What It Takes to Be a Great Captain

16 April 2008 By Kelly Sanford

Think you have what it takes to be a great yacht captain? Of course you do, but what do your crew and industry insiders think? Keep these goals in mind as you make your bid for greatness.

Boat Handling Skills
No one says you have to be able to pull a Captain Ron and put the boat on a face dock at 20 knots without fenders, but great captains are comfortable handling the boat in difficult conditions. We have all seen those captains who scream at their crew during docking procedures… definitely not candidates for greatness.

Good Judgment
Great captains will not put the safety of the boat, its passengers or crew at risk because of a bad decision.

Communication Skills
Great captains are able to give constructive criticism to crew without belittling them.  They are also able to diplomatically and logically reason with owners or guests when they make irrational or unreasonable requests.

Proactive Leadership
Owners, crew, and guests alike have more respect for a captain with a solid work ethic and the willingness to help the crew -- not just order them around. As Capt. John Calvert says, “There are people who lead by pushing people around, and there are those who lead by pulling everyone along with them.”  Pullers are always more likeable than pushers.

Management Skills
There is so much more to being in command than just running the boat and handling the crew. Great captains are able to negotiate on behalf of the boat and its owners, and they are also able to manage a budget and schedule.

Engineering Skills
Great captains know how all the systems on board work. You don’t necessarily have to be able to pull apart and rebuild the engines, but superlative captains understand the fundamentals of everything.

Great captains are connected. They know which shipyards do the best work. They know how to finagle dockage reservations on short notice. Great captains know who has the nicest van on St. Thomas and where to buy the freshest fish on Corsica.

Though it’s not necessarily a deal breaker for greatness, a captain is certainly more distinguished among his peers if he/she has covered some serious geography. Sitting behind a house in Palm Beach (Fla.) during the winter and at a marina in Sag Harbor (N.Y.) all summer will not exactly set you apart from the pack.

Great captains know what it takes to make them happy in this industry. It all goes back to making good decisions. Captains who choose their boats wisely will tend to stay with an owner for a long time and not constantly jump from one boat to another.

A Big Ticket
There are many really good captains who just hate being in a classroom. They would rather run a smaller boat than have to sit through sea-school in order to move up. But we’re talking about greatness here. Really great captains enjoy the opportunity to further their qualifications, even if it means sitting in a classroom in lieu of a wheelhouse.

Good Hygiene
Yachting is all about aesthetics. The captain is a reflection of the boat and good captains must look their best.

A Winning Personality
This is probably the most important aspect of a great captain. In fact there are a lot of “okay” captains with really great boats because they have a likeable personality. Crew genuinely likes them and they are equally comfortable socializing with owners and their guests.