By Elliott Stark
As much as we’d like to take credit for a great idea, longtime subscriber and boat owner Mr. Saeed Almaktoum provided the inspiration for this article. Saeed sent us a note suggesting such an editorial regarding role ambiguity after reading the 2019 Captain & Owner’s Guide.
“I have a background in the aviation business. If I leave one company to go to another, the standard operating procedures are the same—even from one country to the next. The expectations and the job description are almost identical. We have standard operating procedures and guidelines for every employee to know what is expected of them,” he says. “Strangely, when it comes to boating, a multimillion-dollar business, I could not find a guide that defined the expectations that a boat owner should have of his captain.”
“When it comes to boating, these days even my kids can drive a boat or dock it with the joystick. Similarly, any worker—be them carpenters, butchers or janitors—can call themselves captains if they have a piece of paper,” Almaktoum elaborates.
A Captain’s Qualifiations
Finding a qualified, professional captain who is capable of and committed to keeping a sportfishing vessel performing optimally can be as difficult as it is important. InTheBite’s resident expert on all things captain seconds this notion. Capt. Scott “Fraz” Murie is as passionate about the subject as he is direct.
“A captain’s license takes about as much time and effort as getting a CDL to become a garbage truck driver. Are you a captain or are you a bus driver? Some of the things I see from today’s captains really surprise me.”
Just as defining a clear job description would benefit owners, it would also help the professional captains of the world. After all, not only are owners regularly burned by paper captains, so too are experienced helmsmen who strive to make the job a career through hard work and devotion to the craft.
The issue has more layers than one might assume. When an owner’s desire to keep a boat is chewed up from dealing with a multitude of problems and expenses caused by a neglected or poorly maintained boat, professional captains are harmed twice. Not only did the underqualified and/or underperforming captain swindle a valuable position upon initial hiring, when the owner disgustedly sells the boat he is effectively eliminating any future opportunity.
This not only fractures what could have been a long-term career but ruins what should have been years of enjoyment for the owner as well.
What Exactly Is a Sportfishing Captain’s Job?
If you surveyed a random sample of people as to the most important part of a captain’s job, the most common response likely involves catching fish. Were you to pose the same question to a group of boat owners, the answer nearly universally entails protecting their investment. Every sportfish owner wants to catch fish on his or her boat, but none would do so at the expense of their vessel’s well-being or value. After all, were it just about catching fish, the boat owner could hop on a plane and rack up big numbers with one of many reputable charter operations in Costa Rica or Guatemala.
First and foremost, the responsibilities of a captain center on asset management. “When you hire a captain, they are legally responsible for the boat. Do you know what the four stripes on an airline captain’s shoulder stand for? It’s all my fault. When I am flying an airplane, I am responsible for the aircraft and all of the occupants. It is the same when you hire a boat captain,” Almaktoum describes.
Generally speaking, a captain’s many managerial duties involve protecting and preserving the vessel. A good captain, in spite of the sizable salary he or she commands, saves the owner money. Cheaping out on captain and crew may save an owner a couple of bucks in the short term, but it costs significantly more in the long run. A captain-maintained boat holds its value much longer with significantly less depreciation than one that has largely been neglected. It is also quite a bit more fulfilling to spend your money funding the annual salary of a dedicated captain than it is to prematurely rebuild your main engines because they weren’t cared for correctly.
There are a multitude of systems on a modern sportfisher. Each has hundreds or thousands of working components that require skillful attention and meticulous maintenance schedules. And we can’t forget about caring for the many parts of the boat that don’t move. What follows is a breakdown of boat systems with maintenance and service items. Capt. Scott Murie details which jobs can reasonably be expected to be performed by captain and crew and those that should be farmed out to professional technicians.
AC & Refrigeration
With the exception of adding freon or checking for freon leaks, air conditioning and refrigeration systems should be serviced by crew. Integral tasks include the cleaning of filters, drains and sea strainers, acid flushing and raw water pump exchanges.
Crew should be able to descale the unit and maintain clean water lines and clear filter intakes.
Turning seawater into potable water is invaluable. The crew should handle membrane cleaning and filter replacement and routinely check for leaks or corrosion. Any electrical issues require a call to the professionals.
Sea strainer cleaning, oil and filter changes, along with zincs, raw water impellers and pump exchanges, should be tasks accomplished in-house.
Aside from seacock repairs that require haul out, most plumbing issues stemming from the galley sink, garbage disposal or head should be resolved by the crew.
It’s a no-brainer, but the crew should address all waxing and washing of metalwork and gelcoat. Exterior teak must be routinely cleaned and sanded. Touching up scratched or dinged varnished is rather simple but a tradesman should handle the total stripping of varnish and its re-application.
A minimum of once a year, crews should drop, clean and wax outrigger poles, and replace cables and bushings as necessary. Hydraulic problems should be resolved by a pro but observed by the crew so they can attempt repair should an issue arise off the dock.
