“It’s just a flesh wound,” I said, as I sucked the blood off my finger. I smiled at the Filipino stewardess.
“Yes, I know. You cut your finger. It is little – not bad.” She looked at me oddly, as if thinking, hypochondriac. It’s practically a paper cut.
“Monty Python?” I said hopefully. Blank look. “The Black Knight, he gets his arm chopped off, but he yells, ‘Come back here and fight, you pansy! It’s just a flesh…’” I stopped. Why bother? She’s Filipino: I can hardly expect her to know Monty Python. I go back to putting a plaster on my finger, happily muttering, “I say Ni to you” to myself, while she wandered off down the corridor, no doubt thinking: “Why are all Westerners nuts?”
I mention this here because this conversation reflects a change occurring in the crew dynamic on motoryachts.
The monopoly of British and Antipodean crew on large motoryachts is at an end. The Asian century is upon us, Eastern Europeans are on the move, and South American merchant seamen have discovered the superyacht industry. The influx of Filipinos, Romanians and Brazilians is slowly altering the culture of the crew mess. Predictably, not all are happy about the change. Some objections are grounded in reason, some in emotion. Some are justifiable, some flat-out racist. Most are just the normal human reaction to change.
The Language Barrier: Where’s the Blue Tape?
When speaking about this to crew working with non-Westerners, the first objection is always that of language. Confusion on the radios, for example. When docking, or dealing with an engineering emergency, sharing the same language to a high competency is vital. There is no denying this. Yet, asking around, nobody could tell me of one incident where a serious accident occurred because of language barriers. Mind you, there are days where I do become frustrated with all the different accents on the radio.
Yet if we’re going to start with unintelligible accents, let’s just start with the British Isles. Yorkshiremen – what the hell are they saying? Glaswegians? Utter gibberish. Quick-talkers – adios, cheffy! Mumblers? Ciao, engineer. Should we then get rid of South Africans because their abrupt accents sometimes come across as rude and they won’t stop saying “hectic”? Australians because they say things like “What, didn’t get a root? Spewing, mate.” Kiwis because they sound like they’re talking about sex every time they say “six”?
My point here, of course, is that while a command of English is important, we all have our funny accents and colloquialisms, and I’ve found you get used to everyone’s on the radio after a week or two. Except the Glaswegians – never them.
Having said this, I do object to other languages being spoken over the radio. Obviously, there are exceptions – like when two people have to revert to their mother tongue to explain something technical, or serious time-pressure applies. Some might argue that the conversation in, say, Tagalog, about laundry detergent really didn’t concern anyone else and has no bearing on anyone else’s job.
But crew learn a lot about what is happening on the yacht through radio-chat. Detailing a cabin, we can hear that the engineers are busy working on something stressful, and we won’t bother them to change a lightbulb (it takes too many stewardesses). If we are looking for the wetvac, we can guess where it is because there’s been a spill in the forepeak. And sure, conversations about blue-tape aren’t life-and-death, but then, the interior would definitely love to know where the secret stash is that we know full well you boys hide from us. Furthermore, radio-chat is important for camaraderie. If there is a joke going on, I want to know what it is. I am stuck in a cabin cleaning a bidet plug with a toothpick. I could do with a laugh.
We native English speakers could also make it a bit easier for the non-Western crew. After all, learning a language is hard. And after a day’s work, it is understandable that people just want to relax and talk to people in their own language. I often see English-speaking crew refuse to slow down when talking to non-native speakers, or using big words where they could have used small ones. When I pointed this out to a crew member, he said, “It’s an English-speaking boat, they need to learn; I’m not slowing down.”
This is indicative of the arrogance and laziness of English speakers. We have the global language; everyone adapts to us. Necessity, after all, is the mother of mastering verb conjugation tables. It is brave to start a job in a new language, a new culture. It is to be admired, and deserves respect. Reach out to the non-English speaking crew. Make an effort. Your crew will be closer for it.
Money, Money, Money
The Filipinos and Eastern Europeans often view money in a different light. They come from countries where the government will not catch you if you fall. Countries where economic survival is tough, wages are low and job security is vital. They often have wives and children back home, and extended families to support with their lovely yachting wages. As a result, they will work hard, and crucially, they will stay.
The longevity of non-Western crew tends to be excellent. Where a 25-year-old Kiwi might stay two years on one yacht, a Filipino will often stay five, even 10. In my experience, because of the sacrifice they have made to be away from their families, these crew also tend to be less inclined to get involved in yacht politics. From a yacht’s perspective, by hiring a non-Western crewmember, they have gained a hard worker, with good longevity, who will largely stay out of the political maelstrom that occasionally engulfs the crew mess. This sounds suspiciously like a perfect crewmember. However, this disinclination to spend money or get involved in the amateur dramatics of crew life also comes at a cost.
