I suspect many captains and crew will have succumbed to the embrace of this maxim – I know I have in my past.
Working long hours and having minimum sleep was often worn as a badge of honour, it demonstrated a grafter, someone who was willing to put in all the hours necessary to get the job done. But as research has now shown, sleep deprivation, whether acute or chronic, can have short term consequences – sometimes devastating – as well as long term physiological and/or mental health effects.
I was somewhat aware of the importance of sleep and things such as the circadian rhythm, but it was only recently after reading ‘Why We Sleep’ by Mathew Walker, who is currently Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, that I began to really appreciate why sleep deprivation can be so damaging to not just health, but also performance and safety.
The book details the reasons why we sleep, what happens during sleep, the benefits of sleep and the effects of disruption and/or deprivation. Like the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat, sleep is essential to our health. The Guinness Book of World Records happily records extreme activities such as a freefall from 41,422 metres and other events such as tight rope walking across the Grand Canyon without safety net or tether but does not recognise sleep deprivation records because of the danger to health!
What’s this got to do with yachting?
The World Maritime University (WMU) Report1 into the hours of work and rest (HOWR) in shipping also considers this subject and the effects of lack of rest, fatigue, safety and well-being of crew and these issues are equally applicable to yachting.
We know that the demands on crew have been increasing for many reasons and, in the main, there has not been any real change in the manning levels to meet that demand and on many yachts, it is likely that the quality and quantity of sleep is suffering as a result. Compounding the potential for sleep disruption are the variable work patterns that are an operational characteristic of yachting as the program and use changes e.g. guest-off, guest-on, daywork, watches, late finishes and early starts, even if crew are maintaining their HOWR.
Consider that the HOWR minimum rest period should not be less than 10 hours, but can divided into two periods, one of which not less than 6 hours. And that within that time there are factors such as eating, socialising, waking and preparing for work, that eat into sleep time. If working to the minimum regulations the longest period of sleep could be less than 5 hours – less than the amount research suggests is optimal.
I’m sure we all know how bad we can feel for days after a long-haul flight, yet crew are often expected to switch from working during the day to night at short intervals. Studies have shown it takes a day per hour of time zone difference for the body to acclimatise. It would take days for a crewmember assigned to work a night watch to properly adapt and perform at their best and they would likely be feeling the undesirable effects when they switched back to daywork at the end of the week – when they would have to go through the whole process again.
The working pattern and allowing sufficient time to acclimatise to the working hours is an important factor in helping with sleep and fatigue. I know in the past we used to rotate deckhands onto night watch once a week and stewardesses would frequently switch from late nights to early morning with the result their body clocks where probably always jet lagged. Having a schedule that allows acclimatisation to working hours is not an easy task given limited crew and variable demands but, where practical, it warrants a more considered approach.
Of course, it’s not just the work pattern that can disrupt sleep. The environment, such as noise and light, can affect the quality and quantity of sleep. Noise from being underway, picking up and dropping anchor, bow thruster operation, light from portholes or crew entering the cabin. And as we all know, the violent motion and noise of a yacht in rough weather also can severely disrupt sleep.
Crew accommodation and cabins are also a factor. Having somewhere free from noise and light pollution, with a comfortable ambient temperature, can be a challenge on some yachts, especially the smaller yachts where space is severely limited and often the crew mess and laundry are in the same space. Though, even on some larger yachts, the crew cabins can sometimes seem like an afterthought.
Minimising noise and light – beyond the minimum MLC standards – should be a priority such as: –
Black out blinds for portholes
Curtains around bunks that can also block light and afford some privacy
Low intensity lighting for crew corridors
Better sound insulation – especially crew corridors and where cabins back onto the crew mess or technical spaces
Improved isolation of equipment; resilient mounts, sound boxes.
Doors at corridor ends
Carpet with underlay in cabins and corridors
Some of the above could be applied to existing yachts.
For those who believe they can manage on minimum sleep, it is interesting to note, though not scientifically proven, that Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, two of the most well-known exponents of 4 – 5 hours of sleep, suffered in later years from Alzheimer’s. The point being, perhaps the cumulative effects of restricted sleep may be more profound than we might think.
Unlike shipping, our industry is not driven by commercial pressures but by more esoteric metrics such as pleasure, enjoyment, quality, safety, and security, all of which are heavily reliant on the crew. Yet often yachts are designed to comply with the minimum standards rather than the operational realities of delivering incomparable experiences to yacht owners and/or charter guests.
