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.
I must admit to a bit of plagiarism here as the title, in part, comes from the World Maritime University (WMU) Report1 into the hours of work and rest (HOWR) in the shipping industry – link at the bottom. When I saw the title, read, then reflected on its contents, it became clear there were parallels with the superyacht industry.
That being said, it is important to recognise that in the superyacht industry the issues surrounding misrepresentation of HOWR are generally limited to the peak periods; those times when guests are onboard when, due to a combination of high demands and insufficient crew. To successfully navigate the obligations and intent of the legislation it is important to fully understand the regulations. The alternative is creative application of HOWR – something I am sure that most yacht captains and crew will have experienced.
In my early days on yachts, working long hours to deliver the guest experience was the norm and just part of yachting. “Harden-up” was often the refrain when someone spoke out on fatigue. It was like the measure of a job well done and validation that yachting was for you. Hours of work and fatigue were given very little attention and remained undocumented; unless you were crew you had no idea of the extent of the problem. Over subsequent years, regulations such as ISM and MLC were introduced to improve vessel safety and pollution prevention and the health and welfare of crew – less about yachting and about preventing the abuse of crew that was prevalent in some sectors of the shipping industry.
Unfortunately, as the WHU report suggests, despite the regulations and a greater appreciation of fatigue and its consequences, there is still a culture where work hours are, either under reported or adjusted to facilitate compliance. There are many reasons given, many of which are analogous to the superyacht industry:
Legacy – it’s part of the ‘can do’ attitude that is prevalent within yachting; the desire to deliver the best experience for the owner or guests.
Manning – having an appropriate manning level to meet the diverse demands of the operation; not just ‘minimum safe manning’ which is often the metric.
Contemporary Yacht Operations – yachting has evolved and so have the demands on crew, not only from owners who expect greater levels of service and experience, but also from the administrative burden that is a consequence of both regulation and management company reporting systems. Manning has failed to keep pace with this and something OnlyCaptains alluded to in this piece – Manning A More Considered Approach Required
Cost – crew are one of the highest costs of yacht ownership and so it is understandable that advisors and yacht owners are driven to reduce manning.
Financial Incentive – charter tips or bonus.
Employment Security – whether it be the Captain responsible for the yacht compliance, or an individual crew member not ‘towing the line’ there are concerns about the effect accurate reporting may have on employment prospects.
Management Pressure – either directly or indirectly they send signals that encourage the misrepresentation of HOWR.
Stakeholder Distance – the physical and psychological distance between the various shore-based stakeholders and the operational crew, means there is often a limited understanding of the work that crew do and what it takes to deliver an exceptional yachting experience, day after day.
Lack of Effective Controls – as proven, it is relatively easy to under report or adjust HOWR, even on some electronic systems, to ensure compliance. The fact that these are not identified by internal audits, Flag or PSC suggests the current inspection and enforcement mechanisms are not fit for purpose.
Also, in yachting due to the cyclical nature of demands ‘guest on vs. guest off’ there is also an attitude of:
What’s the big deal, the crew get plenty of time to rest when we are not onboard.
The reality is often very different; there is still plenty of work to be done that is critical to maintain and protect the value of the asset, safety considerations, and to ensure the yacht and crew are ready for the next visit.
Rest and Fatigue
This leads onto ‘Compensatory Rest’ as allowed by MLC, to mitigate or justify non-compliance; often the rule rather than the exception. Unfortunately, this is not always practical due to a yachts program e.g. short turnaround for next guests (back-to-back guests/charters) repositioning in rough sea, etc. And, unless the compensatory rest is both, timely and adequate, it will not prevent fatigue and its consequences.
There are numerous studies on fatigue; searching ‘fatigue and its effect on performance and safety’ in Google (other browsers are available!) produced 1.5 million hits – I would hazard a guess that none of the results would praise its health and performance benefits!
