Career Advice

Advice on Mitigating Crew Turnover

12 August 2020By Lauren Beck
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Written by

Lauren Beck

Editor Lauren Beck has been with Dockwalk since 2006. At 13, she left South Africa aboard a 34-foot sailing boat with her family and ended up in St. Maarten for six years. Before college, she worked as crew for a year, and then cut her journalistic teeth at Better Homes and Gardens and Ladies’ Home Journal online. She loves traveling, reading, tennis, and rooting for the Boston Red Sox. Email her at lauren@dockwalk.com.

Chemistry plays a vital role in determining how a team fits and works together. Let’s face it, if you hate your coworkers, it can make for a trying workday. Even worse when you’re crew and work stress is compounded by close working and living quarters. While crew turnover is inevitable for many legitimate reasons, when it’s happening often, it has a marked effect on the yacht program, crew morale, and the vessel’s bottom line.

The Financial Costs

Changing crew can add significantly to the vessel’s annual costs. One captain, years ago, estimated that it cost him approximately $10,000 to change one crew position. “Interestingly, I think this cost could be at least double,” says Karen Passman of Impact Crew, who says one management company manager shared some numbers on additional expenditures new senior crew make when they first join a vessel and “make it their own.” Passman notes that this was in addition to costs that may arise from any mistakes, loss of time, or unfamiliarity with the vessel. In the first three months of being aboard, the yacht manager estimated that a new chief stew and new chief officer can spend between €8-10K; a new chef about €5K; a new chief engineer between €5-25K; and a new captain about €20-30K.

“It’s certainly in the owner’s financial interest to retain crew for as long as possible,” says Capt. Steve Osborne, a rotational captain aboard M/Y Slipstream. Between repatriation, travel costs for the incoming crew, recruitment fees, new uniforms, contracts, etc., it could end up a significant amount. His current crew was reduced due to COVID-19, but those who remained have been on board for about four years, with some even longer. “…We have a core that has been on for a considerable amount of time,” he says. “Luckily, we are now in a position where we can start rebuilding the crew and get back to how it previously was.”

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Capt. Mark Delstanche of CRN’s 73-meter M/Y Yalla says costs depend on the crewmember. “Unless it’s an emergency, we try to recruit junior crew through social media, local contacts, or other sources, [which cuts] costs to not a great deal more than travel expenses,” he says. Even for senior crew, he tries to recruit through his known contacts. “Obviously, the more senior the rank, the more it will cost us to recruit; however, if I was to put a rough figure on it, including travel, I would say that our annual costs of replacing crew on this boat are in the region of €50,000.”

 “My greatest cost is personal investment and time in the crew, interacting with them, teaching them, and ensur[ing] they fit the program, crew dynamics, and owner,” says Capt. Todd Rapley of M/Y Capricorn

Of course, the costs of re-training can’t be discounted, either. “My greatest cost is personal investment and time in the crew, interacting with them, teaching them, and ensur[ing] they fit the program, crew dynamics, and owner,” says Capt. Todd Rapley of M/Y Capricorn. He estimates his financial costs at less than $5K, and that’s mostly flights and uniforms. Most of his hires are word of mouth from his own crew — “I am fortunate to have crew try to replace themselves. I have crew wanting to come back,” he says. In fact, he prefers crew to be upfront with these needs. “Planning reduces costs and short turnover,” he says. “It’s a discussion I have with crew — if they want to move on, I have no problem and will help wherever possible, but I need them to be upfront as early as they can and be part of the process and solution. We plan for so many contingencies on board, have drills, etc., so why not with crew turnover?”

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The Crew Loss

“The cost is not just financial — [having] crew quit in the middle of a season can negatively impact the remaining crew whose workload might increase for a while whilst a replacement is found,” says Laurence Lewis, president of YPI Crew. That’s never good for morale — already overworked crew who have to pick up the slack may become resentful. As she points out, a replacement will need to be trained, which is always time-consuming for a department head — and, Lewis says, “a yacht with a high crew turnover will see its reputation tarnished and in turn will become less attractive to premium crew looking for work.”

When one person leaves the group, the void is both work and personal. While Capt. Osborne thinks it’s positive when “good crew move on for good reason,” it’s different when it’s a high turnover situation and crew are departing because there’s an issue on board. “[T]hat naturally brings with it an environment of low morale, where the remaining crew decid[e] they don’t particularly want to continue on board and so the vicious cycle continues,” he says.