The ‘WHU Report’ and ‘Why We Sleep’ should be essential reading for anyone involved in the design and operation of a superyacht. They offer compelling reasons why better sleep can result in happier and healthier crew, better performance, safer yachts and why it deserves more attention in our indusrty.
Although commercial shipping has rotated crew for many years, it is a recent phenomenon in the superyacht industry. It started to become a reality on yachts first with engineers, and then on the larger yachts where manning regulations required officers with STCW qualifications.
When rotation first started is a little unclear; it was certainly in use in the late 70’s when I was with BP Shipping – though it only applied to deck and engineering officers. However, what was clear, that it was not born out of regulation, but driven by market forces and a recognition that to attract and keep the right people they had to offer a better work/life balance. Today, these very same reasons are relevant to yachting.
So, in our latest post, we are going to take a dive into rotation and, due to its importance to many captains, their families and yacht owners, we will break it down into two parts and focus on the whys, how’s and the impact this fundamental employment change has had on the yachting community.
This week in Part I, Brendan is writing of his own employment journey to supply some context, then next week in Part II, Malcolm will take a deeper look at the pros and cons and how you might present the idea to a yacht owner using a worked example.
I entered yachting when contracts and structured leave were rare to the point of not known. Leave was when it suited the yacht’s programme, often with little notice. Crew would scramble to make last minute arrangements when a window opened. With limited leave, weekends in port was our time to get away, explore and socialise, leaving the yacht to the care of a couple of watchkeepers. Regardless of age or relationship status, life revolved around the yacht and no alternate lives ashore were maintained.
This began to change for me in 2007 when I joined my first 100m+ yacht and realised there was no stopping a yacht of this scale. It needed crew every day to keep the show running and there were no more ‘weekends with a couple of watchkeepers’. I remember naively saying to the Heads of Departments we would shut the yacht down one weekend for everyone’s rest; they humoured me, said yes, but ignored the instruction and kept the yacht working the way it demanded.
Since that time, I have modelled many and various employment structures for yacht owners and their representatives. When I do these, I do not speak of rotation from a crew’s perspective, it is with consideration of the yacht owners needs and their investment. My point being that the yacht, the owner and guest experience should not suffer because of crew taking leave. I support this position with a crude calculation; add the finance cost of the yacht to the operating expenses and divide by 365 to gain the cost per day of the yacht’s existence. The number can be staggering and to think that you would intentionally stop the operation so the team can take days off does not show good value.
Further to this crude calculation, the owner is reminded that the beauty of yacht ownership is freedom and spontaneity. Rotation can allow that when a gap opens in their diary, they can escape to their yacht and enjoy the pleasure of being on the water with family and friends; something that is even more relevant today.
In one of the presentations the yacht owner agreed for senior crew without hesitation, saying, “but yes, they have families, and we want them to be focussed on us when they are here and not worried about when they can get home.” For junior crew there was a different perspective with the principal asking, “why do these crew want so much time away when they were young?” Weren’t these the years to earn money, travel and gain experience needed to progress?
Malcolm’s comment – the latter point I also heard from an owner. One 80m+ example lost several junior crew because of generous leave/rotation! The basic reasoning was it was expensive to spend so much time at home, all their friends were working so no one to hang out with, and it took far longer to gain the necessary sea time and experience to progress. Sometimes you cannot win!
Be careful what you wish for.
Since 2007 (outside of shipyard construction) I have been on equal time rotation. This is a Nirvana for many but, having defended the position to the owner that the yacht requires 365-day attendance from its captain and senior team to get rotation over the threshold, you are accountable to work accordingly.
So now, during a 2-3-month roster onboard, I tend to focus completely on the yacht and my days exploring the wonderful areas I sail through are a distant memory. Crew come and go in and procession of rotational changes and although bonds are still made perhaps, they are a little weaker? That said, when they return refreshed, the faces are familiar and they quickly adapt back to life onboard without missing a beat; ensuring operational readiness, a consistent service quality, better maintenance and safety.
It could be said that with better leave and rotation means the yacht is now the place we work; it is no longer the centre of our universe and the place where we also lived our lives!
