My first sighting of John Wyborn is at the lively PYA Sea Changes conference held during the Antibes Yacht Show. Seated in the front row, John proved to be a vociferous contributor to the sometimes heated debates chaired by Roger Towner of the MCA and the PYA’s Joey Meen.
As well he should be in his role as Training Director at bluewater, the industry’s largest dedicated training provider. His sparring with Roger, while good-natured and showing a wry sense of humour, is motivated by a desire to maintain quality training in the yachting industry, something Bluewater has pioneered for over two decades.
‘It was one of the best Sea Changes conferences ever,’ says John when we meet the next day at bluewater’s crew bash. ‘I’ve known Roger since he joined the MCA in the late 1990s. He examined me for my Master 3000 in the year 2000. My exam was a four hour oral which took all morning and luckily he couldn’t find any cracks in my armour so he had to pass me!’
On a more serious note, John believes the MCA occupies a unique position as the only authority in Europe that gives the grass roots of the industry a decent hearing.
‘If you have a question and you want to ask the French, Italian, Spanish or Germans, you have to go through channels and bureaucracy,’ he reveals. ‘With the MCA, you can just pick up the phone and speak to the person and ask the question. They are usually fairly careful about consulting people before they bring out new rules and a lot is driven by them.’
John counts himself lucky to be surrounded by an impeccable team at bluewater, the company he co-founded with Peter Bennett and Phillip Holden in 1991. ‘You need great quality instructors and I’m really lucky that I have a team of very talented people,’ he says.
‘Our facilities are not as flash as other people’s but they have been improving over 23 years. We train more crew than any other single training provider for yachting. In the course of a year of basic training, we will train 700 - 800 crew between Palma and Antibes and for Officer of the Watch and Master, a further 300 - 400 people.
‘We have constantly invested back in what we’ve got to make things better. This year, we are ripping out our old radar simulator and installing a new radar simulator with a full mission bridge which is a huge investment for us. I’m very excited about that, it will happen at the end of this year.’
John joined the Royal Navy from university as a seaman officer, rising to command HMS Mentor, a navigation and seamanship training vessel. He and his co-founders share a naval background yet their paths didn’t properly cross until they had finished serving. ‘I never knew Phillip in the Navy although I met him very briefly when we both commanded ships in the same squadron just before we left,’ he recalls.
‘I never knew Peter either. I circumnavigated the UK about 500 times during my naval career and also travelled to the Indian Ocean and the East Coast of Africa. When I left the navy, I went backpacking because I didn’t feel I’d seen enough of the world in the navy. I spent my naval gratuity on travelling.’
After leaving the Navy, John landed a job on a seagoing yacht, Golden Odyssey, and the chief officer at the time, who now runs Heli Riviera, put the wheels of fate in motion by suggesting that John sign up for Peter’s fledgling crew agency in Antibes when he left the vessel in 1991. At the time, it was only the third crew agency in existence. ‘I signed up and he tried to get me a few jobs but he didn’t get me any, he was rubbish actually!’ jokes John. ‘He is a much better yacht broker than crew agent; luckily we have employed some really talented people since then in that department’.
Bluewater was born and the company, which also has a base in Palma, has seen many changes over the last two decades. ‘The only qualification back then was a Yachtmaster, there was nothing else,’ John recalls. ‘You just learnt on the job, training was non-existent.
‘When we started bluewater, a 50m yacht was a big yacht, now it’s considered small. A lot of people say the fun has gone out of yachting because it’s not the same as it was in the 1960s and 1970s.
Maybe some of the fun has gone but where it has improved is that the whole industry has professionalised and it’s become a real career for crew as opposed to a backpacker type job. Yachting is now a proper maritime career and we have been part of that process.’
The challenge for yacht crew training is equally divided between classroom learning and on board training. ‘We do stuff in the classroom with my team of very talented instructors then students have to go on board and apply that knowledge, which is every bit as important. That is something that the yachting industry really sucks at and I am anxious to improve and encourage it. Some yachts are really good while others ignore on board training altogether.
‘If you look at the cruise ship industry, the merchant navy in general, or the Royal Navy, it’s always been part of the culture but has never been part of the culture in yachting. Knowledge was power so captains wouldn’t hand on their experience to juniors in case they lost their job. That was the way people used to think and I’m pleased to say it has changed hugely but there is still a bit of a hangover from those days.’
John is hoping to improve the culture of on-board training and expects that things will get better when the effects of two new courses that have recently been introduced, in Human Element Leadership and Management, begin to filter through.
‘We have to change the on board culture so that it embraces mentoring,’ he adds. ‘Senior crew need to realise that junior crew need encouraging and supporting and looking after. Crew turnover varies hugely from yacht to yacht,’ he adds. ‘I know yachts where a crew member changes every six years while on others there is quite a lot of change. It can be down to the programme of the yacht, the personality of the owner or of the captain. I hope our new courses will improve the situation so that crew feel that they are valued members of a team and that managers take the time to understand the people that they have working for them.’
He is also keen to make the benefits of a yachting career more widely known outside Mediterranean hubs like Antibes. ‘A lot of youngsters in Britain have no idea that this industry exists. My nephew was completely unaware of yachting until I brought him down here and he got a job cruising the world and had all sorts of experiences. It changed his whole attitude and he is now a senior manager at Railtrack. He’s doing incredibly well and that is as a direct result of starting out in yachting.
‘There needs to be more awareness in the UK that people can benefit from a career in yachting or at sea. I’m looking at ways to create online training and some sort of roadshow to make people more aware because there is a huge resource of quality people that we can get into our industry.’
So what, in John’s view, are the most important qualities crew should possess? ‘They have to be outgoing, communicative and smiley,’ he says. ‘Being morose or introverted are not good qualities in this business. The whole thing is about making people feel welcome and enjoy their time on board so you have to have a happy, sunny, welcoming personality.
He is also keen to smooth the path from ocean to land careers for crew who want to make the transition. ‘It is quite difficult, especially for women. If you’re a chief stewardess, you are top of your tree but if you want to go ashore and have children, that part of your career is over. That’s something we need to develop and build on and that’s why professional qualifications through the PYA GUEST programme are good because they recognise skills gained from on board experience that will be useful in training or shore based industries.
‘This industry is a dynamic, exiting and fun place to work – I don't want to change that: I want to enhance that and tell more people about it!’