A day in the life of a superyacht captain
A day in the life of a superyacht captain

A day in the life of a superyacht captain

It’s easy to think that a captain’s job is to drive a superyacht to glamorous locations and drop the anchor in idyllic anchorages, but as Kelly Gordon and other captains will tell you, that’s only a tiny part of the role. 

By Charlotte Thomas | 4 January 2024

For Kelly Gordon, captaining a superyacht was something she never imagined until she had already started a career as a chemistry professor when a chance encounter at a party on a large motor yacht changed everything. Now, having uncovered her passion for the sea and having achieved the ultimate position as a superyacht captain, Gordon is not only a role model for female crew who want to pursue a career on the deck and engineering side of superyachts, but is also an active advocate of crew mental health. But what exactly does a superyacht captain do, and is it just about driving the yacht from A to B and making sure the crew keep it in top condition?

The simple answer, says Gordon, is no – and in fact the role of a modern yacht captain is highly complex and multifaceted. Take Gordon’s current command, for example – a 33-metre private yacht that cruises extensively with the owning family on board. “My responsibilities of course encompass safely operating and navigating the boat – that’s the technical side of it,” Gordon begins. “But actually the smallest element is navigation and operation, and the far bigger side is crew management. I spend a tremendous amount of time with the crew, making sure everyone’s got what they need.

“Along with that too,” she continues, “is making sure that the owners and their family have what they need, and understanding what their plans are. Where do they want to go? What are they wanting to do? It’s about making sure they are always well cared for.”

A day in the life of a superyacht captain
A day in the life of a superyacht captain

Changing landscapes

The early days of yachting were, in some ways, a much simpler time. Yachts on average were smaller, and captains and crews often came from a sailing or boating background. There were elements that a captain had to understand and undertake, such as holding a recognised commercial skipper’s ticket, keeping logs, managing the yacht’s accounts and so on. But as the fleet has grown and as yachts have grown, so too have the duties expected of captains.

“As a captain, especially the larger and larger you go in terms of yacht, you become the CEO of a company in a way,” Gordon offers. “But you’re doing what you’re trained to do. To operate and navigate the yacht actually ends up being the smaller percentage of what you do, and the day-to-day is emails, paperwork, schedules, plans, maintenance if you’re in the shipyard, and whether you charter or are private you still need to know where the boss or potential guest wants to go, and show them a good time.”

Paper tigers

One thing that has definitely changed over time is the increasing burden of paperwork related to regulatory elements such as the International Safety Management code (ISM) and in some cases the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code (ISPS). “The biggest change I’ve seen since I started is a regulatory change,” offers Captain Steve Osborne. “I find myself spending more and more time on more and more paperwork. There’s a lot of delegation you can do, but you have to really start to understand a lot of the legal frameworks of where you’re going [with the yacht] and be a bit more cautious and pay a bit more attention, because rules have changed over time and are a bit more stringent now.”

Gordon agrees that the burdens have increased, but also argues that there are benefits. “The paperwork has grown, but I think it’s a good thing,” she asserts. “I actually think there probably can stand to be a little more regulation in the industry. When I talk to my buddies who are working on commercial vessels and I see how things are done – granted, they have their own sets of issues as well – I think it’s good that we take a page or two out of their book.”

A day in the life of a superyacht captain
A day in the life of a superyacht captain

Mind over matter

One of the biggest elements of being a superyacht captain is being able to look after a superyacht crew, and that means not only nurturing and mentoring crew members but also, increasingly, being aware of other issues that can arise – particularly when crews are living in close quarters and working long hours.

“The driving-the-boat bit is easy, that’s our bread and butter,” says Captain Matthew Pownell-Jones. “It’s the other stuff that no one actually teaches you – how to care about the crew, how to listen to someone who has maybe just joined the crew and has a problem that no one knows about. The crew is a floating family, and if that’s the way you think of it then that’s how I feel a team works well.”

It’s something that Gordon has put front and centre not only of how she runs her own yacht and crew, but also of raising awareness in the industry of the importance of mental health considerations. “I’m pretty hard-charging in the mental health space for crew and the yachting industry,” she says. “I’m determined that we will see change, and will see a better and safer workplace for crew, both in terms of general safety on board and also in terms of mental safety.

“I’m not that old – I am only 42 – and just over the course of my life and in my 15 years in this industry I’ve seen it change in terms of being able to talk about it, and it being accepted as a conversation and as part of our overall health. It’s so important because on board we don’t work a nine-to-five then clock out and get to go home to our safe space.”


A day in the life of a superyacht captain
A day in the life of a superyacht captain

Guest appearance

For all the paperwork, planning and crew management, there is of course the part that makes superyachting what it is – yacht owners and yacht charterers enjoying what a superyacht offers and the places it can take them. It’s perhaps the final piece of the puzzle for an experienced superyacht captain.

“For private cruising or for yacht charter alike, first of all, you want to make sure the yacht is clean and ready to present to the boss or the guests and that each crew member knows who’s doing what,” Gordon enthuses. “If it’s a little booze cruise, the stews need make sure all the drinks are on board and that the yacht interior looks pretty nice and warm and fuzzy. My engineer has to make sure everything’s operating and working, and then the guys on deck make sure that everything’s taken care of on the exterior.

“Then with me, it’s communicating back and forth with the family or the charter guests as to where they want to go or what they want to do, and then communicating that to my crew. And when it gets busy and the days get long, with the crew potentially on call, I try to balance everything by making sure everyone is getting breaks, and offsetting the crews’ functions so that there’s always someone up with the guests and always someone getting some rest to be able to relieve whoever’s on duty.

“People ask me that the best part of my job as captain is outside being able to utilise my skill of navigation and operation of the yacht,” she concludes, “and my favourite part of the job is also the most difficult part – and that’s the crew. I love them to death. My current boat is a happy, fun, loving, playful, hard-working professional boat, but it’s taken a long time to put that together. If you work at it as a captain and you put the time in and invest in finding and mentoring, you can create that.”

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