Like any captain with 20 years of yachting under his belt, Paul Bickley has seen enormous change in the yachting industry since the start of his career.
The Captain of M/Y Latitude, one of the most successful charters on the Med, reckons the biggest leap forward over the last two decades has been the internet revolution. ‘I think back to 15 years ago and wonder how I did the same job without it,’ he says. ‘It’s the biggest game changer to have happened to the industry.
‘I used to do what I’m doing now without a cell phone or the internet. We did it because we had the seamanship skills to look out of the window, look at the weather and the barometer and make a judgment based on experience. Technology is changing everything.
‘The days of a bag of tools being able to fix engines are gone, it’s all about keeping the systems and the internet going and keeping the boat talking to space. You can’t touch the engines with a spanner - they are linked to computers in Detroit or wherever. Engineering has changed dramatically along with technology and navigation systems. I rebel against a lot of these training schools. They teach you the specific density of a can of Coca Cola but they don’t teach you how to open it. You have the technical knowhow but not the practical knowledge.
‘The industry has to go this way because the boats are getting bigger and require larger crews and higher levels of manning. Yachting has to be regulated because of the tonnages and the way they are operated. But not so long ago, everything was done on a handshake, there was very little administration and legislation involved, and you could be in charge of a 60, 80 or 100ft boat. It’s not the same anymore.’
Paul has mixed views on whether regulation is a good or bad thing. ‘Is regulation a good thing? Yes, but were there more accidents or incidents before? No, there were not. You can’t fight it but it’s frustrating when you’re an older captain from another era. I have both a commercial master’s and a yachting master’s, the variations between the two industries are closing due to the commercialisation of our industry.
‘In some ways, the job then was no different to today. We still had 12 guests, the guests were just as demanding but you did everything without that technology. I sometimes wonder how the hell we did that?’
Paul, 44, started his seafaring career at 18 when he landed a deckhand position on an ex-Taiwanese deep sea stern trawler off the coast of Tasmania. ‘Where I grew up in New Zealand, fishing, farming and forestry were the primary industries,’ he recalls. ‘It was a natural progression for me to start a fishing career after leaving school.’
In seven years, he travelled over 280,000 nautical miles and his entry into yachting came when he answered a call while working as a tug master to escort a yacht through the Great Barrier Reef to Cairns. That yacht was a well known 60m+ yacht at the time and the captain told him to get in touch if he ever fancied changing career paths.
‘I flew to Fort Lauderdale and started working days here and there as a deckhand,’ he recalls. ‘I was asked to work on a charter, I had long hair and a bit of an attitude but I thought okay, let’s give it a go. My very first experience of yachting was a 10 day charter with one of the most recognisable rock stars of the time! It was a baptism of fire and I wasn’t sure it was for me so I went back to fishing for three months before giving it another try. The very next charter was with an ex US president which was another huge eye opener into the world of the glamorous industry of Yacht Charter.’
Paul commanded several reputable charter yachts before heading up Latitude’s crew, winning Fraser Yachts’ Charter Captain of the year in 2011. ‘Success for any yacht is about the owner, the boat and the crew. If you haven’t got one of those elements right, you haven’t got success. The crew is the heartbeat of the boat but if you haven’t got an owner who is supporting the captain and crew, it isn’t going to work.
‘The attitude of the owner is crucial - giving authority to the captain and not getting too involved in the decision making is key. It’s like a marriage, the captain/owner relationship takes time. Latitude is my owner’s first boat, but we have built up a great understanding over the years and found an effective strategy of understanding and communication which is very effective for all parties. His involvement in the decision making is relatively small and allows myself and management to lessen the time he needs to commit to Yacht Ownership.’
Passionate about leadership and mentoring, he believes on board training and staff investment has resulted in Latitude’s long serving staff remaining fulfilled in their jobs.
‘Crew have to feel like they are being promoted and are furthering their career otherwise they will move on,’ he adds as we chat at a café in Roquefort les Pins. ‘I’m in my sixth season on Latitude, I have 15 full-time crew and five of them have been with me from the beginning. That’s not common in yachting. It winds me up when crew come on board telling me what their friends are earning on other boats. If you serve your time, the onboard training will be rewarding.’
Technology can also be the downfall for young and green crew members. ‘Like many employers, we check various forms of social media in order to gauge their personal habits and trends when we interview for new crew,’ says Paul. ‘ I have seen potential candidates who present themselves extremely well at the interview stage but overlook the fact that their lifestyles are there to be seen online to employers.’
At the moment, Paul, who is based in Roquefort les Pins with his wife Caroline and two daughters, is making regular trips to New Zealand to oversee the building of a new 40 ft chase tender for Latitude which will be delivered this summer. ‘It will add another dimension to Latitude,’ he says. ‘For chartering it will be brilliant. One of the biggest problems in yachting is that tenders are often overlooked.
‘They are usually stuck in a garage and restricted by space but they need to be dual purpose. During the day they are sports boats but at night, they have to convert to a limousine - if the clients are going to a grand ball all dressed up, they need to arrive elegantly and not looking windswept. Getting the tender right is quite difficult. The crew’s worst enemy is a bad tender, you might as well swim to the restaurant sometimes! It requires its own captain and needs time, energy and money to run it. They are workhorses, they run 24 hrs a day and they are so under estimated. They have to be diverse and multi-faceted.’
Having sailed pretty much all over the world, Paul reckons a few destinations jostle for the top spot. ‘I sailed the South Pacific while I was growing up, which is amazing,’ he adds. ‘I’d love to go to the Fjords in Scandinavia at some point. I like New England and the Eastern Med around Croatia, Turkey and Greece is gorgeous. The west is too populated and regulated... I also quite like the shipyard because the boat doesn’t move!’ he says with a laugh.