Captain Glen McDonnell - Motor Yacht Vava

Posted: 30th October 2018 | Written by: Sarah Forge

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With three siblings, a father who worked day shifts as a signalling engineer and a mother who worked night shifts as a nurse, Captain Glen McDonnell had a happy but humble upbringing. Living close to the dishevelled, silty inlet of Oxley Creek on Brisbane River, he spent many a day head-to-toe in mud chasing after catfish and crabs before taking up canoeing, kayaking and sailing with Brisbane’s Sea Scouts troop which happened to be 500 metres from his doorstep.

Meanwhile, when Glen was a toddling one-year-old, his grandparents had retired to what was then a very sleepy Byron Bay where he was bundled off for long weekends and summer holidays amongst the postcard-perfect sand dunes and crystalline waters. Somehow, after school, Glen found himself doing a business degree in Property Economics and Valuation and was destined for a lifetime of office work.

Glen picks up the story.

“My friend Andy finished his engineering degree around the same time I graduated and we put away a few beers at the Rails pub in Byron Bay. Both keen to put off any form of responsibility for as long as possible, we decided to do a lap of Australia in Andy’s 1966 electric-blue HR Holden. Although we lived off cheap boxed wine and sliced loaves, travel funds were in short supply so I had to pick up work along the way.

"My first job was on 50 foot steel-hull motorsailer Amow. I and the captain would take groups of ten backpackers on four-day adventure trips around the iconic Whitsunday Islands on Queensland’s beautiful tropical coast. The sugar-white sand and turquoise waters took my breath away, however Andy developed itchy feet being stuck in resort work so we moved on.”

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On the beach: Byron Bay back in 1991

“The next kitty top-up was rather more lucrative. I was a cook-come-deckhand on a 75m fishing support vessel transferring workers and supplies to and from the Northern Prawn Fishery of the Gulf of Carpentaria. Four two-week trips paid enough to fund our 12 month lap of Australia and rebuild the car’s engine to boot.

"Unbeknownst to me, this gap year graft had given me the skills and experience I needed to get into the superyacht industry. But with yachting not being in my crosshairs at the time, I started a bland stint in commercial property sales and leasing.”

Glen lasted one year at the Brisbane real estate consultancy before he could bear it no longer and conceded he’d done entirely the wrong degree. Four walls and a desk was not his environment of choice so he sidestepped long-term responsibility once again and found work as a builder’s labourer with the express purpose of saving travel funds. Working round the clock, Glen got fit and amassed 5,000 dollars before blowing 2,000 of them on a flight to London.

“Within two weeks of landing in London, my pockets were bare. Friends spoke fondly of Bath, so I took a train westward and wandered into the local YMCA where I secured a role with an eccentric antique clock restorer who was renovating historic buildings. Bath is an architectural and historical paradise; perhaps I didn’t appreciate that so much at the time, and for a lad from tropical Queensland it was a novelty to pick raspberries from hedgerows and see squirrels scurrying in the trees.

"The downside was going to work in the dark, returning home in the dark, and watching all my wages fritter on rent, transport and beer.”

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First captain role on Constance, 2005

“I’d previously ran into an old Australian girlfriend of mine in London and she’d said she was joining this wonderful mythical world of superyachts. It sounded like a great idea, so I said goodbye to Bath and took a flight to Mallorca. I landed on a March Monday in 1995 and took a bus to La Lonja, dropping my things in a cheap pension.

“First thing Tuesday I was in Club de Mar walking the docks in awe. I spoke to a guy on Lady Beatrice on Quay 6 and asked ‘how do you get a job on these boats?’. No sooner had he talked me through the fundamentals of dock walking than I ran into a friend of the girl who had enlightened me and she tipped me off that her previous employer, the 40m Lürssen Be Mine, based in Barcelona, was looking for a deckie. I rang Captain Marc Colomb and he suggested I come over. By Friday I was on a plane to mainland – a pretty quick turnaround.

“I spent three years on that boat, summers in Turkey and winters in France. In my first month on board I’d had my 25th birthday in St Tropez, met Stevie Wonder and encountered many of the French Riviera supermodel set. As a 25-year-young Ozzie bloke I thought I’d died and gone to a lad’s heaven.

"Amongst a mostly French crew, I started to learn the language and Captain Marc nurtured and mentored me, taught me celestial navigation and encouraged me to take on more responsibility. I left Be Mine as there wasn’t really a first mate position for me to grow into, so I joined the 43m Benetti Lady in Blue.

