By Winslow Taylor
There are many “good,” but far fewer “great,” captains and mates floating around the industry. The age-old question from owners, captains, and aspiring captains is how to make it to the top echelon, make a name for yourself and maintain that status as a great captain or a great crewmate. For many, the answer might not be what you expect: a symbiotic relationship amongst all the members of the crew, even the owner.
To try to drill down on the subject, I had a lengthy conversation with none other than John Bayliss of Bayliss Boatworks. I’d list his uber impressive resume, but if you are reading InTheBite, then you already know. John’s insight into the “good” versus “great” conversation is invaluable because he sees all aspects of the fishing, ownership, building, crew and maintenance perspectives. The Bayliss boat family is so tight-knit that most of John’s new builds are repeat owners, and many current owners will bring their boat back to the Bayliss yard for updates and yearly maintenance. In short, John has seen it all.
John emphasized that there are three important facets to being a great captain. These are (1) maintenance/upkeep/provisioning, (2) fishing and (3) being a people person. Good captains can possess some of these characteristics or maybe a little of all three, but a great captain is dialed in to every element.
The maintenance aspect might appear to be an easy box to check, but nowadays some captains act as more of a scheduler than a “doer” when it comes to routine maintenance and upkeep. It’s not uncommon for some crews to sub out a simple oil change. A great captain doesn’t do that. A great captain is aware of the daily maintenance and upkeep necessary to stay ahead of the game. If you walk through a great captain’s engine room, the bilge will be spotless, waxed and organized with all the spare parts needed for a “routine” emergency. A great captain never stops learning and always strives to be the master of his universe (which is his boat). It can be easy to spot these captains because they are the guys who other boats at the marina are asking to borrow a tool or for spare parts!
A great captain is a fiduciary of the owner on all things boat- and crew-related. Many new boats are anywhere from a 5- to 10-million-dollar asset. A great captain is always looking out for the best interest of the owner and the boat itself. They will have a network of folks throughout the region, or world, who they can rely on for up-to-date information, whether it is about finding the fish or sourcing a part in a remote location.
It cannot be overstated how much a great captain creates excitement from the moment the owner or charter group sets foot on the boat to the moment they exit. Regardless of whether the fishing is off the charts or slow, this is an ultra-expensive “hobby” that must be fun. John emphasizes that most, if not all, owners are highly successful and passionate individuals in their professional life. The boat is their sanctuary and refuge to disengage from the “real” world and kick back with their friends and family. A great captain understands this and realizes that it’s an entertainment business.
A great captain, prior to an owner’s arrival, will have the boat spotless, organized and fully stocked when the owner arrives. He might greet him with his favorite cocktail, make reservations at a favorite restaurant or even cook dinner. A great captain takes the personalization to the next level and makes everything look incredibly easy (even though it isn’t).
You’ve got to catch fish. You can’t be a great sportfish captain without being dialed in on the fishing. That doesn’t mean that a great captain always goes out and catches triple header blue ones on every trip, but more often than not they are catching and not fishing. Being “fishy” requires not only knowledge of your local waters but also the ability to travel to new and remote destinations and being able to catch fish.
This skill goes hand in hand with preparation and teamwork. A great captain also needs to be humble; we have all seen those folks on the dock who think they are the coolest/best/God’s gift to fishing. The best way to expand your network is to be humble and do the best job you can. Don’t be a jerk, because you never know where your next job will come from, but people always remember (1) nice guys who are genuine and help people and (2) jerks. And I almost forgot: keep the boss’s wife happy!
A great captain not only has a large network to draw from, but he is also personable and relatable so he can draw information from locals in new locations. The great ones make it look easy and know what needs to be done to keep everyone in good spirits. For example, if the bite on the troll is slow or non-existent, a great captain would have the skill and knowledge to transition over to deep-dropping or bottom-fishing to put some meat in the boat. Having the necessary tackle organized and ready to deploy (for a totally new style of fishing) in a few minutes is no easy task, but the great captains make it look seamless.
It’s almost too straightforward, but the great ones also have a great personality and are able to be “on” 100 percent of the time. These captains and crews bring zero drama to the table. An owner or guest doesn’t want to hear the captain and crew complain about shoreside (or any) drama. If you have problems at home or amongst the crew, leave it for when the owner is off the boat.
