Experience or Education: What’s More Important?

8 July 2008 By Matt Brown

What’s more important for ensuring competent crew: Formal training or higher education?

It’s not a trick question, and it also may not be an easy one to answer. Competence can come with a variety of backgrounds, experience and formal education.

If you are in a hiring position, do you favor pure yachting experience over someone with a university degree? How about someone with a mix of the two?

For all the different qualifications available to yacht crew, a college degree is perhaps the one thing that’s lacking from the typical yachting CV.

To put this in perspective, there are 12 crew on board my 50-meter yacht, yet only two have college degrees.

My crew are more than competent at their jobs. The first mate and captain have raced in the America’s Cup sailing championships on more than one occasion and collectively hold more than 60 years’ yachting experience. Neither has a college degree.

So are college degrees really essential for competent crew?

The answer, of course, is a subjective one.

Personally, I have a college degree in business computing. As a deckhand, there is no way I will ever use anything I learned in my classroom studies.

After all, it doesn't take a rocket scientist (or a business computing analyst) to wash down a yacht or polish a capstan.

But you could argue that my life experiences while in college prepared me to be more competent in any job. The skill of working as part of a team during sports activities, for instance, comes in handy when working together toward a common goal as crew.

Patricia Alexander-Bird of Intra Marine Consulting, a crew recruitment specialist based in Barcelona, Spain, says captains and the yachting industry at large place considerable value on college degrees. In many ways, college degrees suggest competence.

“Competence implies having the necessary skill or knowledge to do something, and in many jobs a degree will be an essential part of the recruitment process,” Alexander-Bird says.

Having a degree is certainly no impediment when job hunting and a candidate with a degree will have demonstrated his ability to work hard and achieve a goal. Additionally, the life skills acquired during four years spent at university are often necessary to mature young people into competent crew.

Alexander-Bird says captains seeking competent crew are usually looking for a combination of formal education, common sense and training.

“A captain will be looking for a well-rounded crewmember who can demonstrate his or her ability to do the job,” she says. “This can happen through experience and industry qualifications combined with a willingness to learn and be a good crewmember with the right attitude.

“College and university degrees have their place and may be useful for certain positions where knowledge of accounting or other specialist topics are required [like silver service],” she continues. “But in our opinion a degree is not essential for crew competence.”

Jonathan Porritt, first mate of M/Y My Little Violet, says the value of college degrees in the yachting industry should not be underestimated.

“It’s a benefit for any potential crewmember to have a degree as it shows that they have endured three to four years of study, which gives an impression of staying power and dedication,” he says. “It also shows that they are educated and [have] the ability to learn and grow within a structured environment.”

Steve Maynard disagrees. Maynard, an outspoken Australian first mate who has been working in the superyacht industry for nine years, offers his colorful opinion.

“College degrees are about as useful as tits on a bull,” he says. “Land-based college degrees simply demonstrate that you spent three years partying.”

Crew who bring with them IT, engineering and electrician or plumbing degrees can come in useful on today’s sophisticated yachts. But at the end of the day, there really isn’t any substitute for experience.

“Experience is what makes crew competent,” Maynard says.

What do you think? Does a college or university degree necessarily make you a more competent crewmember? Let us know. Leave your comment below and be sure to vote in our interactive poll.

Matt Brown is a dedicated and reliable British deckhand working within the megayacht industry. Contact Matt Brown directly by email with your questions, comments and career offers at [or visit].