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Here’s How to Keep Your Crew From Being Pirated by Another Yacht

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Veteran yacht owners have been joined on the high seas over the past year by a flotilla of newer sailors, cast adrift from the corporate offices where once they were moved. Thanks to the popularity of yachts as floating pandemic pods, the shipbuilding market is now “hot and on fire,” according to the president of one large brokerage firm. To wit, a few telling stats: Sales of new powerboats, including yachts, increased an estimated 12 percent in the US last year, but that figure doesn’t reflect the substantial number of American-owned vessels registered in more tax-friendly countries. At MarineMax, the world’s largest recreational boat and yacht retailer, revenue for the quarter ending December 2020 rose 35 percent, to a record $411.5 million, compared to the same period in 2019. Globally, the number of pre-owned vessels longer than 78 feet sold in January jumped 55 percent compared to January 2020.

As yachting’s fortunes have risen, the cruise-line industry has sunk, leaving countless deckhands, chefs and stewardesses unemployed, and owners awash with applications from crew, some so desperate they are offering to work for free. Yet even in this flooded market, competition for exceptional crew remains fierce and has fueled a new spate of an old maritime taboo: crew poaching. It’s a practice worth guarding against, because as proprietor, your happiness at the apex of nautical hierarchy predicated on rank is largely dependent on attracting—and retaining—an excellent team.

There are two parallel universes within the crew recruitment. One, inhabited by placement agencies, casts doubt on poaching’s very existence. “It’s an industry with a lot of integrity,” insists Michael Jacobs, managing director of M/Y Crew Agency, a superyacht recruitment firm. “There is a gentleman’s agreement not to poach staff.” Anyone “has the right to terminate their contract” at a month’s notice, he acknowledges, but “there’s a lot of loyalty… to a boat or a captain. Crew don’t jump from one boat to the next.”

Tug of War on the High Seas

A full yacht marina at sunset.  Ralph Kayden/Unsplash

Though pilfering crew is undoubtedly considered poor form, other agencies admit some recruiters resort to it when desperate to fill openings. “We do hear of poaching,” says Chloé Collet, a senior recruiter for captains and officers at YPI Crew in Antibes, in the South of France. But she adds the practice is “not part of our ethics.” One agent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says it’s not quite the rarity that has been claimed; some recruiters have no scruples. Having collected a fee for placing a new staff member, certain agencies will not hesitate to “lift them off that yacht straight to another one,” this agent tells Robb Report. If the yacht has a large crew with shifting layers of management, the owner might be unaware of the high turnover—and of who’s to blame.

Even with the influx of cruise employees, top-rate yachties know they’re in high demand, particularly with so many more boats on the water. Most crew who jump ship do so not through agencies but through the old-fashioned grapevine. “In this world you have nice little networks of friends of friends, so it’s word of mouth,” says Katie-Lee Grant, a 30-year-old superyacht purser. “You can seek a job without the vessel knowing. On agencies’ websites you can say you are confidentially looking.”

Crew regard this hyper-mobility as legitimate within a labor market that treats them as replaceable. “Crew are very dispensable,” says Jay, a 30-year-old first officer who asked that we not use his last name. “I could leave today and they’d find someone else tomorrow. There’s always someone waiting on the dock for your job.”

Jay, who’s based on a family yacht in Florida, says he was recently offered his first captain’s role by a contact who previously poached him once before. Jay is weighing whether to accept, because his current employer just upgraded to a 150-footer and he’s “very loyal to the family,” he says. “I’m still considering, waiting to hear the perks, itinerary and salary.”

Owners and captains can sometimes persuade valuable crew to stay by dangling pay raises and promotions, but the new big lures are coveted equal-rotation contracts, which allow as much paid time onshore as at sea. (More common rotational contracts require three, four or five times as many months sailing as on leave.) Wages are dependent not only on experience but also on the size of the yacht.

