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Superyachts, Crew and the Climate Crisis: Are you Clean, Green and Serene?

How do you feel about working on a superyacht in a climate crisis? Do you harbour feelings of guilt every time you see the monstrous bunkering totals? Do you perhaps feel a bit complicit in the yacht’s massive aquatic carbon footprint? Or do you feel like your keen adherence to the recycling bin separation offsets your sins? Perhaps you’re such a channel of pure love from your helideck sun-salutations, your boat’s engines emit nothing but positive vibes, y’know? Yes, perhaps…

When I first joined yachting (admittedly it was shortly after the medieval period), the fuel-guzzling, trash-producing, electricity-burning nature of yachts didn’t even cross my mind. I remember it dawning on me as my first ever vessel stopped and filled up with a casual 120,000 Euro worth of fuel that we were burning house prices, but it still really didn’t sink in until a few years later what effect that would be having on the planet. 

I think the first thing I noticed was the amount of trash we produced. Having sat at anchor for any period of time, the chain of crew down the side deck lugging off bag after bag of stinking, double bagged rubbish hit me with the strength of the three-week-old bin juice running down my shin. Next, as a stewardess, was the food wastage realisation. Putting out vast buffet-style meals for guests three times a day, only to retrieve huge untouched quantities of it later on, some of it too sun-frazzled and risky to feed to the crew, meant I had to rapidly toughen up when it came to chucking food in the bin. As I sadly waved goodbye to beautiful seafood and other delicious delicacies, I tried hard to ignore how obscene it all was.

Many stews will tell you the urge to use oneself as a waste disposal unit can get out of control. One of my friends claims she gained 13 kilos on her first boat as she basically emptied the muffin basket into herself every day - so desperate was she to diminish waste, one thing that did not diminish was her waist. She too came to the realisation that acceptance was key if she was going to survive on a yacht without being craned off the aft deck at the end of her next season. She lost all the weight again, but became another bin-filling part of The Problem.

Over time I got used to bringing on pack after pack of plastic water bottles and tuned out the fuel bills. Double bagging rubbish and chucking whole platters of food in the bin became second nature, and I just cracked on with it. I didn’t think much about the endless flights I took all over the world, ‘popping’ home on holidays. Sometimes I miss how blissfully oblivious I was. It’s not like climate chat wasn’t around, but it wasn’t at the forefront of things yet (as it rightfully is now) and so my guilt levels were pretty low.

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Over the years though, my awareness caught up and the guilty feelings grew. There was a lag between the increasing awareness and of real action being taken on board. None of us can do much about the fuel bills, although some exciting and radical new green yacht designs are on the horizon, but other things started to shift on board. We started installing drinking-water taps for crew and cutting the plastic bottle purchasing (hard to totally eliminate it though when charter guests demand their specific branded bottles), recycling and trash separation started to be followed a lot more religiously, and crew awareness just in general became way more prominent. 

I would never sneer at crew’s genuinely well-intentioned attempts at ameliorating the negative effects of our industry. I feel like we, like most people in most other industries, would like to feel like we are doing are best within our parametres. I have been around crew in all departments who have had a real desire to change things for the better and have taken real steps to do so. Anything we can do is better than nothing, and hats off to anyone who is trying their best to help.  Some crew have even gone on to start companies using greener products or improve yacht’s eco-credentials. 

Sometimes, though, some of them have been a teensy bit delusional. The eco-warrior thing can get a bit tiresome when it’s being preached by someone who refuses to acknowledge the damage we unavoidably do. The truth is rarely easy to swallow. The fact of the matter is that yachting is a leisure industry. None of us are covering miles in these vast fuel-burning vessels that NEED to be covered. We are not delivering food or medical supplies. We are facilitating wealthy guests cruising up and down coastlines for fun. We just need to suck up that fact and acknowledge it.

I had one colleague who looked genuinely shocked when she was banging on about how green she was and how evil it was to double bag rubbish and the engineer barked at her: “DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA HOW MUCH FUEL WE BURNED YESTERDAY??” His point was a valid one. We all hate producing waste and burning fuel, but the ones wandering about the boat waffling on about how green they are and how much they love the planet have used as many resources as the rest of the crew. If you are really that ‘green’ should you even be here? 

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To be fair to us on the crew side, the owners and the guests are the ones quite literally building the vessels and the demand for their use, and they can achieve some Herculean levels of denial. As crew we can always do the gallic shrug and say to ourselves: “well if I’m not working on here someone else will”. It’s not a great defence, but it might get you through a season without gaining 13 kilos. But owners and guests? They are the very reason these boats exist but they too can delude themselves that they are planet savers. Leonardo di Caprio, the ‘UN celebrity climate change ambassador’ (who recently made a film about climate change no less), got quite a lot of stick when he was photographed holidaying on a superyacht. Now that is some phenomenal mixed messaging. To be fair he does trade his girlfriends in when they get a bit old and less carbon efficient, but it may not offset the cost of motoring along the Riviera.

A stewardess friend once messaged me post lunch-duty to say that she couldn’t stand listening to her owner’s adult kids loudly proclaiming round the table about their veganism and climate-saving lifestyles any longer when they had just flown in on their dad’s private jet to sit on his big fuel-fest of a motor yacht.

It's not great feeling like you’re contributing to the downfall of the planet, although that’s not the exclusive preserve of yacht crew. Modern life isn’t set up well for any of us to do our part. Every time we buy packaged food in the supermarket, drive there and back, eat a burger, commute, have kids, water our gardens or go on holiday, we are now made aware of our terrible destruction. It can lead to some awful handwringing if you let it take over your head. I’ve found myself muttering to myself about China and power stations just to ease the stress of buying a plastic bottle of water. So I guess that’s it - perspective is what we all need if we’re going to make it to the apocalypse without a mental breakdown. 

There’s a certain degree of ‘suck it up’ required. If you choose to work on a superyacht, own up and take responsibility for the fact that yes, you are part of the problem. Do what you can to try and make it more planet-friendly, but in the meantime. if you are the onboard eco-warrior, before you spray the boss’s paintings orange and glue yourself to the heli-deck, remember we’re all trotting carbon footprints down the passerelle.

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