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Megayachts, Super Crews

It's 3 a.m., and you wake with a start, suddenly in the throes of a real-life nightmare. A fire has erupted in the galley of your new 150-footer and you've got your entire family onboard for what should've been a relaxing respite in the Med.

What happens next? Who fights the flames and who administers any necessary first aid? Well, if your crew has studied at the Flagship Superyacht Academy you can rest assured that you're in good hands. The Flagship graduates onboard your vessel know, with real certainty, what their roles are in exactly this type of emergency situation.

The Flagship Superyacht Academy (FSYA) is a UK-based training program born out of a larger partnership between VT Flagship, a support and training services company, and the British Royal Navy. Since 1996, Flagship has helped the Royal Navy design and implement a broad range of education programs. Then in 2007, VT Flagship announced it was opening the FSYA, a superyacht personnel training school that would benefit from access to many of the Navy's training facilities. Managing director Sir Tim McClement told me, "We saw that the superyacht industry was expanding and felt the opportunity to help captains train their own crews in safety and hospitality."

The stated aim of the FSYA is deceptively simple: To provide the highest-quality crew to the world's most prestigious yachts. Most courses, which are available to both individuals and larger crews, are held at the academy's five main branches in Southern England, though many are also conducted onboard private yachts. Basic offerings range from high-voltage current awareness to global maritime distress certification, and most classes are three to eight days long.

All FSYA instructors have extensive experience in the maritime sector. McClement, for example, spent some 35 years in the Royal Navy, during which time he held several senior posts. He also mentioned one FSYA instructor who regularly trains students in hospitality and who certainly knows what he's doing: He once served the Queen of England.

It seems that all FSYA instructors also share McClement's self-proclaimed "passion for training." Indeed, I spoke with Benetti Yachts aftersales services manager, Alessandro Gallifuoco—one of five members from the company who recently completed a demanding FSYA course. Though Gallifuoco extolled the many virtues of the FSYA program, he said he was "most impressed by the competence, dedication, and professionalism of the personnel."

To understand what really makes the program tick, however, one must look beyond its superb staff. The FSYA approaches teaching in a way that is, at least in the realm of crew training, rather unique. We're all, no doubt, familiar with the old proverb about the superiority of teaching men to fish rather than simply giving them a fish. So we've all, no doubt, learned that teaching, not giving, is the way to go. The governing ethos of the FSYA takes that maxim and pushes it one step further: Not only does it teach its students to "fish"—er, crew, the FSYA teaches them how to teach others, too. It is this concept of collective training—McClement's assertion that the school "helps captains train their own crews"—that sets the FSYA apart. And it is this concept that informs both the content and the structure of the academy's signature STEP program.

STEP stands for "Safety," "Training," and "Emergency Procedures." It is typically a ten-day class aimed at an entire crew and usually consists of three main parts (though courses can be modified to a crew's schedule and location). First, a course in safety and operating procedures is given to a yacht's captain and a handful of senior level crew members. Topics covered include damage repair, firefighting, sea survival, and standardized operator checks. Many of these lessons are conducted in state-of-the-art training facilities such as the Portsmouth Fire School, where eight computer-controlled units configured as vessels with engine rooms, galleys, and passageways are filled with heat and smoke. Students not only learn how to extinguish fires, they learn how to assist angry and frightened guests because, as McClement told me, "we give them angry and frightened guests." Other lessons are conducted in the Royal Navy's multimillion-pound Damage Repair Instruction Unit, a sinking ship simulator in which students must contend with gallons of rushing water and a rolling environment. Once they've completed their rigorous initial training, senior crew members go back and explain the methods they've learned to the rest of the staff. When that's completed, the entire crew goes onboard their yacht to practice everything together.

Perhaps the biggest benefit to this type of STEP program is, as Gallifuoco told me, "[that it] makes for a great team-building occasion." Take the example of a captain, first mate, and engineer on a 44-meter yacht who had never worked together and who recently traveled to the FSYA's Portsmouth location for a week. While there they planned out and practiced their emergency responses. They also determined exactly how the crew was going to deliver the level of service and hospitality the owner expected. Everything was considered and everything was written out. After their week was up, the yacht's senior representatives went onboard the owner's vessel to explain the procedures and expectations to the rest of the crew. They spent one day in the harbor and the next out at sea, practicing everything as a group. The key for that crew, and for other crews enrolled in STEP programs, is that by the time the captain, first mate, and engineer got to the yacht, the FSYA instructors weren't the ones doing the explaining—they were. "What we do is not teaching," McClement said, "It's helping." And it is this nuanced approach that gives crews complete, teamwide ownership of their newly acquired plans and skills.

According to McClement, whole-crew courses most often commence at the beginning of a new build or when a yacht enters refit. It can also be particularly good if an owner and captain are moving up to a larger vessel, though he stressed that there needn't be a special occasion for a crew to attend the FSYA. Indeed, many industry insiders find it unfortunate that, as Gallifuoco told me, "at this time, training is mostly regarded as an extra expenditure." But he's hopeful that "in the future it will become part of the standard agenda and budget of a superyacht."

While it doesn't necessarily matter when a crew attends an FSYA program, McClement does stress that it is crucial that captains understand exactly what an owner's expectations are before he or she enrolls. The courses at the FSYA, particularly STEP programs, are specifically tailored to an owner's particular vessel and needs. If a captain doesn't know what those needs are, any training he receives at the FSYA (outside of emergency protocol) will truly be for naught.

There are certainly challenges ahead for the FSYA. With a crew-shortage crisis threatening the megayacht world (McClement estimates that some 3,000 new crew are needed to fill demand every year), there are a lot of spaces that need to be filled. Yachts will only continue to get bigger and more advanced, and increasingly sophisticated owner expectations must be met. The pressure to turn out large numbers of highly qualified students is compounded by the fact that the FSYA must work hard to, as McClement put it, "show [potential employees] that there is a career here." He explained that people who work as megayacht crew often do so for only a short period of time. It falls to programs like the FSYA to show that with proper training, one can forge a serious and lifelong career in the industry.

In order to continue to attract and train qualified individuals, the FSYA regularly develops new programs. Before they are introduced, all potential courses are not only vetted by the superyacht professionals on McClement's team, but also subjected to extensive peer review within the megayacht industry at large. If the FSYA doesn't hear back from enough owners, builders, brokers, and crew that a new course will fill an important niche, it isn't something the company's directors will pursue. Theirs is a school that is incredibly attuned to the market's demands.

So if you're looking to get top-notch dinner service onboard your yacht, or if you're seeking peace of mind that should you find yourself with a fire at 3 a.m. (knock on wood), your crew will be prepared, then you should consider the FSYA. Hey, if it's good enough for the Queen...

This article originally appeared in the December 2008 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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