King of the World

12 September 2008 By Kate Hubert

The captain of a yacht is a monarch of the sea. Watching them hold dominion over their floating world, it’s hard to believe that these demi-gods were once not only mortals like us, but they were mere crew.

For those new to the industry, it may seem impossible to achieve such lofty heights – so if it is true that captains do not arrive fully formed and directly descended from Mount Olympus, then how do you make them.

Leaving their extensive qualifications aside for a moment – what sort of person makes a good skipper?

Some say you can distill it down to several must-have attributes, including honesty, integrity, reliability, flexibility, compassion and endurance.

“As a captain be prepared to be asked to do the impossible, and cope with the unexpected with a smile,” says Capt. Graeme Lawrence of the S/Y Queen of Andaman.

Zero to Hero?
So if you tick all those boxes, what next? Most people in the industry say that it usually takes somewhere between four and 10 years working on boats before you make skipper. If you are brand new to the industry, you might be tempted to enroll in one of the "zero-to-hero" type courses, but it might be worthwhile actually going out to sea first.

As John Scott of the Global Crew Network says “Don't pay thousands for a commercial yacht master’s course before you know yachting is the right career for you. It's no good spending all that money then realizing you suffer badly with sea sickness or miss home comforts and being on land!”

Traditionally the progression is from deckhand, through third-, second-, and first mate before you hit the high spot. And there’s a good reason for this.

“It’s important to move through the chain of command…gaining experience as you go," says Capt. Lawrence. "Zero to hero in a few months is missing the point; it’s important to gain the sea miles and experience that goes with it.”

Super-size me
As yachts become increasingly megasized, the sheer mass of the vessel becomes more important. Once you’re getting to 3000gt and above, ex-commercial captains come into their own. On smaller craft, you’ll need to be at least a yachtmaster (or equivalent) with a commercial endorsement.

There’s some serious studying to be done and you’ll find a bewildering array of qualifications you could go for. It’s probably a good idea to quiz a friendly mate or skipper to work out which are really necessary for the type of work you’re most interested in pursuing in your career. And never forget -- you can have all the qualifications that float, but experience and sea time are absolutely vital. So cast off those bow-lines…

Find your yachting Yoda
Gaining experience on a variety of yachts will stand you in good stead on your voyage to glory. When you encounter a good skipper, make like Luke Skywalker and listen to your Yoda: "Wise indeed they are."

Or just do as Capt. Lawrence suggests: “Pay attention to the captains you work for…There are always many stories to learn from. Show initiative and ambition and it does not take long to shine.”

Don’t go overboard
So let’s assume you’ve sailed the seven seas and studied hard. After this, becoming a skipper might be more about avoiding pitfalls along the way.

“Although the yachting industry is huge and spread all over the world, it's a surprisingly tight, interlinked community," warns Global Crew Network's Scott. "Any bad behavior or misdemeanors may come back to haunt you in the future.”

It’s also worth thinking about a skipper’s job in terms of senior management.

We all know good and bad skippers – often the bad ones might be great sailors, but their social skills are usually on a par with Joseph Stalin…or worse.

Terry Wilson of Wilson Halligan Large Yacht Recruitment thinks “people-management skills and the same capabilities as a high-caliber manager ashore” are additional talents that would-be captains should master. And then you can start to think about bringing on your crew…

Grow your own
Once you become god, sorry, a skipper, responsibility weighs heavy your shoulders.

As a captain, it’s up to you to nurture the yachting deities of the future. Not only will you retain good crew, you’ll be improving the performance of your team, as well as helping the industry in general.

These new kids are not competition; they are the future of the yachting industry. A great crew can complement any captain and is an enduring reflection of leadership.

So, what are the top traits you look for in future captains? Vote in our poll and share your comments below.