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The Growing Trend of Rotational Crew Position Requests

25 February 2022By Kate Lardy
iStock/Marta Shershen

Written by

Kate Lardy

Based in Fort Lauderdale, freelance writer Kate Lardy got her start in the yachting industry working as crew. She spent five years cruising the Bahamas, Caribbean, New England, and Central America, then segued that experience into a career in marine journalism, which has included stints as editor of Dockwalk and ShowBoats International.

It started on the largest of superyachts. Ship-like yachts such as 414-foot Octopus filled their quarters with crew from the commercial maritime world who required a rotational work schedule. “The only choice we had was to give them rotation because that was their cultural professional expectation,” says Michael Reardon, who then worked for Octopus’s management company, Fraser, and today runs Reardon Yacht Consulting in Fort Lauderdale. “It was new to us (at Fraser) and to yachting,” he says.

Since that introduction, rotation programs in yachting have been steadily gaining favor. It’s the norm for engineers and has grown significantly for captains and officers; more mid-level crew like bosuns and second stews are now requesting it, and it is even making inroads into the most junior crew positions.

With the economics of supply and demand currently on the side of crew, the industry appears ready for a rotation revolution. “At Quay Crew, we genuinely believe we are right on the cusp of huge change in the yachting industry which will result in drastically improved packages for all crew. It seems like a different client is contacting us weekly to pick our brains about implementing an improved leave package [in order to] improve retention,” says Tim Clarke, director of Quay Crew in Poole, England.

Some owners are embracing a “live life to the fullest while you can” philosophy in the inherently socially distant, safe atmosphere a yacht provides.

Fueled by a crew shortage, turnover is high at the moment and owners are scrambling to retain good crew. “Crew are in the strongest position they have ever been in and it will continue to get better for a while yet,” predicts Clarke. “Yesterday, a client called me and said they are implementing 2:2 (two months on/two off) for everyone from the most junior crewmember up. Other yachts will follow suit. It will make it even more challenging for yachts [that] only offer 60 days leave or less. Yacht owners will have to embrace this new world, or they will be left behind, struggling to fulfill manning requirements, with ever-increasing turnover.”

With most rotational jobs stemming from very large superyachts, and with more 100-meter-plus vessels launching each year, it’s natural that the sheer number of rotation opportunities is increasing, but in addition, industry insiders are seeing the trend trickle down to the under 60-meter market.

Mark O'Connell

Cameron Riddell, owner of 35-meter S/Y Eros, is one such small-yacht owner who really appreciates his crew. “We have the best crew we’ve ever had now, and it’s very important that they’re all part of the program as long as possible going forward. So in a nutshell, I try to do whatever I can to get them the time that they need away so they keep their batteries charged and they want to come back,” he says. “Whatever he can” includes a rotation scheme for his captain and mate.

“I’ve seen the demand and value of rotation growing,” says Reardon. “I don’t know exponentially but it’s growing rapidly. For example, I have a new 180-foot boat under management. The captain said to the owners, ‘Look, I’ll do this for a year not on rotation, but if you want me, I’ve got a family and they’re far away; it’s got to be rotation.’ It was super professional, very kind in the way he presented it, but it was non-negotiable. Then, on the opposite end (of the size spectrum), I have this teeny little boat just signed with us that really shouldn’t be in our sort of management program, but the way the client wants to handle things has the captain responsible for a small fleet. It will be demanding and the client wants the boats ready at the snap of a finger. And he said if it requires rotation, that’s fine.”

High Demand

Crew appear to be fully on board as more yachts adopt rotation. Clarke reports an almost universal demand for these jobs. “When we started Quay Crew back in 2013, all crew asked for heavy charter. That was the number one requirement by a country mile, followed by world cruising,” he says. “Now more and more yachts offer an interesting itinerary and we hear this less and less. Crew don’t ask for charter yachts with anywhere near the regularity they once did. What they do ask for now is rotation, regardless of role or level. Pretty much every crewmember who comes to us is requesting some form of rotation now. The vast majority of senior crew want time-for-time rotation and junior want 3:1 or better. We get average crew with average references from average yachts with just a few months of experience saying they are only interested in 3:1 roles.”

iStock/Marta Shershen

They’re not all getting these coveted positions, of course. Marcy Laturno, executive crew placement director at Luxury Yacht Group in Fort Lauderdale, estimates that out of 500 active job listings, “about 20 to 25 percent of those jobs are offering some rotation, whether [it is] 5:1 or 3:1 or 3:3 or 2:2.”

“At Quay Crew, we genuinely believe we are right on the cusp of huge change in the yachting industry which will result in drastically improved packages for all crew…”

“There are still a lot less rotational jobs available on the market compared to full-time positions,” agree the crew placement agents at The Crew Network in Antibes. “Most rotational jobs are found on 70-meter-plus yachts. Although, this year we have noticed that there have been a few 50-meter boats introducing rotational contracts; these are boats that are heavily used.”

The pandemic is partially responsible, affecting the attitudes of both owners and crew. Some owners are embracing a “live life to the fullest while you can” philosophy in the inherently socially distant, safe atmosphere a yacht provides. “The current climate has shifted in a positive way with the industry being more vibrant, owners enjoying their yachts, and charter numbers rising,” observes Sarah Bester of Northrop & Johnson’s crew placement division in Fort Lauderdale. “The activity these days warrants having refreshed crew on board at all times…. Rotational positions are becoming more commonplace on 40- to 50-meter programs, which we hadn’t seen as much of previously.”

