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Superyacht Crew: Is it the Right Job for You?

Marie Claire 200

In an article ominously titled ‘Sun, Sex and Scandals: Secrets of the Superyacht Club’, Marie Claire Australia shows a picture of a superyacht and asks us, ‘Wish you worked here?’ 

They counsel readers that anyone who works on a superyacht must be prepared to:

*Accept $1000 tips - Meet the rich and famous 
*Sail to the Mediterranean - Work 18-hour days
*Clean toilets with cottonbuds - Remove ‘unsightly’ seaweed from the ocean
*Be used as a human ottoman by guests.

So, has the mainstream media yet again misrepresented the industry? Well, yes and no. The article has some truth in it, without being a fair representation either. 

I cannot argue for a second that I haven’t cleaned a toilet with a cotton bud (how else to get the dust out of the seat hinges?), or worked many an 18 hour day.  The bit about tips, happily, is also true, and yacht crew do meet the rich and famous (although they would have been better replacing the word ‘meet’ with ‘serve’.) And while I’ve never seen deckhands required to clean the ocean of seaweed, we’ve all heard other odd requests like ‘swim to that island to see if I would find it too tiring’, and many an hour has been spent moving the boat on a quest for a seaweed-free anchorage.   As for the human ottoman, that one’s really quite amusing, but I don’t disbelieve it either.

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You could work on a boat where all the things described do happen.  But it is misrepresentative to suggest that they happen on all boats, all the time.  I understand the business of media:  sensationalism sells, and Marie Claire are not printing falsehoods, so have done nothing wrong.  Even if it might feel wrong to us.

Perhaps the truth of it is that only people within this odd little industry can ever really understand it.  And even then, each yacht functions as its own floating society, with its own laws, rulers, politics and personalities- and can vary tremendously in culture and work requirements, even if the job descriptions are fundamentally the same across most yachts. For example, someone who spends their career on a quiet private yacht owned by a lovely family is going to have an entirely different impression of the yachting industry than a person who worked on frantically busy charter yachts over-run with demanding, rude oligarchs with penchants for prostitutes.  There is no exact description of what yachting is, or what it will be for each person- so perhaps it is inevitable that the mainstream media will always get it wrong to some degree. 

Having said that, given that such articles in the press lead to more candidates pitching up in Antibes each year, it strikes me that perhaps it’s time to put a little more candid information out there for those considering a career in yachting. 

For once, I’m not going to talk about skills, as it’s easy enough to enrol in courses to learn to carry three plates and make a bed.  It isn’t enough- or shouldn’t be- that a candidate presents well and has hospitality experience, or is a carpenter by trade.  Yachting demands a great deal more than that: a certain combination of personality traits and motivators.

Perhaps it’s time to bring a bit more personality analysis into yachting recruitment. 

This is not a novel concept; many other high-pressure jobs test candidates to prove their emotional aptitude for the job.  I am not suggesting that yacht crews start sitting psychometric tests, but rather that both interviewers and candidates start asking questions that address personal suitability to life afloat, as well as skill-based aptitude.

Let’s be clear. This is an opinion piece, and it is my opinion alone. Inevitably it is geared towards stewardesses on motoryachts, because that is my yachting experience- although much applies to any department.

If I were to interview yacht crew, these are the following things I would ask.  More to the point, they are things that prospective yacht crew should really be asking themselves- before spending thousands on flights and courses.

cotton buds daveONFlickrDo you like cleaning? 

Have you ever had a job that involved much cleaning? What’s your favourite cleaning product?  Do you get satisfaction from doing repetitive tasks?  Do you like working with your hands, or do you prefer mental stimulation?  Do you enjoy making things look perfect?  Would you get out of bed to fix a crooked painting on the wall?

As a stewardess or a deckhand, I simply cannot overestimate how much cleaning you will be doing, and how much attention to detail you will need to be good at your job.  I didn’t know there was as much cleaning to be done in a lifetime as is done in a single month on a superyacht.  It is vital that you enjoy cleaning to enjoy being yacht crew.  If you have to muster up willpower to clean your shower on a Saturday morning on land, then it is unlikely that you will ever excel, or truly love your job as junior crew on a superyacht.  If you lie in your interview, as many do- just remember, that’s quite a lie to keep up.

