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captain and crew talking at dock

After talking to owners and captains about the best way to ask for a raise, we came away with this startling conclusion: most captains rely on their boss’s goodwill to provide cost of living and merit raises even though such raises usually are negotiated upfront in the business world. Considering the majority of big game captains today manage hard assets costing well over a million dollars we think being a licensed sportfishing captain should be considered a professional occupation. Yet few captains and owners see the owner-crew relationship quite that way. Let me paint you a picture and see if it fits. You’ve been working on the boat for six years, spending five months out of 12 traveling and fishing tournaments from New Jersey to Mexico.  The boss, well, he seems happy enough.  In the past five years he’s won about $200,000 tournament fishing, which to his credit, he shared with the crew.  But what he hasn’t done is offer a raise. Sure, the tournament money could be considered a bonus and no doubt that’s what the boss is thinking.  But raises are about a job well done. Wouldn’t it be nice to get that feedback along with incremental salary increases? Since he has had several high profile, big money tournament wins in the five-plus years he’s been associated with his current owner, Captain X, as we will call him, pretty much fits the above scenario. I work for a good guy but because we were in a situation where I did share in tournament winnings, I didn’t get a raise for three years, not until I said something. When I was hired, my boss was one of two partners in the boat. When they split he took sole ownership and the scenario changed from us doing strictly fishing tournaments to more fun fishing with clients and his family and the occasional tournament. Because the potential for my earning extra money fishing the tournaments changed, I did ask for another raise and he agreed. While Captain X is grateful his boss agreed, it bothered me to have to ask. I’ve worked on the boat six years.  The 19-year-veteran said some owners, he thinks, do take advantage of their crews. I think they assume that because we love what we do, the job is fun and games and not a serious profession. But if my boss had an employee in his business who worked 12-hours days for months at a time while he was away from home, don’t you think that guy would get a raise. With more than 35 years in the business, Capt. Billy Borer has always received regular pay increases without having to ask, he said. Working for the late Jim Edmiston on the El Zorro he did have one instance where he renegotiated his pay. I was hired as the sportfishing captain but after a few months I was also running the mother ship operation so I asked to renegotiate my salary.  After that, Jim was good about jumping me up every year and a half or two but that was more his call than mine, which has been true of the jobs (all of which have lasted five years or more) I’ve had since. Then there is the question of what do you do when you are at the top tier of the profession and raises don’t come often, or at all.

Owners of course, have a little different take on the subject.

I try to do right by my crew, said M. Brooks Smith, owner of the 60-foot Bayliss, Uno Mas. I not only pay them well, I feed and travel them and pay for their phones and health insurance and I make sure they get their fair share of any prize money we win in tournaments, he adds. Recently, I gave them 100 percent of the prize money we won without me taking out what it cost to fish the tournament and enter the Calcutta. That was my way of giving them a bonus, telling them they did a great job. Tournaments are a way for them to supplement their income, says Smith. Good crews often will double down their salary with tournament winnings, he said. Then there are the intangibles. Recently one of our crew had a death in his family and I paid for him to fly back to Florida to attend the funeral.  In the meantime I had to hire a fill-in man to fish the tournament. This was something I offered to do at no loss of pay to him because I don’t see our relationship as employer and employee. With the closeness of the quarters we share when I’m aboard and the teamwork that goes into catching billfish, it’s almost like an extended family which I guess is why I took my time hiring a captain. You have to find the right people to share your passion and free time with. To Smith a bigger issue that annual pay raises should be captains negotiating a severance package should the owner sells the boat. Currently, that’s something you only see happening with better owners. Frankly, I don’t like it when my captain or crew comes to me asking for a raise, said Adrien Stella. The real estate developer whose 68-foot F&S Magic Touch is based at Club Nautico de San Juan in Puerto Rico, said crew salaries there are somewhat standardized by boat size and the captain’s experience. Stella has a different way of handling merit raises. The way I work is like this. When I hire a captain and crew, I lay it out for them. They know the first six months is a trial period.  After that they are hired at a certain base salary. After two years, if I am happy with their work, they will get a year-end bonus based on their performance. In addition, if they are doing a lot of traveling and having to spend time away from home, I reward them accordingly. I also give my crews 20 percent of any tournament winnings. I have a similar type arrangement with the employees in my business, he adds, where the bonus system is based on performance. To me, it’s a win-win for both of us. The crew has an incentive to work hard because they know there will be a generous reward and I get the best possible service.  He also provides health care and cost of living raises yet over time, he said, salaries can only go so high.  After that, it’s all about the bonuses. With our program, we do a little bit of everything from entertaining clients on the boat to fun fishing with the family and hardcore tournament fishing. Trees don’t grow in the clouds, said Smith. Just like in business, there is a ceiling.  I can see an argument for cost of living raises, he said, especially for crews that aren’t fishing and winning tournament money. Smith said while he doesn’t currently have a plan in place for such raises, we are building a 76-foot Bayliss that should be ready in a year or so. Because my guys salaries are based on the size and type of the boat, that should take care of the question of them getting a good raise next year.