Crew, as well, are putting a higher priority on spending time with family and friends, a trend that the team at The Crew Network has noticed and credits to the pandemic. “It seems like work-life balance is becoming an important factor for crew — hence an increased demand for rotational roles,” say crew consultants Anastasija Splosnova and Ksenia Kokoshkina.

The Cons

The biggest objection from owners is cost. Many share the mindset of Jim Glidewell, owner of two 40-meter yachts and until recently a 49-meter, who says, “My understanding is that some crew want six months off but with twelve months’ pay. I am not sure I heard that right. This existing crew shortage makes it believable (but) all shortages eventually are eliminated. Clogs in transportation are sorted out and normalcy will again become ‘normal.’”

“Yachting forces too many good, experienced people to choose life and family over career.”

None of his crew works on rotation. Unlike commercial work, which is typically steady and continuous with no days off, a yacht crew’s workload ebbs and flows, Glidewell points out. “If a yacht works charters real hard, it is usually a seasonal thing. We go to the northeast from June to August, and then do maintenance September through December. January through May is The Bahamas season. When the boat is in the yard, the crew gets quite a bit of time off. Also, there are breaks in the northeast for vacation also.”

iStock/Marta Shershen

While crew generally don’t demand full pay for time-for-time rotational positions, they do expect more than half their pay. “Often I hear, ‘I cannot afford my expenses on only half my salary,’” Laturno says. “The owners not only have two salaries, but double flights, double uniforms, double insurance. I believe there would be more rotational roles if crew were more realistic about the wages they received while working a rotational role.”

Reardon puts it in simplified numbers: “Let’s say a guy is earning $10,000 a month. If he goes on rotation, he’s going to plan on taking a one-third hit. Using round numbers, we’ll say $7,000. So now we’ve got a $14,000 payroll instead of a $10,000…payroll, plus travel and health insurance.”

Health insurance is a complicating factor. Because of it, rotational contracts will prohibit crew from taking on another job during their time off — yet many do. If they get hurt while moonlighting, the claim will affect the primary yacht’s insurance, which is hardly fair to the yacht providing the benefits.

Logistics are another downside, particularly during a pandemic when travel has been restricted. Ryan Bester, one of two captains on board the new 50-meter Arkadia, calls it the main challenge. In addition to working 2:2 with the other captain, he has several crew on a 3:1 rotation. “We are quite deliberate and organized in terms of our itinerary planning to avoid any complications that may disrupt the flow of the program,” he says.

Even in pre-pandemic times when you have a yacht whose crew fully rotates, organizing travel to and from the boat is an arduous task. “There wasn’t a day that went by when I wasn’t planning a hotel or flight,” says Capt. Mike French of his position as senior rotational captain on an Amels motor yacht based in the South Pacific with 26 rotating crew.

Mark O'Connell

The Pros

Despite the challenges of managing a full crew on rotation, Capt. French says the job was well worth it. “I’d always wanted to cruise down there. And I loved every second of it because I knew that I was going home, so I could really enjoy what I was doing. I have a family and it’s tough to be apart, but if you give them a date it’s brilliant because it’s like Christmas. They get excited and it passes the time quicker. They don’t have to keep asking, ‘When are you coming home, Daddy?’

“Rotation is the only way for experienced crew with families to stay in the game, in my view,” French continues. “I love the job, the travel, and of course the salary, but yachting forces too many good, experienced people to choose life and family over career.”

There’s an upside for owners, too: crew continuity. “For savvy owners who understand the benefit of crew longevity, having rotational crew is the ideal scenario, as it ensures the yacht is always available to them and that crew aren’t getting burned out and leaving the program simply because they need a well-earned break,” says Capt. Bester of Arkadia.

“It’s very important for the rest of the crew to not have too much of a contrast between captain’s management styles and personalities,” says Osborne of Slipstream.

He describes his current bosses as such savvy people. “Crew longevity is quite important to them; for a family program such as ours, it’s wonderful for them to come on and see the same faces each trip.”

Steve Osborne and Phil Stevens have shared the captain role on 60-meter charter yacht Slipstream equally for the last decade. The chief officer and chief engineer are also fully rotating positions, and the longevity record of the entire crew on board is impressive. Osborne credits this to “identical management styles” between him and Stevens. “It’s very important for the rest of the crew to not have too much of a contrast between captain’s management styles and personalities,” he says.

“From a personal perspective, knowing that the yacht is in extremely capable hands means I can focus my time and energy on my family when I am home. Workwise, I am always refreshed, focused, and ready to fully immerse myself in the operation of the yacht, motivate the crew, and ensure I pick up exactly what was handed over to me and work towards doing the same during my time on board.”

It is for reasons like these that much of the industry has come around to seeing the benefits of rotation. “At first glance, rotation schemes significantly increase the salary budget of the vessel, but we believe in the long-term, costs are offset by a guarantee for excellent onboard crew dynamics, invaluable for owners’ family and guest enjoyment and safety,” point out Splosnova and Kokoshkina at The Crew Network.

“It is a win for the industry,” says Bester at Northrop & Johnson. “And it is certainly an advantage to any owner looking to maximize their crew.”

This article originally ran in the February 2022 issue of Dockwalk.

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