Joss Willner has come a long way since arriving in the South of France in 1983 after a teenage stint in the Merchant Navy.
He's a pragmatist, described by friends as 'old school' and a safe pair of hands. We caught up with Joss in Monaco to find out more about his role as Captain onboard M/Y Baton Rouge and his enduring passion for vintage cars.
OnboardOnline: How did you get into the yachting industry?
Joss Willner: My brother worked on yachts from the mid 70’s and after 5 years in the Merchant Navy I followed him to the South of France in 1983.
OO: Is it how you expected it to be?
JW: I had already spent a long holiday in 1978 in Cannes and knew a bit about what working on yachts was like. At the age of 16 it all seemed incredibly glamorous! Five years later when I started working on yachts I still considered myself very lucky.
OO: What do you love most about your job?
JW: My new rotation! The job when I started in 1984 bears little resemblance to the job today. I really appreciate that the job allows me to live with my family in a beautiful part of the world where the quality of life is very high.
OO: What is the single biggest issue affecting yachting at the moment?
JW: Finding the right crew with the right qualifications. When I started there were probably only 10% of the number of yachts that there are now and little or no qualifications were required, so you had to be a good judge of character and aptitude when hiring. Nowadays there are many crew who have the right qualification but have little practical experience.
OO: What keeps you awake at night?
JW: Because I have an excellent crew I sleep very well!
OO: What would you change if you could?
JW: Remove all the senseless filling-in of forms that serve no purpose and take us away from doing our proper job.
OO: What could you do without?
JW: Italian port procedures (see above)
OO: If you weren’t working on boats, what would you be doing?
JW: Rebuilding and racing historic cars!
OO: What is your idea of the perfect boat?
JW: One big enough to have a purser to do my accounts!
OO: Where is the most beautiful bay in the world?
JW: Shark Bay in Western Australia. I first saw it from 41,000 feet and could still make out the wake of the boats in the bay. 1,500km of coastline to explore in one bay!
OO: What is your greatest experience on a boat?
JW: Reaching Cyprus safe and sound after a delivery trip from Saudi Arabia.
OO: What is your worst experience on a boat?
JW: A delivery trip from Saudi Arabia to Cyprus on a 32m motor yacht where all the “worst case scenarios” happened!
24 hrs after departure from Jeddah we were heading into 3m seas and taking greenies over the bow. Water was pouring in through leaking deck fittings, the crew deck flooded, the forward bilge pump failed and a stablizer hose burst.
We had to head for Yanbu, a big commercial port, to take shelter so I called the Saudi Coast Guard to declare an emergency and inform them I was heading in. The told me that the port was closed for the month of Ramadan!
I had never been into Yanbu so I wanted to get up the channel and into the port before dark. I explained to them that we could not carry on and that I was coming in. Again they told me no. Again I told them that I was declaring an emergency and with that I proceeded in with 30kts of wind on the beam through the channel.
We rounded up in the port to find military vehicles training searchlights on us, and the coast guard shouting at me to stop my engines. How could I stop my engines when I was using all the power I had just to keep in position against the gale force winds?
The Coast Guard Captain send two of his men over in a small launch and I was told I could not come alongside until they had been on board and checked the boat. When they came alongside we were both moving so much that they were too afraid to come on board. The Coast Guard Captain was shouting on one VHF channel that he would not let me come alongside until his men had been on board, and on another channel his men were telling me it was too dangerous for them to come on board. Eventually I got them talking to each other and we were allowed to come alongside.
The rest of the evening was taken up filling in dozens of forms stating what the emergency was, why I had disobeyed orders not to come in, appointing an agent for the stay(!?) and stating what repairs would be needed and how long these would take.
We stayed there for three days with armed guards round-the-clock on the passerelle. Our crew mess was on the maindeck but because it was Ramadan we could not be seen eating or drinking during daylight so we had to take food down to our cabins.
Finally we had everything up and running again so headed off. We had no means of getting accurate weather conditions so all we could do was go up the mast with binoculars and look out to sea. Yanbu is well protected by a 30 mile line of reefs running parallel to the coast though so we couldn’t see past that from inside the port.
Once we had passed the reef and emerged back into the Red Sea we found ourselves in the same conditions we had been facing when we arrived!
We managed another 24hrs of pounding and even though we had sealed up all deck vents and fittings with duct tape we still had water pouring in everywhere. We made another overnight stop at a place we knew then finally got into the Gulf of Suez.
Two days later we tied up in Limassol and handed the boat over to the new Greek crew. The captain had previously been on fishing boats and had never driven a boat with waterjet drives – but that is another story!
We were all relieved to get off and will never forget that trip.
OO: Generally speaking, which nationalities tend to be the best bosses?
JW: It really is impossible to generalise with this question. However, I have been lucky enough to work for the best bosses of many nationalities.
OO: The best charter guests?
JW: …have so far been American.
OO: What is your motto?
JW: Tackle the difficult things first, the rest will then be easy!
OO: What is the greatest virtue?
JW: Being punctual! I go with the Navy rule that says if you are not five minutes early, you are late!
OO: Who do you most admire in the world of yachting?
JW: Wealthy people brave enough to become new yacht owners.
OO: What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?
JW: Following the construction of the Feadship M.Y. Ecstasea from a blank sheet of paper to delivery and cruising with her for the first season.
OO: What is your greatest regret?
JW: No regrets!
OO: What is your favorite story of the sea?
JW: My favorite sea stories are all too long to tell here!
OO:What will you be doing in five years?
JW: Hopefully thinking about retirement! I would be very happy to carry on racing and restoring cars into my retirement. I have a 1965 Ford Mustang which takes up a fair bit of my spare time and I do most of the work on it myself. I have so far fitted a new inlet manifold, four barrel carburetor, sports exhaust system, high-lift camshaft and aluminium cylinder heads.
The Goodwood Revival and the Le Mans Classic are the main events I regularly do. I have also recently passed the test for a UK National B competition driving license so hope to be doing some racing soon.