It is recognised there are three types of fatigue:
Transient fatigue this is acute fatigue as a result of sleep restriction or extended hours awake within 1 or 2 days
Cumulative or chronic fatigue brought on by repeated mild sleep restriction or extended hours awake across a series of days.
Circadian fatigue refers to the reduced performance during night-time hours, particularly during an individual’s “window of circadian low” (WOCL) -typically between 2:00 a.m. and 05:59 a.m.
Research has also shown that the accumulation of sleep deficit e.g. having an hour less of sleep for several consecutive days, needs a series of days with more-than-usual sleep for a person to fully recover from cumulative fatigue.
This suggests that, very quickly into a busy guest period, crew may already be affected by fatigue; their cognitive ability impaired, decision making and judgement clouded, and performance impacted. Many studies compare fatigue to the effects of alcohol consumption, the last thing anyone would want would be crew behaving as drunks due only to sleep deprivation.
Adding to the problem is that many crew cabins are cramped, poorly designed, and suffer from light and noise pollution, these factors, along with the yachts motion, even at anchor, can all affect the quality of sleep – another area worth consideration?
The shipping industry is aware of fatigue and has contributed to the canon of research on the subject, these include The SEAFARER FATIGUE: THE CARDIFF RESEARCH PROGRAMME, MCA MGN 505(M) and IMO GUIDELINES ON FATIGUE (MSC.1Circ.1598) and are all well worth reading.
Interestingly, in 2006 when the Cardiff Research Study was published, one conclusion was:
This study shows the current method for recording and auditing working hours is not effective and should therefore be reviewed.
Seems not much has changed.
As I discovered, honest reporting of HOWR comes with a cost, unless you have a supportive management company and yacht owner, so I fully appreciate why some captains might be reluctant. However, unless we report HOWR accurately we will remain part of the problem and there will be no incentive to change.
If you always operate at max, like an engine constantly run in the red zone, something will break sooner rather than later!
Ultimately the reason why there may be a need to under report or adjust of HOWR is that, in many cases, there is insufficient crew for guest periods. And, this is after all when a yacht owner, their family and friends or charter guests get to experience the enjoyment of yachting.
A Contempoarary Problem
Far from this being restricted to older yachts, this remains a contemporary issue, with some recent prominent examples shown not to have enough crew to deliver consistently the full range and standard of services demanded by yacht owners and charterer guests – this does beg the question; who is advising the owners and how did they assess the manning levels?
In response, I like to reflect on a comment from a respected designer Carlo Nuvolari, of Nuvolari Lenard, when he stated in an interview in Boat International – Nuvolari Lenard discuss the problem with yacht design 18 November 2015 by Stewart Campbell:
A Lot – Not All, But A Lot – Of Our Colleagues Don’t Go On Boats. I Can’t Understand It.
Perhaps ‘a bittongue in cheek here’ a solution would be for every designer or advisor, to spend at least one season working on a busy yacht in all departments, before they are allowed anywhere near a prospective yacht owner and/or its operation…just a thought!
And, whilst we can address the problem with more careful consideration of manning on new-builds, clearly, we cannot re-build each yacht and the demands will not decrease…so what can be done?
Searching for A pathway
Apart from accurate reporting, Captains will need to look at every aspect of their operation and work schedules to find efficiencies and/or time saving solutions e.g. use of a standing shore team that speeds up turnarounds. Yacht management working with their captains to improve SMS and operational reporting, using technology to make the systems more user friendly and efficient. And, where practicable, directing much of the administration back to shore management, freeing Captains and crew to be the operators, focused on ensuring the yacht owners, their guests and charterers are the priority.
Final thought. Would you fly on a long-haul flight if the captain (eyes darkened by fatigue) was trying to finish the plane’s budget, next maintenance schedule, organise his parking at the next airport and was on the phone interviewing a cabin attendant as you boarded? I think the answer is obvious, so why do we run our yachts this way?
