The role of a captain in the superyacht industry
The role of a captain in the superyacht industry


The role of a captain can stretch far beyond just the logistics of sailing a yacht, captains are often hired not only for their technical ability but for their wealth of experience and knowledge which they accumulate over many years. They are responsible not only for a very expensive piece of machinery, but also for the wellbeing and lives of those onboard. Read on to discover the ins-and-outs of the role of a captain in an interview with West Nautical Managing Director Geoff Moore.  

What is the role of the captain onboard depending on the yacht range (<24m, 24-50m, 50+m)?

A captain’s role is always to run the crew, oversee the technical condition of the yacht and monitor the finances whilst keeping it safe, secure and in compliance of all local and international maritime regulations. Beyond that, the role that a captain fulfils changes deepening on the size of the yacht, the owner’s style and if there is a management company involved.

When operating on a yacht of less than 24 meters, the captains will be on their own, or maybe with their partner as a stewardess/cook, and so they work directly for the owner and they run the entire yacht operation themselves.

On a yacht between 24 and 50 meters, but less than 500 gross tonnes, the captains have from 4-12 crew, and a lot of administration to complete onboard. If the yacht is a charter vessel, there is a lot more financial reporting to do, and safety compliance paperwork and documentation, but the larger vessels will have a management company, and there will be a competent chief mate and engineer to help the captain run the maintenance and manage the logistics onboard.

A lot of yachts this size have a management company where they oversee the finances, technical and regulatory compliance aspects where the yacht needs a ‘Mini-ISM’ system, which ensures the yacht meets certain minimum safety standards.

Above 500 gross tonnes and the 50m size, there will be a professional management company engaged who work with the captains. At this size, there are a lot more crew and much larger budgets, so the captains here are far less ‘hands on’ and are in fact managing the yacht’s day-to-day operations rather than actively maintaining it and getting their hands dirty! They have a larger crew to conduct the work, and experienced heads of departments (chief engineer, chief officer, chief stewardess and head chef) and the captain oversees them.

When commercial, the yacht will need to comply with the ISM (safety) and ISPS (security) Codes, and the Maritime Labour Convention, and so there is a lot of paperwork, documentation and administration to complete onboard.

What are the different types of licences? Can the owner sail a yacht on his own?

Generally, the licences of yacht captains are:

  • Master 200GT
  • Master 500GT
  • Master 3000GT
  • Master Unlimited (coming from the commercial shipping industry)

These licences state the upper size limit of the yacht that the captain can take command of. For owners that want to skipper their own yacht, this can certainly be done if they hold the Master 200GT licence (or above), but generally we only see owners of sub-30 meter yachts wanting to enjoy driving, by manoeuvring the yachts in and out of marinas etc, but theyleave the captain to the day-to-day running of the yacht.

Should the owner invest the captain's education? What kind of education would it be?

Great question! Ultimately yes. The captain is like the CEO of a business, and nobody ever knows everything. Whilst we would expect a captain to be able to safely drive and manoeuvre the yacht, they may not be trained on finances, charter taxes, commercial elements and regulations. Therefore, some short courses and educational upgrade courses, along with some high-level safety training such as additional firefighting, medical or emergency response related topics. These will only make the captain more experienced and competent.

What are the current market salaries according to the yacht range?

Before I answer this, I have to state that every yacht, captain and owner are different! Private yacht captains live a different life to charter captains, and if the captain lives close to where the yacht is based, then they can be at home often and they have a good work-life balance, and these factors all play an important part in what the salary package is, along with other employment benefits such as how much paid holiday time they get.

Average industry monthly salaries:

22-30m – €3000 to €5500

30-40m – €5000 to €8000

40-50m – €8000 to €12,000

50-60m – €11,000 to €14,000

60-70m – €13,000 to €16,000

70-90m – €15,000 to €18,000

90m+ - €17,000 +

How do you know if a captain is working well or badly?