It’s a loss on many levels — the loss of the knowledge that goes with departing crew, the time it takes to select and hire the right person, plus the training time to get the new crew’s knowledge to where it should be. “You want to keep this process to an absolute minimum,” Osborne says. He shares that there’s usually one crew change each year on his boat, but the departing crew may have been aboard for several seasons. “I would probably say eighteen months to two years for the longest entire team of fifteen crew,” he says.

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“If the team has gelled, it impacts quite hard, especially if the leaver is going to a similarly sized yacht rather than a perceived promotion,” says Capt. CG (name withheld by request) on board a 28-meter. “If the crew departing has not been suitable to our yacht or the team, or their conduct is not appropriate, the effect is quite the opposite.” She notes that his current team has been her longest lasting “because the chemistry and respect they all have for each other is tremendous, [and] I managed to strike [it] lucky in finding them first time around.” Her one slight caveat, however, are crew couples. “[They] can be wonderful unless they have a serious break-up,” she says. “Then you have either the challenge to get them to continue to work well together, or one (or both) leaves.”

“If the team has gelled, it impacts quite hard, especially if the leaver is going to a similarly sized yacht rather than a perceived promotion,” says Capt. CG...

Capt. Delstanche has had good experience with his crew longevity and most of his crew have been on board since he took over the boat in 2016. “To be honest, due to the longevity that we generally have on board, when crewmembers decide to leave, it’s generally their time to go anyway, so it's good to have a bit of fresh air on board and [it] often brings a renewed injection of enthusiasm,” he says. “I’d argue that probably the biggest problem tends to be the effect on the owner/guest experience. The owners tend to expect very high standards of service and their particular needs can only be anticipated through spending time working on board and learning from the more experienced crew.” High turnover means you run out of people who you can rely on, which puts more pressure on the remaining crew until the new person is up to snuff.

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When You’re the One Leaving

For the departing crew, there can be a cost, too. If your tenure is too short, it could hurt your chance for future employment. “To really start with a good foot forward in this industry, the crew should have an objective of a year (two seasons on one vessel),” says Employer Manager Julie Tetreault of Crew4Yachts. “This shows commitment [and] character. If the crew can commit for at least one season, [that’s] reasonably the minimum stay.”

Her colleague Sandra Murphy says that you should still add these short stints to your CV and give your future employer more insight into why you left. “It might look unappealing on paper; however, it could all be for understandable reasoning. We also need to understand that we are all only human and life happens in between all the travel and adventures.”

It’s a loss on many levels — the loss of the knowledge that goes with departing crew, the time it takes to select and hire the right person, plus the training time to get the new crew’s knowledge to where it should be.

It should be noted that senior crew are expected to stay longer than junior crew, The Crew Network’s Louise Cailbourdin points out. “We have yacht owners that will only look at CVs offering repeated longevity of three years or more with a yacht or for the same owner,” she says. “If an owner or captain takes a crewmember onto his or her next vessel, this reflects well on the job seeker as it’s a show of confidence.”

But circumstances make a difference, Lewis says. “If you’re a yacht hopper, there is the risk to be considered as a bad decision-maker, someone with no resilience, unable to evaluate a situation rationally,” she says. “You may appear as self-centered and selfish and this is not the best way to build a reputation. Grit, a disposition to endure to the end rather than quit early, has long been associated with high achievers and is a trait captains are also looking for in their crew.” But, she acknowledges, life happens — bad luck or more and you’ll end up with a bunch of short-term positions. “That’s fine, it’s just a question of how you can present this to a new potential employer under a positive angle: adaptability, reactivity, varied experience, fast decision-making abilities, etc.”

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Of course, if the situation on board is unsafe for you, you should leave, says Diane Leander of The Crew Network. But otherwise, “Have a clear focus and long-term goal and follow that path,” she says. “Make sure the jobs you accept lead you to your long-term goal. Always accept jobs that you are excited about.”

Perhaps more importantly, don’t be discouraged. “Yachting is constantly changing and in general there is not a lot of consistency,” Murphy says. “It is hard to find the perfect job in any industry but especially ours as there are a lot more factors to consider…. You might find the perfect crew, but the owners may not be for you, or you could find your dream itinerary, but the captain could be a nightmare. Try and weigh out the pros and cons. Don’t let it defeat you if you have to leave a vessel and keep trying as the dream job/yacht is out there for everyone, you just must keep trying!”