Following our last post and feedback, we take a deeper look at rotation. We believe the benefits for crew are well understood, so in this piece we focus mainly on how rotation can improve yacht ownership and whether the benefits outweigh any additional costs involved?
With traditional leave arrangements, crew normally take their accrued leave at the end of a contract if a seasonal job or, when a yachts program allows e.g. at the end of the season, during a refit or crossing, or the off-season lay-up period. This approach means crew may work for prolonged periods before a break and, planning for their leave and/or training required for career progression, is very difficult.
Although a yacht can be admired for its aesthetic beauty and technical excellence, ultimately it is the professional crew who are responsible for ensuring the yacht delivers on the dreams and aspirations of an owner. Employing and retaining the very best crew is, without doubt, fundamental to success. And, as the fleet grows and yachts get bigger, the competition for quality crew will only increase; to meet this challenge terms of employment will need to evolve and rotation will become an ever more important consideration for many.
So What is Rotation?
I think the simplest explanation is job-sharing, where, most commonly, two crew share the same job and alternate their time onboard and on leave. This is normally the situation with the most senior crew with work/leave ratios such as 2:2 or 3:3 and other crew on ratios such as 5:1 or 3.1.
Although there may be different variations/ratios, not all crew have to be on the same terms, the general principle is that the yacht is fully manned at all times and leave is properly scheduled – within accepted variances due to a yachts program.
With any job share, especially in positions of leadership and responsibility, one of the challenges is ensuring the two people sharing the job have mutual respect, similar ethics, behaviour and work standards. This dynamic is important as consistency is fundamental to the health of the team. Any major differences can lead to uncertainty and confusion amongst the crew and a breakdown in the team and performance – success, relies on identifying and employing the right crew.
Yacht Availability – Asset Optimisation
Large yachts are a significant investment, and one of the joys of yacht ownership is the freedom to use it without restriction. Therefore, outside of crossings or refit, any time a yacht is unavailable to a yacht owner or, for charter, would seem to be a poor return on the investment.
Even on one season yachts I have seen where the lack of crew has prevented an owner from using their yacht in winter, and there are some stunning days in the winter in the Med! This was frustrating for the owner and something that did not make sense given the investment involved, including the capital costs and operational expenditure.
Rotation ensures that it is the yacht owner who determines when to use the yacht and is not restricted due to crew leave, or quality diminished by use of temporary crew. Lack of crew due to leave commitments would no longer be a reason to curtail use or compromise on safe manning in port.
Temporary crew is an option for replacing crew on leave and keeping the yacht available to the owner, though this is not normally the most successful strategy as recruitment is often at short notice and choice may be limited.
Further, there is no guarantee they will perform, have the same professional standards, gel with the crew and/or yacht owner and family. The training and supervision they will require and, repeated every time a temp is used, is a drain on crew resources creating inefficiencies in the team’s performance and the yachts operation. This can have a negative impact on the quality of service, levels of safety, standards of maintenance and the yacht owner’s experience.
Employing temporary crew has repeating costs such as agency fees, salary, uniform and travel and these can be used to offset the additional cost of permanent crew required for rotation.
It is widely accepted that long periods onboard without a suitable break can lead to fatigue and burnout, especially on busy yachts, and the uncertainty in leave planning and difficulty in having a normal life off the yacht can affect the welfare and well-being of crew. All these are contributing factors to the high turnover of crew that is so often complained about in our industry.
The senior crew are even more exposed to these stresses due to the pressures of their roles. These are the mature/older more experienced crew that others look to for leadership, training and motivation – they are the foundation on which the long-term success of the yacht is built. Many will have reached a point their career and/or life where they may have a family or, in a relationship, and are interested in building a fulfilling life away from the yacht.
Junior crew tend to have different priorities, as alluded to in Part I, so whilst extended leave is not so important, a reasonable amount of leave and having the ability to plan for their time off is still a key influence.