When the owner has a management company, they will always be overseeing the captain’s work, ensuring that invoices are correct and costs are reasonable, as well as ensuring the yacht is well maintained and in the condition the owner expects.

Ultimately, the owner will have their own standards of what they require from their crew with regards to the food they eat, how clean the yacht is, where they cruise and how they much they want to spend, and so the owner will always be able to judge the captain on the quality of their holiday experience onboard.

Where to find a good captain? 

The most important element is to find a captain with the same experiences and standards to those of the owner’s requirements. Using a professional crew recruitment company always helps to search for candidates across the market, but it is important for owners to interview captain candidates in person to ensure that communication goes well and that there is a natural chemistry between the two parties, because the captain is the most important person on your yacht, and you need to entrust them not only with your very expensive asset, but also with the lives of your family and friends.

How to build a relationship with a captain, what's the most favourable form of communication?

Modern communication runs on WhatsApp messenger as much as through email and phone calls! Communication has to flow and it has to work well when off the yacht. Captains need to respond to their owners in a timely manner, with sufficient detail and professionalism.

When onboard the yacht together, the captain will generally see the owner when the owner wants to see him..! On smaller yachts this could be several times a day, but on larger yachts, it is the stewardesses and service crew who sees the owner more, but the captain will generally ensure he spends some time with the owner in the morning and evening at least to discuss the days plans and upcoming sailing ideas.

When should you start working with a management company? Why do you need a management company if you already have a captain? Will it double costs?

Think of a captain like a jet pilot. They are 100% responsible for the safety of the jet and the flight, ensuring the guests have a comfortable journey and the service is amazing, but they are not experts in overseeing the maintenance and financial elements of the jet.

There are some similarities with yachts where a yacht captain, depending on their experience, will be perfectly suited to the operation of the yacht for the charters and guest cruises, but they may not besuited to running the entire yacht’s annual budget and responsible for the whole operation.

Captains are trained and qualified to be a mariner, to drive the yacht and to be a safe sailor. They do not get trained or educated in the running of yachts, it is more that they gain experience along their career journey.

Management companies are needed for yachts over 500 gross tonnes when operating commercially, as under the International Safety Management (ISM) Code, a regulatory approved and certified professional organisation who assume the legal responsibility for the safety and security of the yacht are required. When this happens, the yacht runs very differently to an un-managed yacht, because there is always someone overseeing the yacht, and the captain and their crew know that they have someone to ask questions, for advice and guidance, as well as for support when needed.

Yes, of course there are additional costs, but certainly not double costs, and ultimately the yacht should run a lot more professionally and efficiently meaning that there should be less technical faults, less safety concerns and less incidents onboard, meaning the owner can save money in maintenance and breakdowns, and with the combined workforce and experience of a competent captain and management company, the owner has a solid team to look after their best interests.

What do captains do off-season?

Maintenance, maintenance, maintenance! A yacht needs constant work and care applied to it, so the captain must oversee the crew’s maintenance work of the annual servicing, paint work, repairs and upgrades. They will also co-ordinate the contractors attending the yacht to do work, and of course they and the rest of the crew need to take some holiday after the busy charter season!

What is the role of a captain during construction/a refit ?

Captains play a different role in new build construction and refit projects. During a new build, the captain offers valuable input on the design and layout of the yacht for the operational purpose of the vessel.

Shipyards do not operate yachts, they only build them, and so every build needs a captain’s input into it to ensure that when the yacht is delivered and in the middle of the sea, the crew are able to offer the service to the guests. Even small matters such as deciding where storage for certain items go, or to ensure the correct water toys and fishing equipment is onboard will make an improvement to the guests use of the boat.

During refits, captains have often had a big role to play in the work list, especially when it comes to owners’ upgrades. Owners will discuss with their captain during the year how they want to make changes in the winter, whether it is decorative changes, the addition of new equipment or technical changes etc. The captain then has to plan, manage and oversee the process of that happening in the winter.

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