Fed up with a revolving door of crew? BOAT shares the industry secrets for finding the right people for the right job...
"Think of how much effort you put into hiring a CEO to run your company. You’d do a pretty good job of finding out who the right person was, right?” asks Jenny Matthews, founder of yachting diversity taskforce She of the Sea, and holder of a Chief Mate 3000GT licence. “Hiring someone to look after your multi-million-pound yacht is the same – but for some reason, people don’t think about it in the same way.”
Whether that’s true or not, it’s certainly the case that many owners have their frustrations when it comes to staff. From all across the industry, there have been tales of questionable stewardess skills, overbearing captains, love triangles on board... the list goes on.
Fortunately, stories like this are the exception, rather than the rule. Many owners, in fact, find that their enthusiastic, hard-working and good-humoured crew makes a large part of their yachting experience. But of course, there is always the odd disappointment – a new recruit that mysteriously doesn’t seem to gel with the rest of the team or those who stay for just a season before moving on.
A well-balanced, happy crew on board, meanwhile, sets the tone for the whole yacht, and it pays to get it right financially, too. Aside from the comfort that comes with being around those who know you well, “about a third of the running cost of owning a yacht every year is avoidable damage”, states Matthews, so trusting your expensive pride and joy to those who know what they are doing can cut down on maintenance costs significantly.
The peace of mind from having a competent, slick crew shouldn’t be ignored, either. “All you have to do is read the accident reports and you’ll find that people drown, they get concussed, boats burn down,” notes Matthews. “Behind this glossy veneer, a yacht is an extremely hazardous environment.” Add to this the fact that each time you replace a crew member on board, you’ll spend around £4,000 on new uniforms, crew agency fees, training and more, and you will start to see why investing a little time and energy into getting it right the first time makes a lot of sense.
So without further ado then, here’s our 101 guide to hiring the right crew...
Should owners hire their own crew?
It’s fairly rare for owners to get directly involved in the recruitment process, with good reason. Roles on board are often highly specialised and need someone who knows the job intimately to act as a recruiter. If you’re a captain-turned-owner or have run your own vessel previously, you might want to try going it alone, but a better bet is to take a double-pronged approach using your captain and a large and well-established recruitment agency.
That doesn’t mean you can’t have a say throughout the process. “Think about what kind of experience you want on board,” advises Matthews. “Do you want family-style dining or silver service? Are you going to be at beach clubs 90 per cent of the time or going exploring? You need to really define what you want because that feeling when you’re on board is going to be incredibly important.”
If you’ve got a captain that’s been with you for some time, “they’re going to know you intimately – probably better than you think they do,” says Matthews, so take their guidance seriously.
How do I choose a crew agency?
Choosing the right crew agency is half the battle won, and you only have to look at the recent red tape brought about by the global Covid-19 pandemic to see how using one can pay off. “Last year, recruitment was impossible,” says Lucy Medd, fleet crew manager and partner at Burgess, who has worked in the field for more than 30 years. “Getting crew from A to B involved a huge amount of work for many people, involving travel agents, embassies…” The issues remain in play today, with many Australian and New Zealander crew members returning home and choosing to stay there, leaving a gap in the yachting workforce that no other nationality has moved in to fill. Others who were laid off last year when owners scaled back to a skeleton crew have “found new jobs onshore and haven’t returned”, says Medd, so it’s certainly a challenging landscape in which to find good people.
With so many agencies around, it can be tempting to send the same job out to 20 or more companies, in the belief that the more feelers you have out there, the better chance you have of finding true talent. It’s a mistake, says Matthews. “When you do that the quality is going to go right down. People are just going to start firing CVs at you because they know 20 other agents are going for that one commission.” Daniel Küpfer, operations director at Ocean Independence and a former captain, agrees. “It’s turned into a first-come, first-served industry, where it’s obviously imperative to defeat the competition,” he says about the speed in which some agencies send through candidates. “It’s not a good development.”
One-person operations or newer agencies, which can be competitive in offering lower fees, can also seem like a preferable option, but in most cases, a long-standing organisation with multiple offices around the world is the better bet. Often, they’ll have staff who’ll have worked in the industry over decades, and a big black book of contacts that means they’re able to dig deep when it comes to checking out references.
