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Girls on Deck: One of the Boys

Lisa in engine room 140

Before I started working professionally on ‘proper-sized’ yachts, I mostly did freelance boat work. I did deliveries on sailing boats, day work and a few gigs as a stewardess/ deckhand on small motor yachts.

I hoisted sails, climbed masts, did watches, polished anything shiny, cleaned toilets and made beds. Anything to make a couple of bucks to pay for a bed, a well-deserved beer and a can of tuna at the end of the day. It was a carefree nomadic life, moving from one exotic location to the next, meeting loads of people doing the same sort of things as me.

I didn’t ever consider making a career out of the superyacht industry. I looked at yachting the same way my friends did- as seasonal work.  It provided me with a means of getting from one place to the next, fuelled by the bit of cash I made along the way. It was an adventure.

anegada yacht at anchor2

One day, some years into this gypsy lifestyle, I received a phone call about a temp job in the Caribbean. It came from a 70 meter motor yacht looking for a crew member for a 10 day charter, who'd got my number from a friend I’d met on my travels (networking is key!). I had a chat with a gentleman on the motor yacht about my past experience on boats and then he asked how I was with young children. Everything was going fine until that moment when I blurted out, “Well, I don’t murder them!”

I froze; I was about to find out if the gentleman I was speaking to had a sense of humour or not. He laughed. “Why don’t we meet face to face tomorrow and chat some more over a coffee?” he said. I couldn’t believe my luck, I was stoked; this seemed like a big step up for me.

Now imagine my surprise the next day when I found out that the gentleman across the table from me was the owner of the boat! He ordered us coffee and gave me a quick run-down of the job. Within minutes he had hired me as a nanny to take care of a three year old for the trip.

Lisa driving tender with chief stew 600That first charter was an eye opening experience. This was hard-core superyacht business, very different to the casual jobs I’d done before. Crazy long hours, what seemed like insane requests from the guests, and wealth like I’d never seen before! It was like a scene out of The Great Gatsby.

As it turned out, the three year old was a real angel, and I even got to help out on deck here and there when I was needed. The 10 days flew by. I left the ship with good pay in my back pocket, a massive tip and a broad smile.

A couple of days later I was offered a permanent position on that same boat. I was a bit hesitant at first; giving up my carefree gypsy lifestyle for a steady job was a big step for me back then. But they offered me a position as a deckhand, which seemed to me like a badass job! Especially as it is generally a male dominated role, and yet there I was in the midst of it, a girl. It seemed like an awesome challenge, too sweet to pass up.

Lisa in engine room 600Yet when I joined the boat in the Mediterranean, I was a bit intimidated by life as a deckhand. No amount of batting my eyelashes, sweet smiles or charm was going to get me out of the real work. I had to put my butt into gear to keep up with the big guys on board. I had to prove myself to be worthy on deck.

It was very frustrating to begin with. Many times jobs were taken out of my hands because one of those big burly lads thought he could do it faster- or better- than I could. I was brought to tears more often than I’d like to admit (in private of course). I had to suck it up, and show some (imaginary) balls. I had to do stuff that actually scared me a bit sometimes. I had to open my mouth to be heard. I had to stand my ground and take back from those big tough lads the jobs I'd been given. I had to show confidence, even though by that stage it was somewhere in the bilges - the lowest part of a boat - just to earn some respect.

Now, after some years, with many voyages and several maritime certificates under my belt, these experiences have given me the confidence to sit comfortably in my role as bosun on a 70 meter megayacht. I would never have dreamed in my first season that someday I would be in a responsible deck position on a ship. Now the boys have no choice but to listen to me!

lisa sitting in tender 600

There are still times when I have to prove myself to others though. I think that is part of any industry, especially the maritime industry, where everything happens in a hierarchy. It’s also quite traditional; sometimes guests don’t feel that comfortable having a girl drive them around in a tender, so I feel I need to be an exceptional tender driver to put their doubts at rest. Other times guests get a real kick out of a girl “man handling” these powerful boats. I definitely feel some pride when I dock the tender perfectly while other tenders and their (male) drivers have several tries, becoming increasingly embarrassed.

I sand and I varnish, I air-hammer the hell out of stuff and prime and paint. I’ve cleaned all three fuel tanks down in the engine room with the female deck/stew, while the chief engineer looked on with some amusement. I work over the side of the boat in the bosun’s chair and clean portholes. I even climb up the mast to give it a rub-a-dub scrub. I hang in the crane slings with wave-runners and tenders. I love it. I get a kick out of it every day when people look on in disbelief.

girls on deck 600

I often have stewardesses tell me they would love to work on deck. In some girls I definitely see the potential, in others not so much. I think they see my tan, and how much fun it appears to be when the deck crew take guests out for water sports. And I do get to hang out with well-polished cute guys on deck all day!

But these same stewardesses forget about my bruised legs and chipped nails, sunburn and the amount of bumps I have collected on my skull over the years.

Sexy is the last thing that comes to mind when you’re drenched in sweat in dirty clothes and your hair has taken the shape of a poodle that has just been to the hairdresser. Or that half the people you meet on and off the boats think you're a lesbian because you work on deck (and perhaps because of the ridiculously short haircut I have, but that’s another story.)

Lisa Antarctica penguins 600

Even though I often feel like a glorified cleaner, I still have one of the coolest jobs around. It’s not for everyone, that’s for sure. The often long hours, time away from home, and never being in one place long enough to make meaningful friendships ashore can be a bit hard sometimes. It’s hard to explain to people with no boating background just what this kind of life is like - my mother still tells people I work on a cruise ship. But I still think it’s a great opportunity and I wouldn’t change it for anything. I would recommend it to anyone who is in search of a good challenge, and some adventure on the high seas.

I may have had a tough time in the beginning, but it was all worth it. Every day I get to work, hang, and be one of the boys. We have some good laughs, and some good arguments. That’s just life on board a ship. You have to make room for everyone’s differences and just get on with it. I can make jokes with the captain, and swear like a sailor. Looking back on it all, I think I’ve done quite well for myself. 

*All photos courtesy of author, except photo of sailing yacht at anchor by Kansasphoto via Flickr (CC 2.0)

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