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Why Yachties Have Never Had It So Good

Rod Hatch2

There is already some contention regarding the way that some ratifying flag states are applying MLC in their registered vessels, and at present non-commercial yachts are not required to comply, though the issue remains on the table.

Until the ILO resolves these and other issues, some of you will continue to work, quite legally, on non-compliant yachts. But it remains highly likely that at some future time during your yachting career you will come under the protective umbrella of MLC.

The Convention may be regarded as “best practice”, or the “ideal,” when it comes to standards of crew rights, protection and welfare. There is a body of opinion within the yachting industry that MLC was never needed at all, that the issue of underpaid crews on sub-standard ships should have been addressed piecemeal as appropriate, that this blanket legislation was not needed for most commercial shipping, and certainly not for us.

So how did we get to where we are today in the yachting world with all its regulations, including MLC? Yachts, both sail and power, are increasing in size. 50 metres is small, and the 80+ metres have long been eclipsed by the 90+ and 100+ metre mega-yachts. Crews are numbered in the fifties plus. It seems like a new world, but actually it’s not.

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The 82m steam powered paddle wheel yacht of Commodore Vanderbilt was launched in 1854, followed by Queen Victoria’s 110m steam paddle yacht “Victoria and Albert II” in 1855. Try to picture those monsters, with a 10m diameter paddle wheel on each side.

In the 1920’s there were many steam yachts well over 80m in length. A US heiress commissioned the 124m “Savarona” in 1931, the same year another heiress launched the 96m barque “Sea Cloud”. In the previous year the US banker J.P.Morgan had launched his legendary twin turbine yacht “Corsair”, operated with over 70 crew, including 40 stewards. Which leads us to return for a moment to MLC.

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(MLC Article IV.2 states “Every seafarer has a right to fair terms of employment.”)

Many years ago, out in the US Virgin Islands, I used to know a former bosun from the “Corsair”. He was called Jack, and nobody knew the rest of his name. He had been a lumberjack at one time, and a rum runner during the Prohibition period. Some of his stories were about maintaining discipline amongst the large crew on “Corsair”, who lived mostly in open multi-occupant focsle spaces.

Jack was always fair, everybody got the same treatment. Drunkenness, insubordination, or any other transgression was swiftly dealt with, involving his powerful fists and one of his three pairs of handcuffs. The malefactor would be subdued, carried to his bunk and cuffed to it for 24 hours, to meditate on the error of his ways and to serve as an example to all his mess mates. Today, Port State Control might look askance at such “fair terms”.

After World War II yachting was slow to recover its glory days. The few motor yachts operating out of the old Camper and Nicholsons yard in Southampton were the last of the dinosaurs. They wintered in their mud berths, which were hollows in the deep silt bordering the yard waterfront, which exactly fitted and supported the hulls of each yacht as it sank into the silt on each ebb tide.

IMO seafarers

(MLC Regulation 2.1 covers the requirement for a Seafarer Employment Agreement, and its minimum contents).

When I joined one of the last of those yachts as deckhand in 1969, my contract stated that I was to receive £12 per week, one week’s holiday at the end of the season, and one hour for lunch. Uniforms were provided, including a full set of dress blues every year. This was an important perk, as they were never worn, and would be sold on for cash to people who would wear them in parallel lines of work, such as the Chief Stewards at the local prestigious yacht clubs (mine went to the CS at the Royal Southern). No deck shoes were provided – we were required to go barefoot to protect the solid teak deck.

More about these decks. The teak was maintained in a pre-breakfast ritual by a daily sluicing with salt water, hauled up from over side by the Skipper in a canvas bucket and poured onto the deck ahead of the mate and myself as we advanced with our firkers. The firker was a type of brush, with long stiff bristles tightly bound around it so that the bristled end was only about 10cm in diameter. It took a lot of strokes to cover even a single square metre of teak. They were a hangover from the days of wooden yachts when the teak planking that was up to 3 or 4cm thick, and the deck was holy ground.

Teak deck2

(MLC Article IV.I states “Every seafarer has the right to a safe and secure workspace that complies with safety standards.”)

Your safety standards are probably the ones in your ISM or mini-ISM Safety Management System. My safety induction was that if I dropped something I was expected to get my foot in the way before it hit the deck. “Bruise your foot, not the deck” was what the mate told me on joining. Plus the admonition “One hand for the ship, and one for yourself.” So I understood that my safety equipment was one hand, period. That was the end of my safety induction process.

