27 June 2024

The life of a
superyacht captain

By Paul Knox-Johnston Sales & Marketing Manager

It’s easy to romanticise the life of a superyacht captain, envisioning a role filled with piloting luxurious yachts to exotic destinations and dropping anchor in picturesque coves. However, the reality of a superyacht captain’s duties is far more intricate and multifaceted.

Behind the glitz and glamour, the role of a superyacht captain is extremely varied and comes with significant responsibilities, akin to those of a CEO of a small company, where the safety and well-being of both the crew and guests rest squarely on their shoulders.

Evolving responsibilities in the superyacht sector

In the past decade, the boundaries of superyacht design have been continually pushed on a build by build basis. Yachts are getting larger, and the technology and equipment on board are becoming increasingly complex. Thirty years ago, the height of luxury on a superyacht might have been a hot tub and perhaps a jet ski. Nowadays, it’s common to find infinity pools, helicopters and even mini submarines. The provision of an impressive “toy cupboard” often sways prospective guests in chartering a particular yacht, helping to meet and surpass their high expectations.

With these advances, the role of the captain has become more complicated. Captains must have at least a working knowledge of everything on board, in addition to their responsibilities for passage planning, navigation, helming, and crew management. They are no longer just the captain of a yacht but the captain of a cutting-edge floating experience, often boasting priceless works of art and antiquities. Rumour has it that Leonardo da Vinci’s £440 million “Salvator Mundi” is installed on the 134m yacht, Serene, adding to the ever-growing list of a captain’s responsibilities.

Running a tight ship

Running these yachts successfully requires dedication and an eye for detail. The old adage of “running a tight ship” still applies today. Realistic procedures and risk assessments must be in place for all activities and equipment onboard to ensure a well-maintained and disciplined yacht, ultimately helping to make it a happy place.

A typical day as a superyacht captain

A captain’s role varies throughout the year depending on whether the yacht is in service during the yachting season or out of service for scheduled maintenance. Despite the administrative and managerial demands, the essence of superyachting lies in creating memorable experiences for yacht owners and charter guests, which is achieved when you have a fully functioning team.  With superyachts getting larger and more complicated, a crew of over 65 is not out of the ordinary.  Making sure that the deck and interior crew are well prepared for the day ahead is a critical part of the job.



A typical day includes:

  • Weather monitoring – Ensuring the safety and well-being of all onboard.
  • Passage planning – Preparing routes and stop offs for memorable guest experiences.
  • Navigating and helming – Managing the yacht’s passage, overseeing navigation, engine performance, and critical services whilst at sea.
  • Communication – Coordinating with shore-based authorities and other key stakeholders, including the owner and management company.
  • Record keeping – Maintaining meticulous records including maintenance and equipment usage, crew hours.
  • Crew management – Overseeing the hiring, training, and daily management of the crew.
  • Health and safety – thankfully, accidents on superyachts are rare. However, when working under pressure, adherence to procedures can often begin to slip in favour of shortcuts.  Ensuring all activities follow their risk assessment and safety protocols is essential for the safety of all onboard.  In addition, emergency procedures such as what to do in the event of a fire, must be well-practiced.
  • Finances – Keep meticulous records of all expenses and financial transactions related to the operation and maintenance of the yacht. An annual budget can run into many multiple millions of pounds so staying on top of it is a must.
  • Regulatory compliance – Regulatory paperwork is an increasingly essential part of the role, requiring a thorough understanding of the legal frameworks in the different locations where the yacht is operating, including maritime regulations, flag state requirements, and industry standards. Get it wrong, and you can find the vessel seized by authorities, and unable to travel on to its next destination.
  • Maintaining the yacht during the season – Ensuring that the yacht and its equipment are always in a seaworthy condition.

It is safe to say that the ocean is far from predictable, and a captain must always be able to handle the unexpected, effectively managing emergencies and crisis situations.  Whether it is as simple as a request from a guest which results in sudden passage changes and the resulting changes to mooring and shore based activities, or an emergency with an imminent threat to life, showing true leadership at times of unforeseen challenges is the difference between a good captain and an excellent captain.

Out of the yachting season, the captain must liaise with the superyacht maintenance and repair yard to effectively plan and deliver all the maintenance requirements of the yacht to ensure it is ready on time for the coming season.  This includes structural, mechanical and decorative work.  It also applies to all equipment on board, such as jet skis and helicopters.

Charter guests

For many yachts, taking paying guests is essential for ongoing affordability. Often, the captain will need to act as the gracious host, welcoming guests onboard, joining them for drinks, and ensuring they are entertained while maintaining full control of the yacht and everybody onboard. With charter costs for some of the larger yachts easily reaching several hundreds of thousands of pounds per week, the guest experience needs to be proportional.  Whilst the yacht may be clean and ready to impress, it is the personal touch that makes the exceptional.  Anticipating guest preferences and maintaining high service standards are vital and the ability to pivot to fulfil a guest’s last-minute requests is considered essential. No request is too large, and the captain and crew must often jump through hoops to ensure that guests expectations are met.  Prescription swimming goggles within the hour, or bagels flown from New York to the Caribbean for breakfast the next morning are all in a days work for the crew.

Working for ultra-high-net-worth individuals

The mega-rich are often demanding employers, and the captain must act as a buffer between the yacht, her crew, and the owner. This requires well-practiced diplomacy. While the owner’s needs and expectations must be met, recent years have seen a greater focus on crew well-being. Managing the crew’s mental health is essential, particularly in the high-pressure environment of a superyacht.

Ultimately, as your boss, you answer to the owner of the yacht, who expects their needs and expectations to be met.  In the past this has often been at the detriment of the crew’s mental wellbeing.  In recent years, a greater focus has been placed on the wellbeing of the crew, and the job of successfully managing welfare has become a vital component of the captain’s role. The effective management of the crew involves not only managing and mentoring crew members, but also being attuned to their mental health needs.  When a yacht owner or charter guest is onboard 24/7 it can become a pressure cooker environment, which makes having a well-functioning, happy team crucial to the successful running of the superyacht.

Becoming a superyacht captain

Becoming a superyacht captain requires a combination of qualifications, extensive maritime experience, and certain personal attributes. This experience is often gained from working your way up the career ladder onboard superyachts, coupled with obtaining all the necessary training and certification along the way.  The superyacht world is a relatively small, tight-knit community where your reputation will often proceed you, and may be key to getting your next role.

Many superyacht captains have pivoted from a long career in the navy into the world of luxury hospitality. It is quite a step change, although the basics of being responsible for the wellbeing of the guests and crew and overall management of a very expensive piece of equipment remain the same.

To become a captain, a licence from a recognised authority such as the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) is required, and will vary depending on the size of the Yacht.  For example, to command yachts up to 500gt/3000gt commercially, you’ll need a Master (yachts less than 500gt/3000gt) Certificate of Competency.  Depending on the equipment you have onboard, additional accredited training would need to be undertaken, such as the MCA’s Large Yacht Helideck Training in order to obtain the knowledge and skills to operate helicopters onboard yachts safely and efficiently.  You may also choose to specialise in a particular area of superyachts, such as sail, motor or explorer, where specialised training courses for these yachts is advantageous.

While the life of a superyacht captain may seem glamorous, it is a role that requires significant responsibility, expertise, and dedication. The ability to lead effectively, manage complex operations, and provide exceptional experiences for guests is what defines the excellence of a superyacht captain.

Related News