Career Advice

Where Next? Career Advancement for Yacht Captains

18 May 2021By Mike French
iStock/Pishit

Once at the helm, the only way for a captain to advance is to move up to a larger vessel. But how tough is it?

The career path for crew takes many twists and turns. But such is the life of yacht crew — what appears to be the best career choice often carry with it compromises, and sometimes life gets in the way. The level of self-sacrifice that yacht crew endure means that family, friends, and the annual calendar of holidays and events often have to be sacrificed. It feels like we’re sometimes required to sell our souls and not simply our services.

Career advancement is tough in an industry with more available captains than there are yachts, which creates a buyer’s market.

Perhaps one of the most difficult career moves is for a mate or first officer to get their first command or for a captain to move up the ladder in vessel size. A number of factors have to fall into place, and sometimes it seems that even the stars have to align. Career advancement is tough in an industry with more available captains than there are yachts, which creates a buyer’s market.

Not an Exact Science

In this environment, the correct licenses, training, and paperwork are only an entry point for applying for a job as the real qualification for advancement requires command experience. The problem is that there seems to be no exact science in determining what experience is enough and so getting to the next rung on the career ladder can appear to be a dark art rather than a science. This presents captains, mates, or first officers trying to make that first step into captaincy with an issue, as in the absence of a clearly defined experience requirement, it is very difficult to proactively carve out a career path.

iStock/yoh4nn

In today’s yachting industry, with the easy access to job vacancy sites and crew agencies, the issue is not simply getting to convince a recruiter or owner that you are the right person for the job, but actually getting the chance to qualify for an interview.

Inevitably, if one can’t separate the difference between similarly qualified captains, it is their experience and track record that matters most. This filtering process becomes more important as a screening tool when there are large numbers of applications to deal with. This month alone, a position for a captain on a 50-meter yacht on Yotspot received nearly 300 applicants in the course of just a few days. It is unlikely that the recruiter will even look at 50 CVs, let alone 300.

Recruiters then can and do use a number of easy and effective means to reduce the applicants to a manageable pile.

“We allow all registered members to apply for positions, so this does indeed allow vacant positions to receive a large volume of applicants,” Daryl Bradley of Yotspot explains. “However, we then provide easy-to-use filters intended to reduce the lesser-qualified candidates in favor of those with better matching attributes. The screening for vessel size is graduated so a captain moving up isn’t precluded from applying for the next logical step in their career.” He also adds that personality cannot be filtered and suggests this is best left to the recruitment agencies with a knowledge of the captain.

Recruiters then can and do use a number of easy and effective means to reduce the applicants to a manageable pile. If we remove age, looks, and race, which are sadly still held in high esteem as part of the qualification process, the main area of difference is experience in size of vessel operated and of course, longevity, the holy grail.

iStock/ERHUI1979

The experience of a certain type of vessel (sail or power for instance) or type of operation (charter vs. private) are obvious separators of experience and are routinely employed in the selection process. This is all well and good and if one has run 30-meter boats successfully for a couple of years, there is surely no issue with being qualified for a similar vessel. However, if a captain wishes to get to the next rung on the career ladder, there comes a point at which he or she is looking to move to a larger vessel. In this case, a captain who has successfully run a 30-meter vessel may not make the screening process to be considered for say, a 40-meter vessel. But what about a 35- or 33-meter?

Ian Stuart, a captain with more than 20 years’ experience in the industry, has experienced losing out on a position owing to his experience in yacht size being determined as a limiting factor. “I was applying for a position on a 130-foot vessel, which would have been a jump from my previous vessel, which was just less than 100,” he says. “Although I was tonnage-certified, I was told in no uncertain terms that I was not considered competent to run a 130-foot vessel.” Stuart is not the only captain to face this issue where, despite formal qualifications, there appears to be a size boundary. Several captains who were questioned cited similar experiences.

However, in reality, the complexities of different vessel operations must surely play a part in whether a captain is qualified to step up — and just how far.

Size Matters

One of the factors that limit a captain’s ability to move up in size is logically the insurance underwriters’ willingness to insure a captain, and for this reason, it is also logical to assume that there is some system in place that clarifies the actual size difference that an insurer would reasonably accept as a step up for a captain. However, in reality, the complexities of different vessel operations must surely play a part in whether a captain is qualified to step up — and just how far.

