On the Job

The Highs and Lows of Crew Rotation

15 July 2021By Erica Lay
All images courtesy of Mark O'Connell

Written by

Erica Lay

Owner of international crew agency EL CREW CO in Mallorca, Spain, Erica has been a freelance writer since 2008. She loves engaging with the projects she works on, diving headfirst into the research, investigation, and production of the stories she feels are newsworthy. A curious and proactive journalist, she draws on her own life experiences, her studies, and her work with crew all over the globe.

Figuring out rotation on board can be a tricky equation to solve, but for most, the benefits outweigh the negatives.

For many, a rotational yachting role really is the holy grail. Still mostly prevalent on larger yachts, yet seen as the norm in the commercial shipping sector, why has it not yet been fully embraced in the superyacht industry? When the Maritime Labour Convention, 2006 (MLC) came into force, it did seem for a period that rotation was the best solution to help achieve the working conditions laid out within, but what is the owner’s financial motivation to offer rotation when there are still crew seeking full-time roles? And is rotation really as great as we all think?

Battling Burnout

We know that adequate downtime is imperative for keeping crew healthy and happy. While it is more expensive to have two crew instead of one in a single position, there are savings to be found if you consider not having to recruit and retrain new crew every season due to burnout. The more senior the role, the more important this is — for example, engineers need time to familiarize and get up to date with onboard systems, manuals, and procedures. The owner also gets continuity; the same faces when he/she comes on board, which many owners claim is very important to them.

Chef Annie (name changed for anonymity) worked for a year as a sous chef on a 60-meter motor yacht. “It was crazy busy, we were on back-to-back charters with an average of probably one day off per month. I did fifty percent of the guest food, plus all the crew food,” she says. “I was always tired, struggling to think of new and creative ideas, and the boat was too busy for me to take my six weeks owed holiday, so within twelve months I had less than three weeks off, which was spent frantically seeing doctors, dentists, orthodontists, chiropractors, family, and friends, and trying to catch up on sleep and sunshine, eating at restaurants, and dreading going back to work.”

Tired crew in important positions can result in accidents. Mistakes can happen. Quality of workmanship can slip. None of this is what we want on multimillion-dollar vessels.

She knew something had to change for her health’s sake. So she quit and found herself a two months on/off rotation on a 70-meter-plus vessel. Annie is so much happier now and has rekindled her love for cooking. “I am more creative and experimental with food than I have ever been. When I have my time off, I eat at restaurants, read cookbooks, do courses and stages in restaurants to learn new techniques, and bounce ideas off other chefs. I also create a draft book of ideas and things to try when I get back to work, and I actually can’t wait to return.” Rotation has made Annie a better chef by giving her the time and freedom to continue her culinary journey.

Engineer James Cory says he wouldn’t pursue full-time roles again as it drove him close to burnout. “Engineers are always working — on charter they’re as busy as the rest of the crew ensuring the smooth running of the yacht, often solving various issues behind the scenes whilst carrying out all routine maintenance, which is a full-time job in itself,” he says. “When charters end and the yacht docks, the rest of the crew usually get the opportunity for some downtime and lighter work schedules. The engineer does not; this is when he or she must fix everything that broke during the season, carry out major repairs, coordinate yard periods, refits, manage and oversee contractors…deal with warranty/yard issues, organize surveys, haul outs, etc.… When the rest of the crew are able to rest and recover from the long hours of the season, the engineering department only gets busier. Post yard, they’re back on the water, the guests return, and so the cycle is repeated. There is no quiet time for engineers.”

This obviously puts a major strain on the department, which leads to inevitable fatigue. Tired crew in important positions can result in accidents. Mistakes can happen. Quality of workmanship can slip. None of this is what we want on multimillion-dollar vessels. Exhaustion is the main problem in retaining good engineers — they simply burn out and a few weeks or a year off is not enough to fully recharge and be ready to work 11 months straight. Most engineers who work full time will last a year at best; often it’s only a season so the vessel will have to source a new team member who has to familiarize, which costs valuable time and money as mentioned previously.

While it is more expensive to have two crew instead of one in a single position, there are savings to be found if you consider not having to recruit and retrain new crew every season due to burnout.

Since rotation was introduced, engineer retention has increased vastly. Engineers are far more likely to stay loyal to a captain, owner, and program when rotation is offered. Pay is less than full time, of course (usually about two-thirds of a full-time wage), but is still monthly for job security and benefits retained (health insurance, for example). Fewer health issues associated with overworking, fewer mistakes, much higher productivity, and the added benefit of having two qualified engineers during yard/refits who know the vessel inside and out and all her quirks and systems eases pressure on the captain, too.

Rotation may cost the vessel owner more in salary, but the increase in efficiency, productivity, crew retention, vessel-specific knowledge, reduction in mistakes or poor workmanship, plus long-term safety should outweigh the financial output.

