Justin Ratcliff interviews with captain Robin Beretta
Robin is the captain of 60 meter Swan launched originally in 2011 as Diana. I’m gonna ask Robin a few questions about his experience as a captain both now and before. I believe you start sailing, as most captains do, in sailing boats. Do you remember your first professional roe on a yacht?
First of all, thank you for inviting me. My name is Roberto Beretta as Justin said, I’m very honoured to be here. To answer your question, my first profession was actually a passion. I was an instructor on sailing yacht, and that was my first experience on the other side.
I was born in Milan that is not close to the sea, I remember my parents taking me to the seaside for the vacation on holidays and my first request was always to go to the port and see the boat going out. I was dreaming of magical adventures that this people would have.
Years later I started working in the corporate business as sales & marketing manager, dedicating all my time to teaching and going around with charter yachts, sailing charters. At one point I decided to follow my passion for the sea and sailing and I opened my own charter company and sailing school. After five years I was offered to become a captain on a yacht. I accepted and now I’m here.
So now you are a rich captain?
Ahm… No, I’m a captain.
You mentioned that before Swan you were Paolo Vitelli’s captain. Did that give you any insight on the Azimut|Benetti Group? What was it like being mr Vitelli captain?
I have to say Mr. Paolo Vitelli is a great person. I’m saying this because I mean it. The fact that I was selected to be his captain was for sure an honour but it wasn’t that easy because he is not the kind of owner you can tell him whatever, he knows a lot more than me about yachts so to go around with him it’s always a learning experience. And what I learned from being his captain was the possibility to discover his passion: he has a tremendous passion for yachts and I think this is also a brand value of Azimut|Benetti in general. He managed to spread it trough the company. I was also lucky to be involved in technical meetings in to the Company, in different departments, just to say my opinion as a captain and it was very fruitful for me because I learned a lot; it exposed me to many experience I that I would have never had the possibility to be part of if I wasn’t with him.
At a certain point Vitelli offered you a job on land, didn’t he, but you turned it down. You decided to go back to sea, why was that?
Again, I do this job because I love it, I have a passion for sea, for sailing yacht, for sea in general. I’ve been working in the corporate business before, I was a manager – a well paid manager – I left it to go to sea, so when he offered me to go working in the Company I knew what working in a Company meant. I’d rather work on a yacht. That’s it. That was a personal choice and although there are pros and cons in every choice, you have to decide in the end.
You mentioned you come from a corporate background, and you actually have two degrees: one in marketing and communications, one in public relations, which I imagine is fairly unusual for a yacht captain. How has that helped you in your job, especially when it comes to charter.
I think we all, as human beings, we are a puzzles, and that puzzle includes all the activities, all the trainings and all the experience that we have. Having studied, having gone to the university, even being here today, is part of the puzzle. The fact that I have a degree in communication is just … I like training, I like studying, I like improving myself, I like challenging myself and I think this is always useful. When you know something you can always use it. On a charter you are confronted with very different people, with different nationalities and different backgrounds. You have to understand and try to get a connections with them, try to be able to talk with them on a proper way, try to be on the level they want you to be, and of course my careers (not only the university degree but also my corporate career) helped me a lot in that because you understand how to deal with people.
The Swan has been a very successful charter yacht and of course a very trained crew is the key to this success. You mentioned me you have your own training scheme for new crew. Can you just talk us through that scheme, what does it consist of?
Basically when you do charter on a yacht is like being on a stage: you have to do your performance. We have 165 hours of training to get prepared to charter season; we have developed this year a program that consist in 165/180 hours of training to get ready for charters. This includes the welcome, how you welcome the guest on board, how do you prepare crews, how do you do several services, the etiquette, the way you communicate, but also the peculiar things of the boat. We have a big slide, we have many toys, everybody should be trained on where everything is, how to use it and when to use it. We really train people on every single aspect that we have on board, that we have to face. We have operating procedures that we have to learn for every single activity. Every crew member should know what is his role on any time of the day, and in any specific activity. And that is what takes time. We usually spend 3 days at sea to test on board equipment so that every crew knows where things are, how they work, etc… without having to wake up somebody who’s on a different shift because he’s the only one who knows where things are.