One chief stew said to me about her heavily Filipino crew: “They never come out with us, unless the boat is paying. They just stick to themselves, they never want to spend money, and I feel like we’re two different crews.” I have heard variations of this complaint many times, and I confess that I have, on occasion, agreed with that sentiment.
The non-Western contingent doesn’t tend to come out to dinner unless the boat is paying. They also seem to have a puzzling aversion to drinking whole vats of alcohol in a single sitting and then stealing a shopping trolley, especially when that bar session could have paid for a whole month’s rent back in Bulgaria. And because drinking binds us and divides us, the crew who are not out socialising tend to form a separate group, not privy to the shopping trolley jolly of the night before. Before long, you find the crew dynamic splintering more and more, until one end of the crew mess table is a huddle of people speaking in a different language.
This is not ideal. But is it so bad? After all, there are always groups within a group, regardless of nationality. We gravitate to the people who understand us, not just linguistically, but emotionally and through shared experience.
On large yachts, divisions fall largely along departmental lines – the ones we spend all day with. The stews tend to spend time together drinking wine and bitching about empty cups being left in the sink; the deckies travel in a pack trying to pick up; while the engineer and captain continue their little bromance –heading off on a “vital provisioning mission,’’ only to be found hours later drinking beer in a café in a boules park.
On large yachts, officers stick together. So do people of the same age…you get my point. These support mechanisms are important – even vital – for they allow crew to stay longer, to create a work and home life they enjoy. So while it may not be great that the crew don’t all come out to play together, it’s not hurting anyone. And, hey – you’ll always have someone to do your watch.
The ‘No South Africans On My Boat’ Rule...
Are some nationalities just better yacht crew?
I have worked on several boats with a ‘No South African’ rule imposed by the captain. The reason given is usually the visa issues they face, followed quickly by: “and they had servants themselves, so they have troubles being one.” Or the other common complaint: that they are used to being cleaned up after and having their washing done for them, leading to some friction with the stewardesses. But if that is true, then why are so many South Africans successful in the industry? Why are so many that I’ve worked with such excellent team players? And, if we’re honest, don’t many of us struggle with owners’ demands and the realisation that, in their minds, we will never even approach being equals?
I mean, who among us, from any country, is overjoyed when a charter guest blows his nose, gestures at you brusquely and growls, “You, take,” and you scurry across the deck to take his snotty tissue from his outstretched hand? Or when a 6-year-old Draco Malfoy, with perfect blonde ringlets, sees you at the cabin door and says, “Oh mummy, the servant’s looking for you. It’s the stupid one from last night – the one who forgot to set a fish knife for my scallops.” These moments are thankfully rare, but anyone who grew up either with money, servants, or in a country with a sense of opportunity is likely to have some teething troubles with their new servitude.
Coming from a country where class is the great unmentionable (it is the giant pink kangaroo hopping frantically about in the corner of the room), it can be hard for an Australian to come to grips with the level of subservience often required on yachts.
For example, to try and teach an Australian to not speak unless spoken to is an exercise in futility. ‘’What? I’m not allowed to say good morning to the boss until he acknowledges me? Tell him he’s dreaming.”
Yet despite this starting position of ignorance about the gaping chasm between the server and the served, Australians have adapted to the requirements and become one of the most prevalent nationalities to be found in the industry. The same, of course, can be said of South Africans who grew up with servants, public-school English boys and Eastern Europeans who come from well-connected families.
While perhaps there is some truth that certain nationalities cope better with certain things – for example that Filipinos handle the demands of difficult guests without fuss, and that the English tend to have a better innate understanding of the class divide between the ‘have-nots’ and the ‘have-yachts’ – my experience is that if someone wants a job badly enough, they will usually adapt their behaviour accordingly, no matter where they’re from. Those that won’t (or can’t) don’t tend to stay in the industry long anyway.
The Controversials: Girls, Gays and Religion
Having grown up in different cultures, it is inevitable that on a yacht, crew views on gender, sexuality and religion will sometimes differ. But these differences also occur within our own cultures, and it’s easy to attribute something to being culturally specific just because you don’t agree with it. Let me give some examples.
An Eastern European first mate recently told me he would never, ever hire a girl on deck, no matter how strong or competent. “It’s not right. Girls don’t belong on deck.” I rolled my eyes and walked off to the crew mess; it wasn’t a fight worth having. Talking about it later off the boat, a friend rushed to agree, “Oh, they’re very sexist, Eastern Europeans.” “
“Are there Eastern Europeans on your boat?”
“No, I just know. It’s the culture.”
For my part, I don’t know if this is or isn’t true. I haven’t done enough research. Neither, I’m guessing, had she. But it’s definitely true that if we looked around the yachting industry, we could find hundreds – probably thousands – of English-speaking captains and first mates who would agree: no girls on deck. It‘s easy to point the finger and make generalisations based on culture, even if those same opinions are widely shared in the industry.
