped into their pockets. It took such little effort, but made such a difference to so many lives and the crew felt immensely proud to be part of such a caring and generous environment.
Yachting is supposed to be about having fun, hence the term ‘pleasure yachting’. And if I’m having fun leading from the top, then that infectiousness is bound to spread, and I think it did.