How many crew do you have on Swan? Full crew?
Full crew we have 15.
165 hours are long time. And of course every new crew have to get to know the specific of that particular yacht. But the fact that you have your own training scheme, does that suggest that the professional crew that come to you are perhaps not sufficiently trained in the first place?
The training we have all received is probably concentrated on other aspects, that are mainly safety. We all go through the IMO and STCW courses but those are not courses that allows you to be ready for charters because, remember, when somebody is coming on board and he spends 400.000, 500.000, 600.000 or whatever dollars per week to be on a yacht, he of course deserves to be treated with not only 5 stars, he deserves 7 stars service standards. So I want all my crew to be able, and I use all the means I have to have them available to deliver this kind of service because this is what we have to do.
Just out of interest, show of hands, does any other captains in the audience feel the same shortcomings with regard the preparedness of crew for charters? Show hands … one. Ok, that’s good, so everybody else is perfectly happy. Does any one else have his own a training scheme like Robbie?
[audience: yes] 1, 2, 3, a few.
[random captain in the audience saying that not all the owners will make money and time available for 150 hours of training, although it would be useful]
Is it true, you are privileged with respect to your owner that allows you the time to train your crew?
You need to find the time for everything; part of the training could be just about running the tenders. We have 2 tenders: a chaise tender and a normal tender for guests and I want everybody to have driven the tender and have done extractions of the tender; every single deck hander officer will be driving the tender. So we need to find this time one way or the other, because I don’t want any crew members to improvise on how to do any activity when we have charter guests, because that will reflect on the yacht, on the crew itself, on me, on the owner and it will reflect on the satisfaction the guests will have at the end of the cruise. It goes with doing the drills; we do the drills every month and this is part of the drills, is part of the mandatory drills. It is our training: be ready for any guest on board, it’s what we are paid for.
Talking about owners and guests, there has been a lot of talk that owners and guests are getting younger; they are taking about millennial generation. Have you seen any change in the profile of charter guests, what they want to do on charters, where they wanna go?
What I see is that every single charter guest is different from the previous one, and our task, our job is to make sure that as fast as we can we create a rapport, we understand what they want and we anticipate the needs, being proactive, even for the needs they don’t express. We need to be able to get into their minds and deliver what they wish to be delivered. Honestly I don’t see categories, I try not to, I see people that are there to enjoy their time, and we try our best to give what they want.
There is another things... a captain recently was complaining with the management companies, saying he wasn't sufficiently informed of charter guest preferences before the cruise. So he had to work it out himself on the spot. Is that something you come across?
The preparation of a charter is a key factor, for example what we try to do is to prepare itinerary with the guests, if possible. Sometimes we have 2 versions ready. Charter preferences sometimes are prepared by the PA or somebody else, and could happen that when guests come on board they don’t want actually the Dom Pérignon they asked for, they want something else. So you have to be ready, you have to be flexible. Another thing that is very important is that you need to be smiling, all the time. You know better than me. Sometimes the charter preferences are not correct or sometimes they are not sufficiently detailed for you to be ready; that means you have to be even more prepared.
I want to go back to crew. Swan has been in the Caribbean for a couple of years. You have a reduced crew onboard at the moment? How has the crew been used in this years? Has the owner been on board, has there been charter, and how do you keep your crew motivated when the boat is on board for a long time?
