Kelly Esser

Gemma Fottles interviews the captain Kelly Esser

Kelly, you are the captain of the Cheers 46, which is the very first in Benetti Veloce 140' line which was introduced in 2014. For those who don't know Kelly, tell us something about yourself and your journey into yachting.

My name is Kelly Esser, I’m from Fort Lauderdale, grow up there as a kid. I started in the boating world from the commercial side, as most of us seem to. Especially I started on the dinner boat, working on the Jungle Queen (it’s a tour boat) in Fort Lauderdale, which some people here might know; been there for 17 years. I learned how to drive that boat up and down one of the narrowest waterway in the world, learning how to deal with people face to face every day, work as a commenter on board the boat, got to do the maintenance on the boat. All through high school I worked on this boat. I started high school a little late in late in life so I was 18 in the middle of high school and I was able to get my first licence working on board the boat. Became a captain, moved on from there to a truck boat company in Fort Lauderdale. Probably 90% of Benetti comes out of Ft Lauderdale. Definitively paid my first mortgage payment working up and down the river, working hard, still in high school. From there I moved on to a private yacht with an owner that I worked for 15 years; he got out of yachting just halfway through but decided to keep me with him, he didn’t wanna lose me, when finally we went on a conversation about reality and he said he was never gonna buy another boat. So I moved on to big yacht which we have today. Worked my way through a bunch of different size vessels, ended up with the family I work for now, they have had 4 Azimut|Benetti products over the last six years, starting from a 60′ to a 100′, to a 116′ which I ran, then we built the 140′. It was quite an experience moving into the larger yacht world, as you climb up the ladder. Like other captains who share my working experience, we didn’t go to college, we didn’t go to a formal academy or had a formal training, we learned from the bottom up. Lot of us have worked their way in their life and I see today in lots of the captains I spoke to in the industry that is definitively not an education that you get on a book or in school. Today unfortunately the rule have changed so much that you must go to school to get what we all have made it easier, you know, working up and learning on the job, that’s what I like to say.

In Fort Lauderdale it’s pretty easy, we are one of the yachting capital in the world, it’s kind of a very well kept secret for all the people who lived there so I didn’t know any about yachting until I got on the dinner boat in high school. It’s definitively a wow factor today.

You were closely involved in the build process of Cheers. Was it your first time working with Benetti and how was the whole process?

It was my first time building with Benetti, it was actually my first yacht ever built as a captain and had some saying. Unfortunately I came into the process halfway through the built, because the first captain was let go, and so I kind of got this pile of paper work and explained to me that ‘this is what you are getting’. Finally I got to come to Italy and hang out with the built manager. He took me around and show me what was going on, explained everything from ground up where we were, how far along we were. And after 3 or 4 days my head was spinning, trying to get a grasp on what actually we had incoming; had a lot of complications with the owners, making decisions that weren’t made and was quite interesting trying to figure it all. We got all figure out, we got the boat launch, had a very successful 2 week trip with the owner on board, before we got back to complete the boat. Benetti helped us out, get this trip handled, and I was very grateful for that. They have been nothing but very polite and understanding. Some captains are a little rougher than others and some aren’t, but never had a bad taste in my mouth, the entire time I was building the boat I always went to the shipyard with pleasure. Everyone tried to help, always successful in the conversation we had, trying to figure out the problems we had and I never walked away from the factory going ‘Aw, what just happened!’. It was always ‘oh, good, that’s handled’, you move on to crew issues and had all figure out for the boat. It was quite a rush till the end because the boss wanted the boat and wanted to use it for his birthday, and if you guys don’t understand that, we took the boat, we had 24 hours to load the entire boat with everything that a boat needs on it and went out for 2 weeks. It was unbelievable. The crew from Benetti they supplied us on the dock. We had probably 30 employees doing the train to the boat with every piece of equipment. The crew trying to figure out: ‘Is this going to this cupboard or that cupboard’; we just pushed together and they supplied a very nice captain to help us out … so it was really a good experience in the end that came together so successfully and we do appreciate it.

Talking about crew, yesterday you were in a workshop that focused in getting the most out of your crew. So how do you personally ensure you're getting the most out of your crew and what kind of challenges are you faced on a daily bases?

