A person who came into yachting 25 years ago entered a world where iPhones didn’t exist yet, boats didn’t have WIFI, and Mark Zuckerberg was still in primary school. This group has adapted to technology (some better than others!), but they also remember when you used paper maps in the car and if you couldn’t meet your friend at the movies…there was no way of letting them know.
A person joining yachting now is using artificial intelligence to write their resumes and applying filters on their profile pics. They pay for things with their watch, they’ve been asking Google Maps for directions for as long as they can remember, and they’re so reliant on tech that if you asked them if they’d like their phone implanted into their brain as a chip, they’d probably say yes. (Ok, maybe not?)
Things are changing at a meteoric speed. Just a few years ago, the older gen on yachts was bewailing the constant need for young crew to be on their phones. That now feels like pretty simple, easily surmountable stuff.
Now it’s starting to feel as if we’re occupying different eras.
If it’s not handled right, a yacht’s crew mess could become a bit of a battleground — a place where only two decades separate the reader of the broadsheet newspaper and the consumer of the Tik Tok reel, and the two interact with the world in very different ways.
So, how do you create crew harmony when the average yacht crew are now a lively mix of Boomer, Gen X, Millennial, and Gen Z?
With delicacy and an open mind, this is the answer.
Letting crew use headphones to listen to podcasts or audiobooks while they clean is not just something to be tolerated but, when appropriate, to be welcomed. Crew conflict intensifies when crew are bored, and ‘hands-busy, mind-free’ tasks like detailing and polishing are the perfect breeding ground for deckies or stews ‘stewing’ over insults or grievances.
Crew learning things and staying connected to the world while they work gives them a valuable distraction and new things to talk about with the crew, bringing fresh information and interest into the crew mess.
So, let them have their earbuds — but be clear that they must always be contactable and cannot use them with guests onboard.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t let your crew carry their phones on them or say they can never look at them during work hours. That battle is long-lost. (And you’ve probably lost it if you’re honest with yourself.) However, forbidding Gen Z and Millennials from carrying phones will make them resent you. They rely on them to do helpful work occasionally — like looking up new napkin folds and the weather.
What we’re talking about here is social media, and you’ll need to be crystal clear (borderline militant) about the rules when it comes to posting photos of the yacht and guests or tagging yacht locations. Also, make your own rules about whether crew are allowed to carry phones on them with guests onboard — or leave them somewhere accessible, like the pantry or bridge, for occasional checks.
Sure, you’ll catch them looking at nonsense and wasting time here and there, but it’s up to you to decide where that line is and what the punishment should be. Don’t get yourself into a fizz every time you see someone scrolling on their phone, or the final decades of your yachting career will be painful.
Your 22-year-old newbie will almost certainly roll their eyes at the older crew’s texting style and ‘old fashioned ways’, while the more senior crew might find Gen Z’s tech obsession and (stereotypical) need for praise a bit tiring.
It’s the captain’s/ department head’s role to bring out what’s great in both groups. A good way to do this is to draw out stories of times when the older crew member has excelled in things that a young person can’t help but admire — being in a big storm, averting some disaster onboard or unique places they’ve seen, famous people that they’ve worked for. Storytelling is a fundamental way of establishing credibility and respect.
As for the younger crew member, it’s important to praise what they’re good at —even if (especially if!) it’s something you’re not good at or don’t value very much, like their incredible tech savviness. Lean into it and let them talk to you about it. Let them show you that reel on TikTok, and try to approach it with an open mind. No one likes to be shut down about the things they enjoy. So when they do well at something or make your life easier, let them and everybody else know.
If you see tension forming between the generations, get out in front of it and address it. Call a crew meeting and discuss how you need them to work together and show respect. Ask if anyone would like to learn something new and encourage skills-sharing.
Organise crew days out - even better if you can bond your crew by ‘competing’ with another yacht, like in paintballing or a sporting game. Above all, lead by example. If you show that you respect your crew — young and more senior —they will naturally respect you more.
There’s no question that crew messes used to be chattier places. Before phones, streaming, and everyone having access to the yacht’s AV library in their cabins, crew were forced to sit together and talk at mealtimes, all watch the same show, chosen by the watch person (as is good and right). The shared culture made for more shared jokes and a shared language of silly movie and TV quotes that marked that place in time.
But as much as that sounds lovely and often was, the truth is that crew messes also used to have more tension —and not just because everyone was being forced to watch something on TV they didn’t necessarily like!
Maybe people will last longer and be happier in their yachting career purely by having more choice of how they spend their time, by being able to watch their shows in their cabins, by concentrating on their phones rather than getting annoyed by conversations and pulled into the daily drama, by being able to chat regularly over WhatsApp and Messenger with family and friends — thereby keeping their network strong with the broader world.
We can’t turn back time; in many ways, yacht crew are more stable by being better connected to the world by technology rather than being isolated with just the people they live and work with.
Would we actually want to go back to when the only way to wish our brother a happy birthday was to spend $5 USD a minute to use the satellite phone? Or when we had to wait until the captain sent out the week’s emails banked up in the Outlook outbox? Would we all really give up our phones to go back to the chatting and watching-a-box-set-altogether-in-the-crew-mess days?
Well, maybe some of us think we’d like to. But those days are gone.
Sure, we’ve lost. But we’ve also gained. And the opportunities and enthusiasms of the younger generations in yachting are the future. It’s about harnessing those opportunities and leaning into the change that will keep coming while respecting and retaining the skills of the older crew.
The only constant is change. And hey, in a few short years, the Generation Alphas will start trickling into yachting —and by then, the Millennials will be the grey-haired grumps bemoaning the ways of the kids of today. Terrifying, isn’t it?
Enjoy the ride.