A deckhand can take home $3,000 to $5,000 a month, while a captain’s monthly salary might range from $10,000 on a 140-foot vessel to $30,000 or more on anything over 280 feet. “It’s such a small industry, with no shortage of cash, so if someone is exceptional, an owner and captain will look after that person,” says Jacobs. “They reward hard work and look after their crew with paid leave, rotation and handsome salaries. On most large boats there will be a Michelin-trained crew cook employed at the boat’s expense to feed the crew whenever they want.”

Tug of War on the High Seas

On-board hospitality, often from Michelin-trained chefs and crew.  Lux Charters/Unsplash

It pays to invest a lot of effort in crew harmony, says Luca Regusci, the owner of Miamaa, a 105-foot yacht that Benetti delivered in 2012. Regusci, 67, sails the Mediterranean from May to September each year with his family and a small crew of four: a captain and a stewardess (gendered roles remain common) who have been on board since the boat’s launch, plus a chef and an engineer. “We have always tried to form and maintain a close-knit and collaborative group,” he says.

Regusci, from Lugano, Switzerland, believes that “a happy crew makes a happy owner.” His hiring requirements are as follows: “first of all, proven professionalism and demonstrable seriousness.” Second, “each candidate is evaluated as a member of a team in which they must collaborate and share life on board.” Targeted hiring with group dynamics in mind ensures tranquility, he says.

By all accounts, Regusci is an outlier. Superyachts seem to have a never-ending churn of staff, and even owners of smaller yachts, at sea for just part of the year, need to recruit for at least some positions annually—if they’re lucky.

Yacht crew are notorious for boat-hopping midseason. Some are poached by other boats offering better pay, others flee a bullying captain and some just “leave on a whim,” says Grant, the superyacht purser. “They will get a bee in their bonnet and they’re out of here. Then it’s a snowball effect, and [suddenly] you’ve lost 10 crew.”

Many yachties are permanently scanning the horizon for a better berth. “Looking for work is your other profession,” says a 44-year-old super-yacht chef. “You have to be good at it. It’s a very fluid industry, and I like that because it allows you to take risks. If it’s a miserable boat, you can just pack your bags.” This major perk of crew life—mobility—is a major pain in the neck for employers, who must factor in placement fees, retraining, security considerations and nondisclosure agreements for every new staff member. “Owners like to see the same faces,” says Grant. “They know their personal preferences. Every time the crew changes you have to teach them again.”

So, if you’re a boat owner, how do you keep hold of your best people?

When recruiting, look for evidence of longevity and loyalty, advises Jacobs, as well as “superior service, utter discretion and a ridiculous work ethic.” The best crew, as well as knowing the finest fishing spots in the Exumas or where to procure caviar in Colombia, are willing to go beyond the job description to help the team. Jay describes how, at the end of his shift on deck, he often lends a hand in the galley, “decorating desserts and cleaning plates.” The best engineer he ever worked with, he says, was a former Porsche mechanic who pitched in with wash downs and in the galley. Another engineer baked fresh bread for guests and crew alike. Such are the ingredients of a happy ship.

Tug of War on the High Seas

A multi-deck yacht out on the water.  Viktor Ritsvall/Unsplash

Owners usually delegate poaching prevention to the captain. But don’t make the mistake of thinking your trusted skipper is impervious to a better offer himself (the vast majority of captains are still men), or that he is not enticing crew from other yachts.

Or worse. “A captain will leave, and if he had a couple of great crew members he will certainly try to take them to his new vessel,” says Jenifer Mosley, first mate on the Dorothea III, a 147-foot explorer yacht belonging to Steven Green, a former US ambassador to Singapore. Sometimes, according to Collet, the recruiter, “a captain might take his whole crew to another vessel.”

If, as an owner, you want to see the same trusted team every time you come down to breakfast, if you do not want to have to re-explain how you like your shirts folded, martinis mixed and eggs cooked, you must aim to join that rare species of boss who “treats crew like family,” in the words of one seasoned captain, Chris, who spoke on the condition that we not use his real name. “We call them unicorns. Every yachtie is always looking for their unicorn,” he says.