MLC Standard A3.1.9.(c) states “sleeping rooms shall be of adequate size and properly equipped so as to ensure reasonable comfort ……….”)

The yacht had an open fo’c’s’le, and we slept in cot berths, which were pipework frames with canvas laced tightly around the pipes, folded up against the steel hull during the day and dropped down at night. The two lines on which they were suspended from the deckhead were adjustable, so that the cot could be angled up from its normal horizontal position to allow its occupant to lie snugly wedged between canvas and hull in heavy weather.

There was a long tradition of outward-bound yachts stopping in Gibraltar to paint the topsides so that they had a fresh look for the season, unsullied by the passage down the Channel and across Biscay. The real attraction was the cheap-as-chips Spanish labour force which would stream across the border each morning and return at the end of the workday.

In 1969, two days after our arrival, the Spanish government closed the border. There being no alternative workforce or facilities in those days, the contractor offered a ten pound bonus to each crew member to get the job done ourselves in time to make our scheduled rendezvous with the owners  in Sardinia. These days we think in terms of filling and fairing, sanding and long-boarding, priming and epoxy coating. But for our 1969 season the hull was simply rinsed of salt, dried by the sun and painted with one-coat Magicote house paint.


Even after World War II there was still a lot of class distinction in the UK, which carried over into the yachting world. As an example, the owners’ meat for the season was sent down from Harrods in London and stored in the freezer. Crew meat was purchased locally throughout the season, at the lowest possible prices, and if it seemed tough it was because the crew were obviously too idle to chew it thoroughly.

Madam did most of the shopping herself to maintain control over expenses. Fresh vegetables were occasionally permissible, but fresh fruit was a luxury. The Steward was screamed at one day and forbidden to serve the crew with strawberries which he had purchased in an Italian port. At peak season they were cheaper than oranges or anything else, but they were deemed to be an item only to be served to the upper crust at Wimbledon and Ascot, never to pass the lips of the lower orders.

(MLC Standard A3.2.2.(a) states “Food and drinking water supplies ………….. shall be suitable in respect of quantity, nutritional value, quality and variety.”)

Soon dietary discipline was tightened, our egg ration was reduced to two per week, and bacon was altogether banned from breakfast. As a precaution against after dinner snacking, every evening any meat or cheese in the pantry fridge was measured, then re-measured in the mornings, along with the daily recount of the tomatoes and other edible raw items in the deck lockers. There was no escaping Madam’s eagle eye. We finally had to resort to clubbing together to buy our own fruit, supplemented with Vitamin C tablets.

But at least we were not alone in facing discrimination on board. When the two young grandchildren joined us for part of the cruise, on the first day they were accused of having “hollow legs” for eating two slices of cake each at afternoon tea, and were sentenced to bread and crew jam during tea time for the rest of their time on board.

We clubbed together again, the chef baked a large fruit cake when the owners were ashore, and during the adults’ afternoon siestas the children would sneak down to the fo'c'sle for tea and cake.

(MLC Standard A3.1.11. (a) states “all seafarers shall have convenient access on the ship to convenient sanitary facilities meeting minimum standards of health and hygiene………..”.)

Our fresh water tanks could only be replenished from the shore, which meant paying for the water and dockage. Accordingly, our onboard sanitary facilities consisted of a daily bucket of hot water in the fo'c'sle. One morning in a Greek port the skipper of a neighbouring yacht saw me using a hose on the dock to wash with. He invited me on board to take a proper shower, which was the only one I had during the entire season.

(MLC Standard A4.1.(a) states “Each member shall ……… ensure the application to seafarers of ………. occupational health protection and medical care relevant to their duties ……”)

The Ionian and Aegean summer winds blew strongly that summer, and on a few occasions, after aborted stern-to manoeuvres, the first line was put ashore by me swimming in with it, and I once free-dived to clear a small yacht’s anchor chain from one of our propellers part way through the stern-to procedure.

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On each of these occasions, the harbours being quite polluted, as soon as the yacht was secured I was sent to the nearest bar for a couple of shots of ouzo as “preventive medicine”. Obviously relevant to my duties, was it not?

