When you want more than Captain Ron....


During the course of your boating life, there will be times when engaging the services of a professional captain will be desirable, prudent, or even required.

As mentioned in my previous article on insurance, having a captain on your new boat brings experience and seasoned common sense. This should help as one learns to handle a new boat, especially if it is 10 feet larger than you’ve owned before.

When going up in size, the number and complexity of systems, engines, and gear may be more intimidating, even before leaving the dock. While technology has brought many improvements to the boating experience, in many cases automating some of the decision making, there is still the critical need to have a responsible owner in command. This is universal no matter how large or small, power or sail.

You need to know what you are doing out there!

Besides understanding where things are and how they work, there are routines and procedures for preparing the boat, getting under way, and dealing with the almost infinite variety of situations on the water that require clear thinking, knowledge, and experience. And as boats get larger, it is foolish to expect one can figure it all out alone. This is where the captain comes in.

Along with making you familiar with how to prepare for getting under way, there are many tricks and techniques a captain can pass on that reflect wisdom from generations of seafarers. This can come from touch-and-go practice coming up to a mooring ball or dock in varying wind and current conditions or learning how to lasso a line around a piling. And the ever-present need to get a spring line on the dock before tossing a bow line to the dock attendant isn’t always intuitive.

(Below: Are you confident enough to back into a slip?)

docking a boat at a crowded marina

As with everything else in your boating life, building practical skills is important for your boating resume.

A professional captain should be viewed as an important step in becoming familiar with a new boat. While some may see it as a necessary evil and expense, I have long argued it is perhaps one of the best things one can do to become a responsible and confident mariner. Especially for people like me who tend to avoid instruction in an academic environment, the hands-on experience of working and learning from the right captain makes all the difference in the world.

What one can learn is more than a simple punch list of tasks, and it will usually be custom fit to the needs of the situation. In addition to a basic review of systems and what to check in the engine space, it may include considerations of current and future weather, reviewing local conditions and forecasts. Given the dynamic nature of being on the water, it is helpful to see how a captain evaluates and responds to all sorts of situations, from overtaking vessels in a crowded waterway, dealing with unexpected delays at bridges and other congestion points, or assisting other vessels either in distress or in need in some way. Even radio communications and what happens next, when they go beyond what is taught in basic seamanship school.

(Live fire exercises of the prototype rail gun at the Dahlgren Sea Systems Command on the Potomac come to mind, as do USCG warnings to our trawler that the inlet to Cape Hatteras is closed and to not even think about coming in to get away from a nasty overtaking storm. Or responding to a mysterious and utterly silent military helicopter that literally appeared out of nowhere as we steamed north in a new, unmarked trawler along the coast of California on our way to Cape Flattery.)

A captain can also help break bad habits and improve ways of doing things that are not the right way to do it on a bigger boat. Fenders, lines, and dinghy management may require a different approach. Even the additional weight and difficulty handling a big shorepower cord becomes a new experience.

(Below: Captains can help with the basics, such as the proper way to tie a dock line.)

proper way to tie a dock line for boat

Many of our seasoned brokers at Seattle Yachts tell me the concept of using a captain when going up in boat size is a worthy investment. They agree the 10-foot rule imposed by insurance companies is a good idea for many reasons.

One is that a captain may help define—or redefine—the roles of crew. A couple running a new, larger boat may be surprised to find that the woman is a much better choice for the helm than her husband, who is more suited for deck duty. Egos aside, this is true fairly often, particularly on bigger boats where deck gear becomes heavy and unwieldy. There is a reason why shore cable reel systems are common on large boats. Compare the fenders on a Northern Marine 80 to those on a 36-foot Grand Banks. Big difference.

Some captains are considered “teaching captains,” and they are ideal choices for less-experienced people taking ownership of a new boat. Ask any broker for the name of a teaching captain and most will offer their short list of proven personalities. Making happy owners is everyone’s goal.


No One Job Description

I’ve worked with several professional captains over the years, and no two captains offer quite the same range of services or have the same expertise. Some captains specialize in deliveries, some can best be described as teaching captains as described above, and others typically tailor their services to the needs of a yacht and its owners.

For example, one couple recently upgraded from a Catalina 30 to a new Tartan 395 sailboat they bought at the fall show. The 10-foot step up in size made using a captain advisable, but for them it only involved a couple of afternoon sessions to qualify the owners on their new boat. The difference in windage while docking, and anticipating how the heavier boat responds, took getting used to.

The new owners obviously wished to avoid crash-and-burn learning experiences with their shiny new hull, so taking it slow with an experienced captain assured smiles at the end of the day.

