Ever since Gemma Harris was a young girl, she knew the normal 9-5 wasn’t for her. Turning her passion for travel into a successful career, the chief stewardess has spent seven years working on board both sailing and motor yachts, and during this time she has come to realise the true extent of the environmental impact of the superyacht industry.
In a bid to build awareness around the issue and help other yacht crew make sustainable changes on board, Gemma launched Seastainable Yachting back in 2019 as a platform to provide information and resources on the matter, and today has more than 20 ambassadors working alongside her, including stewardesses, scuba diving instructors, deckhands, chefs and captains, all with the common goal of supporting sustainable change and leaving the yachting industry a better place than they found it.
We spoke to Gemma about the importance of her ambassadors, the future of the industry, and what little changes we can all start making now to ensure a more sustainable future going forward.
Can you tell us a little about your background and how you got into the superyacht industry?
After university I took the conventional route of getting a 9-5 job in the city, but quickly left to do a ski season in the French Alps. Ever since then I knew that the so-called ‘normal’ jobs weren’t right for me. I had a passion for travel from a young age so always had itchy feet to see more! My background from my previous part time jobs was in hospitality, so I decided to test it out on the ocean.
How long have you been working as crew and what are some of the yachts you’ve worked on?
I have been working as crew for around seven years, currently as chief stewardess but I have also worked as a chef on smaller yachts. I’ve worked mainly on sailing yachts with some great worldwide itineraries, however at the moment I am working on a motor yacht based in the Med.
What led you to launch Seastainable Yachting and what is the ethos behind it?
Seastainable Yachting was born out of frustration. I wanted to make changes on board and kept researching the best ways to do things, however a lot of information out there isn’t relatable to the industry. I made it my mission to create a platform that had information and resources for yacht crew to be able to use and start to make changes on board.
You also run the Sea Club – can you tell us a bit about this? Was it a natural progression?
The SEA club is a community of like-minded individuals who want to see sustainable change in the industry. Through Seastainable, I found a lot of individuals who want to make changes on board but perhaps lack the support or resources to do so. After connecting with Lauren at Ethical Yacht Wear, we found our values aligned and had the same desire to bring others together.
What does it mean to be a Sea Club ambassador?
The SEA Club is about collaborating together in the industry to create change. It is for anyone in the industry who support sustainable change and want to leave the yachting industry a better place than we all found it.
How do you go about finding your ambassadors and how do you get them on board?
We have an application form on our website and also through connections on social media. They tell us their background and what they want to achieve on board and we go from there.
What are some quick and easy changes crew can make to be more sustainable on board?
There are so many things you can do to make things more sustainable. Here are a few quick and easy changes:
Be more energy efficient and aware, e.g. turn lights off when not in use.
Minimise single use plastic by using reusables such as buying large refills for cleaning and toiletries, and finding sustainable alternatives.
Follow the four Rs - refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle.
Keep food waste to a minimum and try to eat locally and seasonally.
It’s a great idea for each department to list the things they want to change and go step by step. It’s surprising once you get those sustainability goggles on how many things you can see that would benefit from changing.
And how about chefs, is there anything they can do to run a more sustainable galley?
Food waste is a huge problem on board and this can be down to a number of different reasons. Firstly, chefs need to make sure they have good, comprehensive preferences and portion size ideas from crew and guests to reduce leftovers. However leftovers are inevitable, so re-inventing and freezing them is an easy tip.
In terms of food storage and preservation, there are a few things chefs can do to make food last longer, and the same goes for good stock rotation. When it comes to provisioning, chefs should try and buy as locally and seasonally as possible to reduce food miles. To make the galley more sustainable chefs can also eliminate single-use plastic when it comes to storing food through things like beeswax paper, stasher bags, glass jars etc. Cleaning products in the galley should also be natural and sustainable. Finally keeping all waste to a minimum, be aware of unsustainable food packaging and recycle wherever possible.
In the long run, what sort of bigger changes would you like to see made within the industry?