We laughed a lot about each day’s bizarre episodes. I kept a diary at the others’ urging, as they were sure that nobody would otherwise believe their stories later, and we survived until the cruise ended in Brindisi in early September.

MLC Standard A3.2.2 states “Shipowners shall ensure that seafarers who are engaged as ships’ cooks are trained, qualified and found competent for the position ………….”.)

We were left there without a cook for the homeward voyage. My only experience of cooking was doing a lot of entertaining for friends while working in London for several years during the Swinging 60’s.

William Orpen Le Chef de lHotel Chatham Paris

On those grounds I was appointed passage cook, and received an extra £3 a week. During the first long leg of the voyage, what my novice daily grind in the galley, below decks and right up forward, felt like can be imagined from the Skipper’s entry in the deck log on arrival at Gibraltar – “So ends 1,000 miles of gales and strong westerly winds.”

So that was the luxury world of motor yachting. I was next attracted to the world of sail and the romance of the Spanish Main. I met a retired sea captain who had just purchased second hand a 13m traditional wooden ketch, and I jumped at the chance to join him and cross the Atlantic under sail, bound for the Canary Islands and onward to the Caribbean.

(MLC Regulation 2.3.5.(a) states “maximum hours of work shall not exceed 72 hours in any seven day period”, and states Hours of rest may be divided into no more than two periods, one of which shall be at least six hours in length ………”)

With just the two of us on board, we stood 4-hour watches, with the two dog watches to rotate the night routine. We had no auto-pilot, so being on watch meant 4 hours of hand-steering.

Off-watch was for cooking and maintenance, and a couple of hours sleep. A spell of heavy weather a few days out from Tenerife saw our sails badly split along the seams, and the auxiliary engine seized up. We ghosted with the current under a few scraps of canvas for two days while I re-stitched the sails by hand. That period was near a full moon, so off watch at night I would sit cross-legged on the cabin top and stitch away in the moonlight, driven by the prospect of finally getting fully under way again as soon as I had finished the job.

With no engine, several days without proper sails, and ensuing periods of calms and light airs, the passage time became extended. Our supply of fresh water was carefully used only for cooking and drinking.

We washed our dishes and ourselves in sea water, stood naked on deck under the occasional rain shower, and once a week had a mug of hot fresh water with which to shave and sponge down.

The morning after the Tenerife gale I had been sorting through the dry stores and noticed that some boxes and packets were spilling their contents out of small holes with uneven edges. A search of the locker revealed droppings which confirmed my suspicion that a rat had come on board during our brief time alongside in Tenerife.

rough seas

MLC Standard A3.1.17 states “Appropriate seafarers’ recreational facilities, amenities and services, as adapted to meet the special needs of seafarers ……. shall be provided on board ……..”)

I moved all the stores in soft packaging aft, and set about arranging what became my regular entertainment during night watches for the rest of the crossing. I suspended an upturned bucket from the deckhead in the open forward cabin, running the line back to a quick release in the centre cockpit. From my position at the steering wheel I could see down to the cabin sole under the bucket, beneath which I set out each night a few left-over food scraps.

By the helmsman’s seat I would keep ready a torch and a pile of raw potatoes. The game was to wait until all was settled and quiet following the change of watch, and at intervals to flash the torch into the cabin. If the rat’s eyes glowed, I would hurl a potato in its direction, or drop the bucket.

The rat, the potatoes, the bucket, the light in the compass binnacle, and the slow wheeling of the star nearest our course line, were my companions for over thirty nights of long slow watches, enlivened by the sound of my own voice as I sang my way through the score of every Gilbert and Sullivan operetta I could remember. The rat jumped ship immediately on our arrival in Grenada.


At that time many lovely classic US and European wooden sailing yachts had been saved from the scrap yard by being put into charter service between Antigua and Grenada. In the1970’s, at 25 to 30m in length they were considered to be “big”. But for their crews, they were often no more luxurious than the small yacht on which I had just made the crossing.

In several seasons, serving as mate on big ketches, the norm was that off charter crew could sleep in the accommodation below, but on charter we slept on the foredeck. The teak planking was our mattress, with a single blanket as a cover.

(MLC Standard A3.1.7. (a) states “sleeping rooms and mess rooms shall be adequately ventilated”.)

The Trade Wind was our air-conditioning. If it rained, we got wet. If we got very wet we had the option of tumbling down the ladder into the fo'c'sle in the dark, and stretching out on the lids of the anchor chain lockers.

