People keep telling us that yachting has changed. And not for the better. Apparently the industry is being ruined by over-regulation and the calibre of crew coming in. Young folk; money-hungry; less interested or adept in the ways of the sea.
But is this just ‘golden age thinking’ - the common belief that things were better in the past? Are we just caving into nostalgia for when yachting was smaller, and our part in it therefore bigger?
Things have changed, there’s no doubt. Girls wear high heels for a night out in the Blue Lady now. I’ve even seen girls wearing high heels dockwalking- tottering along the International Quay like they’re out to snare a billionaire, rather than a job cleaning his toilet.
And the industry is bigger now- much bigger. Today's superyacht fleet now numbers 6,290, more than double what it was at the turn of the century. And with that, there has been an enormous influx of crew and shiny young hopefuls. The day is indeed gone where you could walk into a bar where everyone knows your name.
Again and again we hear that yacht crew now are not as good as they were. But is that true? Are those of us who have been in the industry 10, 20, 30 years, just a wee bit jealous? Wishing we were 21 again, embarking upon the adventure with no responsibilities? It’s quite normal that we look at people in their early twenties and think, ‘Kids these days. Who are these people? We never behaved like that- drunkenly, foolishly, selfishly.’ Pretty sure we did, actually. Give me a bottle of wine and a jager bomb and I probably still will (Friday night at the Moncao Yacht Show being an excellent example).
It’s a natural part of the human condition to think that the young are worse than we were at their age. ‘But they are!’ one friend argued with passion. (Adorably, she’s 23.) But as much as I love joining in the young-bashing (it makes me feel superior and therefore infinitely better about their perfect skin and resistance to gravity), I remind myself that archaeologists discovered hieroglyphic graffiti in the ancient pyramids of Egypt that said, ‘Kids are worse than in my day.’ Adults have been thinking the next generation is rubbish for at least 4000 years, ever since people were buried with a dead sheep so that they’d have something to snack on while crossing the river to the Underworld. But if the next generation has really always been doomed to relative imbecility, then the human race would be a half-witted bunch of dribbling drunks by now. (see Rascasse, Friday at the the Monaco Show).
So perhaps yachting isn’t going to the dogs in the hands of the young. Maybe some of us are just getting old and grumpy. So, in the spirit of positivity, I’ve been asking around, and here are ten things that are better now than the day I arrived in Antibes in 2001, not knowing a fender from a tender.
1. Communications: Email, Facebook, mobile phones and Skype.
Yes, I heard those old-timer yowls. According to you, it's precisely this technology that’s ruined everything. Apparently BI (Before Internet) we all just got along (Really?). But now everyone just sits on facebook in the crew mess, not talking to each other. Grumble grumble. Where’s my Zimmerframe?
Mind you, most of us have, at one time or another, considered giving Facebook the old heave-ho, after reading one too many times about someone self-publishing their breakfast. Cornflakes- imagine. The questions that raises. Did you go mad and add yoghurt? (I can only tell so much from the three photos you posted.)
However, there are times when facebook does us a great service. To yachties, separated by vast distances from loved ones and feeling lonely at times, Facebook can be a godsend. It can bring the industry together in positive ways, and allow us to keep in contact with old crew that might otherwise just have slipped away. And when something sad happens, yacht crew can use facebook to post memories of their friends, and share their grief. For those with children, partners, family and friends back home, Facebook keeps us feeling connected. Because we don’t feel so estranged from those we love, we can stay on a boat for longer- and that has to be good for the industry.
The same arguments stand for Skype, mobile phones and email. And where would we be without Google? Stuck for table design? Need to translate something? Need to fix something? There's so much more information available nowadays via the internet, and the industry is better for it. As for Twitter... there’s a very good reason why ‘twit’ appears in the name.
2. Conditions, Rotation, Cabin Sizes, Flights
These all deserve their own category, but now that I’ve got going, I’m struggling to keep this list to ten. In short, life on board has improved for most yachties over the decades, through a combination of regulation and adaptation. As conditions in shore-based workplaces improve, so do the expectations of yacht crew. Is that so bad? Should people be sleeping on the laundry floor on a superyacht or hot-bunking? Several captains have told me that they find the new breed of crew too demanding- 'they want everything'. But it’s the captain’s job to manage those expectations, take the young crew aside and educate them in what you expect from them. That’s what good captains have always done; trained the next generation and watched them grow. Overall, better work conditions encourage crew to stay longer and to consider yachting as a career. That can only be a good thing.
3. Training and tickets
In the year 2000, STCW’s weren’t compulsory. Nor were a range of other courses necessary, or even available. This meant that, rather than hearing people in the bar bitching about kids who have done a course but have never been to sea, we used to hear people bitching about backpackers who had never done a course and had never been to sea. Furthermore, backpackers were coming in who didn’t forsee a career in the industry and were just looking for work for six months. The cost of these courses means that, these days, the six-monthers are mostly weeded out. Besides, the increase in courses is a good thing, training people about safety and sea survival, fire-fighting, tender handling and how to be a better engineer or captain. What is the argument against that? At the same time, there is no doubt that captains used to have more hands-on time to train crew better. But crew numbers are growing, and regulations are more rigorous, so the industry has to adapt and evolve.