Scott Stamper, managing director of Atlass Insurance, points out that still one of the most common causes of insurers rejecting a captain is actually licensing. “There is a misconception that on private yachts, where there may not be a formal license requirement in terms of tonnage, an underwriter’s view is of potential risk — and [risk] doesn’t necessarily reduce with the yacht being [operated] privately as opposed to commercially. This means that a license to match the tonnage of the yacht is often required by the underwriters, even on private vessels,” he says.

iStock/cdwheatley

“In cases where a captain has the required license for a bigger vessel, we would then look closely at their command experience and, of course, any loss history. Other considerations include the type of waters where this experience was gained, i.e. tidal or non-tidal. We also want to see experience of operations in geographic areas that are subject to tropical weather systems if the vessel is to cruise The Bahamas or Caribbean,” Stamper adds.

John Jarvie of Oversea Insurance points out that some underwriters do try to apply a loose size limit on the vessel size a captain can advance to. “I have seen underwriters suggest a size jump of five meters, but this is not always a fixed increment,” he says. However, Jarvie also makes another point. “Bear in mind that an underwriter with no knowledge of the captain only has a CV to go on and sometimes CVs are focused on attracting owners and not outlining command experience,” he says. “More often than not, we can assist a captain who we know to present their actual experiences in the language best understood by the underwriters.”

While insurance underwriters are not simply applying arbitrary constraints to a captain’s career, they can and do use limits where they perceive risk.

Stepping Up

Rupert Connor of Luxury Yacht Group explains that when a captain steps up to a larger vessel and the owner requests coverage for the captain, his or her eligibility is part of a complex set of factors. “We employ a holistic approach in selecting a captain for a given position,” Connor says. “These are broadly centered around three main factors: personality, license, and experience. So, insurance limitations on vessel size alone is not necessarily a gateway [that] is either open or closed according to a definitive rule. If we have a candidate who is suited to and selected by the owner, we work closely with an insurer and a jump in size for the right captain is often quite possible.”

Jarvie echoes this sentiment. “If an owner wants a particular captain and the underwriters consider it a higher risk, then an increased premium is sometimes a route they may consider,” he says. “After all, an insurance premium is intended to reflect the underwriter’s exposure to risk.”

iStock/danr13

Nigel Beatty, owner of SGRM Insurance, points out that there is a context for why insurance underwriters might be risk-averse. “The last few years have seen a number of significant insurance claims in the yachting sector,” Beatty says. “Remember that hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria cost the insurance industry over $260 billion. It should be no surprise then that underwriters are responding by limiting risk and promoting the appointment of more experienced captains.”

For the ambitious captain, Ian Pelham of Preferred Crew offers some sensible advice. “Career progression is a marathon, not a sprint. Before accepting a job offer, consider carefully if it fits into your long-term plans; will you be able to complete a full contract, or longer?” he says. “A series of good, but short-term, jobs may do more harm than good to your long-term goal. Other than the legal ability to hold the position, the number one factor requested by owners for applicants is longevity.”

“Career progression is a marathon, not a sprint. Before accepting a job offer, consider carefully if it fits into your long-term plans; will you be able to complete a full contract, or longer?” 

For yacht captains, navigating the career path is hard enough given the total and complete commitment required of us for the long term — this is before we even consider the licenses and training that the regulations demand. Couple that with the fact that it’s a buyer’s market and insurers are a little gun-shy and it may seem as though ambition may have to take a back seat to job security and accumulating solid longevity. Evidently, there are more captains than the industry has jobs for and so in economic speak, the market is acting and setting the terms that many captains have to live with. With a glut of captains, perhaps there is room for all to have some form of rotation — albeit on reduced salaries in some sort of job share. Longevity is often the stated goal for owners and there is a definitive correlation between longevity and rotation. However, if captains are unwilling to sacrifice salary, the additional cost of rotational crew may be beyond an owner’s value proposition.

The reality is that being a captain is possibly the best job in the world — we get to run a small corporation with a fabulous office, one main customer, and don’t have to make a profit in order to justify our salary. What could be better than that?

This feature is taken from the September 2020 issue of Dockwalk.

More from Dockwalk