My early induction into the religion of teak decks had obviously gone deep. I maintained the decks on those big old ketches on hands and knees, using only sea water and bronze wool pads. For all your modern chemical cleaners and brighteners, you’ll never see decks looking like my decks did when I was mate in sail.

At another time, in my first offshore Skipper’s job, I delivered a 55 foot sportfishing boat from Fort Lauderdale to Los Angeles, hand steering all the way. We slept in an open cockpit, in our shorts and t-shirts while in tropical waters, and in layers of heavy sweaters on the west coast of Baja California.

Every fuelling stop in the Central America of that era (1972) was like something out of a Wild West movie, each stop a story in itself. Provisions were scarce. We arrived one night in the Colon anchorage, at the entrance to the Panama Canal with, between the three of us, a tin of steak and kidney pie, and a single bottle of distilled battery water with which to make a hot drink. That was all we had left until we docked at the Yacht Club next morning.

Perhaps the commercial world would be different, a little softer, a little easier? I tried that as Chief Officer on a salvage tug, during an epic two-month winter crossing of the North Atlantic with two large vessels in tow on their way to a Spanish scrap yard.

When the water-maker failed, at the same time as the engineers were having problems with the heating coils for the Heavy Fuel Oil (HFO), I had to ration the fresh water. During the next few days, until the water evaporator was fixed, and with only salt water showers available, the engineers were breaking out in salt water boils as they removed the HFO from their skin after each watch.

Caravan Trading Co. Ready to Go 3 day emergency rations kit 1

We parted tow wires during gales; recovered the tows; crushed two of our three work boats; pulled crew out of the water; rode out a monster storm during which the nearer tow, with an air draft of over 20m and less than a quarter mile away, was disappearing from our view from the bridge in the troughs of the seas; and finally went alongside the fuel dock at Horta in the Azores as the level of the last fuel in the day tank dropped below the bottom of the sight glass.

As an aside, MLC says nothing about the use of violence in providing a safe work environment, but it is probably disapproved of. Anyway, during the second of our tow recovery operations somewhere SE of Nova Scotia, with a moderate swell running, the tow wire suddenly came under tension just before the final step of the procedure.

One of the deck crew stood up in the bight of the tow wire as the strain came on, and I saw that the wire stopper holding back the cable was going to part. There was no time to shout a warning and for him to hear and then react. I took a swing at him over the top of the tow wire, and he went down a fraction of a second before the wire passed over where his waist had been a moment earlier.

We had long since run out of fresh stores, and I had confiscated the last few onions in the vegetable locker, in order to serve out a quarter of an onion apiece to the 12 crew each lunch time. The cook was put ashore there in Horta, and to keep the crew fed for the rest of the voyage the Captain/Salvage Master and myself added cooking to our other duties during the next week of heavy weather until arrival in Valencia.

A fortunate career change to a specialized sector of commercial shipping allowed me to sit for my commercial CoCs over the next few years, so that my return to the world of big motor yachts happily coincided with the new MCA regulatory regime, keeping me ahead of the game.

Looking back at my early years in yachts, I see MLC as providing a decent underpinning for yacht crew who are prepared to work, save, invest in their careers and get ahead.

I am pleased to have had the privilege of working with the MCA as a PYA representative for professional yacht crew when bringing the MLC provisions for crew accommodation into the LY3 Code. This will ensure in future new builds, across all yachts, that crew will have accommodation substantially equivalent to MLC stipulations, or fully equivalent, according to size.

But would I change any of my early days for the softer times that came with bigger vessels, easier conditions, more security, more risk-averseness, less adventure? Not a day, not a minute.

*Photo credits:OnboardOnline;Flickr/Port Adelaide History Flickr/IMO Flickr/Jan Willem Broekema Flickr/Peter Batty Wikipedia Flickr/Matt Wikimedia

About the author:

Rod Hatch got bored with the academic world after 3 years as a Lecturer in Economics at a London Polytechnic, and ran away to sea for a year as deckhand in a 100' motor yacht. His yachting career has now spanned 45 years (including six years in commercial shipping) and he was one of the last few dinosaurs to be certificated in the UK as Master of a Home Trade Passenger Ship. Current special interests: MLC, 2006; and advocacy of CPD opportunities for yacht crew outside of their mandatory training courses.

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