Life At The Helm

So you want to be a professional boat captain. It’s not all beer and skittles

A smooth sea never made a skillful sailor, as the old saying goes. And there are a select few who can claim this quote applies to them both metaphorically and literally.

The life of a sea captain, doesn’t come about by cruising along, ocean unwrinkled, sail unfurrowed, without a challenge or two placed in the speed lane of the seas. The life of a professional boat captain is a commitment of vigor, born from hours spent in waters (rough or otherwise) cutting teeth against both the harsh and calm swells of the seas.

The work that comes with title of “captain” varies. The bulk of the job running the large pleasure craft in our harbor requires long hours spent on a litany of items, and with a checklist that is ongoing. The captain is ultimately responsible for all aspects of operation - from the safe navigation of the ship down to its cleanliness and seaworthiness. They have authority over and manage personnel, are generally in charge of accounting, payroll, and inventories, and maintain all certificates and documentation for compliance with immigration and customs. But mostly they wait. And wait. And many of them then wait some more. They wait for their rich bosses, the boat owners who are captains of industry, to fly down to enjoy their boat for a few days or weeks. And when they arrive they expect the boat to be ship shape, which should be easy, since all the captain has to do in the bosses absence is clean. 

captain.jpgThe boss usually doesn’t have the experience to be able to handle such a large boat himself, which is why he depends on a professional captain who has a license, usually from the United States, showing he has passed exams. The license goes by the ton. No, not a license that weighs a ton, a license that attests that he can handle a boat up to a certain tonnage.

The influence of the boat owner can be broad. Some visit only once or twice a year for an extended vacation, while others regularly swoop into Cabo for short spurts of fun and relaxation. But regardless, the captain’s assignment remains the same: keep the vessel in a state of readiness.

“If you live aboard and you’re attending to the vessel every day, you’ll find that most things don’t really take more maintenance, but rather less neglect,” says the local captain of a large sailing yacht. He, and the other captains we talked to, requested to remain anonymous so they can keep their jobs in case their bosses read this rag and don’t like what they have to say. “But, even then, many things can be beyond the scope of your knowledge. It’s important to know a little about everything to be effective, but especially to understand what you don’t know, and when it’s time to call in an expert.”

Another local captain of a large cruising craft (we’ll call him Ahab) agreed, saying, “A broad skill set is really important. Especially to sustain a career in a job market that isn’t typically a long term profession.”

In fact, captains stay in this line of work for an average of just eight years, and it’s not difficult to see why. “There is a lot of sacrifice in our position,” Captain Ahab says. “Having a family isn’t easy when you’re traveling, or have to be prepared to travel at any moment, to anywhere in the world. It can be overwhelming to your personal life.”

Another struggle that professional captains face is never being able to get away from their “office.” After a bad day at work, they can’t leave and go home to de-stress. They’re already home.

“Working where you live can be a struggle,” one former captain told us. “The job is always there, but fortunately, so is the freedom of the sea.”

Another local captain agrees, saying, “In the end it’s all about the ocean. Watching the land recede behind you, a new place ahead, the motion of the sea, the wave on the horizon that won’t go down.” He eloquently sums up what appears to be one big love story, mixed with the effort and upkeep that’s required in any good relationship. And those who sit at the helm are undeniably and indisputably in love with the waters he or she floats upon.