From owner to captain: The perks and pitfalls of taking the helm

8 February 2021by Sam Fortescue

Ever fancied taking the wheel yourself? Sam Fortescue investigates the highs and lows of being your own captain...

Love many, trust few and always paddle your own canoe – or so the saying goes. While that spirit of self-reliance may have worked well for Baden-Powell and the Scouts, it doesn’t translate so readily to the modern world of superyachts. Very few owners run their own yachts, but there are some intrepid souls out there who swear by it.

Ron Gibbs, who now owns a 40-metre Sunseeker, has driven every one of his boats himself, starting with a 17-metre 20 years ago. “If one is fortunate enough to be able to acquire one of these magnificent machines, bristling with innovation and electronic toys, why would you not only allow, but also pay someone else to drive it for you?” he says in wonder. “Ask yourself, would you buy a new Aston Martin or McLaren and hire a chauffeur to drive it for you?”

From the Corinth Canal to Venice’s Canal San Marco, Gibbs says that some of his most memorable moments afloat have come while at the helm. Then there’s the satisfaction of squeezing the boat into a difficult berth and hearing your guests break into spontaneous applause. It is good to enjoy a captain’s ego from time to time, Gibbs says. And further, being skipper gives him total oversight of the costs of running the boat.

Travis Fox, owner of Horizon’s first FD87, tells a similar story. He runs the boat entirely without professional help, relying on his wife and daughters to help him. “The adventure is the accomplishment of doing it on our own,” he explains. “We’ve rebuilt critical electronics on the hook without power, using solar panels and a soldering iron when away from civilisation; rebuilt a generator from parts and spares when broken down in the Exumas; and we’ve weathered Hurricane Michael. The confidence my family has built up simply couldn’t be gained in any other setting.”

Travis Fox
Courtesy of owner

Though Fox once found himself stranded for a month in the Abacos when his skipper jumped ship, neither he nor Gibbs say they have suffered at the hands of capricious captains. Not so Paul Goldstein, who now owns and skippers a Pershing 115 with an eye-watering 40-knot top speed. “I had a bumpy ride on my first boat with captains who weren’t really worth a lot,” he tells me. “I was very respectful of them, but I was an owner who’d spent quite a lot of money on a boat and I was there with a captain I was scared of. He objected to other people driving ‘his’ boat, and I was in constant fear of being stuck in Antibes because I’d annoyed him!”

That began in 1999, and by 2007 he had decided that enough was enough. But rather than quitting yachting, Goldstein sought the services of legendary sailing instructor Tom Cunliffe to help him complete his Yachtmaster Offshore theory course. Then, later that year, he spent a week in Turkey on his own Pershing 88, to take his practical exam. “We went through all the exercises – man overboard, locating people in the water etc,” Goldstein remembers. “I was confident and I nailed it, finally reversing into Marmaris Marina in the dark. I felt empowered; I had a captain on board but I felt he wasn’t going to look down on me anymore.”

There have been some ups and downs with his skippers since then, but Goldstein has always been able to step in and drive the boat himself if necessary. And in the last five years, he has finally found a skipper who complements him, and accepts a role which includes day-to-day running of the ship and repairs, relief navigation and on-board administration.

Fox keeps most of that work in the family on his yacht. “The reality is that a lot of work is needed to maintain a boat the size of ours, so we’re always looking for ways to become more efficient. I recently had a ceramic coating applied to the boat to reduce exterior maintenance.”

The wheelhouse on Elysium
Courtesy of Burgess

Though the Fox family is well drilled in repairing key equipment on board, Fox says he is not shy about hiring engineers and mechanics when needed. “While we carry spares and try to learn how to do most things ourselves, our time is valuable. We hire experts when appropriate, but we still need to be hands-on. The reality is that nobody cares for my boat as much as I do.”

Over his 20 years of helming ever-larger Sunseekers, Gibbs has also learned how to make things a little easier on himself. His Sunseeker 131 Elysium was ordered with a host of modifications to suit his skippering style. They range from custom masts for navigation lights and an extended hardtop on the sundeck to a second full navigation station. “The sundeck bridge almost fully replicates the main bridge, so I can enjoy the sun, the view and my guests while cruising along,” Gibbs tells me. “I even had the captain’s cabin converted into a fully equipped gymnasium.”

Elysium
Courtesy of Burgess

They’ve had three different routes to self-reliance, yet all these owners have one thing in common: sensible qualifications. In law, no formal training is required for an owner who drives their own boat privately, but only a foolhardy skipper would take the controls with no clue how to use them. It is actually the insurance companies that impose a minimum standard in both the UK and the US, refusing to cover a superyacht until they are confident in the owner’s abilities as a skipper.

For Fox, whose previous boat was a 17-metre, that meant a year of being shadowed by a professional skipper. “I was very hands-on during that year and spent increasing amounts of time both at the wheel and in the engine room.” He also upgraded to a 200GT Master’s ticket and kept a detailed log of sea time, plus he asked his skippers to write him a reference. Goldstein got his Yachtmaster qualification commercially endorsed – a relatively simple process that requires completion of a Professional Practices and Responsibilities course and a medical referral.

Most would-be Yachtmasters will spend years gaining experience and sea miles. Doing it all from scratch can be an expensive and time-consuming business, costing more than £10,000 and taking three to four months. “There is also the question as to whether [an individual] is able to run a private boat, with all that goes into the maintenance and the procedures required even for a private vessel,” says Chris Frisby of training specialist UKSA. “Not to mention that having a licensed Master will enable them to get easier and cheaper insurance premiums.”

Courtesy of Pacific Yellowfin

That may be so, but if you ask any owner-operator about the disadvantages of being your own skipper, there is usually a long silence. The list is much shorter than the benefits. “[It would be good to] have someone on board who can deal with Customs visits to the yacht, which waste precious hours on sunny mornings in port while they go through all the yacht’s paperwork looking for an opportunity to levy a fine,” says Gibbs. “This can be a weekly event if cruising around Corsica.”

Paperwork, it seems, is everybody’s least-favourite job, but it shouldn’t distract from the adventure of running your own boat. “Just do it,” urges Colin Griffinson, who owns and runs 35-metre former minelayer Pacific Yellowfin as a charter vessel in British Columbia. “Don’t listen to the naysayers when it comes to boating. It’s all about living and having fun with your family. My boat allowed me to have the best time in the world. It cost me an absolute fortune, but I have no regrets.”