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Superyacht Crew: Speak Your Mind

shutterstock Speak Your Mind 4

It’s not very often in the supeyacht industry that we’re invited to say it as it is, far less so at an open session with the billing “Speak Your Mind”.

The event was part of bluewater yachting’s 25th anniversary celebration in Antibes last month, and the fact that so many people showed at 9.30am on a Saturday morning was a sign of good things to come.

After a jovial update from Captain Roger Towner, Chief Examiner at the MCA, a lively debate ensued around the subject of crew training with a few hefty swipes at the mindset of an industry in transition.  

As the superyacht industry grows and matures, and with ever larger vessels afloat, the training needs of today’s crew have been under discussion for some time. Specifically, many industry insiders are calling for a review of entry level qualifications and skills, with greater standardisation of crew training across nations.

“Everyone is waking up to the idea that there is a training need, and that there is an industry here for which proper skills and training need to be provided.” said John Wyborn, Training Director at bluewater yachting (and member of the MYBA Board and Superyacht Careers Workgroup).

MYBA (The Worldwide Yachting Association) and PYA (Professional Yachting Association) are now working together to create a comprehensive training standard for the superyacht industry that can be adopted internationally, from Italy to the UK and the United States, all of which have expressed their interest. In the UK there are already plans to develop A Level/ Level 3 qualifications for 16-18 year olds keen to explore a career in the superyacht industry.

cowdCaptains and industry professionals speak their minds

As part of their research, last year MYBA conducted a survey to establish which skills are considered necessary for entry level crew. Many respondents cited boat handling skills including lines, fenders and tender driving, while others highlighted more general skills such as a working knowledge of IT and AV systems and greater awareness of the risks around social media. There was also a trend towards inter-departmental skills, for example where deckhands are trained for food service, and interior crew are able to drive tenders.

Back in the Day

Building on this, and to kick off the discussion, John asked the audience, “If you cast your mind back to when you first worked on your first yacht, what did you find most difficult?"

Captain Rod Hatch (PYA Council member) said, “I first came into yachting in 1969 as a deckhand, so I knew nothing, but most of what I learned in those days was about the physical aspects of the trade. These days, the big motor yachts, the big sailing yachts, they’re floating hotels in the sense that they do charters. To be a successful charter captain you need to know more than just ISM, ISPS and how to navigate. We get there mostly by luck and by learning from each other, and learning from our interior staff, and the more imagination they have, the better we become at being a charter captain. That’s where we need to focus our training, on making senior officers and captains competent hotel managers.”

Captain David Piardi (member of Italian Yacht Masters) said, “Something I found very difficult when I started was to understand what owners want. One time when I was a deckhand I was asked to prepare a salad, it was a strange thing for me and I don’t like cooking! But the point is that I still sometimes struggle to understand what an owner wants, it’s difficult to read them. But I fully agree with Rod that we need hotel management, and this should be included in the training. With charter guests it’s easier, because what they expect is just a nice holiday; the owner expects something different.”

Crowd 4John Wyborn and Joey Mean lead the discussion

Joey Mean, Director of Training and Certification at PYA pointed out that, “Hotel management is already included in the GUEST program for interior crew, so maybe we need to extract some of that and make it available for captains and officers. Also, at entry level it’s not just for interior crew, it’s for everyone. It’s a three day course which all new crew would benefit from as it’s a starting point for hospitality, service attitude and etiquette, and it also looks at cultural differences and the diversity of what owners want.”

GUEST will also be included as part of the new superyacht apprenticeship program currently under discussion.

Today’s New Crew

Turning the question around, John asked, “What annoys you the most about new deckhands or new stewardesses?"

The most common complaint was a lack of basic skills to which John responded saying, “We’re going to look at working with someone like the UKSA who specialise in training kids in those basic seamanship skills and we’re going to try and get them into this program. A whole range of seamanship skills on small props would give them a really good grounding, whether they’re going to be a stewardess or an engineer or a deckhand.”

