I am always fascinated when big, full displacement expedition yachts come into an anchorage from time at sea. They typically dwarf all other yachts around them, and they exude seaworthy competence. I watch in awe as they smartly come alongside a dock or pier, with no fuss or commotion whatsoever. I’ve watched Navy destroyers and cruisers do this on both coasts, and I never tire of the practiced and relaxed expertise of the docking crew who make it look easy and oh so matter of fact.

All in a day’s work, I guess.

I recently had the chance to talk with a yacht captain in charge of operating one of these dreadnoughts. It is one of the Northern Marine yachts, although this particular boat is less glitzy and sparkly as many of the new builds coming out of the builder these days. There is no brightwork on the exterior, and one will not find chromed and stainless-steel trim that does not serve a purpose. This boat is the real deal of an expedition yacht, although the owner prefers to think of it as a small ship.

In any case, Capt. Andrea Gaines is the captain of this vessel for its summertime vacation voyaging and has been running it for the past seven years. She also is the part-time captain of other, more traditional semi-displacement motoryachts, such as a lovely Marlow 65 she has been running since 2011. To say she has significant experience and sea time on a variety of cruising boats is certainly not overstating her credentials. In addition to holding a USCG Master 100 Ton license, she’s captained many top name boats: Grand Banks, Krogens, Marlows, Flemings, Passagemaker Yachts, Northern Marine, and others. Unlike the professional crew in front of the cameras of that Below Decks reality show, Capt. Gaines quietly takes care of business, following her motto of “Consider it Done.”

(Seen Below: Captain Andrea Gaines behind the helm.)

captain andrea gaines behind the helm of yacht

I was most curious about hearing her perspective and opinions on how best to run what is essentially a small ship. This type of vessel has intrigued me for a very long time, and I have been lucky to spend time on some of these boats during my time in the trawler business. Alaska, Nova Scotia, the Pacific Northwest, East Coast, and both Pacific and Atlantic Oceans have been my playing fields for years, and I appreciate the genre of boat and its capabilities.

But these were not my boats, nor was I the captain running the ship. No matter how many days one spends aboard a vessel, no matter how seasoned one considered themselves aboard these boats, it changes drastically when one is the owner or captain, rather than guest or crew. The level of responsibility alone is more than many can fathom.

One reason for this is that these big, heavy boats do not act like regular boats on the water, even moto ryachts of a similar length. They have so much more mass underwater. Typically powered by a single diesel engine, they can go the distance for thousands of miles, efficiently and economically. All the while providing a luxury travel experience for anyone aboard.

When I asked Capt. Gaines about the similarities of these boats to motoryachts, she said that while there are many similarities, in terms of systems, maintenance, navigation, and preparations, the full displacement expedition yacht is heavier, has much deeper draft and is slower under way. The significant tonnage means one must keep their wits about them as they enter a harbor or anchorage. My friend, Capt. Mike Efford, laughed when he told me he would come up to a fuel dock and someone wanted him to toss them a line to put around a cleat.

“I will rip that cleat right out of the dock,” he would tell them, knowing the sheer mass of his Army T-Boat was more than a match for any but the strongest hardware on commercial docks.

(Seen below: This classic 1998 Northern Marine is a perfect example of a long-range expedition yacht.)

northern marine expedition yacht 

To be effective controlling this significant size and mass, Gaines said that maintaining these boats is critical. And to make that possible without undue stress requires outstanding access to all systems. Access is greatly simplified on such large boats because they have a lot more boat underwater, with a bulbous bow, and most usually have a single diesel engine in a standup engine room. There is plenty of interior space, so access to everything important is all but guaranteed. (Compare that to semi-displacement motoryachts where access to the twin diesel engines is limited, particularly on the outboard side of the engines. And not all of these motoryachts provide much headroom.)

She also mentioned that full displacement, heavy boats like the Northern Marine are surprisingly tender when running light, so it is a good practice to keep fuel and water in the tanks.

Given the focus on maintaining all systems, I wondered if that translates into more bulletproof systems, as each is inspected on a regular basis. She said that the systems are generally bulletproof…until they are not. She did add that in the past 10 to 15 years, she has seen a great increase in the reliability of systems and system electronics. Overall, things are better, more reliable, and can be counted on.

Having said that, she also said that one must be prepared when one of these systems fails for any reason, which they do on occasion no matter how much inspection and maintenance is done. That is where prudent seamanship dictates a backup plan to fix it, move a secondary system online, or continue on without it. A broken running light can be changed before they take off for the next port, and if a generator fails, and there is a second genset, they can continue on while arranging for a service tech at the next port to come aboard and resolve the issue. It is all about staying safe.