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In the Maldives

Lady in Blue was owned by flamboyant Formula One impresario Flavio Briatore who employed a largely Italian crew enabling Glen to engage the green shoots of another Latin language. As a private and charter boat of some reputation, Lady in Blue was a complete handful for the crew with a 24/7 itinerary filled with Formula One legends, rock stars, supermodels, actors and royalty – keeping things interesting day and night.

“Flavio had just opened the very first Billionaire Club in Porto Cervo, so Lady in Blue became a default private after-party, which made for very entertaining A-list encounters for the crew. As a genuine fan of F1 and pretty ladies, you can imagine I had many ‘pinch myself’ moments, but after little more than a year I was burnt out and took a break.”

The late 90s/early 00s heralded a period of great change in marine laws relating to safety and training, and most older captains found themselves without the correct formal qualifications to drive their boats. Despite having no desire to become a captain, Glen decided to seize the moment between jobs to study for his Class 4. With a determined head on his shoulders and time to prepare and complete the modules, Glen passed the oral exams and qualified first time.

He then went stateside for a change of scenery and joined 57m Senses in Miami as first mate for a few months, bringing the yacht back to Germany. This was not the role he was looking for, so he left and spent a couple of months on the Sunseeker I’m Yours as a delivery captain in Turkey and Greece. In June 2000, he took a first mate role on the 46m Palmer Johnson Amorazur.

“I met a very down-to-earth young girl from Perth on Amorazur and after some time our friendship evolved into more of a relationship. Much to my disappointment, Robyn was asked to leave Amorazur due to some petty politics and, not long after, on the other side of the Atlantic, my professional relationship with the captain also soured and I had no option but to leave."

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In South Island, New Zealand

This departure gave Glen valuable time to spend on a home renovation project with his Mum in Australia. Freshly invigorated, he returned to the States with Robyn and soon after joined the 50m Feadship Princess Marla in San Diego, again as first mate.

“American-owned Princess Marla had a busy Pacific season ahead taking in Hawaii, Tahiti, Tonga and Fiji en-route to New Zealand. The Captain was another somewhat tempestuous character and had sacked most of the key crew by the tail end of the charter season in Fiji. A last-minute charter booking cropped up so I offered Robyn’s services as stewardess as she was between jobs. Despite the captain’s anti-couple stance, he had little choice but to agree as we desperately needed crew. The day Princess Marla arrived in Tahiti, 9/11 happened and the charter was cancelled. We soon found ourselves en-route to New Zealand and unemployed.”

Opportunely, Glen bumped into old mate Jay who was working as chef onboard the 47m Feadship Vava. Proprietor, Ernesto Bertarelli, also owned brand-new Swiss America’s Cup syndicate Team Alinghi who were in Auckland gearing up for the 2003 edition. Jay mentioned the first mate position was going and arranged an interview between Glen and Captain Ian Knight. Ian employed Glen, and Robyn managed to find a job on luxury sailing yacht Naos – also in New Zealand for the duration of the America’s Cup.

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Glen posing with the America's Cup

“Essentially, Vava was the primary Team Alinghi support yacht. We took all the team spouses, family and children out to watch the racing every day on the Hauraki Gulf. Much to everyone’s satisfaction outside of New Zealand, Team Alinghi cruised to victory and in doing so became the first team to win the Cup on its first attempt and the first since the inaugural 1851 race to bring the Cup back to Europe.

“Our victory parties were enormous, classy and something to remember forever. Reminiscing back to being a 13-year-old, I recall watching the final of the 1983 America’s Cup in Newport Rhode Island on TV with my grandfather in Byron Bay, waking up at 4am to see Australia II gradually taking the Cup from the Americans for the very first time. Here I was 20 years later holding the same Cup in my arms – incredible.”

In total, Vava spent two years in New Zealand, including a brief stint in Newcastle Australia for a paint job– the first time Glen visited his home nation by yacht. Following the Cup, Vava had to get back to Europe – Palma to be precise. Ian floated the Dock Express option for the return but Glen said ‘over my dead body’ and offered to skipper. And so Ian and Glen did a team effort across the Pacific, before Ian jumped off in Panama and allowed Glen to complete the 12,500 nautical mile trip in command.

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Tinkering with Team Alinghi models, 2002

“Serendipitously, we cruised into Quay 6 Club de Mar, the very same place my superyacht career began as a naïve dock walker. It was quite a moment of reflection to see how my life had changed in those eight years from greenie to captaining a superyacht half way round the world.

