Industry » Features » Rotating Heads: Is crew rotation the answer?

Rotating Heads: Is crew rotation the answer?


Sometimes you just need to get away from it all. The daily demands of a long season, back to back charters and little privacy are tiring and stressful. The yachting life, through the eyes of a weary crewmember, can start to look very grim indeed.

To varying degrees, most jobs these days allow for a sort of dichotomy to exist in an employee’s life. They leave their home in the morning, work most of the day somewhere else, and then return home to their private life. Not only are the rules and expectations completely different in each aspect of a person’s life, but the physical spaces are completely different as well. That change in environment – the moving between spaces, sounds, smells and people – can affect mood significantly and allow for escape, at least for a while. Simply walking into a home (or an office, for those with ongoing concerns on the domestic front) can offer an immediate release.

However, yachting is an obvious exception. At the end of the day, there really isn’t any escape. There’s no walking out the door, no real exposure to anything beyond the boat’s rails.

That’s not to say there isn’t hope, and crew rotation is one solution. While on board, crew are able to focus entirely on work and, while at home, they can focus entirely on their personal lives. Longterm relationships and families are suddenly possible. A career in yachting and a sustainable personal life are no longer mutually exclusive.

However, owners aren’t exactly jumping over each other to offer rotation. The costs are higher, for one. Sometimes an owner prefers to see the same faces. And there are questions about how rotation affects crew dynamics and pay. Some crew – young and unattached and eager to make as much as possible – appear to be willing to sacrifice the time off for higher compensation.

Sleep at Work 110414 244x183But in the grand scheme of things, crew rotation appears to be on the rise, especially for engineers and senior crew. In fact, according to Lizzie Irving, sales manager at Bluewater Yachting, “more and more are considering this option in order to comply with the MLC’s 2006 hours of work.” It’s slowly catching up to schedules maintained within the commercial sector, where rotation is much more common. Many view rotation as the answer to some of the industry’s most persistent problems, like high turnover and fatigue. 

The revolving door

Life without rotation is untenable in today’s industry and the reason for such high crew turnover, according to Pascal Pellat-Finet, the captain of S/Y Tiara, a boat on which captain, officers and chief engineers all work on a two-two rotation. But too often owners take the crew for granted, he says.

“At the moment, the general feeling is – and I’m not talking about my boat – but the general feeling is: ‘I’ve got a boat; they should be proud to work on my boat,’” Pellat-Finet says. “Then they work them 24 hours, seven [days a week], for like six, seven months, and afterward they’re absolutely tired, they fire them and then they get a new crew.”

In order to bring the industry around to offer the work-life balance that has become a staple throughout much of the developed world, Pellat-Finet and others feel it must begin to offer more widespread crew rotation. And he thinks it’s only a matter of time before that happens.

“I do think it will happen, because good owners want good crew,” he says. “There needs to be a balance between private life and professional life. And we want this to be more than a 21st century slavery business.”

Getting owners on board

First and foremost, owners will need to be convinced that rotation is not only in their crew’s best interest, but also in their best interest – and that of their boat.

Crew Rotation 3“Owners, on the whole, do not want rotation,” says Scott Le Cornu, operations officer at Equiom, an Isle of Man-based company that offers, among other things, administrative and crew management services for yachts. The bottom line is: costs are higher. Yachts must pay for more flights and crew salary is rarely cut by an even 50 per cent, even though each crewmember is working half the year. So, with two people filling the same position at, say, 60 per cent the traditional salary for a single-employee position, by enacting rotation an owner would be paying 120 per cent of his previous salary expenses.

The details of exactly how compensation is affected by rotation tends to vary from boat to boat. And there are those – particularly younger, unattached crew – who not only want to spend time on board, but are loath to give up pay. “Often times, the younger crew are delighted to remain aboard unless on holidays or quick escapes, thereby saving monies by not paying rent or any other shore-based financial commitments,” said Mex Folan, a long-time captain on yachts of all sorts.