Family Life

From a captain’s point of view, family is also a major factor. Capt. Stewart McDonald is making the move from a 47-meter motor yacht to a rotational role on a larger new build later this year. His main motivator? Family. “Although my owners have been great to me — I’ll be very sad to leave — I was only able to see my wife and daughter for nine days out of ninety during the Caribbean season,” he says. “Now having embarked on the Med season, I won’t be home for another three months. I’m passionate about my job and love what I do but I don’t want to miss my daughter growing up or harm my marriage in the process.”

For crew with family ashore, rotation allows you to find a better balance — in your off time, you can really focus on your family and give them your undivided attention knowing that your equal is on board and running the show. “My owners were generous with time at home, but being the only captain, I was constantly on my phone or computer even on holiday, which is unfair to my wife and daughter who already get so little time with me,” McDonald says.

The Trouble with Rotation

So we know the positives, but what about the negatives? Rotation is still relatively new to yachting and many programs are still finding their feet. As with anything, it’s hard to get it right the first time and may need constant adjustments from the outset to achieve success. For a start, the opposites must be similar and complementary in their way of working. At senior level, this is imperative to avoid disruption to the crew.

“I worked with two captains and the difference in management styles was huge,” says Chef Spike Steele. “One [was] chilled and his opposite [was] super uptight. It was very hard for the crew to adjust every ten weeks.” Engineer Mark Woodman echoes this. “One of the captains was the best I’d ever worked with. The other was an idiot who everybody dreaded coming back,” he says. “The difference in atmosphere on board was massive.”

Both parties must be fully committed to their job responsibilities ­— if one is constantly picking up the slack left from the other, rotation is not going to work. Capt. Carl (name changed for anonymity) feels quite strongly on the matter. “I personally still think rotation is, for the most part, stupid and am yet to hear of it working perfectly,” he says. “There are just too many issues that arise; not least consistency and reliability in the other guy. In my last position, the guy I rotated with was so inept it was actually laughable but was just how the owners liked it despite telling me he was ‘too casual’ in the workplace. The rest of the world works eleven to eleven and a half months a year, so why can’t we? Yes, I understand the family thing, but in days gone by you went to sea meaning you went to sea and did so often to support your family, and if that meant you did not see them much, then so be it; they were being fed and housed because of you being away. I am sure everyone will disagree with this point. I like work and enjoy what I do and get a kick out of doing it well.”

Rotation is still relatively new to yachting and many programs are still finding their feet. As with anything, it’s hard to get it right the first time and may need constant adjustments from the outset to achieve success.

And then there’s always that horror story about the extreme cases where rotation just goes really wrong, as Chief Mate Bob (name changed for anonymity) experienced. Bob’s opposite, along with his best friend, the new opposite captain, had their own agenda to effectively take over the yacht and get their friends on board. They lied and managed to deceive the owner. “Having been stabbed in the back, I would think twice now about rotation,” Bob says. “The saddest part was the owner believing these new guys over myself and the captain, who’d been with him for several years. We’ve since been contacted by the management to say the new team have absolutely destroyed the yacht and all been fired, so nobody won.”

There’s definitely still a market for non-rotational roles. Rotation is also not always the best career move. For example, if you’ve just achieved your Chief Officer ticket, it might be prudent to work full time for a few years more in order to make sure you get that valuable bridge time and officer experience — it will mean you will progress faster in your career.

Developing Crew

Some yachts use rotation in order to develop their junior crew and help them move up the ranks faster. For example, when the captain goes on leave, the chief officer steps up into a junior captain role, usually (at least to start with) for deliveries, yard periods, etc. (i.e. when no guests are aboard). During this period, the bosun would step up into the CO role, thus getting more bridge/officer time, a deckhand would step into the bosun role, and a temp deckie would fill the gap at junior level.

Capt. Stephen Edwards has been using a similar system on board the large sailing yacht he runs, and now they’ve reached the stage where his junior captain will now be rotating time for time with him. “One big plus is that if managed well, it can encourage development of crew from within the boat,” Edwards says. “This is where the system we had came into its own. And for my co-captain, not many can say that their first command was a rotation on a fifty-meter-plus sailing yacht either!”

Many mid-size vessels are bringing in permanent relief positions to allow crew to recharge. Jonathan Allen, captain of a 44-meter world cruising sailing yacht, finds this system works for them. “We don’t have a fixed rotation but, rather, we have a dedicated relief engineer [who] comes in four months a year to give the full-time engineer three months off and the boat an engineer one hundred percent of the time,” he says. “I get relief in for deliveries so that I am not fatigued for guests’ trips and don’t have to take holiday time during yard/maintenance periods, when it is important to have a captain present.”

Rotation is clearly not for everyone or every yacht, but if done well and correctly, owners (and crew) will reap the benefits. As Capt. Edwards says, “Yachting will no doubt embrace rotation in the same way that the commercial world has eventually, but it will take a few more years yet for the industry to adjust to the idea and normalize.”

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