Watching a guest slip below the ocean’s surface and begin the drowning process is an intense way to start the day. Truth be told, the boss’ latest, stunningly good looking, albeit so, so stupid squeeze took her first steps towards a watery grave the minute she set foot on the boat. This was her first time on board and she wanted to spend the morning indulging, what she declared was, her favourite past time. Snorkelling.
So into the tender we piled and while the boss and his right-hand man sealed deals on the bow, I watched this girl struggle to decide where her mask and snorkel would best be attached to her body. With a bit of encouragement, she eventually settled on the head and I went about removing the fins from her hands, sliding them onto her feet and asking, was she really up to this? After assuring me she was as comfortable in the ocean as in front of a camera, she fumbled her way onto the side of the tender and flopped into the sea.
The owner and his amigo continued to talk shop, occasionally throwing Miss Universe a glance, while I removed my watch, which doesn’t claim to be waterproof. In fairness, this girl was handling herself better than expected but she was clearly no mermaid.
Within minutes though the expected arrived with a flurry of activity. She’d taken a mouthful of sea water and was trying to cough up all her internal organs while flailing her arms in an attempt to climb some emergency escape ladder into the sky.
In the four seconds it took to pull alongside her, she’d managed to compose herself and give the universal OK finger salute. Then she sank. I’ve never seen anyone drop quite like this. It seemed a fish had accidentally pulled out the plug on the seabed floor metres below and she was being sucked down.
I dived in immediately, freshly ironed white polo, shorts, shoes, VHF, sunnies and all, to save this girl from ending up in the boat’s galley freezer while we worked out the cheapest way to courier her home.
Eventually she was wrestled back to the tender, seemingly oblivious to the seriousness of the whole situation. The boss thought it was the most entertaining thing since last Sunday's episode of America's Funniest Home Videos.
At the time I didn’t think much of it. Life saved, job done, what’s for lunch? But then my mind began to wander. This girl was sharing a bed with a guy whose dog only drinks Perrier. Surely if he forks out €2.90 every time his mutt is parched, one could expect a stack of Euros the size of a Big Mac for the guy who saved his girl’s life. I wasn’t even served a ‘thank you’.
This didn’t bother me because on a private boat tips are accepted as being few and far between. It did, however, spark my curiosity; if saving a life doesn’t warrant a tip, then what does? I’ve heard stories through the mooring lines of deckies putting out a fire on board and being showered in gold coins and given the keys to the boss’ summer house as a result.
A stewardess I know was given a cool €3,000 because the boss liked the fact her name was the same as the one written on the side of the boat and another fellow comrade was given €500 to buy a loaf of bread to feed the ducks with the owner’s son. He was told to keep the change. Obviously the extremity of a tip reflects the generosity of the tipper, but I’d doubt the tipper realises the implications their act of kindness can have among a crew.
One for you, one for me
How tips are split between a crew can make for a happy bunch of sailors or a divided pack of whispering gremlins. As per most things on a boat, this generally stems from el capitano’s orders. Tips either: go in the hat, are scaled depending on who has the most hair on their chest, or it’s every crew member for themselves. Call me a communist but I like the idea that all crew are created equal, when it comes to keeping the guests happy, so lock in option one.
Naturally the captain, deck and interior department will have the most to do with the guests, so they’re most likely to receive the golden handshakes for late night tender runs and cheese toastie deliveries to the Jacuzzi. However, the seldom seen engineers are vital for ensuring tenders make it from A to B, the hot tub is hot and the machine that grills bread, does so evenly.
The boat I work on was recently lent to some of the boss’ friends who liked to tip (a rarity around these parts). Instinctively, some of the crew put their personal backhanders into the bucket, while others kept their little bit on the side quiet. But keeping secrets on a boat is harder than licking your elbow and many an awkward crew mess conversation followed.
In fairness, the interior team were worked harder on this trip than the other departments. As a result, they had more time with the guests and so naturally, they were in the firing line when Benjamin Franklins were being shot around the boat. But the argument is everyone’s expertises were called upon at some stage to make this the perfect holiday for 14 individuals. And so the tips were pulled and split evenly. Here’s where I’ll happily contradict myself. If I had been given a tip for my life saving efforts, would I feel I had to split it? None of the other crew helped stop this woman from having a look in Davie Jones’ locker.
Tainted by the tip
There comes a point though when too much tip talk can be detrimental to one’s health. To my knowledge, no one works on a charter boat for the fun of a sleep-deprived breakdown. It’s about the money. The promise of a big fat envelope is why crew put up with long hours, often excruciatingly demanding guests and little contact with the outside world.
But in this game nothing is ever as it seems. A fellow crewmember of mine recently shifted to the private yacht business because he was sick of being ‘consumed by the tip’. The well known charter boat he left had recently endured six straight weeks with guests on board. By all accounts, more tears were made than fresh water during this trip but the crew persevered, safe in the knowledge there would be a fat red envelope waiting at the end.
Come disembark day, the guests strolled off the boat, leaving the crew with only an almighty mess to clean up. Naturally everyone was devastated. Thoughts of extravagant holidays, shiny new toys and layers of gold jewellery were sunk in an instant.
So how can this be avoided? The Mediterranean Yacht Brokers Association (MYBA) encourages charter guests to leave a tip of 5 to 15 percent. But to prevent situations like the aforementioned, it should be mandatory that charterers read the Saudi Royal family’s Big Book of Holiday Etiquette before boarding a yacht.
Chapter one outlines the idea behind dumping a massive pile of cash in the crew mess before the guests have even taken their shoes off. That way guests know the level of service they can expect and crew know what to deliver. This pile tends to be topped up half way through a trip.
Many yachties will argue they provide the best possible service at all times, and so on and so forth. Let’s be frank, if a crew is rewarded before they begin, then of course they’ll squeeze in an extra smile, or mini umbrella into a drink, where possible. If you go to a busy, up-market bar, you can expect the best service. But attach a fifty to the first round for the barman’s pocket and you’ll be served before any other patron all night. Another injection halfway through the evening and soon you’ll be behind the bar trying to think of a name for the cocktail you just invented.
Insult or ungrateful?
Back in the land of private boats, those in my boss’ circle of trust will sometimes leave a few bob for the crew. Just a small token. However, this, by some, is seen as more of an insult than anything. Through the wonders of the internet and the curiosity of an idle mind on night watch, we were able to discover the net worth of one our guests was last recorded at a nice round $10 billion. Upon leaving our boat after a 10 day trip, he left each crewmember with a crisp $100 note.
Was that a reflection on the service, the nature of our private boat status, or simply how he got to be so rich? Of course it was great to get in a free round at the bar that night, but some little yachting monster in the back of my mind was beginning to escape.
Since that trip, our boat has been given the all clear to charter and now even the mere mention of the ‘C’ word sends the crew mental. Theories as to how many extra people we’d need to run the boat and how that would affect the size of our envelope are now freely passed around the crew mess like hot sauce on hamburger day. That’s sad, especially seeing as no charters have been booked.
And until that happens, I’ve vowed to keep the yachting monster at bay. As I type these words, our guests have just delivered a mixed box of chocolates to the crew mess and I’m overjoyed at the gesture. Now – just to ensure the deck crew receive more than the engineers…
For more from Eugene, read 'Dropped in at the Deep End'