This is a very good question. I learned a lot from you guys, captains out here. I like to ask you how you do things, maybe I learned something from what I have heard from captain Tom, whom I spoke to yesterday. Is very interesting to hear how everyone handles his own crew. I’ve found that I try to stay back a little bit when my man in the crew are talking, I like to be part of the conversation in the crew quarters  at breakfast, lunch and dinner, I like to help them out as a crew. I’m known as a problem solver so if you have a problem in your life I’ll try to help you out all the time, which keeps the crew confident and ok to talk to me about what’s going on with their life. That’s very important because when the problem starts to arise, whether is with another crew member or their granma sick at home, if something is going on their attention span is totally lost towards the owner. And the owner can pick up on this. I tell people: the owners are like dogs, if you show fear, they are just gonna see it in your eyes, so you have to walk out confidently and be supportive and understanding: But remember they are only here for a week, and whatever it is that is bothering you, you have to make it up and show them a good face, no matter how bad your day is going. We’ll solve your problem at the end of the trip. The crew do respond to that very well, because I’m always there to help them out, they need to run home, granma’s sick or something like that, I never say no, you don’t have enough vacation time. I’ll say to them to go ahead, we’ll figure out later, go book your tickets. Being positive to them all the time is a great feature, it’s a little hard sometimes, you’ve got a lot of negative crew, it’s a little demanding and sometimes you are, like, ‘Why do I put up with this’. But your crew is always smiling when the owners are there and that is the key to the factors: having them pleasant and be responsive to the owners and be happy. Ok, maybe after 2 weeks they are not so happy any more but, I mean, it happens and you try to build the vibe on the boat and keep them excited. One of the things I heard yesterday was this study about never raising your voice to your crew or your colleagues. Try to be cool all the time, it’s hard – don’t get me wrong – I know that there are some captains in this room that would agree with me that they would stand up and scream at a crew member for doing the dumbest things, but it doesn’t get you anywhere. So you talk to him in a normal voice, explain him, use the ‘ I’m disappointed in you ‘ word and it does work every time. And I’m very successful in keeping my crew, the current crew I’m having right now I’ve had most of the for 3 years now and the boat is only 3 years old. So you know, it’s a very successful crew. It is a goal also to keep your crew excited too because it is the same job, it is the same docks, you see the same boring thing, so you gotta keep that vibe alive. Tell you what, I give credit to anyone who has kept his crew for long. (I just heard captain Chlhoub got his crew for 16 years, blown away!) Especially in Ft Lauderdale because new occasions drives by any day in another boat, crews are always ‘Oh, I’ll go work on this boat, make 500 dollars a month more and it’s so much better’, I say ‘Go ahead, but I’ll say I told you so when you’ll get back because you won’t be happy, I promise. I know the captain of this boat, I know how he runs it, it’s not the same’. And I get a lot of that back. I never re-hire any of my crew either, I’m kind of very stingy about, when you leave, that’s fine, it’s meant to be, but just remember how good you had it here, when you needed to go home for vacation or needed an extra day off, you were having that time of the month for the ladies. But being sympathetic to their needs, understand their needs are one thing, letting them kind of overrun of the boat, because they are young and are at a millennial stage, is another thing. So you have to kind of push them back and say: ‘Look guys, this is the way it is, this is the way it’s going to be’ . Definitively think being calm and collective to your crew is one of the most … one of the hardest thing to do, because I want to go home to my own kids too; it would be easier to yell at guys in the boat, but once you do that, then they’ll feel unwanted and they wanna leave. So I think the key to keeping your crew is being positive to them, never putting them down in front of anybody but reinforcing if they have done something wrong at a private stage and just saying: ‘Look, I want to just strive to be better’ and they usually are. But I’m always open to everybody’s comments on how they do it, I’d love to hear the same story over and over again from 20 different captains, just to reassure that I’m doing it correctly and how they do it as well. So it’s not my way or your way, there’s no right way or wrong way, but that’s how I’ve been successful to keep my crew happy and on boar the boat for as long as I’ve had this particular boat.

So, as you've mentioned, you are based in Florida, so can you tell us from a technical or a legal prospective what is it like managing an Italian yacht in the US?

From a technical and legal prospective … One of the toughest thing that we deal on the boat is waiting on parts, is always an issue. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, lots a Companies today don’t stock parts, you ordered it, takes 6 weeks to make it and deliver it. We’re kind getting ahead of the game by ordering parts that we know that fail quite often, like air conditioned, the things you need everyday which can’t wait 6 weeks for, and we put them in stock on our boat just to have them. My hardest part is not speaking Italian, that is one of my obviously downfalls of being American, we don’t learn another language and that’s really a bad thing, I try to teach my kid all time: learn a second language. But luckily for us the after sales warranty ladies in Ft Lauderdale, named Giorgia, she’s fantastic, any time I need a part, any time I need something I can send her a message and she’ll e-mail or call the person in Italian, get the part on order, have it shipped to us. Thank God for her, because I’m not really sure how can you say things in Italian anyway. That is one of the benefit of having the after sales warranty, even if it’s not in warranty she’ll still answers the questions. She answers questions for me on my boss’ Azimut even though she works for Benetti. So it’s a great thing to have her, very helpful there and thank God for that.

Ok, last question. Why are events such as the Yachtmasters beneficial for captains such as yourself and most people in this room?

That’s a good one. I guess the best part about this meetings is the learning, whether you’ll learn from the little individual meetings we have, the workshops, the speed dating. I’ve got to meet other captains and crew members I will most surely meet again some other day and I could say: ‘Hey, I remember you from last time!’. Now everybody knows I have spare parts on my boat, so I’ll be getting phone calls and knocks on my door. I am also learning something new, everyone here has a story, you get to learn something new every time and that little bit of learning, that little bit of knowledge, helps along ways. I get to meet you guys and I bet it will be like: ‘Oh, I’m going to the Caribbean’ ‘We’ll see you down there’. Once in port, please come on, knock on the side of the boat: ‘Hey, can I have a dozen eggs’, we could all help each other. That’s the reality of this. If you knew every captain, your life would be so much easier. ‘Hey, how do you get over there?’ ‘Oh, you just go around this way’ ‘ Perfect!’. I met you at the Benetti Yachtmaster, that’s how we know each other. This is my first one in Italy, I went to the one in Miami last 3 years, the people I’ve met in Miami are all Caribbean/Bahamas based captains, and we chat all the time, we are always bumping into each other now. We probably bumped in each others before but we didn’t know who the other was. This being a family per se, we are all part of the Benetti clique, we all have a Benetti or have driven a Benetti, probably some of us have other boats now, if the owner has changed mind, that’s fine, but we all have that common denominator. We worked on a boat that was built in Italy; that helps us all understand what personal issues you are going through, understanding the problems you are having. I can walk by and see you are not right and say: ‘Hey, do you need something?’ ‘Man, I wish I had this part’ ‘ I actually have that, let me help you out.’. Those little things in life that stuck in the weirdest places; because you meet people, you learn to knock on doors and say ‘Hey, remember me?’ and help out. These events are really good for socialize and educational visits, you get to meet each other, hear each other stories, get to know new product lines. I think I met some people this week in the speed dating that I have never seen before. It’s something to think about over and over again.

Fantastic! So this concludes or interview, thank you very much Kelly.

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