After spending eight years as a superyacht engineer, Captain Robert Koper of Keri Lee III decided to become a captain. Why? Because he felt the captains weren’t good enough and, in his words, “it’s better to be in charge of a boat”. After the yacht’s round-the-world trip, Captain Koper talks to Lulu Trask about the engineer-captain move and life with experienced, relaxed owners.

Captain Robert Koper (far left) and his crew

Sitting in Keri Lee III’s Ralph Lauren lounge and bar, Captain Robert Koper looks relaxed. The yacht has just returned from a two-year round-the-world trip – one of the benefits of having owners who are passionate about yachting. Sailing to Panama, the Pacific islands, Tahiti, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and the Great Barrier Reef not only gave the diving-loving owners the chance to undertake their favourite activity against spectacular water backdrops but also allowed the owners, captain and crew to discover unchartered waters. “It’s really quite unspoiled,” Captain Koper says of the Great Barrier Reef. “Basically it’s unchartered territory to the point where we actually nearly ran aground in a couple of places.” Luckily this is something the adventurous owners are prepared for, with 54m Keri Lee III being the their third yacht. “They had smaller ones before. The other was 42m and the next one was 49m. And that makes them easy to work for because they know what this industry is about,” explains Captain Koper.

The owners aren’t the only veterans of this industry, however. Captain Koper began sailing when he was 17 and, aged 23, built his own 45ft sailing yacht. He also worked at Holland Shipyards and began his career in superyachting as an engineer. Then in 2000, after eight years, he decided to take the helm. “I had a technical background and in those days it was quite easy to make the swap. If you did watchkeeping on the bridge it counted. Now, as an engineer, it doesn’t count – even if you do a watch on deck, the engineers’ time on watch in the bridge doesn’t count anymore. I also had my own boat for a while which helped.”

"There weren’t many good captains. It’s better to be in charge of a boat, then you can make the necessary changes and improvements.”
- Captain Robert Koper, M/Y Keri Lee III

When I ask why the captain moved from the engine room to the bridge his answer is an interesting one. “There weren’t many good captains. It’s better to be in charge of a boat, then you can make the necessary changes and improvements.”

So often stuck in the engine room (and while I don’t mean this literally, Captain Koper does point out that compared to the commercial world, yachting’s engine rooms are challengingly small), engineers can struggle to get their needs across to owners and sometimes even to captains. Having been confined to these smaller engine rooms himself, this isn’t a problem for the crew on Keri Lee III. “It’s good for the engineers because it’s easy for us to talk to each other. They don’t have to worry about where the money comes from or potentially nasty conversations with the owners. All my engineers have worked with me for a long time.”

Find the full article in issue 76 of The Crew Report – out mid-October and available at the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show.