In the article on superyacht crew training, in the March issue, we quoted Joe Vittoria, owner of the Mirabella V: "I have on board - as a guest in this period - a captain who was with me five years; one of my favourite captains. Well, you know, today he wouldn't have the paper qualifications to drive one of these boats, with the rules that are there now. They require weeks of schooling to get it and, of course, he's older now - though still a young man - but he's got a family, so there's no way he's going to go back through all that." "He can go and deliver someone's boat, because he's an excellent captain, but he cant work in the charter trade. This, to me, is what's going to cause the problem. These big yachts are sucking up crew and making the availability ever more difficult. The rules that have been put in place are good ones, but I don't think enough people are thinking about preparing for even greater demand." Claude Hamilton, former head of seafarer training at the UK Maritime & Coastguard Agency responds:

Whilst accepting the wisdom of Joe Vittoria’s comments, I am saddened that his experienced and excellent yacht captain seems not prepared to bring himself up-to-date and prove his competence. If he is unwilling to convince the Government’s own professional mariners that he meets the international minimum standards, then he has only one person to blame for being unable to work on charter yachts. The industry is advancing rapidly and we cannot afford to trade safety for sympathy.

It has been very reassuring that a great number of ‘older’ experienced yacht captains have bitten the bullet and now are qualified with not only the ‘bit of paper’ but also the extra knowledge that goes with it. Professional yachting is no longer a cottage industry and qualifications are demanded on all commercially operated vessels at sea – there is nowhere to hide! The good jobs go to those that have the qualifications, the experience and the aptitude to be a good yacht captain.

For many years there have been howls of anguish across the industry about the lack of qualified personnel available to serve on large yachts. The increasing number of seagoing staff entering the industry is hardly keeping pace with the increasing number of yachts being launched. Valiant efforts have been made to provide the service that owners demand, because unless the owners are happy, there will be no industry. Even so, the owners must be kept happy within the constraints of the safety standards required of professional mariners. It is now accepted that these highly complex and valuable vessels must be crewed by those that are technically competent. To be considered competent, a seafarer must prove that competence at a national or international standard. To have a successful career in this sector of the industry, the seafarer must also have the personal attributes necessary for the successful operation of a yacht.

There have always been difficulties for those who came into the industry via the leisure sector due to the lack of the formal training required by the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers, 1978, as amended in 1995 (STCW 95). This Convention, applies to all vessels in commercial operation. Under some flags, such as the UK, STCW 95 is also applied to privately operated yachts over 24m, as it is the view of the UK Government that yachts of more that 24m are capable of inflicting serious damage on their crew, other ships and the marine environment, so for the safety of all concerned, properly qualified crew are required.

As the majority of large yachts are flagged under the Red Ensign, the relevant flag administrations addressed the problems associated with the leisure entry yacht crews, by developing specific qualifications in consultation with the industry. By restricting their application to yachts and sail-training vessels of up to 3000gt, it was possible to justify different sea service requirements. Without this development, the industry would either have had to stop chartering or would have had to operate illegally.

There is a perception that the training requirements have been built up by the training establishments as a means of generating income. This is totally unfounded as from the very inception of the system, it has been the administration, (in the UK’s case-the MCA), that has specified the content of the training required. This has always been based upon those aspects of the full STCW 95 training that apply to yachts. It would have been very easy for the MCA to simply require full STCW 95 training but a huge amount of effort has been put into fashioning the qualifications to suit the needs of the industry.

It has always been difficult to balance the demands of the industry against what is realistic. I was at one meeting where the technical content of a chief engineer’s qualification were being criticised by an industry “expert” as too high when another pointed out that it was no more than “O” level physics! This was hardly encouraging for an industry with some of the most advanced and sophisticated engineering afloat.

One reason for the lack of qualified crew is that yachts are in existence for the pleasure of the owner and not to make money so there is no cohesive body of owners to look after the vested interests of the industry, as exists with the “commercial” merchant navy. Understandably, there is very little continuity and interest in training for the future manning of the yachts, especially as most owners only have one yacht. Very few owners will pay for the training of their crew which is why the MCA split it down into modules to enable it to be completed in small chunks during leave. It should also be pointed out that the MCA cannot dictate or even comment upon charges made by training organisations.

Another reason is the approach to crewing. It has been accepted for years in the “commercial” merchant navy that keeping crew working without reasonable leave is counterproductive for two reasons. The first is that they get stale and complacent. The second is that it is only natural that everyone has their own particular areas of their work upon which they like to concentrate, so by having someone else take over for a while, it is much more likely that everything will be covered thoroughly. It is very encouraging to note that crew rotation is increasing, an obvious benefit of yacht management companies with access to a greater “pool” than a single yacht.

There has been a distinct power shift within the industry, with the yacht brokers and managers now very major players. It is for this reason that they now have the power and the responsibility to make sure that the goose that lays their golden eggs is not cooked!

The reducing claw back scheme operated by some of the more forward thinking owners appears to be worth considerable investigation. Advancing funds for courses, which will only have to be repaid should the ‘borrower’ leave that employer within a certain space of time, appears to be one way forward. By broadening the scheme to management companies, there would be much more of an even generation of a “training levy”. The industry has a problem with the entry level crew seeking to join the industry as basic STCW training is required, at considerable expense. One solution would be for the training to be funded from the ‘training levy’ and repaid by the crew member over time.

It must be appreciated that if top quality crew is be attracted from the wider merchant navy, in sufficient quantity, the employment conditions must be good enough to compete with the cruise industry; the obvious source of staff for the larger yachts. The cruise industry is, itself, going through a shortage of quality staff, so is improving packages across the board. A Chief Engineer on a cruise liner, holding a Class 1 certificate and having perhaps 30 engineers and 45 ratings under him, will be on approximately US$130,000 per annum, on a one-on-one-off basis. It is the 6 months a year leave rate, combined with the job satisfaction, which is fundamental in their retention. The money is obviously important as is the working environment aboard the yacht, but quality of life must be taken into account.

Claude Hamilton served 18 years as a seagoing Engineer in the British Merchant Navy, leaving as a Chief Engineer with an Extra First Class (Steam & Motor) Certificate of Competency. He was then with the MCA and its predecessors for 23 years and was Chairman of the Subgroup that created the Class 4 and Class 5 Deck certificates specifically for professional yachtsmen. After 5 years as Chief Examiner he took over the Codes Branch with responsibility for writing LY2. He took early retirement in 2006 and is currently working as a consultant on several projects, including advising a Balkan administraton on legislation suitable for megayachts.