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How Chief Officer Wesley Walton is Championing Sustainable Yachting

Growing up in Johannesburg, Wesley Walton joined the superyacht industry seven years ago and is now a chief officer working on rotation on the 58m Illusion V. 

Crediting a strong work ethic and passion for the role to his success – Wesley was made bosun at the young age of 25 – he now works on rotation on the 58m Illusion V, with a daily to-do list that includes everything from people management and training to passage planning, managing contractors and coordinating guest trips alongside the captain. And if you think you recognise Wesley, you’re probably right – he was a star on the show Below Deck, an experience he recalls as “heaps of fun.”

But it’s not all fun and games for Wesley, who is also extremely passionate about ocean conservation, and as a SEA ambassador with Seastainable Yachting, he is deeply committed to his role in helping the industry have a less harmful effect on the planet.

Here Wesley talks us through his most fond memories of his time on board, the experiences gained during his 14 years as a scuba diving instructor, and why he is intent on creating awareness around the damaging effects of the industry on the marine environment.

Can you tell us a little about your background? Where did you grow up and when did you first realise your passion for the sea?

I was born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa, which begs the question, how did I find a passion for the ocean while being so far away from it? I remember as a kid my parents spoilt us and took us on a cruise for a holiday, and my dad joking and saying I should work on a cruise liner one day to travel the world. It wasn’t until I finished university and was researching gap year jobs that I stumbled across the yachting industry and recalled what my father said those many years before. I have now been in the yachting industry for nine years and haven’t looked back.

How did you get into the industry and what was your first job?

After some research, I spent all my savings from being a sports coach throughout university on my entry-level courses. I then diligently searched and applied for jobs until I finally found my break and landed a position on a great dual season boat with a phenomenal team that mentored me. Ever since that experience I have always tried my best to hire green crew when possible, as I know how hard it is to get that first permanent position.

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What style of yacht do you enjoy working on most?

I have worked on a variety of yachtsm but my absolute favourites have been the off the beaten track yachts. Tracking polar bears in the Arctic to diving with manta rays in Raja Ampat.  During my time in the industry I have been lucky enough to sail five of the seven seas and have crossed both the equator and the artic circle.

You became a bosun at just 25 – you must have a very strong work ethic?

I owe my work ethic to my family and my upbringing. I remember my father saying from a young age: “If you are going to do a job, do it properly or don’t do it at all.” Ever since that day I realised I needed to be proud of everything I put my name on.

You are currently rotational chief officer of the 58m Illusion V – what’s the scope of your role on a day-to-day basis.

A chief officer’s role is very involved and has a large scope including people management, training, organizing drills, passage planning, ensuring all mandatory certificates and audits are up-to-date, managing contractors and coordinating guest trips alongside the captain, passage. However it’s very rewarding, especially once you see crew starting to develop their skills and see guests smiles after a good trip.

How long do you spend at sea on a typical rotation?

There are many different types of rotations, however I am currently on a 4/2 rotation, which means I work four months and then get two months off depending on the yacht’s schedule. My previous eight years have all been 30 days leave per year.

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How would you describe your leadership skills?

I believe in earning the respect of your crew by leading by example and investing your time in training and teaching.

What do you love most about the job?

It’s hard to ignore the fact that travel has a huge appeal, however the aspect I love the most is meeting people of all ages, all backgrounds and all walks of life. So many people that I have met in this industry have become family and life long friends.

Managing people is also the most challenging but rewarding part of the job. You have to understand and acknowledge different cultures, languages and ages.

How did you get involved with Seastainable Yachting?

During the initial first Covid outbreak, Gemma, the founder of Seastainable Yachting, and myself got in touch over Instagram. We both found we had a huge passion for the environment and protecting it for future generations.

What does it mean to you to be a SEA ambassador?

SEA is a great company that is starting to ask the yachting industry the tough questions about their impact on the environment, but they also give guidance and put steps in place that will help the industry as a whole to reduce their waste and have a less harmful effect on the planet. It’s simply exciting to see what they are doing, and I love to help offer help where I can or at least help create awareness through social media.

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What are your thoughts on the mindset surrounding sustainability in the industry?

There is definitely a shift towards sustainability. This is very evident in the new hybrid design of yachts, strict international legislation around pollution, and the new lifestyle choices of people in general (more people being conscious of single use plastic, diets etc.). There are of course some difficult conversations to be had, however even just having these conversations is a step in the right direction even if you get an unwanted outcome now.

What sustainable practices do you personally try to implement on board?

We stay as best we can away from harmful cleaning products and single use plastics. One thing the yacht has done that is quite neat is it has installed CO2 into our filled tap system so that we don’t have to use bottled water. It would be great if we could, in the near future, move to ethical/up cycled uniform and bamboo tooth brushes.

You appeared on Bravo’s Below Deck – how would you describe the experience and would you ever return for a future season if asked?

Below Deck was actually a lot more difficult than my other yacht jobs. Imagine your every move and mistake being recorded for the world to see. This being said, I had a heap of fun. Getting to know the production team and how to learn how a series is filmed and recorded was great. I would consider it again, however there is a point were you have to ask yourself: “Do I want to take this career seriously or become a reality TV star?” It’s not easy to have both.

Which are your favourite cruising grounds?

I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the ice of the Arctic, however my favourite place in the would be Raja Ampat, also Know as ‘The Last Paradise’.

You have 14 years of scuba diving experience – where is your favourite place to dive?

I have been incredibly spoilt and have been able to dive all over the world and with some incredible creatures. If I had to choose one place it would be Komodo, Indonesia. I was welcomed by 43 manta rays on my first dive. Then on your surface interval you get to see komodo dragons walking on the nearby island and beaches.

Where do you see yourself in five years? Or ten?

That’s a tough question that I feel like I have been asking myself a lot lately. I do know I would like to use my experience in the hospitality industry and start an excusive eco-safari lodge , potentially with an attached conservation program.

Tell us a lesser-known fact about yourself that would surprise your colleagues?

I feel some might not know this, but I am actually a very shy person!

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career so far?

The most important lesson I have learnt is that you have to have the difficult conversations, you cannot run and hide. The best approach is to take any situation head on and be as transparent and honest as possible.

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