In addition, there is the argument that rotation among senior crew can cause unwanted friction on board, says Erica Lay, the founder of Erica Lay Crew Company. “It can be unsettling for the junior crew to adapt to two different ways of working,” she says. “The person you’re handing over to when rotating has to be as good as you are too.”

Similarly, it can be difficult for those on rotation because their counterpart has a different style and process of working, Irving says.

On the other hand, one career stewardess we spoke to believes that crew are pretty versatile. “The crew are a canny bunch,” she says. “Just as we adapt to different guests, we adapt to different bosses.”

At the same time, there are just as many arguments in favour – most of which deal with crew longevity, quality of life and reduced recruitment costs. “Rested crew who get to go home and see their families work harder when they return,” says Lay. And since rotational positions are rare at the moment, crew work harder to hold onto them, and often have the spare time to take advancement courses.

For Folan, it comes down to performance. Hard-worked crew without rotation suffer from fatigue. “It permeates every aspect of our dynamic: personal, emotional, physical, professional and intellectual,” he says. “We make mistakes in judgment, observation, decision. Everything takes more effort to maintain the same standards and, eventually, failure is certain to flourish.”

lrg crtn25It’s at this point – when crew are worn to the very bone – that they either jump ship or are let go for poor performance, many say. This is not a good place to be in for the uninterrupted operation of a heavily used boat.

“If they want to be able to use their yacht whenever the urge takes them, then having rotational crew helps ease the pressure,” says Lay. “Down time is important or crew burn out. It’s better to have a strong, solid team on rotation who are settled and established than have to go through the whole painful recruitment process every season when the crew are broken.”

“A well rested and happy crew is miles better than one with burn-out,” Morgan says. “This is particularly true if owners want experienced crew. As crew get older, living in bunk beds gets a bit old, and everyone needs time sleeping in a double bed in a room where you can’t reach everything by stretching out a toe.”

This can be especially true for women crewmembers, one stewardess says. “I do think that a more structured rotation for the more senior interior crew is needed to retain the largely female crew who burn out in their late 20s and want to move ashore. Obviously, a lot of women will want children and will therefore leave the industry anyway. But rotation is a good way to get 10 to 15 years of service from a happy stewardess, rather than 5 years from a tired one.”

Alison Rentoul, known to most of us as The Crew Coach, says too few chief stewardesses are offered rotation. “I find this baffling as the position of chief stewardess is one of the most strenuous and stressful on board, and this is one of the positions I believe would really benefit from rotation,” she says.

The pitch

This is actually the best argument to make if trying to convince an owner to switch to rotation, says Fabien Roché, VP Operations and COO at Sunrise Yachts. When it comes down to it, a yacht can realize real savings in recruitment costs when you factor in the reduced turnover.

“One thing that is never taken into consideration in budgets for single crew – i.e. crew without rotation – what is never taken into account is replacement crew,” says Roché. “Because inevitably you’re going to replace them, and that’s never budgeted. So at the end of the day, if you do implement rotation, in the long run you’re probably saving money…You don’t have people jumping ship all the time because of bad conditions or because they find another couple hundred euros a month somewhere else.”

Rentoul describes worries about higher costs as “short-sighted.” “We have to ask ourselves what it costs not having rotation,” she says. “Losing a valued senior crewmember through burnout or inflexibility about time off is more costly – not to mention the high costs of crew turnover.”

Crew Rotation 2At the same time, “it’s not easy to portray,” admits Roché. He captained a 95m (312 ft) yacht in previous years, on which the owner always wanted to see the same crew, and for that reason he didn’t want to implement rotation. “He wanted to always see the same people on board, and so he thought that meant everyone was on board 12 months a year,” he says. However, the yacht was all over the globe and often in far-flung places for months on end – “and basically it’s hard to retain crew in those conditions,” Roché says. “[The owner] turned to me and said, ‘No, you don’t understand: I want to see the same faces all the time.’ And I went back to him and said, ‘No, you don’t understand: this is the only way you will get to see the same faces all the time is if you implement rotation.’” 

Roché went to great lengths devising a budget and taking everything into account in order to finally convince the owner that rotation was the answer. Eventually, the owner came around.