Clearly this is a much healthier balance but, occasionally, I do look back on those time long ago in sepia, when spending 11-months of the year with the same tight crew created my most memorable experiences and learning opportunities. I am open in saying my memory is grander than the reality, it was unsustainable if I wanted any sort of normal life outside of yachting. I could not have raised a family without rotation and so today I am content with a few laps around the yacht at anchor or a quick morning run on the rare times in port. My days exploring are not lost, I now have the time and freedom to return to destinations in my own time and with my family, and that is incomparable.
Done right, better leave and rotation offer crew and yacht owners many benefits and, although there are added costs, carefully planned, they are not as high as might be imagined, and there are many advantages that cannot be measured purely in monetary terms that can add value to the yacht owning experience.
In Part II Malcolm’s deep dive is where you need to go to look to the tools that you might need when structuring your own rotational plans to a yacht owner, their representative or yacht manager. The strength of your case will depend not only of the financial model, but also the quality of your reasoning and supporting facts. Without a compelling case, the yacht owner or their representatives might be thinking “living the dream, sailing the seas, working half a year and still complaining?”
It could be suggested there is too much information available on COVID-19 and the pandemic; including, an almost infinite number of articles and commentary on the internet, numerous Circulars and Guidance from the IMO and, publications from the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) such as Coronavirus (COVID-19) Guidance for Ship Operators for the Protection of the Health of Seafarers (version 3.0 29th September 2020).
This excess of information can be confusing and, also as suggested in Tom Nichols book “The Death of Expertise” result in a tendency to trust in the internet to make us ‘experts’ in all manner of subjects and, resist or even ignore, advice from those with a deep understanding and experience of the subject matter, including COVID-19 – this can lead to poor outcomes.
With the absence of a collective response from the industry, it has been left to individual yacht management companies and/or captains and crew to wade through the mass of information, try to assess its quality and efficacy, and then develop and implement their own protocols and procedures in response to the virus. And, whilst some of these are well thought out and effective, others on deeper analysis, are perhaps like the ‘Swiss Cheese’ risk assessment analogy, have holes for the virus to pass through.
So, it was a great relief to come across the “Recommendations from the Healthy Sail Panel.” This is the first document I have seen from a related industry with a well-researched and holistic approach to the prevention, protection and mitigation of COVID-19, in an easy to follow format.
The Healthy Sail Panel is a collaboration between Royal Caribbean Group and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd who put together a panel of World leading experts to help inform and find a new pathway back to the “new normal” of sailing. The resulting research and recommendations are broken down into 5 key focus areas, with over 70 recommendations, many of which are applicable to yachting.
The key focus areas are: –
Testing, Screening and Exposure Reduction
Sanitation and Ventilation
Response, Contingency Planning and Execution
Destination and Excursion Planning
Mitigating Risks for Crew Members
It is well worth downloading and reading. I suggest you also follow up on some of the footnote references.
COVID testing is one of the subjects with references in the footnotes. Further reading clearly highlights the value of testing for screening and diagnosis but, like the use of electronic aids to navigation, you have to be aware of the limitations, errors and accuracy.
I was certainly confused by the various tests; Rapid Antigen, PCR, Antibody, etc., their effectiveness for screening, diagnosing present and past COVID infection. The US CDC footnote reference in the Healthy Sail Panel certainly helped my understanding, along with the infographic below – found on the Nature website in their article “Fast coronavirus tests: what they can and can’t do.”
It became clear that, amongst other factors, the timeline of infection has a big effect on the various tests and why caution is required – especially with the Rapid Antigen tests that may be used by yacht crew.
Indian Ocean and Caribbean Passage
As many yachts and crew are readying themselves for passages to the Caribbean, Indian Ocean or further afield, I thought it was also worth considering this in the context of COVID-19 and posing the following question: –
“Should you self-isolate the yacht and crew and test before departing?”
Clearly, the time taken in transit is likely a suitable quarantine period for destination arrival purposes. However, the reason I pose the question is that given that most yachts will be departing from countries/areas with high rates of infection, and crew will have been enjoying shore leave and their time in port, what happens if a crewmember is infected, but tests negative (if tested) and is asymptomatic prior to departure?
Once underway and symptoms present, not only would there be concerns of further infections amongst the crew, and medical treatment if severely affected, there would also be concerns about at the port of destination; would the port allow the yacht to berth and what are the reception and medical facilities for any infected crew?
The same goes for ‘crossing crew’ do you bring them in early and quarantine (onboard in single cabin) and test prior to departure?
Clearly, no captain wants to restrict well-earned shore leave but, then again, it is important to avoid any crewmember being infected and becoming a medical emergency and/or a vector for further transmission, especially on a long sea voyage, so it makes sense to try and prevent this outcome.