Do you like being at sea? 

Have you spent time on a boat?  What is it about the sea that makes you think you might like working on it?  Do you get seasick? 

This may seem an obvious one, but strangely, I have never been asked any of those questions in a yachting interview.  Sure, it is not vital to be a salty sea dog to be good at cleaning and serving, but people who enjoy being at sea are likely to stay in the industry longer than those who miss the comforts and sights of land.  As for getting seasick- if you don’t know if you do yet, then go out and find out before staking your career on it.

Have you ever lived in a share house? 

In a big family?  Did you attend boarding school? Have you shared a room before? Did you enjoy having people around all the time, or did you find it frustrating?  Do you enjoy your own company?  How important is it to you to be independent? 

The crew quarters of yachts are not big.  They are filled with people at almost all times. You will share a room, and live in bunk beds.  You will very rarely be alone.  If you crave your own company and enjoy solitude, the cramped crew mess life full of noise and personalities might cause you some pain.  However, if you love the company of others, then yachting is a wonderful fit.  The camaraderie, the banter and friendships of life on the waterline is something quite special indeed.  It is a feeling of belonging- almost of family- as crews grow closer over time and see each other in every mood and temper. 

I mention boarding school because people who attended seem to suit yachting quite well.  They are accustomed to living in institutionalised groups without much personal freedom.  In fact, you could probably swap the headmaster for the captain and add better food and you’d have much the same environment.  Yachting is for those who don’t mind being institutionalised (by that I mean living and working within a highly structured hierarchical environment, not the funny farm- although a bad charter mid-season might drive a person to that too.)

How do you feel about great wealth and ostentation?

Does it bother you when someone flaunts their money? Does waste of food or resources bother you? 

It helps if you admire people who have accumulated great wealth, have an interest in celebrity, and quite like bling and ostentation.  Failing that, it certainly shouldn’t bother you.

On the same theme, you probably shouldn’t be a card-carrying a) unionist, b) socialist c) passionate environmentalist.  Did you think that the 'Occupy London' movement was really onto something? Then there’s an excellent chance that yachting will make you cross.

occupy London 600

Are you a feminist? 

Not to say that women who believe in equality can’t work on a boat- many do quite happily, but daily you will find yourself vacuuming around the feet of men making important decisions.  That can be a challenge for an opinionated woman. Take it from me. 

Are you motivated by money? 

No?  See, you thought that would be the right answer to give in an interview, didn’t you. But the secret is that a healthy respect for getting ahead will get you ahead in yachting.  An appreciation for money and the finer things in life will get you through the tough times.  Financial goals like money to buy houses or businesses drive people to persist through difficult seasons, and difficult yachts.   

This is not at all to say that good yacht crew are money-grabbers, rather that they have clear financial goals and are willing to work very very hard to achieve them.  If you are a person that says they won’t accept unhappiness for money, then perhaps that’s an alarm bell. For if we are brutally honest, there are a lot of unhappy yacht crew during a busy season, and if everyone was to quit each time they feel like the sacrifice is too great, then the crew turnover would be enormous.  It’s a bloody hard job.  But it both takes away, and gives, a tremendous amount, and is an adventure like no other that I know.  But you need to figure out where your priorities lie.

Do you suffer fools gladly?

Yachting demands respect for authority in all its forms. Even if the figure of authority is a card-carrying moron, you should do your utmost not to notice.  Respect for titles is paramount. (Or at least an excellent poker face.)  This is particularly true for stews- stroppy stews who answer back tend to find themselves back on the dock with their suitcases pretty quickly- whereas opinionated deckies and junior engineers tend to bide their time, do their tickets and go on on to become stroppy captains and chief engineers, at which point, amusingly, they no longer have a problem with authority.

Have you got a history of management roles?  

This may sound like a positive, but in fact it can count against you.  Yacht crew at the junior levels need to be followers rather than leaders.  Initiative can be a dangerous thing in a newbie- yachts are places of rules and systems and chains of command- finely tuned and often written down in manuals and checklists (and laminated with glee by chief stewardesses, who have it in their DNA to love laminating and highlighting things). In short, a green stew turning up and deciding things should be done differently may get her/him cut back down to size rather speedily. 

