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Yacht Captain

Captains of Ships – Dean Pilatti


The Pilatti family moved from the Australian coal mining town of Collie to the state capital, Perth, when Dean was six years old.  His parents carved out successful careers in house building and their work ethic clearly rubbed off, with all three children flourishing professionally – Dean as a yacht captain, his younger brother operating a high-end barge cruise company in France, and his sister CEO of Breast Cancer Network Australia.

Dean was an athletic child, with hockey being the sport that he took to the highest level, representing his country overseas.  But, like many young Australians, he spent much of his time out at the coast and was just three days old when he was plonked on to a ski boat.  His parents were both avid water skiers and wanted their children to have the same love for water sports. As a result, Dean can’t really remember a time when he wasn’t on the ocean, either sailing, windsurfing or water skiing – perchance even doing the latter before he could walk.  Paradoxically, his first career choice had very little to do with the ocean.

Yacht BridgeDean explains:  “While academia definitely wasn’t my thing, sport and fashion photography was.  Having won a few competitions and awards, I appeared on Kodak’s radar and they asked if I’d like to work for them.  Instead of finishing high school, I went to their city store and did a mix of retail and developing in the dark room.  Four years passed and, age 21, the urge to backpack around Europe became pretty strong.  So I left Kodak and flew to Greece where I met up with friends. We explored Greece, Italy and France before the cash ran out.

“I had no clue about the yachting industry, but when I saw the boats moored off la Croisette in Cannes I literally said, ‘Oh my god, this is me’.  It was the end of September 1996, boats were closing down, firing rather than hiring, yet I managed to pick up day work on 27-metre classic sailing yacht Gitana IV.  They paid me a paltry 50 francs an hour, well below the going rate, but it was the gateway to a decades-long career.  I learned how to live harmoniously on a sailing yacht, plus the practical skills of varnishing and sanding.

Dean Pilatti“My Dutch superior taught me the hard way.  One day I came in from a long stint of sanding and asked for a Band-Aid to protect my sore split fingers.  He told me I should have taped my fingers up at the outset.  Did he not think to tell me that several hours before?  Well no, because that’s how he learned.  I decided there and then to adopt a different management style.  If I had the knowledge, I would share it.  Yachting shouldn’t be about life lessons, but about growing and developing into a better human being.

“After four or five months, the boat was put up for sale and shifted to Italy – the captain moved on.  I boldly stated, ‘I can run this boat’ and they kindly agreed.  So I looked after Gitana IV while studying for MCA qualifications.

“In 1998, I started work on 50-metre Pestifer at the CRN shipyard in Ancona.  I joined as bosun, eight months prior to launch, and was promoted to first officer just over a year later.  My captain, Tony Brown, became my standout mentor in yachting.  Pestifer was a double-season boat, and the owners were on board for three-and-a-half months in the Med, three-and-a-half months in the Bahamas.  It was hard, although fantastic, work.  My children – Jordan and Claudia – also came into the world during my time on Pestifer.

“Master 3000 in hand, I jumped onto 35-metre Benetti Classic Felidan in Monaco.  It was my first gig as captain.  She was a very successful charter boat, doing 13 weeks each and every year.  It was full on but I truly fell deeply in love with charter.  Every ten days new guests would appear and I would see it as a fresh opportunity to create life-long memories for each of them.  If you ask me what my greatest selling point is as a captain, I would say:  ‘the ability to create a family atmosphere on board’.  Stepping into an environment where 17 crew look after half a dozen guests can be quite overwhelming.  No other leisure market has such a high ratio of staff to guests and even the wealthiest people don’t live to the kind of luxury you get on a yacht charter.  It’s therefore crucial that we help them feel at home.  I honed these skills on Felidan.

“After three years, it felt like the right moment to move on, so in 2005 I joined 35-metre Jaguar, which was soon upgraded to a 56-metre Benetti of the same name.  It was a great period in my life.  My owner was amazing, a true English gent who had plenty of time for his crew, and I’m proud to call him a friend.  However, after 13 years, I was getting too comfortable and craved change – I launched into a job search.

Yacht Captain on Bridge“Weeks later, I had three prospects on the table.  I wasn’t looking for the dream boat with full rotation and the perfect pay packet, I was looking for the best fit between captain and owner.  I had a decade left in yachting and knew this would be my last boat, it had to have the right energy.

“People ask why I enjoy such longevity on boats and I firmly believe it’s because I interview well – not me, but the owners.  One of my peeve hates while job hunting is being denied the opportunity to interview the owner. I feel crew have the right to information about the owners so they can make educated decisions, if you can’t access that info, it’s not the job for you.

“During the interview for my current boat, 60-metre Abeking & Rasmussen Arience, I asked if I could have 12 months carte blanche to run the yacht exactly as I thought best, with the goal to make her the finest charter boat in the size bracket.  The owner was shocked when I explained that he would not be my primary concern, the crew would be my priority.  If my team were content and harmonious, he would feel nothing but love and happiness when he came on board – and this would be his reward.  He understood and supported my thought process and agreed to my terms.

Jet Boots“I assembled a handpicked crew of 19, some of whom I’d worked with for years.  I told them the dream, and invited them to join me.  ‘Your vibe attracts your tribe’ – I say that a lot to my crew, and they genuinely believe it.  The fact of the matter is my crew are going to spend more time with me than they do with their parents, friends or partner, so they’ve got to fit into the culture, the family.

“Together, we picked the boat up in the US, came to Europe, and did 13 weeks of top-notch charter in 2019.  That summer was also the start of a social media explosion in yachting, so we dived in head first.  We increased engagement by being honest, real, and creating behind-the-scenes content.  As a consequence, @yachtarience now has 16.5k organically-grown followers.  It may not be that we’re communicating to the charterer themselves, but to their children, or grandchildren.  This is awesome, we want them to virtually meet the crew, experience life on board, and say, ‘Dad I want to charter this boat’.

Acrew Awards“At the end of that season I was extremely proud to be voted Best Captain (Master 3000GT) in the 2019 ACREW Awards and our filmmaker and photographer, Jared Watney, won the Creativity Award.  By 2020, we’d won three more:  Best Charter Yacht, Chef, and Stew, plus I was a finalist for Captain (Master 3000GT).  This summer we have 120 days of paid-in-full charter and I’m actually turning bookings away.  We’re also nominated for a slew more ACREW Awards.

“Why does this matter?  The answer lies in that story I told you about splitting my fingers while sanding.  I am determined to leave yachting in a better place than the day I found it.  That will be my legacy.  I want to be known as the guy who gave people a chance, an opportunity.  I plan to be out of yachting by the time I am 60, so I’ve got ten years left, and I’m spending them wisely.  I’m on the advisory board for diversity platform, She of the Sea, and mentor through The Crew Coach.  In fact, I’m so dedicated to mentoring that I doubt it’ll stop when my captain career stops.  I’ll always be an advocate for the industry that has given me this extraordinary life.”

Sarah Forge, hello@sarahforge.com