“Yachting is constantly changing and in general there is not a lot of consistency,” Murphy says. 

Resolving Issues

“…[T]he increasing rate of turnover on board yachts … is a common frustration that my yacht management client’s and HODs face,” says The Crew Coach Karine Rayson. “The causes of turnover can largely be due to a number of factors, including poor leadership, a lack of skills in smart hiring, poor retention strategies, and a misunderstanding of what drives behavior.” As she explains, department heads need to be “upskilled” to attract and retain talented crew. “There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to leading or managing your employees,” she says, advising that “HODs should be leading by example and putting their crew and culture at the heart of what they do. We need to see yachts as micro-organizations. In order for these micro-organizations to be run like a well-oiled machine, the senior crew need to ensure that all ‘parts’ are well serviced, otherwise, they will be paying the hefty price of replacing the ‘parts,’ which will result in lost time, knowledge capital and money.”

To start, you need to recruit the right person, manage them in the early days, and make sure their expectations are realistic, she says. Transparency is vital —“Transparency — whether that be about money, leave, or the opportunities for development.” It starts with putting any issues on the table, says Passman. (Occasionally, Impact Crew is called in to help reduce turnover.) “This is where yachts [that] hold regular one-to-ones can deal with the issue or manage the expectations before it’s too late. So communication plays a vital part…. The reality is, if the crew’s expectations are not managed, they will end up voting with their feet.”

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Building a Dream Team

While sometimes turnover is just a part of moving on and moving up, a good atmosphere on board can go far in enticing crew to remain. “It starts at the top with a great captain, who both listens to their crew and is also able to ‘influence’ the owner or guests and manage their expectations too,” says Passman. “What makes a great captain, top of the list, is one who listens to their crew and ensures they feel valued and appreciated.” These captains seem to have the concept down pat.

“I believe that a boat is only as good as the team on board so promoting a sense of common cause and always maintaining positivity and a sense of calmness even in the most challenging of situations is essential,” says Capt. Delstanche. “Maintaining a support structure for all crew to make them feel valued is also very useful. Identifying when things aren’t working out at an early stage, analyzing why, and taking the appropriate action also helps to keep us on an even keel.”

“What makes a great captain, top of the list, is one who listens to their crew and ensures they feel valued and appreciated.”

“I have been very fortunate as many of my crew have moved boats with me when possible,” says Rapley, who has had one stewardess work for him on and off for 10 years. He’s the godfather to another’s baby. “It’s all about relationships and respect,” he says. “…It is our job to teach, empower, and assist them to leave the nest, and if they see you helping them, they will give back by not leaving mid-season or help to find a replacement or want to come back once they have seen the grass is not greener, etc. — the laws of reciprocity,” he says. Currently, he’s in Australia waiting to move back to the Med, and all his crew have been stood down due to COVID-19, although two of them have worked with him long term, moving boat to boat, and will return when operations resume.

“We make it a fun environment to work in, but at the same time, [we] make crew feel safe and serious about their work,” says Capt. Osborne. “Everyone is treated with respect, their opinion and ideas are listened to and they are encouraged to take on responsibility, which results in good job satisfaction and ultimately staying on longer.” Aboard Slipstream, crew are encouraged to be healthy and the boat activities and outings help strengthen bonds and create friendships. “All of this helps with keeping crew turnover to a minimum and increasing longevity and is undoubtedly one of the most important aspects of operating a successful yacht.”

Capt. CG works to promote a healthy, happy atmosphere on board. Her tips include: “Lead by example, positive reinforcement, and constant, good communication — both ways! Praise in public; critique in private.” She’s created a strong “safety and service” culture on board and rewards this directly. She also makes sure crew have organized activities for “a bit of fun and luxury” and, maybe more importantly, she strives to keep his crew accommodations and crew meals, etc. to a high standard, which he believes is only showing respect for the jobs they do. “This not only helps build the team, but shows we care about them,” she says. “If you treat crew as well as you wish to be treated, they will put 110 percent back, and that is priceless.”

This feature originally ran in the August 2020 issue of Dockwalk.

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