Ilija Dimitrijevic used to have what many people would consider the dream job…running two diving schools in the beautiful waters of Croatia and Montenegro. A chance encounter led to him organising dives for a superyacht owner and a few years down the line, he is now captain of one of Benetti’s finest examples, MY Ocean Paradise.
Launched in June last year, the 55m Isle of Man registered vessel is currently in the Benetti shipyard in Livorno being prepared for the summer season, which gave Ilija a rare chance to chat with OO in Monaco on a day out of the yard about life in charge of one of the world’s most desirable charter yachts.
‘At the moment I am doing the boring side of a captain’s job which is paperwork,’ says Ilija with a smile. ‘When a boat is over 500 tonnes and commercially registered for charters, it requires a full set of certificates and is treated as a merchant vessel. She did her first charters last summer and won a few awards when she was presented by Benetti at the Monaco Boat Show last year.’
Ilija doesn’t hesitate when asked about the advantages of working on new builds as opposed to older craft. ‘It’s a good feeling to be involved with a yacht right from the start of its life,’ he says. ‘This is the fifth new build I’ve worked on in my career - I have never worked on an old boat. My previous yachts were all Italian builds by different shipyards and the crew all start at the same level.
‘It can be stressful because some departments are not so happy staying in the yard unless they are involved in the build. They don’t feel like it’s their moment. Often chefs are unhappy in the yard but they are happier if they are part of the team helping to choose kitchen equipment, making sure it’s functional and practical with enough storage and space to produce the food.’
With every piece of kit from cutlery, china and glass bought new, fitting out a superyacht worth many millions can be ‘a tricky field to navigate’ according to Ilija. ‘Everything has to be approved by the owners or whoever stands in front of them,’ he adds. ‘Some owners don’t have the time to make those decisions themselves so you have to guess what they like and be in touch with their assistants throughout the whole process.’ It’s why Ocean Paradise’s owners also employ Project Manager and Vessel Superintendent Giles Roberts, who supervises the process of construction, being their eyes in the yard for the whole duration of the build.
It’s all a long way from Ilija’s roots in old Yugoslavia. A keen water sports enthusiast, he started swimming competitively at the age of 8 in freestyle, 50m, 100m and 200m races and was a professional swimmer until he turned 23. ‘I am from Belgrade so I competed for most of my career for Yugoslavia and latterly, for Serbia,’ he says. ‘I took part in the World Cup and European Swimming Championships although I never stood on the podium,’ he adds with a laugh.
He started scuba diving, opening diving schools in Montenegro and Croatia as well as a commercial diving company, drawing up project plans and carrying out certified welding inspections for anyone building a port, breakwater, pipeline or any kind of underwater project involving welding. ‘I did that for a few years but I saw the limitations and didn’t see myself doing it forever,’ he admits.
Ilija made the leap from being in water to on water in 2001 after a shipyard manager friend at ISA Ancona intervened. ‘He put me forward for a client of his who had a 43m yacht and was crazy about scuba diving,’ Ilija recalls. ‘He wanted someone on board to dive all summer with him off the Croatian and Greek coast. I knew those coastlines well and dived a lot with him although I was officially a deckhand. I had a Captain’s license for 200 tonnes but it wasn’t recognised by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency so I had to start again from scratch. I loved the job so it wasn’t a problem to retrain.’
Ilija worked his way up, joining the 62m Benetti MY Bistango five years ago as chief officer. ‘I was lucky, I was working closely with the captain Tony Griffith from day one. I was trained for rotation and challenged on a daily basis which is an amazing way to learn. When the opportunity to captain Ocean Paradise came, I felt ready for it.’
With a packed summer schedule looming, including the Monaco Grand Prix and Cannes Film Festival, Ilija is gearing up for a busy charter season. ‘We have a lot of bookings and we are going to be in Turkey, Greece, Italy, France, Croatia and Montenegro. That’s the nice fun part of the job, planning the itinerary and talking about where clients would like to go.’
Ilija enjoys the challenges of a charter as opposed to a private yacht and takes pride in his team being able to provide the perfect getaway for all kinds of guests. ‘The majority of private yachts are not as busy as charters except when the owners live on board,’ he explains.
‘Every charter is a project, so we try to find out what the clients like and style the whole atmosphere to suit the client’s needs. With younger guests, the crew will be busier doing sports and sightseeing, whereas other weeks we have older guests who want to enjoy the boat and just relax on board.
With what sounds like the near perfect job, is there anything that keeps Ilija awake at night? ‘Crew management is a major issue on a boat with 12 or more crew,’ he admits. ‘Making them feel happy and motivated to do their job is probably the hardest thing to achieve and it’s a daily issue. There are two types of people in yachting crew - the ones who are there for a while and the people who see themselves doing this as a career. A captain has to recognise that and fit people to work together and treat them equally. It requires patience, skill and human management.
‘In the middle of the season when we are working long hours, people get tired, stressed, nervous and anxious but they can’t leave or go for a beer at the bar to unwind. It can be hard. A well-managed boat that goes through the season without changing crew is a big success. Often there is a generation gap and it’s like parents and children clashing. The captain’s role is to make people talk to each other but sometimes you almost have to be a psychologist!’
With his family - wife Manuela and one year old daughter Katerina – based in Viareggio just 35km away from the boat, Ilija counts himself lucky to be able to combine his family life and career fairly easily.
‘My wife Manuela spent 14 years on yachts as a chef and a chief stewardess so she understands and knows why I can’t always answer the phone!’ he adds with a smile. ‘It can be hard if you’re working through the charter and sometimes not calling home for 36 hours. You are on call pretty much round the clock. If there is an email at 11pm, I have to answer it.
‘Living near the boat is a huge advantage. Viareggio is great, there is a long stretch of restaurants, bars, hotels, clubs and shopping areas as well as all the major Italian shipyards like Benetti, Azimut, Codecasa, Perini, Mangusta and Sanlorenzo, everyone is there. It used to be the base for mainly Italian crew but now it’s more like Antibes and more international. Two crew training schools recently opened and it’s growing fast.
'I swim in Viareggio two or three times a week and go scuba diving at weekends off Elba and Gorgonia. In the winter, we go snowboarding which is the advantage to being in this area. We are three hours from France, 20 minutes from Pisa airport, one hour from Florence and two and a half hours from Rome. We have the best wine region and an amazing truffle festival in Tuscany.’
While enjoying his first captain’s post immensely, Ilija is looking to expand into new build project management eventually. ‘I speak Italian now so that opens a new dimension and in the future I can see myself doing project management on new builds as I have quite a bit of experience already.’ In the meantime though, the Mediterranean beckons.