Well, we all survived a pretty busy season. We are in Athens now for a week before we start our way back to the Riviera and the Monaco boat show. I have been lucky enough to score a dream job which I can not talk about at all. I am currently undergoing a lengthy vetting process which should only be a formality. Dearest friends, please refrain from any revolutionary activity for the next month or so.

Part of my vetting involved me getting in touch with my references. My first Captain was only too happy to act as a reference. One of the first pieces of advice I received in yachting was that the first job is the worst job. 2.5 years in I can safely say that my first job was in fact one of my better ones. When I mentioned in an email that I missed Richards stories that he used to tell me he replied with this amazing letter he wrote as advice to a young Captain.

Letter to a prospective young captain.

As one reaches the age of retirement, it is time to look back at one’s achievements and to draw the lesson from them. What follows may be of benefit to some, captain to be, engineer in the making and crew alike. You may think, “why should this concern me?”—but who can read the future?
Between the moment I took over the ketch TIKI and today, more than 40 years have elapsed. What happened on that bitterly cold winter in 1970 remains the purest of adventures and the dream of many a young sailor. Having no obvious qualification to take the job, my only chance—besides being the deck-hand—was to offer my contribution free of wages. I got the job merely because I happened to be there, and ever since, following my departure from the uninspiring Port-La-Nouvelle (Languedoc) where I was trapped by bad weather, every experience became vivid, intense and unforgettable. I was then at the bottom of the ladder and had received both a fast promotion and a formidable challenge: to deliver a boat to his owner in Tahiti.

At the bottom of the ladder you will join a new world that is wide open and partly unstructured, although this is quickly changing in an increasingly complex industry.

You will eventually get married, have kids, buy a home, but may be not as soon as everybody else. The niche life style that you have chosen (the yachting industry), does not easily allow one to pursue two contradictory targets: diversifying your experience by wandering from boat to boat for a decade or so on the one hand, while striving to maintain as much a normal family life as possible on the other. You will have to strike a balance between sacred commitments and maintaining your autonomy and freedom, whilst trying to retain the best of both worlds.

In order to follow your dream you will need to chart your own course and this needs navigational skills (sounds familiar?).

You will have to work under the orders of brilliant or bullying bosses, captains and owners alike, and always keep your nerve whilst developing your management skills, your own style, something you have not been prepared for (and I do not mean here the written rules of bridge management).

On a wider spectrum, you will have to make your owners happy, your guests happy, your crew happy and this will eventually make you happy too.

You will be shaped by challenges and, sometimes, ordeals and you will find out that happiness can be a frustrating quest when positive results remain unacknowledged.

Never forget that you are developing yourself through arduous, unrewarding and, sometimes, menial tasks. However futile and barbaric it may look, I am not ashamed here to say that, as a young captain, far away from any resources, I have unplugged toilets with compressed air, operated a diving compressor with elastic bands and jury-rigged a raw water cooling circuit into a closed fresh-water circuit in order to save the frozen supplies, and hence saved the charter cruise.

Along your way to the top, you will have to be creative, handy and flexible in the sense that you will not dedicate yourself to one specific job: before becoming a specialist, you have to be a generalist, accepting to help in the galley during services, opening a stabilizer kofferdam to reach a sensor, cleaning the mess caused to “your” deck by a poorly engineered repair work are common place.


Soon you will be the captain in charge and, depending on the tonnage of the vessel you are responsible for, you will direct the crew, entertain the owner, his family and guests.
At this stage, I would like to introduce the concept of “self-effacement”, which I have made mine for years until I discovered that it had been around for a while thanks to one of the greatest Antarctic explorers, Ernest Shackleton (1874-1922) and his aptly-named, the Endurance expedition. His crew was his greatest asset (he saved them all). So must be yours. Do not be stingy with compliments for those who deserve them.