A Filipino crewmember I know recently refused to share a cabin with a gay crewmember. The captain acquiesced, and a crew cabin-shuffle took place. This is an issue that is being faced more and more, with more openly gay crew joining the industry. But before jumping to accuse a whole racial group of prejudice, it bears well to remember that a lot of crew of all cultures object to sharing cabins with gay people. (I will state here that I do not agree with this stance, but it is a reality.)
I have worked for two captains who have manoeuvred crew out (and none too gently) after they were found to be gay. Out of the closet, out of the crew! One captain was Australian; the other South African. I think if you were to ask gay crew, they would be able to tell you that this discrimination is almost epidemic and can be found across all nationalities.
Political correctness has given this industry a wide, wide berth. It is therefore folly to point at sexism and prejudice in minority groups when, sadly, they remain prevalent in the majority.
This year, three Filipino crew have on different occasions tried to convert me to Catholicism in the crew mess. Always on Sundays. God, in my mind, doesn’t belong in the crew mess. For my own part, he doesn’t belong anywhere, but to each their own. (And by own, I mean in their own skulls, quiet-quiet.)
But this is not confined to the non-Westerners or to organised religion. The same goes for spirituality of any kind. Yes, that goes for you, in the yoga pants in the crew mess, telling me you can astral travel. Astral travel? Can you? Do you want to give it a try? Right now? Ah, bang the kettle on while you’re hovering about and then buzz off into the ether.
Simply, the crew mess is not the place for spirituality. Just as it is not the place for politics, a lesson I took a while to learn. Not unless you know your audience, and think they are on the same page. The crew mess is like one endless dinner party: no religion, no politics. (I would say no sex, but then we’d have nothing to talk about at all.) Avoiding these passionate subjects may make for a more boring life, but a more harmonious one.
Guest Expectations: Do Some Prefer Western Crew?
I bring this up because last year, I overheard a request made by a billionaire to a broker.
“My next boat, no Filipinos on deck or service. I want to see the nationalities of all crew before I agree to charter. They (Filipinos) can be in laundry, but I don’t want to see them.”
Some people are more overtly racist than others. Just as some see being served by white, Western crew as a sign of status. My view on this: Say “Ni” to them. Get the non-Western crew in their faces. Let the industry force the change. After all, women weren’t welcome in the workforce once, except as domestic servants cleaning, making beds, serving…oh hang on.
In all seriousness though, it takes time for perceptions to adjust. Efficiency and skill, no matter what skin colour, will win respect. Eventually. There is also the added consideration that the more languages and cultures on board, the more versatile your crew is for meeting the needs of non-English speaking guests. For example, some of the Eastern Europeans I’ve worked with had learnt Russian at school, and perhaps have a stronger cultural affinity to Russians than an Australian would. It was a Romanian who told me to stop smiling so much on a charter, because “smiling people make Russians nervous.” In my culture, an unsmiling waitress is a bad waitress.
If it works for Emirates to use its global crew as a selling point, it could work for yachting. To some degree, anyway. I am not proposing here that all crews will become a melting pot of ethnicities; this is not realistic or even practical. After all, yacht guests often require that the crew cannot speak their language for privacy reasons, and other guests request certain genders or nationalities on service for religious or cultural reasons. Saudis, for example, don’t like men on housekeeping because they don’t want their wives looked upon by other men.
However, the vast majority of yacht guests aren’t so specific and will charter a yacht without specifying the crew’s cultural breakdown. View diversity as an opportunity, list languages spoken on the yacht’s website. If high-profile charter yachts start putting non-Western crew in visible positions, then the industry can be ahead of the change that will inevitably come.
In conclusion, some of us may look back at the time of all-Western crews with nostalgia. I have had the time of my life on those boats, with a big bunch of Brits, Aussies and Kiwis laughing like idiots in the crew mess, playing along to the same(ish) cultural rulebook and arguing about how to say “yoghurt” (yo-ghurt, not yogg-urt…you don’t say “I’m going to do some ‘yogga’” – do you?). A few shopping trolleys have been ‘borrowed’, many silly songs been sung over the toastie machine at midnight.
But times, they are a-changing. There are real advantages in hiring a multicultural crew – in longevity, work ethic and diversity. And for us, the Western crew, we can have friends from everywhere, know how to say “where’s the freaking blue tape” in Portuguese, and always have a friend in Manila. And hey, without the language problems, you’d lose the sheer comedy value of having to step over a French captain who is lying on the floor trying to fix the sink and him saying, “Sorry, Jo, I am always between your legs.”
“Ah, I think you mean under my feet,” was the response. (Fairly sure I would have noticed.)
There are more positives than negatives in this change and, whether we like it or not, change is upon us. So as the Monty Python boys always say, “Always look on the bright side of life (whistle…).”