At the moment, as I said, we are 15 when we have charter, normally we are 5 on board, and you always have things, repairmen, that needs to be done. The way to keep people motivated… is way more difficult to have people motivated when you don’t have a charter coming up, but we try to create our own objectives. We prepare our own lists, we share the objectives, we communicate among each other and we decide strategies. Not only we share the tactics but we also share the strategies with the crew and we try to use every occasion to create objectives for us. For example, we did the 20 march last year an event onboard with 177 people and we were 4 crew to prepare it. We have done it, it was fun, it was good, everything went perfect, it just took long time to prepare it because we were just 4.
So the event has been in port?
Has the boat been out? Did the owner use the boat?
No, he hasn’t.
You have been to quite a few Yachtmasters, I think we met in Marrakesh or Campiglio 2010. How does it help you as a captain?
It’s a good opportunity to understand what’s new. This morning I already saw some interesting things. What’s going on, what’s the news, to get some technical details of any new trend in the industry – specially for Benetti. I have been with Benetti since 2008, but still I don’t know everything and also it’s an opportunity to see some old friends. Is very important that we all can take something, we can learn something that again create the puzzle that we are.
You mentioned working with dr Vitelli, you had the opportunity to make a contribution to discussion. We touched the subject before, do you still have the opportunity to talk to the Benetti technical office? Or are you listened to if you say can I contribute?
Yes, many times I had this opportunity and I appreciate that most of the time they ask me questions I don’t know how to answer because they are too technical. But anyway, yes, that’s important to have this kind of relationship that you get something, you give something and we both learn and improve.
One of the workshops this afternoon and tomorrow is about handling the media relation, ensuring owner and guest privacy, is that something you have come across in your experience as a captain? where there unwelcome media attentions?
No, about media, no. I have to say I never had this chance or opportunity, but that’s good. But anyway, what we try, and part of our training is how to answer questions. We always have attentions from crowd and the crew is instructed on what to say, what not to say.
Going back to charter, something that seems to be quite common is intollerances towards some food. Is probably easier when you are brought supplies in the Mediterranean, but how you deal with that in places where is not so easy to bring supply, try to find special food?
I have to say I have a very good chef, so I was very well organized. Now we don’t have a chef so…
So who's doing the cooking?
Catering. The last chef I had, when we were still an active charter, was very good. That’s another thing, I’m usually empowering my department, including the chef, to take decisions and to do what they need to do. Of course we share things, we discuss thing but they are in charge of it, they get a salary for it, so be a manager.
What is your favourite cruise destination? I know you have cruised extensively in the Caribean but also been in Asia in the part. What's your favourite crew destination and why.
On a sailing yacht for sure Greece, on a motoryacht I rather prefer the usual places where we go. Monaco, Porto Cervo, this kind of places, and the reason is very simple: is way easier for us with all the logistics. For example, facing this kind of activities and requests, whether is it food or whatever. Few months ago I was asked by somebody ‘Tomorrow is my daughter birthday’ I said ‘yes, we have already prepared everything’ and the answer was ‘what’s everything?’. ‘We have cake, we have some decorations, and many more.’, and he said ‘ you know, captain, I will need for tomorrow morning 8 o’clock a magician, somebody to paint the kids, the whole boat decorated, somebody with fires, a clown and so on’. It was 11 o’clock at night. Of course with a smile I said yes, I tried to do my best and we did it. Why we did it? Because we were in Saint Bart. In Pukhet it would have been a lot more difficult. So that’s why I like to be in this places with this king of guests.
Would you go back to sailing yachts?
I would. Sailing yachts is my passion. Unfortunately a lot of sailing yachts are mega sailing yachts, they do not often use the sails. So where’s the fun? I am a sailor, if I go sailing I want to use the sails. I rather being on a Motoryacht than on a sailing yacht that is actually a motor yacht.
You mentioned the request about the magician. Is that the most bizarre request you have received while on charter. There has been others?
I have had many, this was probably one of the toughest because of the timing. If you want to consider bizarre buying 8.000 € of Crystal just to spray on each other and the next day asking for another 8.000 € to do the same. I asked if they would rather go with the Moscato or a Prosecco, for the use they were going to do.