The great operations have the owner, captain and crew firing on all cylinders (and catching fish). As John stated a few times, there are a lot of factors in successfully running a boat, but the most important thing is trusting one another in order to make it work. He followed up that observation with his insistence that “the fun meter has to be pegged at all times on the boat.” Big boats are expensive as hell, and if it’s not fun, then why would anyone do it?
The saying “behind every great man is a great woman” can be adapted to a great captain and a great mate/crew. I’ve spoken to a handful of charter and private guys along the East Coast, and one of their biggest problems has been finding folks who want to work as mates (or even anyone who wants to work at all). “Back in the day” (the mid-2000’s), I remember folks lining up to sign on as a mate, especially for the “cool” traveling boats where you could fish and live in the Bahamas, Mexico, etc.
A great mate is certainly hard to find, but they can make a good captain look great. Not only are these mates “people persons,” but they are knowledgeable about many things unrelated to fishing. As a mate, you are down in the pit all day with (1) complete strangers or (2) owners and their families/guests. It’s important to keep them entertained, because these folks want to have a good time (see the theme here). You could be the best fisherman in the world, but if you’re boxing out the owner’s kid or being generally unpleasant, then you aren’t helping to create a great experience. Again, it’s entertainment; you might not even like some of the guests or folks, but you sure as hell need to pretend you do at times. Believe me, I’ve wanted to throw some folks overboard, but instead, I just smiled and said, “OK!” or “You’re right!”
Clearly defined roles for the mate and captain help to keep up crew morale. It’s always bad to feel like your boss is taking advantage of you. By that, I mean when a captain might start getting lazy and delegating captain’s tasks to the mate (who is always very underpaid compared to the captain). This, over time, will develop into a toxic relationship that will drain the fun-meter across the board.
Advice From Ritz-Carlton
As a crew exercise, replace “Ritz-Carlton” with your boat name, and you’ll find it’s an excellent service standard for your boat owner and guests.
The following is the Ritz Carlton “service values” for each employee.
Service Values: I Am Proud to Be Ritz-Carlton
- I build strong relationships and create Ritz-Carlton guests for life.
- I am always responsive to the expressed and unexpressed wishes and needs of our guests.
- I am empowered to create unique, memorable and personal experiences for our guests.
- I understand my role in achieving the Key Success Factors, embracing Community Footprints and creating The Ritz-Carlton Mystique.
- I continuously seek opportunities to innovate and improve The Ritz-Carlton experience.
- I own and immediately resolve guest problems.
- I create a work environment of teamwork and lateral service so that the needs of our guests and each other are met.
- I have the opportunity to continuously learn and grow.
- I am involved in the planning of the work that affects me.
- I am proud of my professional appearance, language and behavior.
- I protect the privacy and security of our guests, my fellow employees and the company’s confidential information and assets.
- I am responsible for uncompromising levels of cleanliness and creating a safe and accident-free environment.
Owners, this could be a hot take, but if you want a great crew, it’s going to cost you. Also, captains and mates (hopefully) are aware of how expensive the sport is, including their paychecks, so don’t be too cheap or complain about prices or cost in front of them. They are working their butts off to facilitate a great fishing program while taking care of a million(s)-dollar piece of equipment. Hell, the cost just to fill up with fuel can cost as much as a nice used truck!
I spoke to an individual who was hired to fish at an east coast tournament. After the fishing day, the owner invited the captain and crew out to dinner. After dinner, the owner told the waiter there would be two checks. The owner paid for his group and then left the captain and mate to pay for themselves. Come on, man, don’t do that. Instead of creating boat unity, that will only fuel animosity. Why would a captain treated like that go the extra mile for the boat or owner? Treat people right, and they will return the favor. Just because fishing is fun doesn’t mean the crew is doing it for fun. It’s a serious business, and great crew treat it as such.
A great fishing program, like in any endeavor, gives it 100 percent and never stops learning. A solid fishing program is a blessing to everyone in it. How many folks have come aboard and said, “Man, your job sucks.” The answer is probably zero. It certainly isn’t easy, and the guests only see the tip of the iceberg. They usually have no clue about the hundreds of hours at the dock, waxing, organizing and general maintenance needed to keep everyone having fun. As John said a few times, “There is nothing like it” and “Don’t take yourself too seriously!”
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