CLIMBING THE LADDER
The transition from cockpit to helm comes with tremendous responsibility
The transition from cockpit to helm comes with tremendous responsibility
By Capt. Jen Copeland
Most of us dream about running our own boat one day. It’s in a fisherman’s DNA, and there isn’t a deckhand alive who hasn’t at least once thought they could do a better job than the skipper on the bridge. But making the transition to the helm isn’t for the faint of heart.
With the title of captain comes a whole new set of challenges, and most of those are never seen or shared with the crew. Going from a neck-down, mostly physical position as a deckhand to a neck-up job that requires expending mental energy isn’t easy. Instead of taking direction, you are giving it. Not only are captains responsible for a very expensive boat and all its maintenance and repairs — preventive, emergency and otherwise — they are also responsible for the lives of everyone on board. And unless you are a fish whisperer, go ahead and pile fish-finding on the skipper’s plate as well.
The captain is essentially an asset manager. They must possess the meticulous organization skills required to run a flawless program, and not only from a paperwork, licensing and documentation standpoint. Captains are usually expected to handle the travel arrangements, cruising permits, food, drinks, bait and any other purchase that goes along with keeping the program running, whether it is charter, corporate or private. It can become overwhelming.
PLAN FOR YOUR GOALS
When I started fishing in the Florida Keys 16 years ago, I didn’t really have a plan. I had my license and knew I wanted to run a sport-fishing boat for a living, but wasn’t sure how to get there. I tried to get a job in Palm Beach, but at the time, female fishheads were almost unheard of, and I got shot down plenty of times. So, with the help of some good contacts, a few more hidden tears and a move to a smaller, more tightknit community, I started out where many others also begin their careers: on the charter docks.
Making a plan is an important step. How exactly are you going to get there? The sport-fishing business is like every other: You start at the entry level, and move up. This can mean washing the boat or helping the crew with bait rigging and maintenance. By showing you are eager and hungry to learn, drive can easily overpower lack of experience, but you must dig in, work hard and never, ever complain.
HAVE A TIMELINE
In almost every job interview, we are asked, “Where do you want to be in five years, or in 10?” The reason: Potential employers want to see if you are a goal-oriented individual. Without having a timeline for advancement, at least in your own head, you show a lack of drive and interest in advancement. And no captain wants to spend their valuable time and energy on someone who has no interest in absorbing their knowledge.
From a captain’s perspective, we want to be sure the deckhands we hire know enough to do what is expected with little to no supervision. Anyone can be taught how to fish — it’s not brain surgery — but it is very time consuming when you are faced with training yet another newbie. I have trained a few charter-turned-private deckhands over the years, and I can say it’s daunting when you invest significant time with someone who then moves on and you’re faced with starting from scratch once again.
For captains with many years at the helm of the same operation, there is always the thought of retirement. This is a hard job: It’s challenging on the mind, and physically demanding on the body. Seasoned captains are constantly sizing up their deckhands: Is he a good candidate for my replacement? And while we are passionate and possessive about our boats, most longtime captains feel it is their responsibility to bring up, train and then confidently suggest
SHOWING YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE ON A DAILY BASIS WILL ALLOW YOUR CAPTAIN TO OPEN UP TO YOU, SHARE INFORMATION AND ULTIMATELY ALLOW YOU SOME WHEEL TIME — EITHER TO DRIVE ON FISH OR DOCK THE BOAT.
their deckhand as a replacement when the time comes to retire or move on to another position.
INCREASE YOUR KNOWLEDGE
Coming to the fishing business with a captain’s license in hand does not automatically advance you to the bridge. Running a sport-fishing boat requires a whole new set of skills, and you always learn best when starting at the bottom.
Whenever you are able, ride along with another team on the bridge. As hard as it might be to stay out of the cockpit and away from the action, focus instead on why you started fishing in the first place. I sometimes have this dilemma myself. I know that riding along with a different boat always advances my own knowledge because I truly believe you should learn something new every single time you
go out. Simple observation is one of the best ways to gain knowledge.