“When we were back in the Med, Robyn joined us on Vava and we worked together for a period before heading back across the ocean to Costa Rica. Sadly, Robyn’s father had a serious car accident and she had to return home to be by his side and see him through recovery. Robyn eventually returned to Europe and, with my growing confidence and three years on Vava under my belt, I felt it was time for my first command.”

“I secured a role as Captain on the American-owned 35m Benetti Constance with Robyn alongside as chief stewardess. We cruised from the Mediterranean to the Caribbean and then, in 2006, the owner’s wife fell pregnant with twins. Travel for the owner’s family was no longer possible so it was decided that we should bring Constance close to their family home in Washington DC.

"We navigated up the Potomac River and moored in the Capital Yacht Club just three blocks from the White House. I love my morning walks, and each day that summer I got up at first light and wandered past the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, the White House, and had to pinch myself in the realisation that I was walking the streets of one of America’s most historic cities.

“Once the twins were born, Constance was up and down the east coast and Robyn decided she wanted to head back to Australia to be closer to her family. We made a joint decision to move on and the owner said he’d sell the yacht.”

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Visiting the Bahamas, 2008

Glen agreed to stay on to help sell Constance, showing her at Fort Lauderdale and Miami boat shows. With some very positive interest, the owners had change of heart and decided to keep her, so Glen bid his farewells and headed back to Australia and Robyn. She’d bought a house in Maleny, close to Brisbane, and was working in an organic garden. Glen bummed around for a bit, got strong and healthy, and also bought a house in Maleny – but it was time to get back to yachting.

“I was still in contact with Ian who was working on the design and build of Vava’s successor, 97m Vava II – the largest British-built superyacht in history. In early 2007, I returned from Australia and acted as relief captain for Ian on Vava, the year that Team Alinghi were in Valencia to defend their America’s Cup title – and they were successful. Right in the business end of the Cup, Robyn called to let me know she’d met another fella in Australia. A painful closure ensued.”

After a spell as rotational captain, it became abundantly clear that Ian was far too busy with Vava II and Glen defaulted into full-time captain of Vava. Given the new build, there was a little uncertainty surrounding Vava’s future, but Glen was informed that she would stay in the family and pass to the owner’s mother – Glen’s position was safe. He has captained Vava ever since.

“With Ernesto, Vava was a seriously active yacht. With Madame, the global adventures continue but with a somewhat more manageable and predictable pace – timely for my career. She is very fond of routine, fine food, wine and family time, while using Vava in some pristine remote locations.

"I still manage to inject a little of my personality and am lucky enough to have some influence on our schedule. For example, Vava had never cruised the Bahamas, but now it’s one of our favourite cruising grounds. I really relish having the family and their guests on board, adding value to their overall experience: beach club setups while roasting a whole lamb asado-style, introducing new water toys, shark tagging in remote island nations and engaging in the family’s many marine conservation projects.”

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Glen in the Bahamas, 2017

Vava’s owner tends to use her for 12 to 15 weeks a year, not such a heavy use schedule but often spanning the globe. By September 2018, Vava had already done close to 20,000 miles, starting in Antigua in January followed by 8,000 miles to the Maldives in March, then Turkey, Spain, Italy, Greece and Turkey again before heading back to Palma.

After nearly 12 years in charge, Glen has decided to take a little time out for himself this winter and has agreed a six-month sabbatical prior to re-joining in the Maldives in the spring next year.

“I’ve not been home for four years so in November I am flying to Australia for my sister’s 50th. I’ll also be taking the opportunity to spend lots of quality time with my eight-year-old daughter Jasmine here in Mallorca. Her mother Sofya and I met through mutual friends and, while our relationship didn’t survive, Jasmine provides me with a strong bond to Mallorca for her growth and multicultural education. She is a very special part of my life and I cherish raising her in a little island enclave that provides so many opportunities for education, sport and adventure.

“As a walker, golfer, kite surfer, cyclist, food, wine and beach lover, there’s no place I’d rather put down roots. Yachting has taught me many things, of course, but I feel the most valuable has been to look beyond wealth, riches and possessions for happiness.

"It’s very tempting to join the mad race for wealth and riches but it’s far easier, less stressful and more rewarding to appreciate the things that we all have available in abundance on the earth. Mallorca is rich in cultural and natural abundance and it's a place I now wish to call home.”

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