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How to crew up for global voyages

14 December 2023 • Written by Sam Fortescue

Serving cocktails in St Tropez is a world away from tackling Antarctic icebergs or the remoteness of a Pacific island atoll. So how do you ensure you get the right team in place?  Sam Fortescue reports...

From glaciologists and historians to media teams, an ambitious expedition will draw on experts that go far beyond normal yachting requirements. The 126.2-metre Octopus, widely regarded to be the world's largest explorer yacht, is a good example of this, with a crew of up to 50 people. Finding them, recruiting them and slotting them successfully into the existing crew aboard can make the difference between memories that last a lifetime and operational chaos.

The 126.2-metre Octopus

The very testing nature of a remote expedition online makes this process more critical, as crew will have to operate in "boss on" mode for weeks or months at a time without leave, and even simple manoeuvres become mission critical. No wonder, then, that a whole industry has grown up around recruiting and placing capable crew members. We spoke to leading captains, brokers and agents to find out what makes the ideal expedition team, and how to avoid costly mistakes. Naturally enough, their advice begins well before you get the candidate into the interview room.

Before the interview 

Recruit from like-minded employees

Skip Novak runs high latitude adventures in two purpose-built Pelagic sailing yachts. They're no superyachts, however, and "guests" expect to work shoulder to shoulder with the crew in tough conditions. It takes a special kind of sailor to run these charters, and Novak recruits directly from a select handful of round-the-world sail races.

"These girls and guys have experience in exactly this kind of thing – taking amateurs and whipping them up into a tea. They have the people skills; there are a lot of good sailors." 

Who to hire: Ocean mapping  
Remote expeditions cross little travelled and poorly surveyed waters. Working with a bathymetry specialist can return valuable data on the seabed.

Choose experience over qualifications

Novak scoffs at a candidate with a mere 20,000 sea miles on the CV. "50,000 miles sounds a bit better and 100,000-plus is more like it," he says. "The miles are important; less so the certificates." EYOS Expeditions co-founder Rob McCallum takes a similar view, recruiting only guides who have already led 50-plus expeditions. It amounts to just a few dozen people globally.

Recruit couples

Many experienced captains and agents report that couples are a real asset on board – especially on smaller boats. Not only do you get two crew in one, but they can be more stable and reliable, not looking to relationships ashore. "Couples are the ideal, and we've had many over the years," says Novak. "That's really the best scenario, but they should both be yachtmasters in their own right – it can't just be the skipper and his girlfriend!"

The 116.2-metre Multiverse by Kleven

Double up on skills to save space

Cabin space is always at a premium, so try to put together a multidisciplinary team. Neal Bateman of expedition guide Cookson Adventures says he is always on the look-out for effective operators who combine several relevant skills. "It's very helpful if the dive guide is also a photographer or the host is a kayaking guide – we can reduce the number of beds required whilst still providing a full team of experts." 

"We have a client who won't employ a deckhand who is just a deckhand," says Lisa Ricourt of recruiter Hill Robinson. "They need to be a surf instructor or a videographer as well; or a medic who is also a hairdresser."

Who to hire: Scientists
A recent Cookson expedition to Antarctica hired Dr Robert Pitman, a leading killer whale researcher, whose team spent several weeks at Cape Horn. “We were able to organise and support research into an incredibly rare – and likely new species – of killer whale,” says Bateman. A biologist aboard another Cookson trip off southern Italy uncovered an ancient Roman shipwreck and a type of coral thought extinct in the region.

Think quartermaster's stores, not Michelin stars

Laying on a culinary pièce de résistance that makes jaws drop on the Riviera is a highly-prized skill, but it's of limited value far off the beaten track. "Service and provisioning are very different in remote regions," says Gayle Patterson of expedition leader Pelorus. "You need to look for meticulous, forward-planning crew members and chefs need to be creative with foods they can source and manage stocks they have onboard. They cannot afford to waste anything."

Handpick your guides

They must have a good rapport with the captain of the yacht. This is all about understanding the social dynamics and personalities on both sides. "It works well, and we regularly see social bonds forming; many of our regular clients request 'their guide' a year or more in advance," says McCallum of EYOS.

The 107.4-metre Andromeda by Kleven

Who to hire: Astronomers
In many remote destinations where light pollution is non-existent, it’s wonderful to have an expert to share the myths and meanings behind the stars.

Bulk up with technical skills

"Engineers need to carry enough spare parts and be able to repair the yacht themselves instead of booking specialists to fly out to the yacht's location," says Patterson. "This is the same for a bosun/deck crew." Ensure that the crew offers a broad swathe of technical expertise, from GRP and woodworking repairs to IT, comms and watersports. 

Ex-forces have the right qualities

Ex-forces are a good fit for the yachting sector because they understand rank and teamwork while being used to living in confined space for long deployments, says Andrew Holme of Insignia Crew. "It's not a foreign environment for them."

But McCallum at EYOS argues that skills with a gun is not a particular asset. "Guides get weapons training and, in the Arctic, expeditions must have a high calibre firearm to deter bears," he says. "If you're having to pack a firearm because you're worried about your personal safety, you're probably holidaying in the wrong spot." 