The type of crew we see coming into the industry has changed considerably over the last few decades. As Joey said, “We used to see people coming into the industry who had substance, they had a seamanship background or an engineering background. The crew coming into the industry over the last 8-10 years, at a junior level, are coming from whatever background, or they’re lifestyle backpackers. We haven’t attracted people into the industry with that salty sea dog attitude, so we’re teaching them from a completely blank page.”

In recent years PYA has already taken a more active role in implementing changes at ground level. One example is the inclusion of the Superyacht Tenders course with the RYA (The Royal Yachting Asociation) which has helped to bridge the gap towards Powerboat Level 2. Another initiative is the training record book to encourage greater seamanship for interior crew via a substantial set of tasks requiring sign-off by the first officer or captain. 

John 2John Wyborn

Asked if these entry level courses would become compulsory, John explained that, “This training is for kids in the UK who are probably not going to go to university but have lots of personality and lots of practical skills, and who want to work on superyachts. They will be able to go either to a sixth form college or a college of further education and do a program that is recognized by MYBA and the PYA.

I’m trying to build a pool of people who want to work in our industry, to stay and make it a success. I believe there are a lot of people in South Africa who would like this also - and Australia and New Zealand - so it’s up to them to build their own programs to match the industry standard that I’m trying to create.”

Industry Support

Alison Rentoul, The Crew Coach also raised the issue of perception, saying, “We’ve hit a bit of a brick wall with GUEST as many people think we’re just creating more compulsory training, lining the pockets of the trainers – I hear this all the time.”

In truth, the MCA will never make anything compulsory that does not concern safety and international maritime requirements but, as John pointed out, “This is about us as an industry saying what we want. We’re a big industry now and it has changed massively over the last 25 years, and we’re in a place now where we can say, if you want to work in our industry you need certain skills, this is what we expect.”

Meanwhile, while the industry at large, and organizations such as MYBA, PYA, SYBAss and IYM all support the ethos and professionalism of the GUEST program, there is still considerable resistance among crew.  

According to Joey, “The people we’re finding the hardest to convince are captains and the chief stewardesses. So to any captains in the audience: Why? And which qualifications are you looking for on a CV?”

One captain who supports GUEST said that he looks for hospitality experience as well as any additional skills that a stewardess can bring to the job. Another said, “I was a captain in the 80s and 90s and I wish GUEST had been around then. We used to employ stewardesses and then send them to the UK for a week of intensive silver service training. Now it seems like everything is coming to a head, everyone is getting their act together and I was delighted to read everything that was in there.”

Neither response shed any light on resistence but, as the groundswell continues, wider acceptance will surely follow.

Leadership and On Board Training

John also believes that, “Captains and senior crew don’t take training on board seriously enough. There isn’t enough mentoring and training on board, to the extent that we become aware of people who have worked on board for several weeks who have still have not seen their on board familiarization training. And it’s not just about safety. We have to realize that training providers like me can only do half the job; the other half has to be done by you guys on board.”

crowd 3John Wyborn and Joey Mean 

David Piardi agreed but said, “Very often we suggest to management or owners that we could bring a trainer on board, for example for silver service, and they say no, because they don’t want to spend the money. They don’t actually care. But we need to invest not only money but also time; they need to give us the time to do it.”

Alison also pointed out that, “We now have HELM as a form of compulsory leadership training in the industry, and we also have leadership training in GUEST. In addition, you’re saying that we need to encourage people to mentor on board, but they don’t all know how to do that, so we need to teach them. People often move up the ranks because of their competency doing the actual job, but they don’t necessarily have people skills and you need people skills in order to mentor people.”

John insists that this needs to change since, “Passing on your knowledge is not a threat to your career, it’s actually part of your job.” 

