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How Old is 'Too Old' to Run a Superyacht?

Chatting with friends the other day we stumbled into that old favoured yachty territory of telling funny stories of boats past. Four of us ended up telling stories of older captains we’d worked for who had begun behaving in quite odd ways on board. Now this was by no means captain-bashing, it was a good-natured chat with much laughter about some of the ‘characters’ we had encountered. Two people at the table were captains themselves. 

But what did become apparent was that it was a common experience to have worked for someone, shall we say ‘progressing in years’, to the point where their behaviour had become noticeably unusual, sometimes comical and at times downright concerning. The conversation unsurprisingly turned to ‘how old is too old’ when it comes to driving and running a superyacht?

One friend told us of a captain he had been particularly fond of, but who regularly radioed crew members who were away on holiday and had to be repeatedly and gently informed that said person was not on board the vessel. Another told us of a captain who would wander into the crew mess and regale bewildered junior stewardesses and deckhands with the same story day after day. Things got a little more worrying when we discussed one gentleman whose eyesight seemed so bad that the crew discreetly added a third watch keeper to the bridge whenever they were underway as he regularly seemed to miss other vessels on the horizon. 

Much debate was had on exactly how certain characters were passing their ENG 1 medical assessments and whether those certificates were legitimate. I can see how the mental confusion, repeating stories etc might be missed in an ENG 1, but the eyesight? That one is a worry.

I am definitely not an expert in MCA requirements, or indeed in much at all, but from what I understand there isn’t an age limit for captains, or indeed any crew. According to a friend who works in training and certification, there is no limit as long as the safety training is updated and medicals are passed. “Don’t get me started,” she said.  In that case though, is there really such a thing as corrupt doctors being paid to give out questionable ENG 1’s? It seems a bit far-fetched. Or could it be that the current medical assessment is a bit…inadequate? I am really curious to know but I’m pretty sure we will never know the answer. Yet the anecdotal evidence from many colleagues across the industry leaves me with questions.

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I started wondering how widespread this problem is and messaged a few more yachty friends. The feedback I got concerned me even more. I mean, it’s great to have an older, more experienced skipper on board. It can be a greatly steadying influence on a crew (depending on the personality of the captain of course), and experience at sea - and sea-going life - is immensely valuable. But at what point is enough, enough?  Sometimes these captains have built long, solid relationships with the owners, are on extremely sweet financial deals and are reluctant to let go of their positions. Who, in that case, is going to be the one to gently hint that maybe the time has come?

Friends responded almost instantly to my WhatsApp question: ‘Anyone ever have an older captain with age related problems before?’. The first response: “Oh yes, we had a lovely older temp captain once on MY X. He seemed to have vision problems and didn’t see a small sailing boat on one of our crossings. Luckily the other watchkeeper came on to the bridge and made a sure thing collision into a very near miss!”. On another group chat a friend said: “Yes! Captain X on MY X was terrifying! Couldn’t see a thing!” One friend even referred affectionately to her old captain ‘tottering’ around the deck; another just said “yes, eyesight and memory.”

The conversation centred around captains because they were generally the only crew members anyone ever meets over the age of 50, other than engineers. Ours is a pretty ageist industry. We had a few funny stories about older engineers too, mainly centring around getting set in their ways and tea-break tantrums over biscuit brands (NEVER stand in the way of a middle-aged engineer and his 3pm chocolate digestive), but my guess is that captains are the last to go because nobody other than the owner can really tell them time is up. 

If you think I’m being a bit harsh on the old guys here, please note that the industry is so harsh on older women that they literally barely exist at all! I could probably write a whole other article about the almost total absence of women over the age of 40. From what I have seen and experienced, having children accounts for most of the missing women, but the absence of older women is so noticeable it’s hard not to wonder at times if they’re all just stashed in a deck locker on their 35th birthday. 

Surely not every older yachty woman has had children? Perhaps they’re driven away by not wanting to work in a netball kit any more, or once Botox stops holding back the tide it’s just that much harder to get hired. Perhaps, after a certain number of years, it’s just not an inviting environment any more. And what affect does that have? If yachting is to provide a healthy nourishing environment, should it not be a little more representative of society as a whole? Who looks out for and protects the younger girls? Surely the benefit of older, more experienced crew of both genders would be beneficial. It seems as though the cut off is too harsh for one gender and not harsh enough for another.

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But I digress. I should think we all understand the value of some older captains guiding us through the mayhem that is yachting, and many times I have been grateful for the sobering presence of a mature leader on board. In fact, a desperately immature skipper could be a more frightening proposition in some ways. But should there not be a limit? I know I’d have slept a little easier in my bunk at times if I thought the bloke guiding us through the Messina Straits could actually see out of both eyes. 

The other troubling aspect of things we get into here is technology. I honestly worked for one elder gent who had to get the deck officers to operate half the navigation equipment for him. Surely that can’t be safe?! He could barely operate his desktop computer, definitely could not fill out an excel spreadsheet, and had a questionable grip on his smartphone. That stuff was also tiresome but didn’t worry me in quite the same way as the equipment that, you know, kept us all alive!   

On another yacht we would do an awful lot of CPR training, often with the chief officer mentioning the weight and age of the owner as a reason why we should all be particularly on top of our game and prepared for heart-related medical emergencies. When the captain was away, the chief officer would also openly mention in drills that the captain himself was a major heart attack risk, which was another reason for our extensive training. It wasn’t the most comforting thing in the world to hear about the man who drove the boat. I’d already heard from a friend about the devastating effect of experiencing a much-loved captain’s death on board – he suffered a heart attack while docking the boat. The crew were understandably distraught and all left the yacht in shock once his family had flown out to retrieve his body. 

I’m really not on a campaign to retire all our older captains to the nice shipyard in the sky. I do think there is huge value in age and experience on these vessels where crew and guests are in vulnerable states of isolation from home, family and friends. I have definitely worked on yachts where a comforting veteran at the top has been a great help to all the crew and made us all feel safer. But, like driving, it has long baffled me that age does not necessitate more rigorous physical and mental testing for license renewal. A few repeated stories and lost car keys I can deal with, but superyachts are dangerous and powerful bits of kit, and the thought of anyone with failing faculties being in charge of one scares the bejeezus out of me. 

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  • Comment by: oscar siches - 18 Mar 2023, 08:04 (15 months ago)

    Totally agree. A protocol based on the light tests made to air pilots would not hurt, as we old glories should not aim to immortality.

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