I’d be interested to know how yachts and management companies are dealing with this. Some considerations:
What methods are in use for mitigating the risk of infection prior to departure
Has the port authority of your arrival destination been contacted and what is their policy in the event of an infected crewmember on an arriving yacht
Do the hospitals have the facilities and capacity to handle a COVID-19 patient
Are there any additional medical supplies and PPE above ‘Medical Scales’ that may be recommended to carry
The above, departs slightly from the main reason for this post but, for those about to embark on a lengthy passage, it’s something worth thinking about?
As always at OnlyCaptains, or goal is to share knowledge and help inform. Hopefully, the Healthy Sail Panel offers some useful information on COVID-19 that may help with your own procedures. And, perhaps it might be used as a reference by industry associations such as MYBA, LYBRA, IYBA, in a collaborative effort to create our own yachting recommendations. These would not only be of value to captains, crew and yacht management, they would also help to instil confidence in owners and charterers through the knowledge that industry accredited measures were in place to protect them whilst onboard.
With the superyacht fleet >3000gt still growing, I thought it worthwhile to look at the difference between Yacht and Commercial qualifications, the various pathways to an Unlimited CoC and,some considerations to factor into your choice of pathway.
A Little Background
We know that education, training and experience are vital to ensuring safety on yachts and ships, and although there is the Standards of Training Certification and Watchkeeping (STCW) Convention that regulates minimum standards, it was introduced for commercial ships and those destined for a merchant navy career.
Inrecognition of the requirements of the yachting industry, in2002 the MCA and, their contributing partners, introduced MGN 195(M) the first yacht specific standards of training and certification as allowed under Article IX of STCW.
Prior to this,commercial STCW qualificationsor RYA qualifications for recreational boaters were the only qualifications available to professional yacht crew. Given yachting’s trajectory, it made absolute sense to combine elements of both to develop a qualification that was relevant and attainable. There is no doubt that the Large Yacht Code has significantly improved the standards of safety and professionalism within our industry.
Though there have been amendments, and we are now at MSN1858 (M+F),there are perhaps questions whether it hasadapted sufficiently to the changes and challenges we have seen within our industry and, of course,why there is still abarrier that prevents Yacht captains serving on Yachts >3000gt?To answer this and other questions we need to explore the options available.
For unlimitedtonnage qualifications under MSN1856 (M+F) there are several different pathways. If we look at the MCA Higher National Certificate/Diploma (HNC/HND)route for experienced mariners–the one experienced yacht crew would be more inclined to choose – there are significant differencesin the educational and sea service requirements. For example,the classroom time requires an extra 53 weeks compared to Yacht qualifications.
Another difference is bridge watchkeeping. No verifiable bridge watchkeeping duties or, experience, is required for a Yacht OOW/Chief Mate <3000gt,only 4 months for Master 500gtand, 8 months for a Master Yacht <3000gt and Marshall Islands (MI) Master (Yachts) Unlimited – this is in stark contrast to the minimum of 30 months required for a STCW Master Unlimited under MSN1856 (M+F).
Perhaps these are the reasons why it has proved so difficult for the MCA to provide a suitable transition – how do they reconcile thedifferences and still comply with STCW?Perhaps an Endorsement, like there are for special vessels like tankers, could be a way forward; though, it should be pointed out these Endorsements are on top of STCW qualifications.
The Marshall Islands recognised an opportunity to provide a pathway to unlimited tonnageyachts for experienced captains and introduced their own qualification. This allows experienced captains, through additional modules and an assessment by MI examiners, to obtain an Unlimited CoC restricted to Yachts.
Below is a summary of the main differences.
MCA Master Yachts <3000gt
21 weeks education and short courses
Minimum 60 months sea service – including 8 months of bridge wathckeeping
Cost approx. €25,000
MI Master (Yachts) Unlimited – including MCA Master Yachts <3000gt
31 weeks of education and short courses,
Minimum 72 months sea-service – including, 8 months of bridge watchkeeping, and 12 months served as a Master on a yacht >500GT
Cost approx. €40,000
MCA Master Unlimited – following the HNC/HND experienced seafarer route
61 (college) + 13 (home study) a total of 74 weeks of education and short courses
Minimum 60 months sea-service, including 24 – 36 months of bridge watchkeeping, and 6 months watch keeping duties prior to OOW
Cost approx. €25,000
Of course, there will be additional expense for a MCA Master Unlimited due the course duration, loss of earnings and subsistence costs.