But to be self-effacing does not mean that you are discarding your principles or lowering your standards, on the contrary. Not only are you part of a team, but you should be the first one to follow your own rules. Only this way will you lead your team while being equal to all. This subtle balance is not always easy to find but once you have, it will have the merit of avoiding the trap of becoming, over the years, a prima-donna.

A prima-donna is at the centre of her art but, in our business, it is our task which is at the centre of our skills, not ourselves. Those who want to become captains because they have a strong ego will have to keep in mind that they are not performing a one man show. In other words, once you have found yourself you must forget about yourself.  This is true for everybody else onboard: the Chef who comes after dinner to collect his good marks among the guests will have to remember that he is just doing his job, even if he is often the major player in the success of a cruise (and I mean it). Since you are likely to rejoin a ready-crewed yacht before you build up your own team, you will have to un-root potential prima-donnas like weeds. 

You will eventually find your power in your communication skills, or some more mysterious impalpable alchemy called charisma. But remember the concept of “self-effacement” which is your safeguard against too much grandeur. However, be aware that by following this principle you are exposing yourself to potential challengers who can undermine your authority, and even destroy your job: a first mate, a chief engineer, a yacht manager may be a mole; whether you know it or not, there is nothing much you can do about it. Just expect the worse to happen and you will hardly be disappointed. The worse will happen because, at some point, you may have inadvertedly sent the wrong signal. One day, the owner will tell you: –“Thank you, Captain, we have had a wonderful time but, from now on, Darren will drive the boat,” and it does not matter if the boat needs more than just a driver, if you have wintered the boat yourself, if you have painstakingly done the spring refitting, catered for the crew in the absence of the Chef and joined the yacht with your own portfolio of clients. 

Do not waste time trying to be overly smart, you are not in the picture anymore. It is called “disgrace” and it hurts, but do not turn back. This may be life but this is also yachting.

You can be proud of your achievement and nobody can take it away from you.  Humble you are and humble you must remain, for at this stage, it will help you to find the shortcoming which crippled your system. Only in this way you will draw the lesson of your misfortune.

On the other hand, always consider that the renewal of your contract as Captain for another season or for another year as a gift. For the same reasons (or the lack of it) that you have been dismissed, the fact that your charter season has been a standing success, that you have beached your vessel, that you have completed a six month refitting at the best conditions or lost five meters of your bow on a collision course is not necessarily relevant. Against all odds, never despair, there is always room for hope.

Beware of the jet set life style

Straying among the rich and, sometimes, famous can be self intoxicating. Mind that champagne toasting does not become your cup of tea!
Do not focus on external gratification; be happy with your inner satisfaction.
Do not loose touch with reality. Keep being yourself or there is a risk you could become like James LeBron, the famous basketball player, who put himself before the sport. Enjoy compliments secretly, mostly when presented in a negative way:
– “Captain, don’t be such a gentleman” was my preferred one.
Do not get impressed by titles, prestige and wealth accumulation.
Once, during a flag inspection, the surveyor asked his ultimate question and the most unexpected one: “Are you jealous of your owner’s wealth?”
“Of course not,” I answered, “why should I be?”, and he seemed rightfully satisfied.
Similarly and more recently, a Chef told me:” My most difficult client is the crew”. This should not be.

“It can be lonely at the top” 

In order not to distance yourself from your crew, you will need the skills to create a workplace for professional relationships with all the aplomb that one expects from you. You will have to maintain an equilibrium which requires self-taught discipline. 

Yoga, meditation, reading and writing are private matters but sports, music, outing and laughing are good ways to stay involved with everybody. On hiring a crew, look for the right candidate who also shares similar hobbies with you and who is complementary to others. As strange as it may look, for years I have looked also for music players, chess players, tennis players and I succeeded to some extent in finding suitable candidates.

Despite everything, if you still find yourself isolated, nurture the ties with your family, stay in touch with your mentor (owner and captain alike) and your true friends.

