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Captain Khalil Bethel: Diving & High Flying in the Bahamas

Growing up in the Bahamas, Khalil Bethel was no stranger to superyachts, but he first fell in love with the ocean while teaching at a local diving school which ignited a passion to travel the world on the high seas. He went on to work aboard a number of vessels both on and off the beaten track, achieving his fixed wing pilot license and more recently, his Master <3000GT. An inspiring all-rounder with an appetite for adventure, Khalil took time out to discuss his journey and some highlights along the way.

What was it like growing up in the Bahamas, and what were your early ambitions? 

Growing up in the Bahamas was an exciting adventure. Looking back, I see that my childhood was a delightful free trial before adult life started. I can honestly say that after seeing how people live abroad. The family unit has some good old-school values that don't just stop at who you're related to - your neighbours, school group, church, etc., are all interconnected. Everyone knows everyone; if you're like me, you're related to most of them. 

My father, Felix Bethel, wanted me to try as many things as possible to see how it feels. You either work with your hands or your mind, but yachting is the best of both worlds. I know some parents have hopes and dreams of what / who their kids will become, but that was never the case in my situation. My father wanted me to try my hand at whatever I could, to try the shoe first to see if it fit. I've tried my hand at many jobs since the age of 13 from landscaping, fish breeding, masonry, and printing, but I fell in love with the sea during my internship at Stuart Cove's Dive Bahamas. 

What attracted you to a career on board? 

During my internship I had the opportunity to learn the skills to work on board dive boats and eventually lead and train PADI scuba divers. During an Open Water Scuba course that became a mini United Nations conference, our small group convened and planted the seed for the start of my yachting career. My students were from entirely different continents, and that's when it struck me: We are all a part of the world; we shouldn't just try to fit into one place. That's how I discovered yachting where you can travel the world on a luxury vessel while making great money, setting you up for success. 

However, yachting isn't for the faint of heart. It is a laborious job that can be fun at times, but I find it to be a very elaborate social experiment where you must find where you fit in. You must be careful to avoid those who let money and drinks turn them sour but I've met some lifelong friends through yachting, which to me is the best part. The world of yachting is an experience of a lifetime! 

What types of vessels have you worked on, and where in the world? 

I've had a very fortunate and interesting career on board traditional superyachts in the 55-80-metre range, most of which were Dutch builds, but what was unique about my situation is that I had the opportunity to travel off the beaten path - Asia on a few occasions, Indian Ocean, Baltic, Mediterranean, Pacific, Bahamas, and the Caribbean, all of which have their unique attractions. 

How did you become a captain, and what have been the most important life lessons along the way? 

I did it backwards in an incredibly thankful way - I was still a teen in the Bahamas when I gained my STCW Master 100 Ton Offshore Captain's License. When I decided to go abroad to follow my dreams, I immediately obtained my MCA Yacht Master 200GT just to get started in yachting, knowing I would not be trusted behind the wheel until I proved I could cause no damage with a chamois and a window blade. 

Between 2011 and 2016 I learned as much as possible and I have to pay homage to Captain Liam Devlin and Captain Robert Corcoran and the teams on board those vessels who helped me to obtain the skills and knowledge necessary for the MCA Officer of the Watch / MCA Chief Mate <3000GT in 2016. I am now ranking with some of my mentors with the qualification of MCA Master <3000GT which I obtained in 2021.  

One of the most important things I've learned during my career is to remain who you are and encourage those who come after you like the ones that came before you; I've met some true industry gems in that regard. The yachting industry has an absolute need for mentorship. We are doing better, but I believe it could be structured more like the army, ensuring that people acquire the necessary skills and fulfill objectives before climbing the ladder. 

You’re also an experienced dive instructor with over 200 locations logged around the Bahamas – how would you describe the diving here? 

Scuba diving in the Bahamas offers an unparalleled experience with some of the most stunning underwater landscapes in the world. With its crystal-clear turquoise waters, vibrant coral reefs, and diverse marine life, I’ve also had the opportunity to support underwater film crew throughout the archipelago. 

Some personal highlights include being involved with shark research to understand breeding, feeding, and migratory patterns, filming some commercial and cinema work, and meeting some iconic people along the way. The simplest but most rewarding thing was collecting data for an application to make a new marine-protected area on the southwest side of New Providence, my home island. 

Another string to your bow is freediving which is hugely popular in the Bahamas – how does it compare to diving with tanks? 

Freediving allows me to have a closer connection with nature. When you're diving without an air tank, you can hear and see things more clearly. There's no noise from air escaping your regulator, animals aren't as hesitant if you approach, and you can be in complete silence. This comes in handy when spearfishing at a place we call Shark Arena, which is aptly named as the resident Caribbean reef sharks and the odd tiger shark pass through. My ego and confidence overtook the rational part of my brain at that time, and I do not recommend it! 