From Yacht to Unlimited
There is the MI Master (Yachts) Unlimited and, although a practical option for those with Yacht qualifications to upgrade, there are some considerations. So far, the Cayman Islands are the only Administration to have recognised this CoC, the fleet of Yachts >3000gt is small, and the ‘Yacht’restriction,further reduces its value compared to an Unlimited commercial CoC.
Unfortunately, the MCA don’t make it easy. A Yacht captain, irrespective of experience, still must start at the beginning with an Unlimited OOW,followed by Chief Mate Unlimited before MasterUnlimited. Due to time/cost considerations, thisonlymakes sense for those who make the decision to follow the commercial pathway early in their career or, already have an STCW OOW or Chief Mate Unlimited, and wish to upgrade.
There are other Administrations, such as AMSA in my example below, who also have their own pathways. But these are generally based on STCW.
Interestingly, there is a growing number of deck crew, especially those working on the larger yachts, who are choosing the commercial route, it certainly provides them with better career opportunities, including commercial shipping, harbour Pilotage, ferries, as well as shore-basedemploymentwith a Class Society, FlagAdministration or insurance company.
Whatever pathway you choose to Master Unlimited, there will be a cost and no guarantee of the returns. You might have to accept work as a 2nd officer or chief officer to gain the relevant large yacht experience. And, the reality is that, as mentioned, the Yacht >3000gt fleet is small so opportunities are limited, and you will be competing against commercial officers and captains who have now made yachting their home.
My Own Journey
Late in my career I embarked on my own journey to Master Unlimited. I had earned my OOW Unlimited working for BP Shipping before yachting and with that andmy sea service on yachts (all Private) I was accepted into the Chief Mate Unlimited/Master Unlimited pathway with AMSA,the Australian Maritime Safety Agency.
The process involved attendingcollege full-time for almost 10 months in Fremantle, Australia, for my Chief Mate Unlimited. This was an experience, as I was, let me say, a more mature student,and my classmates were all about 20 years younger, with relevant commercial experience; I was that ‘white boat captain’ a bit of a novelty! I was certainly self-conscious of that from the outset.However, what became clear was that, as seafarers, ultimately, we face the samemaritime challenges, and whether a ‘white boat’,box boat, tanker, or anchor handler, there was much similarity and we all benefited from the different experiences we brought to the classroom.
On obtaining my Chief Mate Unlimited I then returned to sea to earn another 12 months of sea service necessary to sit my Master Unlimited orals exam. This was not easy as AMSA required sea service on vessels over 3000gt for Master Unlimited (they were supposed to reduce this to 500gt but Australian politics intervened).Fortunately, my industry connections came to the rescue and I found myself as Chief Officeron Katara thenEclipse where I obtained the bulk of the sea service required. I then returned to Fremantle for a months prep before successfully passing the oral exam and becoming Master Unlimited.
So, starting with an OOW Unlimited to becoming a Master Unlimited, took nearly 3 years and I had already worked for nearly 20 years as a yacht captain. And, thethe cost of taking a significant amount of time off, leaving a good jobwith loss of earnings, living expenses, college fees, etc., all mounted up.
So how was my own return on investment?
If I’m brutally honest, the financial rewards have not been great.However, for me, the sense of achievement, professional pride,my greater knowledge and understanding, and the experiences gained from my time served on Yachts >3000gt, have beena farmore importantmeasure of success than the monetary cost.
For those starting their career, it is worth considering the MCA or, equivalent, Commercialqualificationpathway. This will provide you with the greatest flexibility and broader range of opportunities in the future.And not just at sea, there are many related industries who value a Master Unlimited qualification.
Unfortunately, until the MCA change their qualification standards and pathways, the choice is limited for experienced yacht officers/captains who want to serve on Yachts >3000g. Theoptions are, the MIMaster Yachts (Unlimited) or, the MCA Unlimitedor, other Administrations, Commercial pathways.
Finally,it’s worth remembering that there are some amazing yacht Owners and yachts below 3000gt and that bigger, is not always better – they come with challenges and differences that may not suit. Think carefully about the time and cost involved and your career goals. And, find time to speak to those who have already trodden the path…
It is often overlooked, but the most important relationship for a successful yachting experience is that between the Captain and the Yacht Owner, or Principal Charterer. Long past the heady days when deals are signed and photos are taken with designers, brokers and shipyard owners cutting ribbons, the Captain and the Crew are tasked with delivering on the promise.
