The significant investment of money, let alone time, needed to achieve Master certification is enough to make some deck crew question their career path. A full assessment of the captain’s position and whether it fits the individual and his or her career ambitions is important, or whether the role of chief officer is more appealing.
If you ask captains what the hardest part of their job is, many will immediately say the human side – dealing with the crew and managing the owner. For one 39-year-old chief officer, who has held his Master 3,000gt Yacht certification for six years and is very happy in his current role as rotational chief officer on an 80m-plus motoryacht, this is a very important factor.
“It is enough to run my department of 10,” he explains. “The captain remains ultimately responsible, particularly when it all goes wrong, and I don’t have to deal with the owner’s issues or be ‘bad cop’ with the crew as the captain does. It is much easier being the good cop. The crew know the limits and what I will put up with; push past it and you are facing the captain, which no one wants to do.”
Another chief officer of a 56m motoryacht agrees that this level of responsibility can be a deterrence. “I was told once that a captain’s life is a lonely one and, looking at it, it actually is,” he says. “When you become captain, the one thing missing is that person you turn to when things go wrong – the weight of the problem is only on your shoulders. If things are good, there is still no one to tap you on the shoulder and say ‘great job’. You have to think about that when you step up from the mate to the captain.”
Not only is there a significant amount of stress and pressure in needing to be able to juggle different priorities and demands in a captain’s role, the step up, particularly on larger vessels, also often creates an increasing distance from what is a passion.
“Driving the boat, navigating, managing the toys, all become a dim and distant memory – instead they are administratively based, organising yard periods, dealing with finances and accounts, and trying to keep everyone happy in the process,” explains Karen Passman, founder of Impact Crew. “Is it any wonder that some crew whose strengths are perhaps less administratively based and who enjoy the day-to-day crew interactions may feel they are better placed to remain second-in-command?”
For a lot of deck crew, being in a role that is as physical as it is academic – doing intellectual tasks such as passage plans, drills, training, inventory, planning, while still working on deck – is the optimum one to be in. “I love working with my deck department team; we work hard, have fun and know the two levels we need to swap between to maintain the happy balance of getting the best out of people and getting the job done,” says the 80m chief officer.
“One day, I would like to hold a command position, although my preference would be on a smaller yacht of 45m to 65m,” he adds. “This is because on a less-than-500gt vessel, I would hope I could still spend some of my time doing the actual job, rather than risk assessing and reporting all day. Whichever, I would like to take a command when I have the experience and competence and that comes with much more than just the ticket.”
For others, the drive to upgrade licences as soon as possible is the priority, but some crew might prefer to remain at first-mate level for several years until they feel they have the confidence and the competence to take full responsibility for absolutely everything on board. For first mates, there is the opportunity to watch and learn, to ‘try on’ the responsibility from time to time when the captain is away, or through managing certain projects or tasks on his or her behalf.
Of course, there are downsides to staying solely as second-in-command. “I could be earning more money as a captain, and when the captain is on leave I do have to step up and take the responsibility for which I am not remunerated,” admits the 80m chief officer. “Furthermore, ultimately the captain makes the rules and sets the limits, which may be different to your own. For example, if you disagree with a rule or a blind eye is turned to one department ‘breaking’ these rules, as a chief officer there is little you can do – it has to come from the top.”
But for this chief officer, the benefits, at the moment, outweigh this. He has a full-time rotation and finds that there are many more rotational chief officer positions than rotational captain positions. “It feels that way at least,” he says. “Although the wages are less, I’ve traded this with having a shoreside life too, with a partner and child.”
In any industry, it is evident that different roles require different strengths. Obviously not all captain positions require the same strengths; however, there are certainly some qualities that will be in common with those more senior captain positions, and not everyone will be best suited to these. Perhaps it is the more self-aware chief officer who recognises that his or her strengths do not lie in the captain’s role, but instead they perform best as the conduit and support to both captain and crew.
Find the full article in issue 79 of The Crew Report, available at the Monaco Yacht Show.