Rotation also provides opportunities for advancement and helps remove another oft cited reason for leaving. For example, it may allow a chief officer to step up to rotational captain, or a 2nd stewardess to become rotational chief stewardess. It adds to motivation and further helps retain the skills and knowledge built-up through mentoring and their time served onboard.
Although yacht owners may be frustrated by the constant churn of crew, they may not fully appreciate the hard and soft costs involved. The hard costs include such things as recruitment fees, employment setup costs, uniform, training, etc. and easiest to explain. The soft costs, although harder to put a monetary value on, are also important considerations. Arguably, the biggest cost to crew turnover is the loss of knowledge which could be technical, operational or, even personal to the yacht owner and family. There is also the disruption to the team and operation, and the time and effort required to train and supervise new crew on their journey to becoming an integral part of the team. And, all of these could affect a yacht owners enjoyment; something you cannot put a value on!
It’s also difficult to appreciate the importance a yacht owner places on seeing familiar faces amongst the crew; it helps them relax, and gives them comfort in the knowledge that the crew understand their needs and will make their stay flow seamlessly. I have heard familiarity being used as a reason against rotation due to the additional crew, but this should not be a major concern as it doesn’t take long for those crew to be a familiar sight – they just won’t all be onboard at the same time!
Rotation does not completely eliminate crew turnover as there will always be influences outside the control of the yacht but, by incentivising crew through better leave and improved employment prospects, a yacht owner can remove some of the key reasons for leaving.
Yes, But Rotation Is Expensive!
This is often, understandingly, the refrain from yacht owners and rightly so, as the payroll can be between 25% – 40% of the operating budget, and it is frequently the captain who must explain how increasing these costs can be of benefit a yacht owner.
Within any proposal, the crew must also buy-in to the idea and understand that a trade-off may be required on their part. It would seem obvious to anyone that if you work less then you should be paid less? Unfortunately, crew do not always see it this way and some expect to work significantly less days whilst still earning the same money – this stance is often where the idea never even gets off the ground. That being said, there are examples of very generous salaries combined with rotation – there is no standard in yachting!
Once an owner recognises the benefits it is clearly easier to implement prior to employment of the crew, such as during a new-build or before purchase. Changing an operational yacht to a rotational structure is a little more challenging due to the uplift in costs, and any salary negotiations that may be required.
The examples below show how changing annual leave allowances affects the number of days worked per year.
90 days leave per year, plus one day off per week when onboard, effectively works 236 days per year. On 1:1 rotation they work 183 days per year (no day off per week). This is a reduction of 22%.
60 days leave per year, plus one day off per week when onboard, effectively works 261 days per year. On 1:1 rotation they work 183 days per year (no day off per week). This is a reduction of 30%.
38 days leave per year, plus one day off per week when onboard, effectively works 280 days per year. On 5:1 rotation, plus one day off per week when onboard, they work 261 days per year. This is a reduction of 7%.
An interesting point is that a full-time employee in the UK with statutory holiday, public holidays and weekends, effectively works 228 days per year.
The effective workdays is also the number used to calculate the daily pay rate. Using that figure you can see that to keep the rate the same would result in a salary reduction by the same percentage – as mentioned, this is something that crew may find difficult to accept, but may also make the salary uncompetitive.
As an exercise I developed a detailed spreadsheet that compares a ‘normal’ yacht with a crew complement of 19 onboard with average salaries, leave and travel costs, against the same yacht with a ‘rotation’ – the table below summarises the leave differences.
3:3 Ratio = 183 days
Chief Officer, 2nd Officer,
Purser, Chief Stewardess,
Head Chef, Sous Chef
3:3 Ratio = 183 days
5:1 ratio = 60 Days
3:3 Ratio = 183 days
3:3 Ratio = 183 days
TOTAL PAYROLL NUMBER
The junior crew are on a 5:1 rotation which, in general, may suit them better given their different priorities to the senior crew. There is still a good amount of time off to rest and recuperate and, importantly, an ability to plan their leave.
