Industry » Features » Mentoring in Yachting: A Peculiar Challenge?

Mentoring in Yachting: A Peculiar Challenge?

Stoically recovering from a pink gin induced hangover, Horatio (‘H’ to his pals) was under way, drifting alone and thus at peace - fishing from his 21ft marine ply ‘battleship’ Jolly Fisherman. A nice flounder inboard, he was just about content, indulging his Friday ‘post binge’ cure of choice: alternating deep inhalations of crisp post-cold frontal air through his flared hairy nostrils, punctuated with man-size bites of a Ginster’s lardy pasty. Washed down with Lucozade. 

His mobile phone buzzed and broadcast ‘Hearts of Oak’ (which, as you know, is the march of the Senior Service). Glancing down, he smiled - it was former shipmate and adopted sea son, Shuggy, clanky and all-round bon oeuf of the glamour ship CAVIARE, beautiful yacht of Fyodor McIlyich, the renowned (dark) world underpant oligarch.  As they say in the Middle East, ‘after greetings’ Shuggy went on…

“Hey Uncle H me old salt, I’d sell me kidney for a shekel to get yer thoughts; got a bit of a bijou snaggette …”

His luxurious senior officer’s eyebrows knitting, H was hooked immediately; sensing Shug’s obvious anxiety, he knew instinctively that Shuggy needed a special pal. This wasn’t casual banter - this was a cry for help. Full gain, total sensitivity. ‘Go on Shugs’, replied Horatio calmly, listening intently. 

‘H, Skippy’s really hit the soup big time; locked himself in his cabin, won’t come out and we know he’s got a case of the boss’s rocket fuel in there. He’s been weird recently, especially since he bounced us off the putty near Portofino last month. That really fazed him. H, I’m worried about Skippy – he’s been in there for three bloody days on a fast track to gyro failure and the long basket weaving course. I’m buggered if I know what to do’…

Ditty Ends 

You might recall that my salt encrusted sage and occasional alter-ego, Horatio Hardy, is an ancient master mariner, recently exposed by strange chance to the alien world (at least to him) of commercial yachting, in which he lasted a whole two days. So, what is his former shipmate Shuggy asking for? What’s wrong with Skippy, his charmingly gauche captain? ‘Bijou snaggette’, understatement being de rigueur in the wardroom, is naval slang for a mega-problem (aka up shit creek… ).

Have you already had a gut reaction how H should reply? Do you recognise the multifaceted dilemma Shuggy faces? What would you do in H’s shoes? Or more to the point here, what would you not do?

To those of you who read my ‘Myth-busting HELM’ ditty, this looks a step further into how masters and their HODs might deal with a disturbingly thorny issue; the unwelcome question that is both awkward and multifaceted. One, you neither want nor like it and would much prefer a quieter life; two, what value and hideous risks, for example, might arise by invoking the ‘company’ DPA already burdened with innumerable conflicts of interest. And three, you’re flummoxed – damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Welcome to command. Who do you turn to?

As a captaincy tutor, I often find myself after the event (being a successful oral exam) as a de facto confidante, being asked to opine on command management challenges like that tickler posed to H. Or to just listen; that’s often all they want. And there are other shockers, believe me, immeasurably more salacious and challenging than the relative child’s play of a pissed captain who’s merely fallen off the wagon and gone on alcoholic walkabout.

One thing goes without saying (so I’ll say it) in the ‘phone a friend business’: sometimes honesty can be brutal but it comes with guaranteed privacy. Ground rules: one, if you don’t want an opinion, don’t ask for it; two, if you ask for advice, you don’t have to take it. And three, don’t be offended when your chosen counsel reminds you that it’s your job to decide, not theirs.

When a troubled member of my exclusive alumni club calls, I sometimes wonder whether they view me as an adviser, tutor, or pal? Or perhaps the trendy Cheri Blair ilk ‘life-coach’, that currently popular epithet for expressing views of dubious value on lipstick shades and bum volume (do these Hermes tarantula fur shorts make me arse look fat?)