I was recently asked a question during an interview, “As a Superyacht Captain, how do you manage the expectations of an Owner?”
On the face of it, a simple question but the answer is rather more complex. Let’s think of a sample 100 metre yacht; the cost may exceed €200M and the yacht owner has waited 5 years – 2 years of development with designers and brokers, and 3 years in construction. So when their dream is finally delivered and their anticipation is heightened, how does a Superyacht Captain manage their expectations?
There is no way to perfectly match the expectations an Owner has built up over the years as he waits patiently for delivery day. To take it further; how should the Captain deliver bad news to this Yacht Owner? News that may reflect that the yacht does not function in the manner presented during the design, sales, purchase cycle. Or on charter, the promotional photo that shows all watersports in use, seemingly on demand, is a guest expectation that cannot be delivered; with the Captain trying to respect the legal obligation for hours of work and rest.
The honeymoon is now over and there is a risk of a breakdown in the Owner / Captain relationship, there is nobody else in the room. The photo of the ribbon cutting may be sitting in a frame or the charter brochure open on the web browser, but the actors belong to a time long-forgotten, all shortcomings are directed to the Captain.
This is a scene in which I have had a walk on role many times; as have most Captains. Standing before an unhappy Yacht Owner for an operational shortcoming that was built into the yacht with no way to address, is a humbling experience. And, as awkward as an operational ‘moment of truth’ can be, it is preferable to the personal rebuke that can’t be blamed on a technical or manning deficiency.
The Owner / Captain relationship has a sense of intimacy. The Yacht Owner spends significant time on the yacht, and the Captain is brought into their World. Many new Captains are swept up in the intoxication of being within this inner sanctum, wiser Captains maintain some separation knowing that such personal intimacy is fragile and can easily fracture – often without warning.
I recall from my own career, a time when I would greet the Principal on every arrival and departure from the yacht. This was and remains an accepted practice; one learnt from observing my former Captains, and absorbed automatically into my own Captaincy. It was some years into my time with a Yacht Owner when, during a particularly challenging conversation, he said, “and why do you meet me every time I move? Can’t I have some privacy?” It seemed such a small point but, over time, it had catalysed into a real annoyance for this exceptional Yacht Owner.
It should not have escalated to this level, but a Yacht Owner is not normally driven to address the issues of their day to their staff unless it is of a serious nature. Too often, a Yacht Captain’s success is measured only by the departing comment of the yacht owner who says, “Thank you, we had a great time.” This may be authentic or, likely the yacht owner is not ready to invest the time to deconstruct the trip at that point. Not unlike the automatic response when the ever-friendly waiter asks, “did you enjoy your meal?” The question is more rhetorical than a real enquiry of the dining experience.
I was only awakened to this cold reality when an Owner’s Representative confronted me with a concern of the Yacht Owner. I held my position that the Yacht Owner expressed gratitude and pleasure with the last visit. The Representative quickly cut me down and made clear what is said onboard is very different to the detailed debrief he received in the office some days later. It was a growth and career inflection point for me; I would no longer take for granted any Owner’s praise or make assumptions based on yachting’s normal practices.
I did not enjoy being admonished by the Owner’s Representative, but he caught what could have been a fatal rupture in an otherwise successful relationship. From that time on, we worked together to ensure the good health of the Owner / Captain relationship. I would no longer take for granted the warm smile on departure and would readily seek the ‘truth’ from my colleague in the Family Office.
OnlyCaptains seeks to support Captains and Yacht Owners through their model of Search, Select, Place and Mentor. We have lived the Owner / Captain relationship and realise it is the cornerstone of a successful yacht experience. We are the knowing advisor; able to listen, reflect and interpret the concerns of a Yacht Owner and use this insight to help coach the Captain to their success.
Co-founder of OnlyCaptains Brendan O’Shannassy talks of his own experience of mentorship and how this experience awakened the need for this service in yachting.
In my early yachting career I often felt the ‘imposter’ as I stepped onto the bridge ready to manoeuvre. As my experience increased this feeling reduced but there was still something missing. There is a good chance that, like many of my peers, I may have even managed a career without knowing what the ‘secret sauce’ to achieving true technical competence in shiphandling was. This same observation could be extended to decision making, counselling and the many daily challenges of yacht command – I had the ticket, but did I have the knowledge?