How often should you see a pay raise?

Asked how often is often enough for a raise, most of captains we talked to suggested two years as good rule of thumb. Hawaiian sportfishing captain Jared Dow started out in the charter boat industry in Kona, where most mates work for a day rate that’s pretty well set in stone, he said. Even captain’s salaries are pretty much standard, he adds.  Several years ago he relocated to Florida to get some Atlantic fishing experience and to work on bigger boats. I’ve had three jobs since I’ve been here, my latest being a one and a half year assignment on the Sierra Hotel, a 63-foot sportfisherman owned by F-15 Top Gun pilot and motivational speaker Jim Murphy. Although he is satisfied with his present salary, Dow says after two years he will ask for a raise if one is not offered. The way I see it is the first year is kind of a trial period for the captain and mate and for the owner too. We are all getting used to one another and as a captain, I’m learning the ropes. But after two years if you’re doing a good job, the captain deserves a raise. Depending on what they have been earning compared to other crews on comparable size boats, the raise might even be a substantial raise, he adds. After that, I would think less substantial cost of living raises would be fair on an annual basis, he adds.

Negotiating Regular Raises

Most say they have never negotiated pay or cost of living raises as part of their employment package, however a second Florida-based captain who we’ll call Captain Y, who runs a 68-foot custom sportfisher, said he did successfully negotiate pay raises on his previous assignment.  After a few years of being on that boat, I sat down with my boss and told him I had a three-year plan that outlined my salary goals at the end of that time. I had a written presentation I gave him that justified my salary goals and that resulted in my getting annual raises thereafter. Granted you can reach a ceiling where you aren’t getting 20 or 30 percent raises, but if you are doing a good job and going beyond the call of duty, most owners are going to provide at least cost of living raises. Similarly, Captain X says although he’s currently is in a situation where he has to hope his boss gives him a raise, since he did not discuss cost of living raises going in, the next time I start a new job I will negotiate a  raise schedule.  Asked how that might work, he said, If you have worked for someone two or more years, I think you should get annual raises.

Laying the Groundwork

Capt. Y says his current boss of five years has been giving him annual bonuses which he attributes to the written updates he sends. It’s not as self-serving as it seems. My boss appreciates me keeping him informed of what’s going on with the boat. My quarterly report includes a list of the jobs we need to do on the boat with an explanation of what jobs my mate and I will do and which ones we need outside services to do. I also provide monthly expense reports. My last job lasted 15 years, which I attribute to the trust and appreciation my boss had for what I do on the boat. While I don’t keep records about how or what I do on the boat nor how much money I’m saving the boss doing stuff on the boat, I do keep a maintenance log with notations on who performs the work, what it cost and I also keep a boat calendar of our travel, said Billy Borer. Yet for captains who don’t get regular pay raises, I can see that keeping a log and sending the boss quarterly reports that includes time you spend traveling, is important.  Bottom line, being away from home is a lot more demanding than staying in one place and fishing all the time. And that should be reflected in your salary, he adds.

To Evaluate or Not?

Most captains and owners say they do not do evaluations, however Capt. Jared Dow says his boss did sit down and do a person to person evaluation of his work after their first year together that he found very beneficial. He talked about what he liked about my work and what he thought needed some improvement.  For me, it was good to know what he was thinking. Another thing his boss does that he finds helpful are morning briefings. It comes from his military background. We talk about what we’re going to be doing every morning before we go fishing, what everyone’s job is so there is no second-guessing. I’m gonna do this on every boat I work on.