I started learning freediving more formally in Malta. Until then I did not realise that freediving is as much a mental challenge as a physical one. It requires control over your breath, relaxation, and focus. Pushing your limits and surpassing personal bests can be incredibly rewarding and empowering. I started the class with a static breath-hold time of 1 minute 30 secs, and with a bit of control and technique, I could do 3 minutes 11 seconds. Lung capacity can be increased with breathing exercises, mindfulness and relaxation – some of the breathing techniques you learn are astounding. 

You've also taken to the skies – what led you to get your fixed-wing pilot license? 

I have a genuine passion for seeing life from different perspectives. You need a lot of technical knowledge and expertise with a dash of thrill-seeking, and I enjoy that. I was given a ‘first flight’ package as a birthday gift, and it stuck with me. I worked with some lovely pilots on board yachts and on a private island, and they all sang the same song: You have to be a little crazy to want to fly in a machine over ordinary people. 

It's still a work in progress, but I wanted to be like James Bond after watching the movies as a kid - a master of air, sea, and land, the man who could quickly jump into any vehicle and operate. An excellent gift idea for any of my upcoming birthdays is an Amphibious Cessna Caravan! 

Tell us about your photography above and below water.

My dad managed to take hundreds, if not thousands, of baby photos, most of which had me with my mouth open or eating. Sadly, I lost most of them, but he never stopped taking pictures, and that grew on me. Even though he is gone, that's something that I still have from him. 

I try to shoot most things with a professional camera because I feel as if I am more deliberate about what I shoot instead of taking hundreds on my phone, which get lost amongst the many. I think as you travel, you should take a snapshot: "We take pictures to stop time, to commit moments to eternity". Even if it's one, do it because there's a lot of novelty in nostalgia. 

Conservation is also close to your heart and you're a member of the Bahamas Coastal Awareness Program/Young Marine Explorers - what's their mission? 

The mission of Young Marine Explorers is "to inspire communities to actively participate in the conservation of their environment and resources through community projects, research, education, and sustainability stewardship that honours indigenous and ancient wisdom." 

I started my relationship with YME as a high school student who couldn't enter the Marine Science Program after changing from private to public school. This group allowed me to continue learning about the marine environment and associate with like-minded people, many of whom I'm still friends with today. 

You also mentioned the Ocean Crest Alliance – tell us more about that? 

My lovely family, Nicola Ierna along with her husband Joseph Ierna Jr., are founders of the Ocean Crest Alliance and based in Long Island, where they established a registered Marine Protected area to protect the mangrove, seagrass, and spawning aggregation habitats for the endangered Nassau Grouper and the Queen Conch. Elsewhere too, the Alliance is dedicated to protecting the world's oceans by focusing on conservation projects, research, education, science, and technology. 

What's a lesser-known fact about Khalil Bethel that would surprise your colleagues? 

Gardening is the last thing you would think I love! Mother Nature inspires me; no one does art better than her. My grandmother was in her garden every day growing up, and I inherited that. If I'm not working at sea, I'm at home working on my small but mighty balcony garden. And doing home improvement - it's an obsession, I fix things that aren't broken! If my wall has a dirty handprint, I pull out the can of paint. 

What three things can you not live without? 

Movies - I have a movie reference for everything. An annual vacation to someplace with either a waterfall or a volcano and some wildlife. I've never seen before. And  the small journal that I've had since 2017 with all my hopes and dreams. 

Where do you see yourself in 10 years? 

I plan to build on some great relationships that I am thankful for, both professionally and personally. I didn't used to understand much about empathy, but through the course of my yachting career I've learned that it's a true skill that helps us as captains, department heads, and crew to understand and imagine what it's like to be the person you're working alongside.

The differences between minority groups in yachting aren't only skin deep but also cultural. Crew members that aren't from 'the big three' – the United Kingdom, Australia, and South Africa - have a lot in common with other yachties, but sometimes struggle to get the 'at home' feel they’ve been accustomed to growing up. As an islander from the Bahamas, at one point I could've told you exactly how few of us there were in the yachting industry, but I connected with other islanders from Fiji, Antigua and New Zealand - we all share some similarities, and I believe all of us at one point hailed the queen (now king). 

Even though these things make us different, they also connect us. Captain Kelly Gordon is doing an excellent job at giving guidance, being genuine, and sharing her real-world perspective to assist fellow yachties in a wide spectrum of topics. I appreciate everyone that is in my life, and we should thank each other more regularly. I cherish the great friends and connections I've made and will continue learning how to live and cherish my future.

With thanks to Quay Crew
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Comments

  • Comment by: Kristin Minus - 3 Mar 2024, 13:51 (42 days ago)

    Continue to do well u are awesome man. And Continue to think out loud.

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