The training record book will also help to formalize this as crew are required to register certain tasks completed on board. “You will have to accept that you are a school.” said John, adding that, “The crew themselves are responsible for their own training, and taking charge of the evolution of your own career is another angle that is beginning to happen.”

Crew Training Courses

The discussion then moved to the subject of training courses and self study. Joey asked, “For those of you who have done course modules, did you learn what you needed to learn in advance or were you relying on the training school to teach you everything you needed to know in four days for an exam on Friday?”

One captain said his approach was roughly 50/50, “I’ve turned up and I knew a good percentage of the course, but I think the quality of the instructor still needs to hammer it home.”

Roger JoeyCaptain Roger Towner oversees

However, as John pointed out, the amount of preparation varies widely, “It’s very difficult when you have a class of 10 students and half of them have done a lot of preparation and half of them have done nothing. As an industry, we’ve got to take charge of our own personal development, so a lot of schools are now working on it and increasingly there are online tools that you can use, not only on the deck and engineering side, but also for the interior and for chefs, so you can actually learn and study before you turn up on the course.

We’re looking at facilitating this because, I do agree, it’s a poor system of learning to stick people in a classroom for five days solidly and ram information into their heads. And half the time they go away and don’t apply it, even for navigation. This is a problem and it’s very obvious to Captain Towner when he confronts some of these guys in the orals. They’ve done it all, in theory, in the classroom, but they can’t actually remember anything because they don’t apply it and they don’t use it. This is an evolution that has to change, and it is changing.”

Crew Mindset

There was general agreement in the room that underpinning everything is the need for a change in the mindset of new crew coming into the industry. Lisa Eden, a bluewater yachting instructor with a background in the aviation industry believes, “It comes back to the initial profiles of the people attracted to your industry, hence what you’re doing with MYBA at the moment is really good. The way the aviation industry gets around it is with constant re-validation. Pilots have to come in every six months, and stewardesses also have to come in every year and be re-tested.”

She also suggested that we should look outside of yachting and consider employing air stewardesses, "You have a huge resource that you could recruit from directly, and hit the ground running.”

Hours of Work and Rest

Inevitably the persistent dilemma over hours of work and rest also came up for discussion. David admitted that, “During the season we struggle to respect the hours of rest, it’s a reality. I always ask crew to record the reality but they struggle. We should first convince SYBAss to increase the number of beds on their yachts to have bigger crew; they want to squeeze the crew to spend less money.”

“I like the fact that you state the hours that you actually worked, even if you may not have conformed," said Lisa, "but I have captains and crew coming through who say they state the hours they are supposed to work, not those they actually did work. So when that information is relayed, the powers that be in your industry say ‘all our boats are conforming so we don’t need to change anything’. Primarily you’re breaking the law. Secondly, if your peers and colleagues state the hours they are actually capable of working, then the powers that be will have to address it, and so will your boat builders.”

Roger John David RodCaptain Roger Towner

At this point Captain Towner was keen to clarify some confusion around commercial and private yachts saying, “Let’s make it absolutely clear that hours of work applies to all professional seafarers, whether it’s a private yacht, commercial yacht, or a cruise liner. Hours of work under the MLC applies to all seafarers. I understand the reality, but what I’m telling you is that the law says MLC applies to all seafarers, and so do hours or work and rest.”

It’s also the case that if an accident was to happen and it was found that the yacht wasn’t conforming, there’s unlikely to be a payout, and this can be a persuasive argument for captains, management and owners. “There are ways of dealing with this, with you guys changing your mindset and applying it.” said Lisa.

The final word came from John, urging that, “We as an industry need to start talking to eachother. MYBA needs to engage with this, PYA needs to engage with this and SYBAss needs to engage with this, because this is a classic example of where we need to have responsibility as an industry.”

Whatever your role, it’s abundantly clear that the superyacht industry is in the midst of a transition at every level. People are pulling together and standards are on the up. Things are changing fast and it’s an exciting time to be a part of it. 




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