The changing of oil and fuel filters should be performed by the crew, as should the cleaning of sea strainers and exchange of impellers.
Gears & Transmission
Oil and filter changes, along with acid flushing raw water coolers, are duties that can be accomplished by the crew.
A crucial part of the captain’s job is to make sure that the boat is enjoyable. While what exactly constitutes fun is subjective, there are a few universals. Nobody wants his or her guests to be scolded for missing a sailfish and it’s always awkward when the captain and mate are yelling at each other. Keeping a clean boat and happy, upbeat attitude sure goes a long way in this endeavor. This is particularly true when the bite is off, or the owner wants to go snapper fishing when the blue marlin are chewing. Never make anyone on the deck uncomfortable.
One of the common attributes exhibited by captains who have successfully made this life a career is the ability to be personable with a variety of people. This extends to not only making guests comfortable but also recruiting individuals who possess the required traits for the job. Once they find a quality mate, great captains also ensure that their work is enriching—helping mates acquire the necessary skills, attributes and competencies before ultimately moving up to the bridge themselves.
When it comes to having fun, there are as many versions of a good time as there are boat owners. What is acceptable behavior on one boat might be taboo on another. Captain and owner should be on the same page in understanding the parameters of the experience.
Another dimension of a captain’s job is to make sure that the boat provides the type of fishing experience that is best for the owner and guests. As with many other aspects of the occupation, this involves the unbiased assessment and realization of the owner’s honest desires and abilities.
A great captain will be able to quickly grasp the many variables that relate to the fishing experience of boat ownership. These include, but are certainly not limited to, family involvement, budget, extent of travel and level of tournament participation desired. Once these variables are initially considered, the captain can then tailor a program that suits his or her owner’s wishes.
The range of activities captains must carry out or fulfill are quite diverse. If you have a good mate it can be very enjoyable. If you do not, then it can be very taxing. Responsibilities quite often change, or new ones may be assigned at any time. These can vary from using the boat for sunset booze cruises, with the occasional snorkel trip thrown in, to a hard-charging international operation entering a tournament at the last minute.
While there is no right or wrong use for a boat—how they are used is a function of what the owner and his guests would like to do—it is important that the captain and owner are on the same page from the start. A seasoned vet who has a passion for traveling and wining tournaments will likely not be satisfied running a boat that’s at the dock nine months out of the year. Likewise, a captain who wishes to stay close to home would be foolish to sign on for a globetrotting mothership operation that celebrates life at sea.
One of the difficulties in defining a onesize-fits-all captain’s job is the variability between the expectations and perspectives of different owners. The inherent flexibility and type of experience they wish to gain from ownership dictates much of what a captain’s job entails. While some owners are demanding, others are less so. Here are a few additional considerations that are wise to be included when coming to an understanding of a prospective captain’s position.
There are fewer ways to burn out a new owner faster than by melting his credit card with unnecessary items and charges. Does this mean that every captain should cheap out and only buy the bare essentials for the boat? No. In many cases, the number on the expense account matters much less than the perception of how it is being spent. No boat owner in the world wants to lose the blue marlin of a lifetime because captain and crew tried to save a couple of dollars purchasing fishing line from the discount bin.
For some owners, it is important to continuously purchase and use the latest and greatest in fishing gear. Others are more price-conscious, even if they have billions in the bank, and prefer to be conservative in their boat’s purchasing habits. There is no right or wrong approach when it comes to boat budgets and what is appropriate to buy. Standards do not apply here. A well-suited captain and owner relationship will refine the appropriate level of spending through time. It is wise to discuss this going into it rather than leave things to chance.
Another concern that Almaktoum referenced is that of privacy. Many boat owners are high-net-worth individuals whose activities and actions are subject to scrutiny and observation. Whether it’s due to business concerns or just not wanting the world to know their every move, the degree to which a boat’s operation should be shared publicly is subject to the owner’s requests.
Whether it be posting to social media or discussing what happens on the boat, there is a comfort level associated with most every operation. The privacy consideration of boat ownership is made that much more evident when considering how intimate the space on a boat may be. While traveling, crews may live aboard the boat. During this time, they will not only coexist with the owner and his guests but also may see or witness any number of things that would normally remain very private. This includes family interactions between the owner and his spouse and kids, private business dealings that are conducted on the boat and other “intimate relations” that may not be suitable for dock gossip.
The Final Word
If you are looking for a 9 to 5 work life, then you might consider an alternate line of employment. While there are a number of things that can be said to fall within the scope of a qualified captain’s duties, the finer touches of a job running a modern sportfisher are likely best defined as they relate to a boat’s particular use and the owner’s specific circumstances. There’s no definitive formula for achieving a prosperous captain-owner relationship, but hopefully this provides the best practices and recommended architecture for building arrangements of trust and respect.