4. The death of the dinosaurs
The dinosaur breed of captains is leaving the industry. This is not to say that older captains are not excellent, many are, but some have failed to adapt to a changing industry, and a changing world. Some think they can still be as racist, as sexist, or as bullying as ever they were, in the good old days. The thing about 'the good old days' is that they were generally good if you were white and male. Today there are girls on deck and boys in the pantry. There’s a fairly equal ratio of male to female chefs, and there are even a few female captains and engineers floating about. More boats hire openly gay crew, and there is a greater range of nationalities working on yachts. The industry is fairer now.
No matter whether you’re a chef, stew, mate or engineer, it’s just easier to get stuff these days, no matter where you are in the world. There is a multitude of provisioning and supply companies. For a chef, it means no longer having to do the rounds of 18 Italian delis with horses’ heads and pig trotters in the windows to do the morning shop. Supermarkets are better, and provisioners will have a Wagu steak on the plane to the Maldives for the owner’s pet poodle faster than you can set the table. Of course, along with better provisioning in remote places, comes better food, for the crew and the guests. Better crew food = happy crew. Better guest food = happy guests = happy crew = better tips = happy happy crew.
A friend pointed out, “But in those days, you could just tell the boss you couldn’t get something - that it just wasn’t possible.” This must have been before my time, in a time when billionaires were different. For it is a rare billionaire who understands the word ‘No’, or that most baffling of phrases, “It’s not possible, sir” . In my experience, they just blink, and ask again. Sometimes they will use different words, as if to trick us into giving them the answer they wanted, namely, "Yes, it's possible, right away sir"-or, even better-It is already done, sir, we did it yesterday before you even thought of it." (We have been to special psychic training in the yard.)
6. Spares and Repairs
For an engineer, when something breaks, access to a vast number of suppliers means things can be fixed much faster nowadays. Such speed would have been appreciated 12 years ago, when a well-known yacht's black water system broke on charter in Thailand. The engineer was told he couldn’t get the replacement part for a week, and that the guest toilets could not be used. Having no alternative, the captain asked the chippie-deckhand to fashion some wooden toilet seats and attach them to buckets. He then called the 12 non-English speaking guests into the main salon, where he gave a demonstration of how the guests were to use these creations. He sat down on the bucket and said, “Mmmm, comfortable,” while the on-looking crew tried not to wet themselves in this glorious moment. “Nyet” was the answer from the guests, of course, and the stews had a very unpleasant week fishing things out of toilets with Marigolds. These days, the parts may have arrived sooner - via a multitude of suppliers which means greater choice, better products and better prices. (Although one wonders why they weren't on board already in this case, but that's a different story... cue Mike Wilson in Engine Room.)
7. Yard Time
Shipyards. One word. Rybovich. That's how it's done. (I wouldn't be at all surprised if they do offer psychic training.) And they're not alone: more and more shipyards around the world are improving the range of services and facilities for crew to attract boats.
Have you seen what we used to have to wear? Black pleated trousers you could hide a rotund relative in, and blazers. One boat had me wearing a button up shirt that made me look like a fully signed up member of the Chinese military. Uniforms have come a long, long way.
There are more boats now, so more choice. That’s not to say there are more jobs per person but, if you are qualified, you have the choice of going almost anywhere in the world: Antarctica, Galapagos, Alaska, Norway, Russia, Maldives, Seychelles, Tahiti. Itineraries are opening up and it’s wonderful.
We also have more choice about conditions, about pay, about work schedules, and boat size. We have many more choices, and choice encourages us to stay in the industry for longer.
10. Nespresso Machines
No more inbuilt Miele machines with their constant fault alarms. What is fault 17? ‘Empty me. Feed me beans. Water me. Pull me apart and put me back together because I enjoy the look on your face when you think I’m fixed. I let you make half a coffee, then flash Fault 17 again. Gotcha. I want to watch you drop coffee grounds all over the floor and tramp them across the boss’s white carpet. For I am Miele Fault 17: Designed to upset you.’ (For the record, I love almost all things Miele, but Miele Fault 17 is not one of them.)
There are many more positives, some more significant than others. But if the main objection is the calibre of crew, I have to wonder what’s so different these days? It's only 12 years since I discovered the industry, but the conversations I hear in the Blue Lady now are pretty much word for word what they were then. “Does the owner not know it’s October?” ; “Is the stew really sleeping with the bosun?”.
So have things really changed that much? Or have we? It seems that the side of the debate we fall on corresponds rather neatly with which side of 35 we’re on. Of course, younger crew can’t compare what it was like before, as they were not there but, nor can we know what it is like to be young in yachting now. From where I’m sitting, drinking hot chocolate and knitting with a blanket over my knees, it looks like quite a lot of fun, and a lot of hard work- rather like in the good old days.
Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons:
Lucinda (ship) The crew of the Queensland Government steam yacht
Office of Presidential Libraries. Harry S. Truman Library. (04/01/1985)
Zjawa III in Southampton, Władysław Wagner - first Polish sailor to circumnavigate the Earth
Wren Boat Crews. 18 and 20 November 1944 - Tomlon HW (Lt)
Australian and Japanese military uniforms - John Oxley Library, Queensland