Watching the way different captains drive on fish, sit on an edge or work a seamount can drastically improve your own skills. By working for different people, you take the best of each of them and create your own unique style along the way. While many fishing techniques and skills are handed down through generations of crews, there will always be one or two things you do differently from your predecessors, and chances are that you learned this strategy through someone outside your circle. Whenever possible, step out of your comfort zone.
VOLUNTEER TO LEARN
In the early years of a deckhand’s career, the main goal is to actually get on a boat. And unless you grew up in the business, this part is up to you. We put ourselves in a position to be seen, and then in a position to actually get paid to fish. It is very humbling to stand at the dock throwing the lines to the deckhand in the cockpit and wishing you were him, going fishing for the day. This is often our first lesson in humility.
Your eagerness to wash a boat for free, simply hoping for an invitation, only shows your commitment to the game. Rarely does a new mate get a job because he has no experience, especially when the success of a charter could depend entirely on one gaff shot. Most of us started out washing boats, riding for free and spending countless hours tying a Bimini twist over and over until we can do it in our sleep. If you thought that was hard work, you haven’t seen anything yet.
At this point, you are switching focus from the chores of the cockpit to the captain’s duties. Without being prompted, volunteer to do things the captain normally does, such as an engine room check, for example. If you report a detailed account of your findings to the captain, he will be more likely to answer any questions you might have because he sees you have an interest in learning.
Instead of napping on the ride home, ask if you can drive the boat in. In this pseudoskipper scenario, you will get a feel for what it is like to be truly responsible for the boat. Not only are you observing at another level the importance of accurate navigation, you are also presented with an opportunity to learn the boat,
giving you a better understanding of your vessel’s performance and quirks.
Showing you are responsible on a daily basis will allow your captain to open up to you, share information and ultimately allow you some wheel time — either to drive on fish or dock the boat. Being a professional fisherman is about loving all aspects of the job. Wanting to learn without the expectation of payment is a signal to others that you genuinely want to succeed, and that you are interested in continuing your education on the water. Find a captain who is willing to take you with him and let you watch. To become a captain, you must be able to take all your education and apply it without doubt.
INVESTIGATE THE REQUIREMENTS
Experience is required to understand the job’s real scope, and just having a captain’s license in no way means you have the know-how to run a boat. It does mean you know, or should know, the rudimentary basics: the rules of the road, paper-chart navigation and general deck knowledge.
Insurance companies often give boat owners who employ licensed captains premium discounts, so chances are, if you are to be considered for a driving job, you’ll need to obtain your ticket. And it’s mandatory for charter operations.
If you want to move up, you must show an interest. Be interested in what your captain is
doing on the bridge. Have the initiative to learn. You might be Supermate on your own, but without the guidance of a good captain, you’re left to figure it out on your own. Don’t be greedy, and don’t think you can’t learn because you aren’t getting paid. Some of my best learning experiences are those that resulted in no pay.
Be careful what you wish for. It might seem like the best job in the world, until it’s yours. Just because you are now the commander doesn’t mean you have the right to stop learning. Technology and practices change very rapidly in this business, and failure to keep up with the times will soon have you off your 70-foot custom boat and back in line at the charter dock. Hard work will always pay off, no matter the industry, so the more you can learn, the better off you will be.
Some people are meant to be captains, and some are better off as deckhands. Professional skippers wear a lot of hats, and fishing is the easy part. From managing the crew and the maintenance schedule to overseeing the boat’s budget and travel schedule, responsibility is a very important component in this process. Without the ability to perform these tasks, you will soon find yourself in over your head and back at the square end of the boat.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Capt. Jen Copeland is a 20-year marineindustry professional who enjoys telling a good story, especially about big-game fishing. She currently runs the Viking 50
Three C’s in North Key Largo, Florida.
DON’T BE GREEDY, AND DON’T THINK YOU CAN’T LEARN BECAUSE YOU AREN’T GETTING PAID. SOME OF MY BEST LEARNING EXPERIENCES ARE THOSE THAT RESULTED IN NO PAY.
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