You don’t have to spend very long talking to Paul Bickley, captain of motor yacht Latitude, to grasp the fact that onboard mentoring and training, crew development and team spirit are where it’s at.
His desire to promote these factors and make them industry benchmarks has made him one of the leading progressive captains of his generation.
As he takes time out to chat to OnboardOnline during MYBA’s Genoa Charter Show, it’s clear that Paul’s inclusive leadership style and passion for investing in crew and steering them towards their own personal goals is crucial to Latitude’s success.
One of Fraser’s top charter yachts, the iconic 52.5m craft achieves an enviable three months back to back summer bookings annually in the Western Mediterranean.
‘You can’t beat on board training,’ says New Zealand born Paul. ‘For example, my chief officer does all the driving. I don’t manoeuvre the boat at all. Some of the captains that come through with a 3,000 tonne ticket having done their licenses have never even manoeuvred a boat. There is nothing in the syllabus that teaches you the practicalities of moving a hugely valuable big lump of steel but you can go out there and take command of that. A lot of captains are very protective of the throttles but I think that’s wrong. On Latitude, we all job share and can do each other’s task. That’s invaluable.’
With mentoring and management skills very much the current buzzwords in yachting, Paul’s style is in vogue. He believes there is greater skill in being a businessman than in being a navigator and his mantra is: ‘You manage a business and you lead a team.’
‘I manage the core of the business and the heads of department and they manage the team,’ he explains. ‘If I see a junior crew member dragging their heels, I want the head of their department to come to me first. I don’t socialise a lot with the crew but you have to have a good sense of what’s going on and a finger on the pulse. If the department heads are not doing their job, there will be problems.
‘Of course, there will always be bust-ups and it’s a well-known fact that the boat gets smaller as the season goes on but management is like a marriage. If you persevere for 12 or 18 months, you eventually find that happy medium, while some boats don’t allow time for that relationship to grow. Management can be a minefield, there’s no doubt it’s a difficult role, but you have to work at it to get a good fit.
‘On Latitude, it’s very competitive, we are operating at the highest level, so people know if they have let the whole team down. We have a lot of respect for the owner and we all value our jobs. It doesn’t get better than this. Success is down to the culture you create. If everyone is happy in their role, management takes care of itself. It’s different here to other boats I’ve worked on. Our owner uses the boat two days a year, he loves the boat and the crew and he gives me the authority and the funding to be the best. He’s a really nice guy. It’s a rare situation and the recipe works. We have a good reputation but you have to perform if you come on here.’
With crew retention another hot topic, Paul feels it’s vital to invest in staff, developing and recognising their talents.
‘We have a healthy training budget on board at my discretion and if I can see potential in a crew member, I invest in that potential. There is too much emphasis on salary. I’d rather offer a lot of training. If you have Latitude, which is recognised as a boat that operates at a high standard, on your CV, it is doing your career the world of good. We have low crew turnover. I’ve had seven crew with me for five years and two of them came with me from a previous boat. The hardest part of man management and crew retention is to encourage the crew and keep them enthusiastic. You do that by giving them a free rein, using all their skills and letting everybody excel. You get more productivity by empowering people to be the best.
‘We recruit by word of mouth or recommendation. I’m a good judge of character and quick to see how people perform. In the past, junior crew would come and go but many of our team are financially savvy and want to stay for three or four years and buy a house. I’ve seen a big change from the days when people would come in with a backpacking mentality and just do a season. Now they know they can make a career of it.’
Paul, 44, started his seafaring career at 18 when he landed a deckhand position on an ex-Taiwanese deep sea stern trawler off the coast of Tasmania. In seven years, he travelled over 280,000 nautical miles before moving to Florida in 1994 to pursue a career in yachting. He commanded M/Ys Lucky Dream, Gwylan, Kimberley II and Natori before heading up Latitude’s crew, winning Fraser Yachts’ Charter Captain of the year in 2011.
One of his biggest concerns is the lack of refresher courses for longstanding qualified captains like him. ‘I got my Class 4 in 2001 and I’ve never set foot in a classroom since. I think that’s wrong. The maritime industry just asks for your tickets to be sent off every five years and you might have to do a medical course then they stamp it and send it back to you and you have another five years. There should be refresher courses for us like they have in the aviation industry.’
The biggest leap forward over the last 20 years has been the advent of the internet according to Paul.
‘I think back to 15 years ago and wonder how I did the same job without it,’ he says. ‘It’s the biggest game changer to have happened to the industry. I used to do what I’m doing now without a cell phone or the internet. We did it because we had the seamanship skills to look out of the window, look at the weather and the barometer and make your own judgment based on experience. Technology is changing everything. In some ways, the job then was no different to today. We still had 12 guests, the guests were just as demanding but you did it all without that technology. How the hell did we do that?’