I had received great support by yacht captains through my career but there had been no structured mentoring and learning plan in place. And, often it seemed, that the issue of a Master’s CoC was viewed as the end game, and not the beginning of the Captaincy journey.
Taking a break from yachting to train and work as a marine pilot, I entered a formal training / mentoring programme. New entry pilots are assigned a mentor, a more senior pilot that inducts, trains and supports them in their struggle to move from former captain and nervous shiphandler to competent pilot. A competent pilot who is expected to; step onboard any ship, at any hour, in any weather, take command and bring that ship safely to the port. Whilst my mentoring was focussed on ship handling, I found the learning extended far beyond the bridge; weaving the lessons into my wider Captaincy responsibilities also improved my performance, enjoyment and efficiency.
Returning to shiphandling, I finally understood the importance of defining and communicating the metrics of a manoeuvre. Everything fell into place. What speed? when and why? These need to be known at all times and this must be shared with all on the bridge. It is so important because at all times the entire bridge team must be able to assess every action of the manoeuvring Captain / Pilot against an earlier briefed and agreed plan. The Captain must then be able to communicate any deviation and why.
By communicating this it does not limit the Captain, it allows the Captain to vary the plan in response to the conditions and circumstances at the time. It also allows a challenge from other members of the bridge team if the deviation is not validated, – this is the philosophy of ‘challenge and response’ that is the bedrock of effective bridge teams.
During my first days of induction as a pilot I observed several senior pilots prior to being assigned my mentor. I was intrigued that the more experienced pilots exercised greater diligence with their pilotage briefings than those more junior. Their sketches of the ship’s planned manoeuvre into port were precise, their briefing books had photographs of landmarks relative to the pilotage and during execution they communicated to the entire bridge team what they were doing and why.
I had never seen this or, thought to do this myself, on yachts. Up to this point I would take control at some point on the approach and, whilst I would seek port information from the pilot, I really set my own approach speeds, headings and approach angles based on my best judgement at the time. Often I was monitoring my speed on the simple ‘ten-through-one’ method of checking speed reductions against the last ten cables. Although an effective approach, it is crude, not tailored to wind and tide, and a little too cautious with modern yachts. Through all the training and sea service to Yacht Captain, I had not learnt to communicate my intentions to the bridge team and I may as well have been there on my own – almost without saying, this extended to all leadership decisions.
After induction I was assigned a mentor pilot that was more than I could have hoped for. Ian had emigrated from the United Kingdom to Australia and with nineteen years as a Thames Pilot he had learnt from some of the best in the World and had experienced all the conditions that UK waters could offer – this made Ian a compelling mentor.
The North Queensland commercial port was a very different environment to my yachting experience. It had large tides, strong currents, steady wind and then strong gusts form the opposite direction. It was as unforgiving as I could imagine. The ships were also very different; replacing my delightfully over-powered and easy to manoeuvre yachts, were single screw bulk carriers that were also not as reliable as their Captains would have you believe.
All of this Ian took in his stride, in fact more than that, he actually expected everything to go wrong on every pilotage. He planned for it and whilst I would never be as bold as to call him out, I think he was at times disappointed when yet another of his ship moves went seamlessly. During one memorable departure of a fully loaded Cape Size (a Cape Size ship is 280 metres long, 52 metres wide and when loaded 18 metres deep) Ian turned to me and said, “see that?” I didn’t. My body language was enough to confirm this and asked I remind him after the departure.
Ian took the ship to the port limits safely, we both departed by helicopter and walking back from the helipad after the four-minute flight I asked him what I missed. He recalled that when he had asked the question, the bow of the ship was being pushed back by the water resistance as the ship ‘cut’ across the berth pocket.
This might need some explaining. The berth pocket was deeper than the departure channel and departing the berth needed the ship to move from 5.0m under keel clearance (UKC) to 0.9 metre (UKC). This required a wall of water 280m long and 18m high to be relocated through a very small gap – the water did not appreciate being forced through the gap and pushed against the ship.
In the departure we had shared, Ian had observed the ship being pushed back by this wall of water and the bow was moving 0.2 knots in the wrong direction, a speed almost imperceptible to the eye, however Ian was using both the pilot’s precise navigation unit and his highly-tuned sense from so many manoeuvres.