But that doesn’t mean rotation is the answer for every yacht. “With crew rotation, there’s lots of different aspects to take into consideration: size of the yacht, usage and geographic location,” Roché says. “I can perfectly understand that a captain on a 20-or-30m [66-or-98 ft] yacht that stays most of the time here in the Riviera is not going to push his owner to have crew rotation for everyone.”

For yachts like this, which only work a single season in the Med or the Caribbean, the crew essentially have rotation already built into their year. For dual-season boats that travel far and wide – “that’s the only time it makes sense really,” according to Roché.

And even then it’s mostly senior crew – captains, first mates, chief engineers – who are granted rotation. Engineers especially have a lot of leverage, given the shortage currently in the market. “Many engineering positions can demand it,” says Le Cornu. “There is already a serious shortage of engineers.”

Very few of the lower-level positions are offered the same options. However, this too could ultimately change. “You have to compare this with what is normal in merchant shipping, where officers are predominantly on rotation,” says Le Cornu. “As yachts get bigger, the yacht owner will be competing with the T&C offered to merchant officers.”

There is also the question of whether all crew are in favour of rotation. “Many crew are not necessarily in yachting for a long career,” Irving says. “Many wish to make as much as possible as fast as possible.” And they tend to be less keen on the idea.

And when it comes down to it, “crew aren’t willing to sacrifice pay for rotation,” says Jennifer Howarth, Global Crew Placement Director with the International Yacht Collection’s Crew Division.

Crew Rotation 6Also, if every position on every boat went on rotation, it would nearly double the number of crew required to work in the industry and some question whether there would be enough qualified crew to make that possible. There is already a shortage of engineers, and Mike Wilson, who has worked as an engineer on many large yachts, including S/Y Maltese Falcon, says widespread rotation could exacerbate that problem. “Engineers are already in demand and the rotation obviously creates more,” he says. “But it is a market like any other and an equilibrium will be found as supply increases, as well, over time.”

However, Howarth and Rentoul were more concerned about qualified crew inside the boat. It can often be much more difficult finding two stews with whom the owner gets along equally.

The commercial route

By and large, crew rotation on large vessels is common, especially for senior officers who seldom do more than a four-month tour, according to Rhett Harris, a survey consultant with Precious Alliance Ltd., a company which tracks maritime shipping information. “They tend to get 25 days per month served,” he says.

According to Howarth, rotation becomes par for the course once a boat surpasses 70m (230 ft). She estimates that about 85 per cent of larger boats offer rotation to engineers, and 60 per cent offer it to captains, chefs and other heads of department.

In Europe, many of the officers work on a salaried basis. They know they will have six months on board and six months leave – though sometimes with the possibility of attending training and work in the shore office. “In international trade, senior officers tend to have shorter tour lengths than juniors, with ratings and deckhands having longer tours still,” Harris says.

On top of all this is the question of whether there’s enough qualified crew to fill a potential doubling of positions. Lay and many others say they believe there is, though Folan isn’t as confident. “Clearly there are not enough crew to double all boats. But good crew attracts good crew and generates improved programmes and standards,” he says. “Added value must be taken into account, and usually it outweighs the simple cost by a large margin. Owners, upon purchase, must make a decision as to the standard they desire.”

Either way, the tide of industry opinion seems to have shifted in favour of rotation on a more comprehensive basis. Harris noted that the current rotational standards developed over a number of years are ultimately trending toward shorter tours and longer leave.

In many cases, he says, this has been seen as a net-benefit, despite the fact that reduced wages have not been part of the deal, as it aids toward retention. And while Harris was wary of commenting on the yachting industry, as it’s not his area of focus, he did say, “We think it unlikely that many crew would willingly sacrifice a significant portion of wage in exchange for shorter tour lengths and longer leave. Thus it may be that owners shoulder this cost in return for the possibility of finding it easier to retain and recruit crew.”

Images courtesy of:

iStock Photo
Alert! The International Maritime Human Element Bulletin
The fabulous crew onboard M/Y Teleost!


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