Beware of isolationism; it keeps you cut off from real life and develops a false sense of infallibility, leading to bad decision-making, disdaining good advices. It may be that the Titanic would not have been lost if only the radio ice warning would have been taken into account by her captain! 

Whether you have planned your route alone or have not done it yourself, have the first mate to double-check it or/and vice-versa. Our culture should not discourage anyone to question the captain even if he is, respectfully, nicknamed “the Old man”. 

The downing of the Korean civil flight 007 by the Soviets over Sakhalin in 1983 would have probably not happened if only the  flight officers had done their double checking, however more complicated it may look (following this disaster, we owe it to President Reagan to have ordered the US Army to make the GPS available for civilian use).

About undue benefits and other practices.

As a young captain, I was once welcomed by the manager of a well-known north Adriatic marina and boatyard. Following a polite and friendly talk, on leaving his office, the manager offered me a crate of six bottles of a famous local wine. What a gentleman and what delicious manners I thought to myself….until I was confronted, many months later, with an invoice which was twice as high as the pro-forma invoice. The foreman in charge of the boatyard was not the least embarrassed when I protested about the bill, as he said: “Mais tu as mangé” (literally, you have eaten) and I never felt so humiliated in my life.

Ever since, when a ‘benefit’ was the rule (even in disguise), it was entered in the account book or reported. Years later in Ancona (It), I got a shock when I learnt about a substantial kickback that the first mate had sought from the water-maker dealer and fitter during my holiday leave.
This reputable Italian operator, who was by no mean at his first “transaction”, waited for my return to share his indignation, instead of passing it to our dubious project manager. This too was entered in my books, not only in number but also in writing.

There is a lesson to be learnt from these two examples, and an absolute rule: ethic teaches you that you cannot have two masters or, as we put it in French, you cannot have “le beurre et l’argent du beurre.”


Again, this is not only about sticking to the written rules (Annex V of Marpol etc.).
The yacht industry has not yet developed a Green Yacht but your own rules, as modest as they may seem, will have a positive impact on our environment. Just consider the following facts:
  1. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a vast area of plastic, chemical sludge and debris that is twice the size of Texas (according to The National Science Foundation).
  2. Food  waste amounts to 40% of the world food production due to consumer behaviour, oversized portions, “best before” notices that are misunderstood (not an expiring date).
  3. Whilst our carbon footprint is huge (by essence, if I may) compared to the average population, our water footprint can be reduced substantially. Consider that 450 million people in 26 countries across the world do not have access to the daily ratio of 20 liters/day (UNO). Your management of water is just as important as the groundwater management performed daily by the Water Authority in France. Global warming, regular droughts (2003-2006), population increase in the PACA area are all contributing to potential water shortages.
Although not measurable, overconsumption of goods due to poor management and slack budgeting, this resulting in the low value attached to these goods and their high turnover.
Don’t be a sitting duck for environmental disasters that are waiting to happen. 

Being a captain is a complex, stressful and, sometimes, rewarding profession.

To be responsible for people, assets and uncertainties in the environment increases pressure.
Regulations and shore-based yacht management are helping us to a certain extent but it does not replace your inner compass, the search for your equilibrium resulting in your well being.
Even if we are small players we are still prone to become heroes when we should be the servants, without being servile, of the people we lead. In return, expect loyalty from those who still have a sense of honour. Just as you have a moral debt towards the owner of the yacht who employs you, you must expect the same from the crew you hired.   

As I started my eighteen year captainship for the same owner at a time yachting was a gentleman pastime, the owner’s wife was running the galley and the owner was filling everybody’s plate; even if it looks a bit paternalistic and inappropriate nowadays, it still illustrates the self-effacing concept and this is why they still deserve my respect.    

Richard Dunais       

That is an incredible letter and I would like to think the words beneficial to anyone regardless if they work aboard boats or not. If you have any fan mail for Richard please leave a comment or drop me an email and I shall pass it on.

Time to do my own writing I think. See you all soon with tales of Turkey.
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