So…from a swift googling of the unscalable mountains of web-based info, let’s have a brief look at some of the mentor’s competitors. It’s perfectly reasonable to ask what qualifies someone to teach, advise, coach or toot (TACT). It’s also very healthy for practitioners of these arts to ask themselves the same question; in fact, they should.


Teach, train and explain by example and method how to do things and understand concepts.They impart specified knowledge and skills, usually in groups. You might have just met them, so it helps to have some faith in their ability (faith being belief without evidence).


You know this person to be highly knowledgeable, but limited in specific scope (eg legal or finance). They might be self-serving, so you keep them at arm’s length; they often bring out healthy scepticism in you. Don’t ask for advice if you don’t want it. You don’t socialise with them (and often wouldn’t want to.) You need to respect their special knowledge, that’s all. They usually offer a choice, options.


Narrowly focused expertise, groups (teams) but often one-to-one; greater focus on contributive behaviour, efficiency and effectiveness (of physical outcomes; ie input over output). They might be a stranger to you; you are not necessarily interested in them, and nor are they interested in you (in fact, they might struggle to contain their indifference as a trade off against their maniacal single-mindedness). Theirs and your enthusiasm is obsession for a subject; the perfect martini, applied origami (how to make an aardvark from three pieces of bog paper).  Coaches think people with needs are wimps; they do not offer choice.  


By implication an extension of teaching, this focuses on understanding to consolidate, test and deepen existing ideas and knowledge; for example, the tactics to pass a specific exam. You probably know them quite well and respect their skill and knowledge; you might even have a drink with them after work (provided you pay).

Thinking back to the question posed by Shuggy to H at the start of this ditty, is there an obvious choice (provided you generously cede at least some validity to the ludicrously brief and simplistic TACT descriptors above) of what manner of confidante/counsellor is best equipped to help Shugs in his moment of need?

None of the above?  Perhaps what they need is a Mentor. Is that person different and, if so, in what way?  

Mentoring 1

Let’s consider what Shuggy is actually asking and, as importantly, why. And who or what might be able to help him decide ‘what to do’. But before we do, please ask yourself simply what Shuggy should do and for what purpose. In a single, short sentence. Go on, think about it, if only for a few seconds. I’ll come back to this later, so press on.

The strictures and limits of your attention span, curiosity (if any) and more pressing matters elsewhere, combined with my enduring (in)ability to hold your attention (you are reading this, after all), force my inevitable conclusion that there is neither time nor more space herein comprehensively to discuss options other than ‘mentoring’. And in any event, this is not a competition, but it’s helpful to consider what mentoring is by focusing on what it is not. If you are a self-appointed commercial/professional ‘mentor’ (of whom I see hordes advertising in glossy media) pay attention to this bit. 

You might well be aware of the Just Enough, Just in Time (JEJIT) principle in training: in effect ‘glossing over an important subject’ in the hope that an iota of curiosity is kindled by minimal exposure that leads and encourages further ‘private’ study. This philosophy thus demands the rigid imposition of that most challenging form of discipline - self-discipline.

Many would opine that ‘this is the prevalent culture in yachting’. Discuss. There is no discernible organic culture of either training or education in the yachting sector but YOU, being in yachting, might not realise that. You can’t see it because you are too close to the coal face, especially if yachting is the only workplace you know. Myopic expectancy bias and/or cognitive hysteresis affects us all: I used to think, nay believe, that ‘the navy way is the only way’ until I joined my next ship (civilianship) and discovered that narrow-minded naval chaps could learn much from their yachtie counterparts; ship-handling and knobology being very good examples. It’s amazing what you can see when you look, and hear when you actually listen.

Career Development Planning (CDP) is an explicitly required benefit all sea-going yachties should (shall) enjoy because it is mandated in MLC (Reg 2.8), and hence is a legal requirement. Do you get it?  Do you, as a people manager, at some level provide your troops with it? Who looks after and cares about you?