“If they are the dedicated crewing division of an established brokerage or yacht management company, this should guarantee a level of professionalism,” advises Louise Caïlbourdin of The Crew Network in Antibes, which has three global office managers with more than 60 years of maritime experience between them. “For a further guarantee, check that a crewing agency follows maritime industry standards, that it is currently MLC 2006-compliant and has been externally audited by a serious entity such as DNV-GL.”
“My top three are Quay Crew in Antibes and Poole, YPI, and Erica Lay from El Crew Co,” advises Matthews. “These guys value competency over any other factors, and they’re the straight shooters.”
Job postings often receive thousands of applications, and they can’t all be taken at face value. “Do people lie on their CVs? Absolutely!” she laughs. “I once interviewed someone who claimed to have worked with a former colleague of mine. I said I’d get in touch with them and the interviewee looked panicked and suddenly said ‘Oh you can’t… he’s dead!’ Of course, I knew perfectly well that wasn’t the case.”
How else can I find good crew?
You shouldn’t be sceptical of dockwalkers, especially if they’re very young “green” crew. “We’re finding many green crew are getting their first jobs this way,” says Caïlbourdin, and Matthews agrees. “I think people will keep doing it until it becomes illegal; it’s a great opportunity,” she says. “What has changed is that 25 years or so ago, it was basically just backpackers turning up to get some more money. Now people are well dressed and ready to hit the ground running.”
Social media too might be a mixed blessing in terms of the volume of applications, but crew know that “they can get a job through a social media network, through someone else working on that boat, before the job even gets advertised on the market”, says Küpfer. And as for LinkedIn and other platforms? “Why not?” he asks. “It’s quantity but that doesn’t mean it’s not quality. We also use a platform called Yotspot, which you shouldn’t ignore. Captains and crew members have direct access [to it], it’s easy to upload a vacancy and the fees are reasonable.”
What are some red flags when hiring crew?
While agencies should take on the initial admin of filtering through applications, checking references and running background checks on experience and qualifications, it’s not unreasonable for owners to want to get involved around the final interview stage. Aside from the obvious – turning up late, being sloppily dressed, rude or ill-prepared – there are plenty of potential warning signs when it comes to meeting candidates.
“If I ever interview a captain and he says he’s never had any crew issues, that’s absolutely not true,” says Medd. Bad-mouthing former superiors, yachts or owners is something that Caïlbourdin watches out for, while you should be wary of applicants that seem up for anything. “At the end of the interview, if someone says please put me forward if you have any other positions, that’s not really a good sign,” notes Esther Delamare, senior recruitment manager at Hill Robinson.
It can be hard to filter out candidates at entry-level with little experience, something that Matthews does via simple knowledge tests. “I ask them, ‘Can you do me a bowline?’ Or, ‘What are the ingredients for an old-fashioned?’” she says. “If they haven’t worked on yachts before I’d look at if they’ve had waiting jobs, shop jobs, jobs in pubs… things that are hard work where you’re on your feet all day,” adds Medd.
Basic levels of training might seem unimportant, but it’s useful to differentiate between those who have been inspired by Instagram and reality-TV shows like Below Deck, and those who are serious about a career – not least because these certificates show a significant financial commitment on their part.
Moving from yacht to yacht is more common today than 10 years ago, when a minimum three-year stint was normal, so multiple boats on a CV isn’t necessarily a bad sign. “I see CVs and I’m shocked – it’s very different to when I was working on yachts. But it’s just the way it is,” says Küpfer.
“The thoughts on longevity have changed a lot; people leave boats for very different reasons,” agrees Matthews. “Now a red flag is more likely to be someone who has stayed on a yacht for a number of years at the same level. If I see someone who’s been an entry-level deckhand for six years, I want to know why they haven’t progressed.”
A cursory look at any applicant’s social media accounts is also a wise check, and can help gauge maturity and whether they’re likely to be a good fit for the rest of the boat. Should owners these days accept that their crew are likely to post on social media about the yacht and the destinations that you travel to? “No – owner’s boat, owner’s rules,” says Matthews.
How long does it take to hire a crew?
