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Life At Sea: For Better and for Worse

Dave Kelley

The story is true, the names hidden to protect the guilty. A yacht sets sail from a West Coast port, heading north on an Alaskan cruise, with a new crewmember on board. Just before setting out, the owner takes the captain aside. The owner says he is uncomfortable with the new crewmember and wants him replaced. The captain refuses.

After a few days, tension starts to build. Even on a 140-foot vessel, there are few places to get away from each other, so confrontations are inevitable. The crewmember is drinking, and his disrespect for the owner is an open secret. The other crewmembers side with their colleague, while the passengers offer support to their host. By the time the vessel reaches Alaska, everyone on board is frazzled from the uncomfortable experience. The minute the yacht reaches port, the new seaman is handed a plane ticket home—paid for by the captain—and directions to the airport. The crewmember is replaced easily enough, but the relationship between the owner and the captain never heals. Within a year, the two part and never work together again.

Take a number of people from different backgrounds, send them out to sea, and make them live for weeks or months at a time in close quarters, and you have the potential for more conflict than you would find on any reality TV show. The fallout, however, could be much worse than having someone voted off the vessel. Life on board can become as awkward as a collapsing marriage.

A good relationship between an owner and a crew, on the other hand, is similar to healthy matrimony. With some effort, sensitivity to each other’s needs, and an occasional compromise, owners and captains can stay together for a decade or longer, on a number of boats. Get along with your captain, and you can have a partner who will help make your cruises and vacations as enjoyable as possible.


Andrew McKelvey, owner and chairman of Palmer Johnson, has known Rick Kemper, his current captain, for 10 years. Their alliance began when Kemper, then a delivery captain, piloted McKelvey’s yacht to wherever the owner wanted to pick up the vessel. Kemper would handpick a skeleton crew for the voyage, meet McKelvey at the destination port, and hand over the vessel. Kemper would wait for McKelvey to return from his cruise, then sail the yacht back to her home port, only occasionally having the owner aboard.

Three years ago, McKelvey, who had captained every boat he owned, purchased Mostro, his 115-foot Palmer Johnson Corniche Series pilothouse yacht, and hired Kemper as his full-time captain. Although they had previously worked together, McKelvey still followed the two basic rules for hiring a captain when he enlisted Kemper full-time: He found someone who is competent, because competence engenders confidence, and he found someone with whom he would be compatible, but “not a drinking buddy,” says McKelvey.

Many owners, to their regret, take compatibility too far, crossing the line from being professionals to becoming pals. Mahlon “Lonnie” Wallace III, owner of Askari, a 108-foot Sermons yacht, considers himself friendly with Lon Munsey, his captain. But Wallace makes sure the re-lationship does not become too chummy. “He’s as honest as the day is long, and he’s capable as hell,” says Wallace of Munsey, who oversaw the restoration of Askari, acting as the project’s general contractor. “We’re friends, but there’s no doubt who runs the corporation and who runs the vessel.”


Lynette Hendry believes that if an owner and captain want to become good friends, they should do so when the captain is working on another yacht. “It muddies the water if the captain and owner socialize together,” says Hendry, director of management services of Bob Saxon Associates, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla.–based yachting consultant with a crew placement division. “It’s much harder for the captain to retain his authority on the boat.”

Many times, however, the essence of yachting—pleasure and relaxation—encourages owners to draw their crews into their social circles. Sometimes an owner, says Hendry, will admire the camaraderie of a close-knit crew and want to join the crowd. On the other hand, many times owners want everyone on board—including their families and their guests—to have fun, and they include their captains and crews as well. “The boss will have you out all night drinking with them, then his wife expects you to be up at 5 in the morning to go jogging,” says Jeremiah Jaksich, a megayacht engineer. “Owners don’t always realize you’re working.”

Then again, it is not the owner’s responsibility to make sure his or her crew is working—that is the captain’s job. “The captain has to run the boat. Period,” says Dave Christensen, chairman of Christensen Shipyards.

Some crewmembers see nothing wrong with hands-on ownership that extends from piloting the yacht to fine-tuning the engines. Others believe the yacht is and should be entirely the responsibility of the captain, and that the owner’s only responsibility is to enjoy a cocktail on the aft deck. “Micromanaging is bad,” says Jaksich. “But the bottom line is that whether I break something or he breaks something, I have to fix it and he has to pay for it. So if he wants to get a handle on something, I say, ‘Go ahead.’”

For experienced yachtsmen and owners such as McKelvey or Wallace, being hands-on is part of the plea-sure of ownership. Less experienced owners, however, are wiser to defer to their captains. Wallace knows a yacht owner who once wanted to cruise in rough weather. His captain objected, telling his boss that the wind was too high and the passage was not safe. The owner scoffed at his captain and decided to go without him.

The captain followed in a tender to make sure his employer was safe. “Sure enough, the wind had the seas up, and the guy ran aground in a wave trough,” says Wallace. “Luckily, nobody got hurt.”

To avoid such situations, Christensen offers a simple solution. “You need a good, strong, written set of rules from the very beginning,” he says. “Talk with other owners. Listen. Learn. Then write out the rules for yourself, your captain, and the crew, and live by them.”

The rules, says Christensen, should cover every professional item, from salaries to onboard conduct to vacation time. Christensen recommends a bonus of one day’s vacation accrued for every week spent on a cruise, since the captain and crew will be essentially working around the clock during that time. When the ship is docked at a home port, he recommends a rule that requires the captain and crew to work 40-hour weeks, staggering the shifts so someone will be on board during weekends. Hendry believes another rule should be that the owner let his or her captain hire the crew, thus maintaining the hierarchy and chain of command. “The owners shouldn’t get involved in hiring crewmembers,” says Hendry. “Leave that to the captain. The crew is reporting to the captain, never to the owner.”

Owners and crews agree that written rules are a good starting point, but the relationship must be flexible, and the respect has to be mutual. “You wouldn’t believe how badly some owners treat their crews,” Wallace says. “They think slavery still exists.”

That’s why Jaksich makes it a point to get to know an owner before accepting a position. The megayacht engineer looks for stability and an owner with whom he can develop a relationship, like those between McKelvey and Kemper, Wallace and Munsey—long-term partnerships that combine professional and personal respect and compatibility.

Wallace says he lucked into his partnership with Munsey, but McKelvey admits that he went through some rough times before hiring Kemper. “I had one captain who always arrived late, so he was always running the boat at top speed to get where he was going,” says McKelvey. “One captain, as we were going from Viareggio to Corsica, swore the giant landmass on radar wasn’t Corsica, to the point he had me doubting myself and we had a huge argument. Of course, it was Corsica.”

There are other stories that would make any owner wince, tales of captains who schedule unneeded repairs in return for kickbacks from shipyards, and crews who turn their vessels into floating parties when the owners are absent. The best way to avoid any of those problems, says McKelvey, is to follow his third rule of owner-crew relations: “Treat your crew well,” he says, “and they’ll treat you well. It’s that simple.”

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