Mariner 101

Training at crew schools is an overlooked current propelling Fort Lauderdale’s status as a leading hub of the yachting industry.

By: 

Mike Seemuth

Published date: 

Nov. 1, 2017

The yachting industry in Fort Lauderdale has gained a reputation for training as well as technical prowess. It is populated by countless companies that sell, store, maintain, renovate and repair yachts. But the industry also has hatched a growing cluster of specialty schools that train people to operate yachts and serve passengers. One is a small school called Professional Yachtmaster Training (PYT), which opened in 2013 at a Harbordale location just east of U.S. 1 along the SE 17th Street Causeway.

“This is the right place for it, plenty of crew around and boats around,” says Tracy Schwegman, who runs PYT with her husband Mark. “We call ourselves a boutique.” She said they previously worked together on yachts before she had their first child. “He was captain, I was chef.”

“There’s a lot of [crew] schools that have opened up in Fort Lauderdale. Several have come in the last couple of years,” says Ted Morley, chief operations officer, Maritime Professional Training, one of the city’s largest crew schools. “Fort Lauderdale has always been the yachting capital of the world. Most of the yacht management companies and crew companies are here. It has gotten bigger and bigger,” he says. “That has brought a lot of competition.”

MPT enrolls about 12,000 students a year who, on average, pay training fees of $800 to $1,000 a week – which is typical of the fees other schools charge, according to Morley. MPT is a diversified school with programs for working not only on yachts but also on tugboats, tankers and other commercial vessels.

“We actually bring that wealth of knowledge to the yacht classes to give them a more complete experience,” Morley says. After all, the world’s largest yachts “are getting bigger and bigger. They’re no longer yachts. They’re small cruise ships, and they’re regulated as commercial vessels.”

Yachts are growing not only in size but also in number, nearly draining the yachting industry’s pool of professionally trained crew – and creating business opportunities in the field of crew training. “Finding competent crew with experience is getting harder,” Morley says, citing “the number of yachts and the size of yachts. Twenty years ago, a 150-foot yacht was a large yacht. Now, 150 feet doesn’t even make the list of the largest yachts. You used to need eight to 10 crew; now you have yachts that have 30 to 40 to 50 crew.”

Like MPT, some crew schools have certified training programs for a variety of yacht work. Others focus on training for a limited range of positions such as captains, chief mates, deckhands, engineers and chief stewards.

Few schools have invested more in technological teaching tools than MPT. In 2015, MPT opened a waterside lifeboat training facility in Dania Beach at a cost of $1.5 million, and last year, the company spent $6 million to install three simulators to train captains in a 25,000-square-foot expansion of its main Fort Lauderdale campus at 1915 S. Andrews Ave.

For many crew positions below captain, less training is required. Every member of a yacht crew is required to have training that meets an international standard known by its acronym, STCW (Standards for Training, Certification and Watchkeeping).

People seeking yacht crew positions through crew placement agencies need STCW training and additional security training, at least, to get work. “Most of the crew agencies won’t even talk to you if you don’t have that minimum level of training,” Morley says.

He says yacht owners typically have high-end interior service requirements, too, so MPT’s curriculum includes “sommelier classes and floral design classes.”

If working on a yacht sounds like a working vacation, think again.

“This is hard work. You get to go to beautiful places, but you’re working your tail off,” says Brian Luke, president of Fort Lauderdale-based Bluewater, which runs a yacht-crew training school, among other yacht-related businesses. Homebodies need not apply. “You might be off to the Mediterranean for four, five, six or seven months,” he says.

Bluewater teaches 4,000 to 5,000 students a year (including students counted at least twice because they enrolled in more than one class). Fees for training programs range from $10,000 for certification as a chief mate, or captain’s assistant, to $1,900 for the STCW certification for entry-level employment on a yacht. Luke says most people who start training to work on yachts don’t advance: “Out of every 20 that start, one year later, five are left in the industry.”

Kristen Cavallini-Soothill is a lifer who never left the yachting industry. She is a former chief stewardess who segued into crew training after working as a yacht charter agent, yacht-crew placement agent, and staff writer at trade publication Yachting Magazine.

“It’s a fascinating career,” says Cavallini-Soothill, who has run her own crew school, called American Yacht Institute, since 2003. When she is not training on the road, she teaches classes weekly at a Fort Lauderdale floral shop called Yacht Flowers, located in a shopping center along the SE 17th Street Causeway east of U.S. 1. A large portion of her work comes from yacht owners who want her to make their dysfunctional crews more effective and efficient.

“I get called to fix crews all the time,” she says. “Somebody named me the ‘Crew Whisperer.’ I was honored.” Much of the curriculum at American Yacht Institute centers on interior service aboard yachts. The school’s website touts its focus on providing students with “a background in old-style formality and finishing-school etiquette.” Cavallini-Soothill says she delivers etiquette training tinged with lessons in conflict avoidance. “I can show you where the fork goes, but you’re also going to have to get along … You can’t get in fights in the middle of the ocean. Who’s going to jump off? Nobody.”