What this detailed examination highligthed is that rotation does not result in a doubling crew costs which, is often the assumption. In this particular case the increase in crew costs is between 8% – 24% depending whether salaries are adjusted for effective workdays, left at the original rates, or negotiated somewhere in-between.
It is clear that there are costs and benefits associated with rotation; although it is important to perform a detailed analysis of all the cost inputs, outputs and variances – this is a fundamental part of any justification. The benefits, apart from the financial savings that can be made through the reduction in temporary crew and crew turnover, are dependent on the value and importance ‘weighting factor’ that an yacht owner places on these, and whether, on balance, these outweigh the costs and add value to the quality of the ownership experience.
Finally, and worth considering; although rotation is not yet the norm, it is growing trend, especially for the larger yachts – although I have heard of its use on <500gt yachts as well – and more crew will be looking for this in the future – I think most yacht crew would agree that this is a positive change and demonstrates the industries progressive growth and evolving maturity.
As we have mentioned previously, OnlyCaptains are not offering prescriptive solutions, we simply present ideas and suggestions that may offer captains some useful ideas that they can use in their own command and act as a catalyst to further industry discussion – we hope you enjoyed this post and welcome any feedback.
I stepped ashore in March to take break from Yacht Captaincy; to get to know my family again after two years of more time afloat than ashoreand, a home–time punctuated with boat business. Something I am sure is familiar to so many Captains. Seven-months later it is a different World than that last tender ride ashore in the Pacific.
With 2020 travel restrictions forcing a greater slowing down than planned, I sought to use this time as a period for growth, allowing me to work on aspects of my Captaincy where I felt I could improve. Listening was one.
I had been a Captain for so long that it had damaged my conversation. I was good at quickly absorbing information and finding solutions. This served me well in the fast flow of daily yacht operations but let me down on supporting others and working on solutions to longer term problems. I realised that within the gunwales, it felt easier for me to speak, and others to follow, rather than to take the time tolisten to what a crewmember was trying to say or contribute. Even though this limited the solutions available.
To address this, I searched for information on better listening. It is a topic fraught with poor information though within the coal heaps of the internet there were some diamonds. These are summarised in this OnlyCaptains knowledge piece.
“We assume a winning negotiation strategy is about talking, when in fact it is about listening.”
William Ury (founder Harvard Negotiation Project)
Having discovered William Ury’s TED talk it then led me to Sheila Heen. Heen is a senior lecturer on Law at theHarvard Law School and member of the Harvard Negotiation Project, she is renowned for her work on communications and negotiations. Specifically, difficult conversations. A topic that seemed to match about 80% of my Captaincy. I listened to her being interviewed before further researching her work. She is an engaging speaker and,whilst all her points were of interest, there were a couple of phrases that woke my attention:
“[We use] Listening as a strategy of last resort, we really just seek to give our opinion.”
“I will pretend I am listening whilst I am trying to figure out what I am going to say.”
Ouch! These seemed personal to me and, for the slightest moment, I thought Professor Heen was speaking directly to me. Her talk identified a couple of my known weaknesses and prompted me to dive deeper.
Following more dead ends I chanced upon Jenifer Garvey Berger who echoed Professor Heen’s words, but then defined and framed them further. Garvey Berger spoke of levels of listening that we all unknowingly move through. The first I recognised, the second I understood, and the third was new to me.
Without trying to duplicate the tone and eloquence of Heen or Garvey Berger, the levels in order of their prevalence were;listening to compete, listening to solve and listening to learn.
Listening to Compete / Win
An example of this can be found when captains and creware exchanging stories in a social situation; with each competingto beat the other with aneven more outlandish and unbelievabletale of life onboard. It’s one–up–man–shipand, mostly there is no harm in it, but there is little value either. Engage in this for the fun but be cautious of ever thinking this is a true or ‘self-defining’ conversation.
