Are you on board for Christmas this year? Or maybe you’re at home? Are you a Christmas lover or a hater? I’ve always been the former, but I have to say even I found Christmases on board a yacht a bit challenging. In fact, I probably found them harder, because when you are a Christmas lover, that usually means you are more than a little attached to YOUR Christmas traditions. Most of us could describe to you what a Christmas ‘back home’ looks, smells and tastes like, whether that’s roaring open fires and wintery walks or beach BBQs. The one thing most of us have in mind is family and friends.
Now yachts run counter to nearly all of that. There are no lifelong traditions on yachts, no family. They are by definition places of transience; of new acquaintances, work and travel. For most of the year those were usually exactly what I wanted: novelty and fun and adventure and friends, but at Christmas time? That wasn’t what I wanted at all. I wanted to be bunkered down at home with my nearest and dearest.
The run up to a Christmas on board probably messed with my head more than the day itself. I would see my more settled friends from home posting pictures of their kids’ nativity plays, trees and decorations going up in their cosy looking homes and my commitment to my globetrotting life of freedom would waver. I’d start to doubt my choices, wonder if I should stop and settle down. I’d get, dare I say it, a bit morose. Give me one too many shmaltzy softly lit supermarket adverts of families laughing around glasses of prosecco and sausage rolls and I’d fall into a proper gloom.
Now that is not to say that I didn’t make sure I had a good amount of fun. I’d usually have a little cry in my cabin, dust myself off, put my reindeer antlers on and go out and make sure I had a good festive party, on charter or not. But it would definitely feel a little odd. The best scenario I enjoyed was when our Jewish charter guests in St Barths very sweetly announced that they were aware Christmas might be a big day for some of the crew. They said they were going to spend the day ashore and so please would we enjoy ourselves and the boat. I have some great memories of howling with laughter at the deckhand wakeboarding around the anchorage dressed as Santa waving at kids he saw on other yachts. The wholesome, if unconventional, scene was marred slightly when he mooned at us on his final lap, but he was 22 and Australian so it only seemed correct.
We followed up with swims and rosé and a big Christmas lunch in the crew mess. My only wobble amidst the sunsoaked busyness and hilarity was a call home to my family. My worst Christmas was probably the year I was temping aboard a big well-known charter yacht in housekeeping. The day was pure grind. I remember crawling about cabin floors combing rug tassels crying quietly to myself and wondering what on earth I was doing with my life.
The thing is though, that not everyone has a great family at home. Not everyone loves Christmas. Christmas can in fact be a brutal time for people who have lost loved ones, whose parents have acrimoniously split, who have relatives they cannot stand. I often think this time of year is quite cruel in its constant peddling of the ideal family gathered around the tree. So many people have lives which look nothing like this and yachting can provide quite a good escape from all of that.
There can be something uniquely liberating about a yacht Christmas. The fact that it looks very different to any on-land experience can be comforting. Admittedly gazing off the side deck into the turquoise of the Bahamas is slightly more uplifting than into the haze of grey cranes in a Dutch shipyard, but on the whole, if avoiding Christmas is your jam, then a yacht is a good safe-haven.
For those who don’t have significant others or kids, the loneliness monster is also held at bay. For the most part you’re unlikely to be alone on a yacht and a lot of us have good friends among our crew mates. I’ve heard a few hard tales over the years of sole watch-keepers left on board – not a fun scenario- but if you are on charter, have the boss on or are just somewhere you can get off the boat and enjoy a knees-up with some other floating crew, the day can fly by with less heartache.
I always love hearing other crew’s Christmas traditions from home and their stories about their favourite parts of the day - I feel like I have collected some traditions and loves of Christmases around the world. So even though some of those years away were filled with a longing for home, I know now that I love the French custom of a big seafood platter on Christmas Eve. I know the sheer joy of sunny festive rum-punches in Antigua’s Nelson’s dockyard, the beauty of strolling under the lights down Borne in Palma. Every yachty collects some good and bad festive experiences along the way and has some good tales to tell.
Maybe it’s a good idea to be on the lookout for the colleague who doesn’t say much about Christmas at all. They may be missing home so badly, or missing the home they never had. That crew mate who volunteers to be on at Christmas may have griefs or heartaches they have never told you, and maybe a bit of festive cheer sent their way on the day could help them out. The rotational officer on board may be desperately missing his kids so if he’s a bit grouchy on Christmas morning, maybe persevere and get him to come into the crew mess for a drink and a chat. I don’t know…I guess if there’s ever a time of year we can all try and be there for each other, if we are on board, it’s this one.
Christmas and yachts are a strange combination, but it can work out to be quite fun. I hope you all have a wonderful one, and if you don’t, then maybe at least a big fat tip at the end of it, a belated holiday in the new year or at the very least a Secret Santa gift that isn’t total tat (for the love of God deckies, not a sex toy AGAIN!).
I know there will be some sadness, some painful pangs and calls home to mums and dads. There will be nieces and nephews receiving strangely excessive gifts from their absent yachty uncles and aunties, there will probably also be much drunkenness and mistletoe snogs. If it’s a lonely one, know this: it will pass, and pass quickly, and before you know it, we’ll be into a fresh new year when anything is possible.
This sea gypsy life isn’t for everyone, but those of us who chose it get to experience so much wonder all year round, maybe some slightly wonky Christmases are the price we pay for it… and nothing is forever. One day we’ll be the elderly ones telling disbelieving relatives about our Christmases spent zipping movie stars into wetsuits, snorkelling with turtles or polishing winches in West Palm. Whatever your plans, here’s to creating tall tales of the future, and Merry Christmas!