What am I trying to get across… it’s a bit like how you become a minimally competent marine meteorologist en route to a Master 3000 CoC. You study basic ‘met’ in the classroom for maybe a day and a half (OOW GSK and Masters Sea & Met), when other shipping professionals study it quite literally for several years and, even then, they don’t fully grasp difficult concepts like adiabatic lapse rates. I am reliably informed by very senior academics that, apart from a handful of doctoral (PhD) research students and some met professionals, very few ever do. It’s just like electricity. How many people state with authority that ‘S57 is an IT data format protocol that standardises vector ENCs’ without the faintest idea what such bullshit actually means. So what? Keep it to yourselves, but I plead guilty – ‘yes, Your Honour, I actually teach that S57 stuff because I know it’s popular in exams’ (and that’s what students are paying me for – to help them pass that exam). But what about after the exam?

I assume I’ve still got your attention so well done for sticking with this. I hope both your instinctive and informed answer about what type of TACT counsellor Shuggy needs is firmly negative - ‘ideally not one of that gang; they’ve all got an axe to grind’. But maybe some of the TACT crew might be partially equipped to help, but would I open up about Skippy without reservation to any of them? No. So let’s consider what Shugs does need, and what qualities and factors would help someone - a mentor - steer Shuggy towards calmer seas. 

To illustrate some of the curve balls for which you might need third party viewpoints, here are some heavily modified real questions/problems faced by real live yachties:

  • I’ve just narrowly missed being pranged by (brand new 102m) MY DINGBAT; she crossed my bows at 10m doing about 15 knots and only by me going full astern did we not collide. I was going to submit a ‘near miss’ report to the MAIB but my management company has advised (told) me not to. Wadya reckon?

  • The Bosun has just come to see me; he’s in quite a state. The boss’s daughter has told him that unless he gives her one, she’ll tell her Dad that he’s… (I can’t write it; you fill in the gaps).

  • Me ‘missus’ (aspiring stewardess) told me that she’d been asked (on a course) how she would respond to a request to procure 10 children for a ‘kiddies party’ on board. She was told that ‘what the boss wants, the boss gets.’ Is that correct?

  • We have this weird charterer; first thing every morning when he/she goes for a swim before breakfast the stewardesses have to clean out turds in the shower tray. Can I say, ‘that’s all part of the job – get used to it’?

  • The boss has a great sense of humour; he just loves slapstick. I’ve been told to find a dwarf who’ll be happy (for a fee) for me to throw him overboard from inside the bridge, through the open wing door so he flies arms and legs akimbo into the sea. The boss absolutely howls. That’s OK, innit?

  • You know what you said about keeping your charts and publications up to date…well, my captain says that doesn’t apply to us because we’re ‘private’. Is he right?

  • I’m stuck in Holland; the bastards won’t let me out – they reckon that freedom of movement only applies to EU citizens, and they don’t recognise my UK Discharge Book; they say they don’t accept ‘yachtsmen’ as professional seafarers’. I’ve spoken to the embassy, PYA and Nautilus and they’re all seemingly clueless; nobody seems to give a f&*^. Even the management company has told me not to mention my yacht’s name when trying to get out. I’ve tried to call the MCA but nobody answers the phone. I’ve even spoken to the press! Jesus H, WTF can I do? What should I do? 

Mentoring 2
You might already have answers or at least ideas about the teasers above; or maybe you are unmoved. Maybe you think it’s neither your job nor your business, and - who knows? - maybe you’re right. Remember this article is not a Ciao! magazine type exposé of the glamorous/glitzy world of the Cote d’Azur and the Amalfi coast. No, it’s about mentoring and its role for those working at sea in yachting (incidentally, whether private or commercial - it makes no difference).  Yachting seagoers in whose welfare very little interest is evident; in terms of physical security and safety on board you don’t count (provided there are fewer than 13 passenger/guests who seemingly do). Get used to it.        

