With inflatable flamingos and palm trees bobbing about in the pool on the protracted aft main deck, 68m Dutch-built Icon, on show in Barcelona at the 2017 MYBA Charter Show, is, to say the least, iconic. She’s a hit on the charter market, and at the time of the interview (April 2017) is already fully booked for July and August, with a few additional charters either end.
And despite the Dutch engineering, her aft extension to include the pool and the extensive beach club, these aren’t the reasons this season has seen so many returning charter clients. "My main task on board is always to try to maintain the crew," says Icon's captain, Marcel van den Houdt. This season the yacht has most of the same crew as the previous year and, according to the captain, this is more than enough reason to book the yacht as a repeat charter: “The clients are coming back partly for the boat, but mainly for the crew, and that’s my only goal.”
Marcel van den Houdt’s background spans multiple sectors, from hospitality and logistics to working on board commercial vessels and being involved in several new-build projects. In fact, he worked on board Icon for a period, then left, only to later be asked back as her captain.
Yet he’s quick to attribute the yacht’s success to the previous captain as much as himself. “I joined [as captain] a year ago, and the owner wanted me to make sure that the team got together,” he says. With turnover such a problem in today’s industry, and Icon’s lack of turnover over the past 12 months largely the catalyst for her success this season, what exactly has van den Houdt done in his year as captain to transform turnover into longevity?
“The rules for the crew are the same rules as for me. I’m just another employee of the owner – I’m not some sort of God,” he says. “We have a few normal house rules, no different to when we all lived at home with our parents. And it’s a bit like they’re my kids – some of them are as young as 20. They come into this world of wealth with amazing tips and good salaries, and they don’t actually know what to do with their money, so sometimes they go crazy and I have to pull them back. Put money in the bank, and if you want to go on holiday for six months you can, but make sure you have six months’ salaries in your account, because the new job might not come so quickly.”
"I hear other yacht crew saying they’d love to work on Icon, so I think we have a really good thing going."
Mentoring is certainly a hot topic at the moment, but it’s not uncommon to find captains who say all the right things, but hold the coveted captain’s card very close to their chest. Marcel van den Houdt is not one of them. “Some captains are afraid of their jobs, but I tell the guys [crew], if you want my job, ask for it. Call the owner and say, ‘I want Marcel’s job’, and if he says yes, I pack my bags and find another one.” And van den Houdt gives all his officers the tools to do this should they so wish. In fact, the second officer, who has his Chief Mate ticket, began by anchoring the yacht last season, and this season he will start manoeuvring in port; the bosun, who is also working towards his Chief Mate ticket, will start driving this season, while the Chief Officer, according to van den Houdt, is "on the level of captain, and now I simply advise his people-management and guest skills".
“It would be very easy to give all the paperwork I have to the guys and just sit in my office all day on Facebook, but it’s not going to work for anyone like that," he continues. "It's motivation for the guys and for their careers, and also for any of my colleagues who might get them on board in a few years’ time. They will see they had a good teacher that that will hopefully grant them better career prospects for the future.”
And it’s not just the officers who the captain mentors – it’s every crewmember on board, and this is particularly notable when we start discussing the MYBA Chef Competition. “The chefs we have on board are really young – the head chef is 28 and the sous chef is 22, but they’re from this age of cooking that’s popular at the moment. I asked them if they wanted to the competition – they weren’t sure, but I said, ‘Guys, it’s important for the boat, but it’s most important for you.’ They’ll be in magazines and, if they win, they can put it on their CV.” Following the interview, I headed down to the MYBA Chef Competition prize giving, where Icon was announced the winner for its size category.
The longevity that van den Houdt has on board as captain is, despite his modesty, a testament to him. And the various crewmembers I speak to, including the Second Officer, have only good things to stay about the man at the top. And the man at the top sums it up pretty well: “I hear other yacht crew saying they’d love to work on Icon, so I think we have a really good thing going.”