(See below: Redundancy in your crucial systems is important for cruising for an extended period of time.)

engine room on a yacht 

A big boat like the Northern Marine thankfully comes with well designed and installed systems to ease operation. Close quarter maneuvering, for example, is much easier with a huge articulating rudder and hydraulic thrusters to assist the single engine while navigating narrow fairways and marina docks. (To be fair, semi-displacement yachts also have excellent maneuvering from twin engines and electric thrusters. And all boats can be safely operated by taking things slowly and deliberately.)

When we talked about this subject of systems and accessibility, I asked if they had ever needed the hydraulic get home system to turn the main shaft. It is Northern Marine’s solution offered to those wanting the insurance of a backup propulsion system.

“This boat has over 11,000 hours on its single diesel, and we have never once needed the get home,” Andrea said. “Of course, I turn it on from time to time to make sure it works, but we have never lost the main engine.”

No surprise there. The engine is well maintained.

To assist in managing maintenance, as well as getting ready to leave the dock, Capt. Gaines develops a checklist for each boat she is responsible for. While these checklists are unique to each yacht, all typically include checking weather, fluids, review route, tides and currents, bridge opening schedules and special instructions if there are any. She tests all controls for the engine, rudder, and both bow and stern thrusters. When she leaves the dock, there is confidence that everything works, and all preparations are in place. There should be no surprises, and that is intentional.

I am a big advocate of spring sea trials to make sure the boat and everything works and is ready to go, especially if it sat idle for several months. Pumps and other gear have a habit of mysteriously not working after being unused for a period of time.

Gaines says she begins each cruising season with a commissioning trip, where she runs the boat on what is essentially a trial run of a typical summer cruise. She has additional crew on board to help if necessary and get the kinks out of the boat if there are any. This is especially helpful if new gear has been installed over the winter.

It would appear Capt. Gaines agrees with my spring sea trial routine, as she mentioned she likes to run the engine up to full throttle for five minutes or so every so often, and particularly when she is headed to a new destination where she knows there are service people available in case there are issues. She does the same thing on the semi-displacement yachts she runs, as she normally runs those boats at 40 percent of load at displacement speed much of the time. It helps to wind things up to 80 percent or more for 20 minutes every so often. The same holds true for generators, keeping a load of 80 percent on the generator is good for it.

Capt. Gaines prefers to do route planning in advance of leaving the dock. In addition to the onboard electronics, she carries an iPad with an external Bad Elf GPS, and has both Navionics and AquaMap navigation apps, with the latest charts. So, she is never unprepared…or surprised.

(Seen below: The Bad Elf Flex GPS system gives fast and efficient information.)

bad elf gps system

She almost never runs a boat alone and having at least one person as crew, who is familiar with her style and routines, and who she can count on to do things the right way. Most boats have blind spots, and it is nearly impossible for someone at the helm to see around the boat from one location. So, it is nice to have another set of eyes to see into those blind spots.

She told me they have a standing joke among her crew. Never say “You’re Good” when coming into a dock. She wants information, data, about where the boat is in relation to other boats or the dock.

The key to success with a captain and mate is having routines, from start to finish, with appropriate levels of expectation management, and a commitment to work together as a team. More than anything else, safety first.

I wondered what she might suggest to someone who wants to eventually move up to a bigger boat. I got my answer as she explained how she “learns” a new boat that she will operate in the future.

“When I am new to a vessel I generally go through the boat very carefully:”

• Visual observation of look and feel including sight lines.
• Has it been well maintained?
• Are the bilges clean?
• Is there a good supply of spare parts aboard?
• Are there tools aboard?
• Is there a maintenance log aboard I can review?
• Are all of the safety items aboard and within spec/current?
• When were the engines and gens last serviced?
• When were the stabilizers serviced?
• When was a diver last under the boat?
• How do I move about the boat safely in good/bad weather?
• How securely are items stowed throughout the boat?


“Take care of things, on time and right away…before they becomes a big deal.”

As we talked, Andrea drove south from New England with her husband, Rick. He is a retired career USCG captain, so it is no surprise that safety would be a key focus.

And she says familiarity is important to remove the stress and concern when operating a new boat, big or small.

“The more you do, the more you learn. The more you learn, the more confidence you have. The more confidence you have, the more comfortable you will be.

“Travel three or four times to the same destination and the unknown becomes familiar.”

Which keeps things in balance…and safe.

While the above discussion relates directly to running a small ship, such as the premium Northern Marine line, I believe it also fits most other cruising boats. Great systems access, a maintenance schedule that is complete, and managing the details before leaving the dock, all contribute to safe cruising.

And now, I think I will appreciate watching ships come into port even more. There is something to be said for the safety of slow and deliberate. While it may not be nearly as exciting as the crash-and-burn antics of the go-fast crowd, it is eminently more satisfying.

Bravo Zulu.