It’s possible to put together a whole yacht crew from scratch in a very short amount of time, but it’s far from ideal. You might be lucky and find good people who have left yachts that have been sold, or the stars might align and their contracts happen to be coming to an end as the seasons change, but in general “very high-level crew often have very good jobs with proper notice periods in place”, says Matthews. “If you want to essentially poach them, you should be wary about the ethics of asking them to leave a post before they can – when I’ve been in that position, it’s made me uncomfortable; it’s not the best start to a new role.”
On the flipside, good crew know their worth, and aren’t likely to be on the market for long. “If you see someone who fits the culture, has the right qualifications and gave a good interview, make them an offer and make it good,” says Matthews. “They’re not going to be hanging around.”
Which crew members are hardest to hire?
“Really good chefs are always hard to come by,” says Medd. “They’re quite flighty by nature.” On charters, certainly, chefs can get a rough ride, and of course whether a chef is good or not can often come down to your own personal taste.
Engineers, too, are in short supply, but as a general rule of thumb they move around far less. “Engineers never leave – once they fall in love with a boat that’s it and they’re there forever,” laughs Medd. Female engineers and captains are also rarer, while the number of experienced female interior crew out there means that candidates can afford to be picky about the jobs they take. “Often it’s a case of, do they [crew] really want the job?” says Delamare, rather than the other way round.
Interior staff in particular often work for no more than a few years in the industry, but if you’re keen on a really long-term crew, looking at those who’ve previously worked on commercial boats can be productive. “Especially engineers or people who’ve worked in oil and gas – there are a lot of them coming into the industry,” says Delamare, “and unlike green 19-year-olds, they’ve got plenty of experience.”
When it comes to finding a charter captain, “charisma and a repeat client base” is the secret ingredient, according to Caïlbourdin.
How can I keep crew happy?
In a nutshell: pay them fairly, treat them with respect and offer them competitive leave and time off for training. In general, owners tend to place more emphasis on salary than perhaps they should. Of course, “money is still right up there”, says Medd, and “if someone’s been on your boat for three years and they’ve not got a pay rise, they’re going to be looking around”, observes Matthews. Experienced, motivated staff, however, are more likely to be impressed by a calm, supportive working environment and the opportunity to move up the career ladder than an extra £1,000. “Very high salaries can actually be counterproductive,” says Küpfer. “We had a boat recently where people were overpaid and it meant they were staying put on a yacht that they didn’t like, rather than moving on. It wasn’t the best atmosphere.”
Allowing staff a healthy amount of shore leave prevents burnout. “There’s only so much time people can spend on board before they actually have to leave,” notes Matthews, while time off for training is all too often neglected. “Every single good crew member I know has had to leave a vessel because they weren’t even allowed a week off to do a course to further their career.”
This is why, when hiring department heads, someone who can act as a mentor and encourage crew development is key – if talent don’t feel supported and can’t rise up through the ranks, they’ll often leave to pursue opportunities elsewhere.
Should I psychometrically test my crew?
It might sound sinister, but psychometric testing is becoming more and more common, “especially on the larger boats”, reveals Matthews. Many who’ve engaged with it seem to find it yields erratic results. “I tested one captain once, and I said, ‘I’m never doing this again,’” says Medd. “The results were absolutely crazy. I think there’s got to be a lot more input to get the right output.” Nevertheless, it’s likely something that will be relied on more heavily in years to come, as tests become more sophisticated.
What if a member of crew just isn’t working out?
Sometimes, no matter how much effort you put into finding the right person, things still don’t seem to click. “It’s very easy to just hoof someone off,” says Medd, “but you need to find out what the problems are and if you can train people up or improve the situation somehow.” On larger boats, even good captains and managers can be far removed from problems happening further down the chain. Replacing crew members is costly, and can often be avoided with the right approach. Nevertheless, sometimes things don’t work out for reasons beyond your control, “in which case, both parties just have to walk away”, says Medd.
“The crew atmosphere is contagious and bringing happy, fulfilled and passionate energy to everything from cocktail parties to beach barbecues is a surefire way to ensure that owners can experience their vessel at its full potential,” says Matthews. “At the end of the day, it’s people that can make or break the experience.”