Career Advice

Training vs. Experience: If You Want to Make it as Yacht Crew, You Need Both

29 July 2021By Hillary Hoffower
Credit: Mark O'Connell

It’s the chicken or the egg dilemma — which comes first, training or experience? The answer, not so conveniently, is both. But there’s more to it than that — it’s also a matter of balancing them properly.

Louise Cailbourdin of The Crew Network explains it succinctly: As the superyacht industry increasingly aligns itself with the international shipping safety and labor regulations, minimum certification is essential and formal training is highly desirable. “Experience is putting that formal training into practice while growing from non-textbook scenarios and from inspiring onboard mentors,” she says. “The ideal profile offers both training and experience.” But how many crew actually fit that ideal profile? Rumor on the water is that it seems to be lacking, with many crew weighing their scales heavily on the training side.

Both captains Iain Cook of S/Y Ngoni and Vaughan Hill of M/Y ·11·11· have seen many “zero to hero” crew over the years — those who have little experience to support the qualifications they’ve gained quickly, but manage to make their way to the top regardless. “Any individual can attend a classroom, study hard, and pass an exam, but without good practical experience and knowledge (which builds a person’s character, inter-crew skills, and leadership skills), the idea they can automatically run a vessel, deal with owners, and manage a budget, etc. is far from reality,” says Cook.

Credit: Mark O'Connell

Similarly, Cailbourdin has often heard complaints about fast-track newly qualified captains or officers taking jobs of responsibility that they don’t have the onboard experience to assume. In reality, she points out, a yacht owner generally only entrusts their multi-million dollar superyacht in the hands of seasoned captains or officers with proven track records.

“Oftentimes we see crew rushing to upgrade their licenses with the belief they will be paid more money; however that’s not the reality,” says Angela Wilson, now owner of Wilson Crew Management. “You can’t put a price tag on experience and longevity.”

So how did we get to this point where crew are advancing, or trying to advance, based merely on their credentials? “The industry is experiencing growing pains… the fleet has expanded enormously in the past ten years and there simply is not enough good quality and qualified crew to fill the positions, so the guys and gals with little or no experience — but with the required credentials — are getting hired due to SMD requirements,” explains Hill, adding that many good and experienced crew left the industry when regulators enforced qualifications for everyone, rather than returning to school and paying all the fees, resulting in an industry loss of experience.

He specifically finds a lack of good quality and experienced OOWs — those with no real yacht experience are getting hired due to having a license. “I’ve had a chief officer who came from the merchant Navy and was a ‘master mariner,’ with most of his experience being gained in a classroom or on the bridge of a four-hundred meter ship,” he recalls. “When I asked him to maneuver the yacht and dock it stern-to in a yacht marina, he was way out of his depth…in flat, calm conditions, which I found disturbing.”

iStock/Ceri Breeze

It’s certainly not a good look when, put to the test, your skills don’t line up with your CV qualifications. So what can be done to help captains match real-time experience with relevant qualifications, attaining Cailbourdin’s version of an ideal profile and what Hill calls a perfect world?

Although it’s great to progress with tickets, Wilson warns against getting ahead of yourself. A “balanced” crewmember, she says, means that their experience and current ticket are in line with where they’re at in the industry. “If you jump too quickly and gain a much higher ticket than your experience, you will no longer be balanced,” she adds. “Captains don’t employ crew holding tickets that outrank their position unless it provides long-term benefits for the yacht, i.e. having the option to promote from within or stepping up to provide relief when a more senior crewmember goes on holiday.”

“When interviewing newly qualified captains or officers, we often hear that they want to start at a lower rank, ideally stepping up into a relief role as they gain experience,” adds Cailbourdin. “For the occasional overambitious candidate offering all training yet underqualified per experience for the job on offer, there would be a red flag regarding realism.” For example, one captain who had experience on smaller vessels took a step back when he moved up to a larger vessel, taking on a first officer role until he gained the experience he needed to climb the ladder.

Slow and steady wins the race, and it doesn’t hurt to have some kind of experience on the water, even if it’s not superyacht related. Hill aims to hire deck or officer crew who can show a marine background of some kind, whether it’s sailing, commercial fishing, tour operating, etc. so he can at least see some real-time, hands-on experience learned outside the classroom.

Credit: Mark O'Connell

Yet, firsthand experience isn’t the end all, be all. Cailbourdin points out that a CV that shows no interest in training (except the absolute minimum) or no career advancement over many years can make her question the applicant’s level of commitment. She does recognize, though, that there may be valid reasons for this, such as a crewmember working many years on a smaller private yacht, where continued training is less requisite.

“We value experience alongside the necessary formal training, and the regulations in many cases define the needed experience before applying for a qualification,” says Clive McCartney, now a director at Denison Yachting. “What is important is the environment where the experience is gained — is it one where the formal training is enriched by onboard application, with monitoring and feedback of performance? There is solid data [that] shows that training — which is properly delivered and monitored in the operational context — results in reduced accidents, unnecessary downtime, insurance claims, and crew turnover.”

Formal training on board brings the classroom to the yacht. While this does not offer official real-time experience, the idea does help decrease the gap between qualifications and experience, offering a better understanding by putting lessons into an area of context and practice for crew.

Hill puts the debate into perspective when comparing yachting to the airline industry. “If you were a passenger in an aircraft and you knew that the guy flying it hadn’t much experience, but learned everything in a classroom without a simulator, would you be comfortable?”

First published in the April 2018 edition of Dockwalk.

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