The darker side to listening to compete is moving the conversation to your preferred outcome, to win the conversation. Rank being the lever rather than the merits of your solution. Unlike the almost comical competition aspect, listening to Win is very negative when, “[you are] no longer talking with someone, you are talking at them”. I use this phrase as I was correctly accused of this by a former second officer (now excellent Captain). It sat me back with self-awareness and I sought to avoid this toxic conversational style.
Listening to Solve:
Using the blunt feedback and some maturity my ‘winning’ conversations reduced, but they seemed to be overtaken by me seeking to hear just enough to solve the speaker’s problem and move on. I like being recognised as a problem solver and would be in such a rush to provide the solution that I often missed thesignalsexpressedby the other party. With onlya superficial grasp of the situation I sought to act.A bit like walking into a garage where the attendant did not listen to what the problem was and replaced the wing mirror when it was the suspension that was broken.
Identifying and reducing Compete/Winapproach was not too hard.Avoiding the Solve approach was much harder, many times the crew member has come to the Captain seeking a fix and you feel it is your role to deliver this, and in simple cases this is often correct, but our haste to resolve sometimes we can make things worse.
When a conversation was more strategic and there was not a binary solution, I tried to see past the problem itself and, by actively listening, probe for the root cause of the situation. If I could unlock this, I was then able to help them find asolution themselves. What I learnt was that it was often not a lack of knowledge that prevented the crew memberfrom finding a solution themselves, but a lack of confidence in themselves or, more often, a lack of confidence that I would support their solution if it was not 100% aligned with my own.
Listening to Learn:
This conversation nirvana remains a work in progress for me. It is tiring and takes some re-wiring of learned and (mostly) successful behaviours. When a crew member seeks a conversation where there is no linear problemsolution path, is when Listening to Learn is so valuable.
As an antithesis to ‘Listening to Win’ where you gather information to be used to your benefit, ‘Listening to Learn’ is a deeper conversation where you must slow down and use the information to understand the other person’s perspective. This requires active listening, including taking cues from their tone of voice, eye contact, body language, etc.The hardest thing with this is to supress my own Win/Solve habit before they have chance to fully express themselves. In the times I have been able to listen more than talk, and draw more from the other person, I immediately see I have far more information and better appreciation of a situation. It was clear, that in certain situations, this shift in approachprovided much better outcomes.
Before the research gave a framework I had already implemented tools to help me. I knew I had a problem but did not know the structure for the solution, luckily the tools remain valid. They are simple and worth sharing:
In my notebook, which was always with me during conversations, I would write, ‘listen, reflect, repeat before response’ on the top left of the page – I wrote it a lot before I started to learn the behaviour and did not need to reinforce through writing.
The next was a series of questions that I still have on a page in front of my notebook that I can flip to without disruption to the conversation, they can be inserted to most topics and deliver great outcomes. These are a few examples; I am sure you can get the drift:
“what was that like?”
“how did that feel?”
“can you expand to help me understand a little better?”
“what other items are left to discuss?”
“what are the next steps?”
My last tool was taught to me by a talented Executive Assistant to a Yacht Owner. As we finished each conversation he would, by default, conclude with “is there any more I can do for you?” and “Are there any barriers left that I could help with?” It was so pronounced that I asked him about it. He said it was the way his former boss (a US member of Congress) finished every conversation. He found it so successful that he embraced it as well. I may not be quite so robotic with my own adoption, but I do think it is empowering.
So listening is a key component of better conversations and communication – knowing when to speak and, when and how to listen, is the challenge. I have found in my own journey that I as I strive to change, I am working against learned behaviours and regularly need to turn to my notes, references and mentors in order to improve. Maybe your conversational performance is way ahead of my own but, maybe there is room for little more improvement?
Being a yacht Captain is an amazing experience and a never-ending journey. OnlyCaptains seeks to join the Yacht Captain Community together to learn from collective experiences. Our articles are not meant to lecture or presume to have all the answers; their purpose is to help ignite debate, and to share knowledge, ideas and experience that others may find of value on their own journey through Captaincy.
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.