During the interview

No detail is too small

Listen out for tell-tale details during an interview – they can be valuable pointers on whether someone will find their place in an existing team. Sharon Rose of the Bluewater crew agency says: "From their hobbies and personal interests to their humour, from sports to music, the smallest thing can make a big difference to how well someone fits in. A crew member that has a big family and shares space with siblings may find it easier on a larger vessel whereas an only child who is more independent may prefer a smaller yacht."

Go beyond the CV references

Even mediocre crew can usually muster a couple of former employers’ references, so to get the real measure of a candidate during an interview, look beyond the obvious. "I will often seek at least three references not included on the person’s CV," says experienced captain, Chris Durham. "Alongside personal references I have also found that the use of psychometrics and 1:1 feedback from a specialist trained to interpret these tests can aid the hiring process in finding the right character for the position."

Who to hire: Anthropologists
When cruising remote communities, there are requests for experts not just on the country or the region, but someone who understands a specific ritual. EYOS once had a client who wanted to explore the debate on whaling, meet the hunters and even eat whalemeat. His Danish guide spoke Inuit and bridged the gap on a tricky subject.

Ask about extra-curricular activities

It’s a rare CV these days that extends beyond a page in length. But that means you have to ditch lots of interesting information. "Dig into hobbies as well," says Suzy Jovanovic of recruiter Hill Robinson. "As an interviewer you have to be curious to see how well you can get to know a candidate." She cites the example of a recent recruit who had to be persuaded to talk about 18 months spent working on animal conservation in Africa.

The 76.6-metre Yersin

Who to hire: Media team  
A dedicated media team could be made up of a land-based and an underwater specialist photographer, for example. Neal Bateman at Cookson says: “For some clients, we have the media team edit on the fly so they can screen daily highlights of the wildlife they’ve seen in their yacht’s media room every night.”

Consult the crew

Durham also likes to hear what his crew think of a candidate before making up his own mind. "Our interview process is in at least three stages," he says. "Generally, we interview the candidate from three angles. Above, beside and below, each individual who interviews the potential candidate has equal equity in the decision to hire or not to hire."

This approach helps to pinpoint a key red flag, which is arrogance. "I have found that individuals with a large ego are not suited to a collaborative, team environment. It is very hard to teach and guide someone in any position who believes they already know it all."

Who to hire: Historians
Another EYOS client wanted to see where in the Pacific their grandfather had served in WWII. The head of the New Zealand Defence Force joined the expedition and spoke about WWII strategy, bringing to life what the generals 70 years before him had done.

Socialise with a candidate before you hire them

Interviews are often too formal to offer the best guide as to a person’s potential performance or their true character. That’s why Durham likes to place candidates in different situations before making up his mind. “If you have the opportunity to socialise or travel with the candidate this can tell you a lot about them: how they treat others, how they deal with pressure and so on.”

The 75.3-metre Cloudbreak

Who to hire: Medics
Emergency medical skills could be vital when you sail off-piste. Former NHS and ex-forces staff are good sources for paramedics, says Holme at Insignia.

Social confidence is a plus

Senior guides or staff require an armoury of soft skills when dealing with owners who have been highly successful in their own field. Among these diplomatic skills is the ability to say ‘no’ when required. “We’ve had situations where people want to get closer to a polar bear; or people want to push further into a protected area,” says McCallum at EYOS. “We are masters at enabling opportunities that are extremely challenging. But sometimes there are hard stops for safety reasons.”
As well as fine field skills, they also need to have the confidence to keep their end up socially – entertaining a table at dinner or holding a room spellbound with an explanation or anecdote. These are skills that take time and experience to develop.

Who to hire: Glaciologists  A recent EYOS expedition shipped three leading glaciologists because guests had a particular interest in studying ice sheets and the glaciers that are spawned from them.

Social skills, not social media skills

Expeditions typically force crew to be in closer contact than usual for a longer period away from port. “They need to be prepared and happy to be away from civilization and a high-speed internet connection,” says Patterson. “A day off for a crew member in Raja Ampat is certainly going to be different from a day off in Antibes!”

After the interview

Be more generous with the rotation

Factor in more crew leave if you are heading on a circumnavigation. "Remember: crew work seven days per week regardless of when the guests are on board," says Patterson at Pelorus. Explain what he means here: "Having even a 4:2 rotation in place will save you money in crew recruitment costs." This is especially true of an expedition yacht, where the traditional ‘yachting seasons’ don’t apply. Offer the option of free flights? What extra facilities can you put on the boat to help them switch off?

Who to hire: Photographers
For clients with a passion for photography, an expert National Geographic photographer would be able to expand their skills and get the best out of a striking, remote destination.

Foster collaboration and communication

Once the team is in place, they must be nurtured by good communication, mutual respect and daily debriefings, according to superyacht captain Chris Durham. "Encouraging a personal rapport between individuals between departments, I have found that crew are able to manage conflict more successfully and align together in times of high stress."

This is especially true when dedicated expedition staff are brought into an existing team, "Communication is paramount, so daily briefings to discuss the experiences coming up are essential so the team can troubleshoot any issues and ensure all the equipment is fully operational,” says Bateman at Cookson.

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