Neglecting the crew, or allowing the captain to rule by fear, is a mistake that will cost you your staff. After all, boat-hopping can be driven as much by poor working conditions as by juicy job offers. Marianne (not her real name), a 35-year-old former stewardess who now works as a yacht broker in Florida, recalls her first job as a crew-mess stew (short for “steward”) on a 200-footer: “The best part of my day was taking out the trash, because it was the only time I got to go outside,” she says. “People always say how cool it is to work on a yacht… I remember thinking once, while detailing a toilet hinge with a toothpick and Q-tip, ‘Is this really my life?’ ” 

After a while, she applied to the captain for a job on deck, to which he responded, “ ‘Females belong inside, cleaning and serving,’ ” Marianne says. “It’s very common, unfortunately. You are always fighting against the idea that girls don’t belong on deck.”

Things did not improve after she jumped ship to a smaller yacht. “Some captains think they are God and can do whatever they want,” she says. “I got touched up a lot. Yachting is really hard because there’s no HR department, no one you can speak to. That’s the dirty side of yachting that does not get talked about a lot. Sexual and verbal abuse are very common.” When she finally complained to the owner, “he went to the captain and I lost my job.”

Tug of War on the High Seas

A seaside marina full of both small and superyachts.  Tom Wheatley/Unsplash

The power dynamic between captain and owner can be tempestuous, according to Mosley, the first mate, who, having worked for the same family for 20 years, seems to have found her unicorn. “There’s inclement weather and the captain says we shouldn’t go out, but the owner will override them,” she says. “Then it’s up to the captain—are you willing to lose your job? They end up in bad weather, and things get broken. You are moving a multimillion-dollar condo on the water, and when the crystal falls over, the ocean doesn’t care.”

Some owners, according to Chris, also jeopardize safety by depriving the crew of sleep. The veteran captain recalls once, after an 18-hour day, “the crew were getting ready to go to sleep, and the owners were out partying on an island in the Bahamas. I was asked to load up the tender with fireworks and go out to a private island 10 miles away to [set] them off. If an accident happens because the crew has done 22 hours without sleep, that falls on me.”

Guests’ bad behavior is another tricky area. “Guests often barely sleep,” says Anita Rogers, president and founder of British American Household Staffing, “especially if they’re a younger group who’ve chartered for a couple of weeks to have a ton of fun.” Chefs and chief stewardesses get fed up answering calls for food and drink at all hours of the night, while other demands are beyond the call of duty. Tales of guests, in Chris’s words, “getting a little too handsy” with crew members of both sexes are common.

Guests’ shenanigans can go so far as to risk the captain’s arrest. Paul Triporo, a Florida-based captain who has worked for high-profile families in the US and overseas, recalls being boarded by the US Coast Guard after one of its vessels passed by and suspected his charter guests of smoking marijuana on deck, which he was unware of. “They tore the hell out of that boat,” Triporo says. The Coast Guard found “lots of cocaine, four or five kilos, hidden in the bed. The only thing that saved [me] is that the bag had a travel tag with the [guest’s] name on it.” Even so, Triporo was handcuffed and taken back to Miami, because under maritime law captains are usually responsible for contraband. He was released only after passing a polygraph test. “After that I quit charters,” he says.

It’s also not unheard of for guests to try to poach crew for their own yachts. Sometimes they “want to be served cocktails and be taken to the beach and given hand towels,” says Jay. Other times they “want to get to know the crew.” He knows of guests who have kept in touch with staff, bought their own boat, “called the first mate and said, ‘Hey, we’re looking for a captain.’ ”

Superyachts in particular struggle to retain employees. On a recent trip to St. Barts, Rogers recalls talking to “some crew who worked for a Russian billionaire on a huge yacht” and, desperate to fill a spot quickly, were game to poach. “Superyachts are not popular to work on, even though everyone is paid massive sums. They’re too big, with… not much of a team atmosphere.” The problem, she says, is the recklessness inherent in owning a depreciating money pit. “If you have a 400-foot yacht, you have to be able to throw that money away,” she says. “Maybe that disposable attitude filters down through the staff.”

Regusci’s fellow yacht-owners rarely approach crew recruitment and retention with “due skill and care,” he says. “I very often hear negative statements from owners complaining about the crew. For my part, I always say that every owner has the crew he deserves.”

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