After 28 years in the Navy, another exclusive and hence myopic club within the maritime business, I recall in the early noughties the new idea of ‘mentoring’ gathering traction as a man-management tool; it was suddenly all the rage. Some cynics might be forgiven for thinking it was yet another hair-brained scheme (like JEJIT) when resources are short (aka skint, which in those days the Navy was; it probably still is).

And to my astonishment I find that not only is mentoring still in naval vogue, there’s actually a Naval Service Mentoring Scheme! ‘How is it?, I recently asked a still serving oppo (hence old, like me). ‘Load of bollocks; all it does is undermine the chain of command’. So there. I imagine that others, probably younger, hold other views but it does focus attention on my final point; the relevance of a Just Culture (that you discussed during your HELM course, remember?) and its linkage with mentoring.

All of the challenges I have referred to herein have had a common thread. They are all dilemmas. Yachting is awash with dilemmas, probably as many as merchant banking. What a Just Culture is to you might not be to others; your boss, your charterer; their children, friends, your DPA, your eager ‘green’ troops. Agendas aplenty, so if you ever find yourself in a slight dilemma – ‘is it right?’ – maybe like Shuggy, what you need is a confidante whose personal situation is wholly unrelated to you and what you do. Someone who cares ONLY about YOU.  This person can barely contain his/her indifference to billionaire’s holidays or other recreational pastimes.   

Who might this person be? The mentor is open-minded on anything relevant to YOU, logical, philosophical, clever, experienced, a guiding counsellor, parental/in loco parentis, ethicist, moralist, openly unbiased sage, trustworthy, dependable, selfless, generous and, most of all, JUST.

Someone who thinks clearly – who knows the perils of the implicit (because we all infer only what we want to infer). Mentor and mentee MUST agree explicitly the aim of their dialogue (which, in my less than humble view, usually has f^&% all to do with the aim and objectives of yachting). You want to be like them; they don’t have to be given guru like status but you MUST TRUST them and unquestioningly VALUE their counsel. That’s quite some person. They are rare, so I hope you are fortunate enough to know someone like that. 

When you find someone who meets those criteria, the answer to Shuggy’s question is crystal clear. Think back to the original question; I hope you thought along the lines of advising him to find medical/specialist assistance immediately because the single most important factor here is Skippy’s health, welfare and wellbeing. Nothing else comes close.  

Just to reinforce the point, I often ask HELMers what they would do when they discover that a crewmember has probably been stealing, and this is confirmed by a search of their locker wherein sits the filthy lucre taken from his/her shipmate. Nobody, not a single student, has ever said ‘I’d call the Police’. Perhaps you understand, but I don’t.   

Almost done. I wonder whether ‘consultancy’ has occurred to you. ‘I couldn’t even spell consultancy and now I is one’, H might cheekily remark. So might I. Who knows what consultants are; surely everyone recognises that they get paid loadsamoney for telling you, at hugely inflated rates, what you already know. And often on highly specialised subjects about which they are hardly expert. Maybe the only useful consultant is a doctor who saves your life (and they consequently often suffer from an irrationally inflated view of their value relative to lesser mortals; this is sometimes known as a god delusion.) Influential people in the higher echelons often ‘suffer’ from ‘god delusions’. Such folk can certainly be found in shipping (yachting) regulation, usually ashore. They are the people who really do believe they cannot possibly be wrong and tend to be affronted when challenged. Don’t they know who I am!? My next article; brace yourselves.

Mentoring, I suggest for your consideration, ought not be a profitable activity except for you, and you alone gain from your sage mentor, and not financially.  

Where are these people when you need them? You certainly won’t find them in Yellow Pages or the Monaco phone book.  

More by Commander Sean O'Reilly (aka Horatio Hardy)

Superyacht Captaincy - Myth-Busting HELM

Yachting is Safe Until You Forget it's Dangerous

Yachtmasters: Ship's Captain or Boat Skipper?

The Chennai Six - What's it got to do with Yachting?

Post your comment

You cannot post comments until you have logged in.

Login to post a comment


No one has commented on this page yet.

RSS feed for comments on this page | RSS feed for all comments



Search articles with keywords