Yacht deliveries are a common way to move boats up and down the coast, and delivery captains make a respectable living moving boats year-round. It is possible to find a captain to deliver one’s boat, with the stipulation that you want to be onboard for the learning experience. There is always something to learn and experience for a new owner. This might even include some time offshore to get long-distance miles under their belt.

(Below: Seattle Yachts broker Martin Snyder and first mate Dave delivering a boat to a customer.)

 yacht broker delivering boat to customer

One will have to negotiate the specifics with a captain for such an adventure, but the benefits will likely far outweigh the costs. The captain will go over the boat in detail, review what safety gear is aboard and what needs to be rented sort term (EPIRB and life raft), what spares are needed and how many, and a score of other details. And the owner learns something every step of the way.

This is a markedly different scenario from hiring a captain to simply spend a handful of hours running the boat locally with you aboard.

I spoke at length with a couple of captains who have diverse backgrounds to help explore other aspects that may not be obvious.

Capt. Andrea Gaines is decidedly NOT what she calls a “Rolodex captain.” These captains tend to sit in the pilothouse and have contacts to call for pretty much everything that may need to be done on the boat. This is contrary to her hands-on approach. Yes, for one of the boats she manages, she has one electrician, one plumber, and one Caterpillar mechanic that she routinely uses to service and work on projects that comes up. But she is always alongside when one of them is on the boat, always hands-on during any and all tasks or projects. (Read: Running A Small Ship)

As a result, she is intimately familiar with the boat and its systems and is comfortable with changing oil and gear lube in engines, generators, transmissions, and other mechanical gear. She flushes filters, changes impellers, exercises through hulls, tightens wiring, and dozens of other tasks to make the boat as trouble-free as possible. She knows a well-maintained boat is going to be far less troublesome than the alternative.

captain andrea gaines driving a yacht

She currently has three or four long-term clients, and each has its unique set of needs and services. One is a large sailboat that spends its winter in the Caribbean when it is not in Maine. Her time with this client is split between managing other captains and crew who maintain the boat when the owner is absent, run the boat when the owner is aboard and she is not, and deliver the boat back to Maine (and her care) for the season. This way she never loses touch with the boat and always has a hand on its pulse and needs.

For a new boat owner, she might spend a week on the boat with the owners. She will go over checklists for the boat and its systems, show how best to drive the boat, get under way, use the radio, deal with all the micro issues we come across, and generally make the owners comfortable with their new boat.

“At first, learning a new boat is like drinking out of a firehose,” she explained. It may take six months to absorb it all, and hiring a captain proves to be very helpful.

“Every owner wants to enjoy their boat,” Andrea continued. It is at the heart of everything she does. Maximizing their time, enjoyment, and the experience on the boat is what it is all about.

And when the owners’ available window to be on their boat is short, it is vitally important to make sure everything works when they are aboard.

One of her clients has a large cruising motoryacht, and she is very much in charge of the ongoing maintenance as she runs the boat up and down the coast. She changes the oil in the engines and generators, replaces impellers, and is often down in the engine room while the boat sits at a luxury marina. You seldom find her chilling out in the pilothouse helm chair.

Andrea says every owner has his or her needs, which often evolve over time. This is particularly relevant with her long-standing client relationships. They may have once been hands-on owner/operators, but over the years they have become less inclined to spend time in the engine room doing maintenance. Their interests—and abilities—changed with the years. It is the responsibility of the full or part-time captain to worry about what the owner no longer wants to do, or can no longer do with confidence.

And that is an important aspect of the client/captain relationship. Aging owners may not want to give up boating as they lose the ability to do what they once did…and enjoyed. The captain now keeps the ship afloat, so to speak, doing everything from provisioning to keeping a spreadsheet of the complete spares inventory. They perform all maintenance (either doing it personally or managing the work of others) in addition to running the boat for the owners. Given the commitment to overall responsibility for the yacht as the captain, operating the boat on the water may be a small percentage of the total time spent managing the yacht.

To emphasize her mantra of owners getting the most out of their boats, Capt. Gaines says routine maintenance is absolutely key to successful cruising. It may not be the fun part of being a captain, but getting dirty in the engine room or regularly exercising through hulls is as vital to owner satisfaction as making sure there is gin and rum aboard.

Capt. Jerry Taylor has been training, delivering, and providing long-term captain services to clients for decades and his knowledge is extensive. With his wife, Wendy, the couple are regular fixtures in the East Coast trawler community, as they have continued to train, deliver, maintain, and operate large yachts for over 40 years. I’ve known the couple for a long time, have used them to deliver several of my boats over the years, and have the highest regard for their perspective and opinions.

(Below: Capt. Taylor delivers a Grand Banks for a customer.)