Ian increased the power on the ship astern to move the pivot point to his advantage and also the forward tug was increased to lifting off (pulling) at three quarter power to recover the bow. The entire event was observed, acted upon and rectified within two minutes. Ian’s point was, if it had not have been acted upon at that point it would have been very dangerous, and with a smirk he asked, “Do you know the fastest thing in the World?” I returned the smile and let the story play out…
“Brendan, the fastest thing in the World is a fully laden Cape Size bulk carrier moving half a knot in the wrong direction!”
It was a great lesson and, as the months progressed, and I moved from observer to the pilot executing the pilotage, the lessons still flowed. I never accepted anything Ian shared without chasing him with follow-up questions. He warmed to this and my shiphandling education accelerated at a rate where I began to surprise myself with my ability to anticipate and react to seemingly unlinked events. When I was a solo pilot and there was a complex move I would speak with Ian before boarding the ship to communicate my plan and build my confidence. My first call on completion would be to Ian to debrief; he was so good, he could picture the move from the call.
Ian had given me tools to use and these were centred around two aspects; the plan and the team available as a resource.
The planning began well before arriving to the ship. We would do the simple things of checking the radio battery was fully charged but, went further, and put a spare battery in our pockets ‘just in case’. The portable pilotage unit never failed, but nevertheless we turned it on and calibrated it ashore, every time. We would visit the control tower to look at their weather information; sure, we could look to reliable weather forecasting from our mobile phones but the control tower had real data from wind sensors on the docks and we could also look to an array of cameras that would also show detail as small as the wavelets on the water. The actual ship movement plan included; speed reference points, headings, abort points and of course final docking plan. This did not vary from the training I had received and, had perhaps previously belittled; it was just my mentor pilot had sewn it all together.
Ian had coached me to communicate each of these references in real time during the pilotage and the manoeuvring. If at 5 cables to the berth the plan was to be at 5 knots and the ship was at 6 knots, I would now say “the ship is above our agreed plan and I am comfortable with this but will reduce speed and report again as we pass 4 knots.” This narrative continued across all aspects of the plan and the ship’s Captain and Bridge team. Ian had trained me to make sure the dialogue was both ways, as the crew’s opinions were sought to the point of being demanded. It changed everything. I was no longer ‘alone’ on the bridge, everyone was working with me, as Ian commented:
“You have multiplied your safety by the number of people now engaged”.
Transferring this to yachts, it is possible to gain benefit from any crew member, even when numbers are thin. The discipline of verbalising ship movements to anyone creates confidence and accountability – If you can’t communicate what you are doing, are you really in charge?
I was appointed a great mentor with a structured training plan, but this might not always be the case. I knew that moving forward if there was no, assigned mentor, I would identify the person I wanted to learn from, approach them and let them know I wanted to learn, an important factor as the mentee’s desire and commitment to learn is as crucial as the mentor’s role in supporting their development.
I find many of these great ship handling lessons can also be applied to life; Ian, taught me to:-
test and verify equipment (or ideas),
develop a plan,
communicate the plan,
amend the plan in sympathy to the changing conditions, and
engage others to support and challenge the plan.
The same sense of ‘going it alone’ that I felt on the bridge before Ian’s tutelage may well have spoken to my previous leadership endeavours as a Yacht Captain. My ability to communicate and embrace the support of a team to safely bring a large ship into port gave me a new framework with which to lead a team on returning to Europe where a new Yacht Command beckoned. I would not say it was a silver bullet to success, but it certainly helped – and I still have not stopped learning.
Back on the yacht I missed my mentor and sought to replace this support and extend it to all aspects of my command. Unfortunately, there was no knowledgeable Captain to air my professional challenges in confidence and, although I worked well with management, none had held seagoing command, so they could not provide effective counsel.
Often, Captains, are just expected to ‘get on and do the job’ we have the ‘ticket’ after all, shouldn’t that be enough? However, the reality is that whatever the perceived experience level, we cannot know everything and, it is a dangerous Captain who thinks he does. We are learning all the time and regularly encounter situations never faced before, where the decision making could benefit from confidential counsel with someone who has ‘lived’ experience and can add value to the decision making process and personal development.
OnlyCaptains commitment to our mentoring role was created in response to my experience and that of my fellow Captains who, when I spoke of my journey, asked ‘”how do we access a mentor?” We provide an answer by making sure command is not a solo affair by providing our Captains with support and mentoring that can help them grow and develop their skills as Captains and leaders.