Yachting is not for the anti-establishment types, the talking back types, the inherently rebellious. It is for people who follow rules, and conform to a large degree.  It isn’t generally- and this may land me in trouble, but I have considered it carefully-  for the independent thinker, nor the highly academic, who will often find themselves missing using their brains in that particular way.

How many jobs have you had? 

Lots? Wrong answer.  You’re too flighty. Yachting takes commitment, not just travelling around until you get bored. It will test your resolve and energy reserves.  A resume that reads like War and Peace is an indicator that you only do things and places for short times. 

536Is travel a big motivator for you? 

This is a tricky one, for much the same reasons as above.  You will go to many places on a yacht, that is true. But it is a JOB, and many of the places you visit will be seen through a porthole. That’s not to say you won’t have fabulous time off in wonderful places, but you will also end up with a list of places that you have ostensibly been to, but not really been to, if you get my drift.  In case you missed that, it is a JOB.

If you are a backpacker who wants to experience the places you go, you might find that your experience will involve an Irish bar in many ports and a ride home in a shopping trolley.  Most of your ‘travel’ will be confined to holiday time. Which is absolutely fine, as this is a JOB, but just bear in mind not to be disappointed when you can’t go ashore and visit that incredible volcano/beach/jungle/village/hotel.

Porthole views, no matter how fantastic, can be a little depressing, sometimes. 

Are you a positive person?

Positive people will thrive- there is much to be positive about. Beautiful anchorages, excellent pay, no costs.  Negative people however, will sink the ship of morale, for there is much to be negative about.  Lack of freedom and menial tasks. 

Do you enjoy doing things for others?

This is a genuine question.  This is the biggest service job of all, for the most powerful people on earth. Not only that, but you will also be doing things for the crew all day long.  As a stew, your job is simply cleaning up after other people and making sure they have everything they need. This is not a problem- of course not- but it is something that you should be inherently happy to do.  Enjoying the act of service is crucial to whether you will be good yacht crew, and to whether or not you will enjoy it. 

Do you get personally upset by behaviour you see as rude or immoral? 

Or do you tend to think that other people’s lives are their own business?  Or not really think about it at all?  If you are going to work on a charter yacht especially (and take advantage of those great tips) then the ability to turn a blind eye and not get too upset by rudeness or some of the things you see is imperative. Yachting will sometime test your moral line. 

You must have lots of energy!

This is an extremely physical job.  And you must work long hours.  If you are a person on land who watches the clock tick over until 5pm and longs for weekends, then you simply won’t like yachting.  It will ask too much of you. 

man looking at clock 600It is better if you are gentle natured and laid back with an excellent sense of humour.  But also pedantic , detail-focussed and furiously hard-working.  Non-judgemental, tolerant, good sense of humour, money and service orientated, neat, energetic and positive- with a history of following orders and living in groups.

Yes, I get it.  No such person exists, and no doubt yacht crew will be reading this thinking that they are none/all/some of these things.  These are just observations I have made, over many boats and many years, as to what types of people tend to fit into the yachting lifestyle best. 

Of course, it is easy to say that you can cope with rudeness, live in close quarters, follow orders and work long hours, and all with a smile on your face!  But until you’ve done it, you’ll never really know. Yachting teaches a person a great deal about themselves: it is an extraordinary education and an extraordinary ride. 

But it is not for everyone, and that is meant with no disrespect to the people for whom it isn’t, or to the people for whom it is.  But for those who are considering a career in yachting this year,whether your personality will suit the job is simply worth thinking about. 

And for those among us who do it, but don’t love it, and who see the casting off of lines and the firing of the engines as the end of the adventure, rather than the start of one, perhaps it is time to move ashore, move away, and leave it to those for whom it really is a job of dreams. 

 Image credits:  The Crew Grapevine, Laura Ball, Georgie Leonard, Lauren Williams, via Shutterstock, Andy Roberts and Dave on Flickr via CC license 2.0

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