Vojtěch Kýnl: Strong discipline from
stem to stern
Written by: Monika Mudranincová
Photo: Petr Poliak
How do you run a four-hundred-ton colossus and its crew? It requires
speed, decisiveness, foresight, and diplomacy. Riverboat captain
Vojtěch Kýnl (54), who has spent half his life on rivers, definitely
You're the captain of the excursion boat Helvetia
on the Rhine. How is it that a Czech captain finds himself on a
Partly because, unlike in the Czech Republic, there's a need in
western Europe for people of my profession. Additionally, western
Europe offers better conditions, and not just money. Since I lived
up to my employer's expectations, I was accepted as second captain
of the excursion boat Helvetia, in fact a floating hotel accommodating
Can you describe the hierarchy on an excursion boat?
There's the nautical part and the hotel part. The captain holds
the highest rank, and is responsible for everything relating
to the ship, but he cannot interfere with the hotel's chef or
housekeeping. On the other hand, when emergency measures are
in place and the captain tells the chef to take an oar and row,
his word goes (laughs). The engineering crew answers to the first
engineering officer, yet they're all under the captain.
How important is it for the crew to be close-knit?
It's essential. A ship is a classic example of teamwork. True,
the captain steers the ship and gives orders, but an experienced
crew knows what's expected of it. An independent, close-knit
crew is a blessing for every ship. There's nothing worse than
having a ship full of novices, because successful maneuvering
depends on each individual. For example, when sailing into locks
you need able seamen who can react to any movement of the ship.
Clearly, various types of people work side by side, even some
who may not get along, but relatively strong discipline is the
rule. If they can't adhere to it, they must leave. I haven't
time to teach anyone.
What recourse is there for disobedience?
Keel-hauling! (laughs). Of course that's a legend from the past.
You might be surprised, but breaches of discipline are very rare.
When it does happen it's usually because of alcoholism, which
the person must overcome or leave the ship. Then there are various
specifics; for example, I had a Czech who just looked for ways
to hide out. He also had professional shortcomings, but he tried
to tell us how to do things. We very quickly parted ways.
Excursion boats have international crews, with various mentalities
and work habits. Does this require special methods of management?
We have Hungarians, Slovaks, Germans, a Bulgarian, a Pole, a Frenchman,
a Dutchman, and I'm a Czech. There's no language barrier, since
the common tongue is German, but mentality plays a certain role.
Nationalities have their own specifics I have to take into account
and adapt not only my command, but also my expectations of what
I can get from one group or another.
vocational school in Děčín, later graduated from correspondence
secondary economics school
on tugboat between Czechoslovakia and Hamburg
||started work on tugboat
as assistant engineer
exams for captain and started working as captain on
||took captain exams
for the Rhine, where he then worked as a captain
||worked as helmsman
on a tanker on the Rhine
||1st captain on excursion boat
Katarina von Bora between Potsdam and Prague
as second captain on the excursion boat Helvetia on
the Basel-Prague-Basel-Amsterdam route.
What sorts of crisis situations can arise on a riverboat, and
how do you deal with them?
Breakdowns are the classic example. They aren't as easy to resolve
as they are on land. You can't stop the ship. Once the electrical
panel in the engineering room burned. So the air conditioning and
kitchen power went out, there wasn't any running water. We had
to improvise so that our guests' comfort was compromised as little
as possible - a team created a brigade to carry water for flushing
toilets, the hotel manager arranged a show with a wine tasting.
We kept the guests busy until two in the morning, thereby dealing
with the situation.
Do you solve problems calmly, or emotionally?
I try to approach problems calmly. On the other hand, you have
to be emphatic and issue unambiguous orders. When maneuvering
into locks, seconds count. Steering the ship requires foresight
and doing things ahead of time - it does everything rather slowly,
but inevitably. There's no room for discussion, and if the captain
yells "Do it now!", the guy has to do it, because if
he doesn't you can only hang on and hope nothing serious happens.
What sort of person wants to work on a ship? What do "boatmen" have
They're people who can't stand routine work in closed spaces. Although
the work rhythm on a ship is regular, the environment in which
the ship's moving is always changing. The pay is also motivating,
as we get bonuses for being away from our families. Additionally,
room and board are free.
How do you build your authority?
I don't think about it much; the captain speaks, and that's it!
But when you're underway crisis situations arise, and depending
on how you handle them your subordinates evaluate you and subsequently
What should an ideal boss be like?
Certainly an expert, but to a certain degree he should understand
human weaknesses. If you forget to be human, people become machines
with the characteristics of machines. This shows up in communication.
What do you most enjoy about being a captain?
Besides always learning something new on different ships, it's
meeting interesting people.
What's the hardest thing about your profession?
Minimal contact with family and friends. I don't see them for six
months at a time.