What Is the Staff Captain Anyway?

The ship's second-in-command keeps a finger on the pulse of all onboard activity and conflicts.

Most cruisers have probably heard the title of Staff Captain mentioned. But, I'd bet most have no real idea of what the job is, or where in the hierarchy of ship's officers this position fits.

In the simplest terms, the ship's Staff Captain is second in command to the Captain; through study and experience, he is a certified Master in his own right, fully capable of handling the Captain's duties should it become necessary.

To get a better handle on this shipboard position, I spent part of a day with the Staff Captain of Royal Caribbean's Brilliance of the Seas, Rene Johnsen. His day is not spent sunbathing by the pool, or relaxing drinking coffee, waiting around "on the bench" in case something should happen to the Captain.

A Typical Morning This morning at 6:15 a.m. Rene was on the bridge prior to the ship's arrival in Curacao, awaiting the local Curacao pilot. He and the Captain held a brief meeting, and the Captain asked Staff Captain Johnsen to bring the ship into the pier. He nestled the ship into its position at the pier with nary a dent or scratch. Afterwards he sat down for breakfast with the Captain, then returned to his office to check on the reports generated the previous day, and to read e-mail communications from other RCI ships and the head office in Miami.

The Staff Captain is in charge of communications with the dock, gathering any new and possibly pertinent information involving the various ports of call. This involves budget planning and execution, and vendor relations.

Later in the morning, there was a crew emergency drill, which also falls under his responsibility. The Staff Captain is in charge of emergency readiness for the crew. He is ultimately in charge of safety and security matters, and also serves as the ship's designated ethical officer.

Describing his job, Rene said: "The Staff Captain is known as the ship's sheriff, priest and judge. He deals with any conflict issues arising onboard, including crew vs. crew, crew vs. passenger, or passenger vs. passenger issues." Rene added that "with 2,100 passengers and 930 crew onboard, the ship is a pulsating organism, focusing on safety and guest satisfaction." As such, conflicts and frictions do arise, so a key part of the job is counseling, coaching and teaching to find a solution that satisfies everyone involved. If satisfactory resolution of crew issues is ultimately not possible, he is involved in the final decision, which in some cases can lead to the dismissal of the crew member.

At other times, the job is just listening. It could be as simple as counseling crew members on more mundane issues, such as crew money problems, leaves and vacations, and requests from crew for their families to be allowed onboard to visit (RCI policy allows family to board for day visits when the ship in their home port of call, if possible).

Rene explains that as an HR Manager he attempts to search for positives when dealing with the crew if at all possible. The ship has teachers and training rooms to assist in this process.

The Sponge The Staff Captain's position, as described above, is a complicated combination of duties. Rene simplifies it by saying his job is to be the "sponge" on the ship, attempting to monitor and absorb everything that's going on with both crew and passengers.

The Brilliance was the ship involved in the infamous George Smith disappearance incident, involving a honeymooner who disappeared from the ship and was never found; it was the subject of much TV and cable news coverage for months. There is still a poster hanging on the wall of Rene's office offering a reward for information about the incident, so we discussed it briefly with him.

He was not Staff Captain at the time of the incident, but he said the Staff Captain on duty was responsible for maintaining all the evidence and contact with the authorities in first port of call, as well as working very closely and communicating with RCI's head offices. Though I got the feeling Rene thought the Staff Captain at the time did the best he could in a difficult and unusual situation, he did say that as a settlement had been made with George Smith's bride, he shouldn't really say any more about the incident.

Click here for a picture of Johnsen in his office, the poster for George Smith still visible on the wall.

Background Rene Johnsen began his life at sea in 1980 in the Merchant Marines, and joined RCI 17 years ago, in 1990, as a quartermaster. With RCI's support, including financial support, he continued with his studies until he achieved his Master's certification. In 1999, he worked with Royal Caribbean's new-ship construction program, and for three years worked with quality control on both the Radiance and the Brilliance. He was Staff Captain when Brilliance first left the shipyard.

He describes himself as a devoted cruise employee, fascinated by all aspects of cruising, including cruise ship techniques and physics.

Staff Captain Rene Johnsen recently interviewed in Miami for a promotion to Captain. With more than two decades of experience, and an obvious devotion to the sea, his job, his passengers, and Royal Caribbean, I don't expect it will be too much longer before some of us will be cruising with Captain Johnsen.

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