I would like to see changes made at the higher level of the operational side, for example HODs implementing sustainable action plans on board. I speak to a lot of junior crew that want to make changes but do not have the support on board to do so. Sometimes there are crew out there that have been around longer and tend to have a mindset that the industry won't ever be sustainable so why bother, or equally there are a lot that do have the right mindset so it’s a matter of getting everyone on the same page in terms of what needs to change. I also think that making sustainable education and training should be mandatory. Sustainability is just as important as the health and safety aspects crew have to learn about before stepping foot on a superyacht, so there needs to be an increase in taking responsibility throughout the industry to ensure crew are equipped to be sustainable.
Do you think sustainability on board is solely down to the crew, or are you able to educate guests on how to make changes too?
I think that you can educate guests on how to make changes by having the opportunity to offer them a more sustainable charter. If the crew can offer their guests sustainable choices, this can influence change on a bigger scale.
Have you seen many yachts making changes towards more sustainable operations or do we still have a long way to go?
The past few years have definitely seen some big changes when it comes to an operational level. I think a lot of that has been done when it comes to changing mindsets. Sustainability has come to the forefront of people’s minds, and the awareness of the industry’s (and the world’s!) future in danger is inspiring more people to actually do something now. Sustainability is a long and complex journey that is never-ending and there will always be more to do, however I think the industry is starting to take some good paths in the right direction.
What are some of the barriers to achieving sustainable operations?
Unfortunately there are many barriers to making sustainable changes, like with any kind of change. When it comes to the operational side of things, the main barriers are logistical. Ironically budget is one of those - a lot of management companies and owners push back on making changes if it requires money (fitting a filter tap, for example), however this is a false economy as sustainable changes do tend to save money in the long run.
Time is another logistical barrier for the crew, as there is always so much to do on board and priorities are ever-changing. Yachts that are only single-season tend to find it easier to make changes as they have an off-season whereby they can start to implement change which makes it easier in busier times. The nature of the industry can also introduce geographical constraints to sustainable change - some yachts spend a lot of time of the beaten track where it is harder to source sustainable products, for example.
You run The Sea Club with Lauren at Ethical Yacht Wear who is changing how yachts source their uniforms to be sustainable – how is she going about this?
Lauren has completely revolutionised the current existing yacht crew uniform to be made from sustainable material and sourced and manufactured completely fair trade. She has re-made each uniform piece to be made from material that doesn’t harm the planet, such as eco-hybrid sports and shorts made by incorporating ocean-bound plastic, and employee manufacturing systems that also heavily reduce the impact the clothing manufacturing industry has on the planet. She further gives back a percentage of profits to ocean clean-up and research, having removed over 5,000 kilos of plastic to date.
What other sustainability/clean ocean initiatives do you follow or support?
There are so many people out there doing amazing things for our oceans now. Whilst there are a lot of big organisations that make a difference, I tend to support the smaller yachting specific organisations, specifically crew that have found solutions to unsustainable products like Lauren, and the guys at Cleanwake. I love the initiatives that have found a solution to an unsustainable product whilst also cleaning up the ocean. I also really value the work that the Seabin Project is doing.
What are some of your favourite cruising grounds?
Throughout my time in the industry I have been lucky enough to cruise a lot of areas around the world. I loved cruising the fjords of Norway and the remote islands of the Pacific, especially the Marquesas.
What’s the best piece of advice you have ever been given?
Always ask questions! This is a sure-fire way you will never stop learning, and also a great piece of advice!
Can you tell us a lesser-known fact about yourself that would surprise your colleagues?
When you live and work with colleagues 24/7, it’s hard to surprise them! I guess it would be that I am scared of heights, which they would never really find out, working on a yacht.
Where do you see Seastainable Yachting in five years? And in 10?
I want Seastainable to naturally progress depending on what other crew need help with and how that goes. In five years, perhaps crew training and education in sustainability will be the norm - I hope to be part of that. I honestly hope that in 10 years, most of the operational changes I am suggesting will be second nature and the industry in a better place altogether.
And how about yourself? Will you stick to crew life or do you have a plan to move ashore?
I will be looking at moving ashore at some point, although not too far from the ocean and I will definitely continue my passion for sustainability on land.
What would you say to someone who says that superyachts and sustainability could never go hand in hand?
It doesn’t surprise me that people say this, but the industry has the power to drive change, with investment potential and technological advances increasing daily. I would say to make yachting more sustainable, everyone needs to be involved, from owners, designers, shipyards, management to marinas and crew, as if everyone is on the same page then sustainable change can and will happen.