Getting new owners comfortable on their new boat, and confident managing the many systems, takes lots of time, and the couple finds it best breaking it up into manageable chunks. They can spend three days going over a boat’s systems, spread out over that time. To do the whole thing at once is simply too much to absorb and owners need a break between sessions. Even on learning trips, Jerry and Wendy get off the boat at the end of the day and stay at a nearby hotel. They let the owners get settled on their new boat and think about what they learned that day.

Jerry feels most clients see the value of what a captain brings to the table when there is a new yacht involved, but it is not always true. Some owners are forced into using a captain because of insurance. The ones who have problems are usually those who confuse their own skill set with what is required to operate a heavy and complex trawler. They don’t think new boat orientation with a captain is worth the time and money.

Jerry knows from experience how this attitude can create problems for the couple and expensive damage to the boat. Egos are best left at the door.

Looking back over the years, Jerry and Wendy see a range of needs of what people should learn or become familiar with. As they reminded me, sometimes the man has the necessary knowledge and experience, but his wife does not. In such cases getting her onboard and comfortable is especially important to the couple’s overall enjoyment of the experience and lifestyle. Wendy is often the key factor in easing the wife into comfortable boat handling.

Of course, not everyone needs to know how to change the oil in their engines, or any of a long list of other service items, but it certainly helps when speaking to a service yard about a maintenance program. The same is true for changing zincs, impellers, and other routine maintenance. A finicky bow thruster that has become choked with contact dust, can be cleaned and serviced by anyone who doesn’t mind either contorting like a pretzel or getting their hands dirty. But not everyone wants to do it.


Word of Mouth is Best

Most professional captains have a social media presence. Websites are also standard procedure for every professional who wants to advertise their services.

Yet it is common for most new business to come from referrals from past or existing clients. Nothing seems to have quite the impact as the recommendation from a friend. And that is no surprise. It is also true that if your trusted broker tells you that so-and-so is a good choice for new boat training, there is not much more that needs to be said.

I would like to offer some idea as to the costs of using a captain’s services. As you might imagine, it is a widely variable rate sheet, as there are so many factors that one needs to define. Expect to pay anywhere from $300 to $500 a day for a captain, which is a common daily rate for a normal 8-hour day. That does not mean being onboard 24/7.

But there are many flavors and levels of involvement, from part-time over a couple of weeks up to and including full-time captain duties for an entire season. For vessel orientation over several days or more, it might be a daily rate for a set number of days, or it may be weekly. It may include delivery services, project management, managing repair and/or refit work, bringing on additional crew, provisioning, or remote yacht management when the boat is located far from home.

Travel and expenses, even mileage, are always additional and as the plans and trips get more involved, it is common to provide the captain with a credit card to buy fuel, pay for dockage, and other expenses.

But don’t think a captain assumes carte blanche to spend whatever and whenever. Quite the opposite. Running a tight ship is part of the mission statement of a professional captain.

Capt. Andrea Gaines put it best. “I spend my owner’s money as if it was my money.”


Intangible Benefits

I want to mention some of the unforeseen benefits of using professional services that I did not at first expect and have found again and again. Depending on the background of your captain, there may be experience with military, rescue, pilot, or commercial vessels similar enough to your own boat and what she is capable of. And if you need a shot of confidence-building performance, hold onto your hat. Here are just a couple of fond memories.

Watching a captain run our 40-foot Downeast cruiser like a workboat around a mooring ball and then in a tight fairway was a thrilling shot of adrenaline I did not expect. The boat danced in ways I never imagined, even though I do not consider myself a timid boater.

On a 64-foot trawler yacht, a thousand miles away, another captain surfed into an inlet in running seas that had my heart in my throat, under total control while playing the throttles of the twin diesels. It was marvelous to see such mastery and left me thinking that recreational boaters have no idea how strong our boats really are.

While I do not mean to suggest I’ve seen captains risk boat or crew in an effort to grandstand, they showed that well-built yachts are remarkably tough, and more than capable of the healthy use most of us shy away from. These captains truly enjoy running quality boats closer to their potential.

For me, that alone is worth the price of a captain for new boat orientation.
It is common wisdom that going through a storm on your new boat gives you confidence in her abilities. But you’ll get the same confidence with a talented captain without having to survive a scary storm scenario.

Just some food for thought as you consider your options in the future.

captain ron steering boat

And since I mentioned Captain Ron at the beginning, let me share my favorite line in the movie, when he explains the realities of boating to his clients:

“If anything is going to happen, it is going to happen out there.”

Not with the right captain.


Enjoy these other boating and cruising articles by Bill Parlatore: