Captain Carol Benbrook sits at the controls of her command, M/Y Mariu. It is a sizeable yacht, at 49m (163 ft), and she’s tied up in the La Ciotat shipyard for some quick repairs and detailing before heading out for another charter. This is a busy boat and this season is no exception.
A busy charter boat means a busy crew and a very busy captain. The crew work to get the boat ready, while Carol is mainly concerned with paperwork. “I went from not wanting an office job to having probably the most office-based job you can imagine,” she says, obviously unfamiliar with life in a cubicle. “All I do all day now is paperwork and accounting and management. That’s my job. And a very small amount of it – maybe 10 minutes a day – I’m actually driving the boat.”
Carol has spent much of her career redefining these roles and expectations – reshaping what the male-dominated industry believes a woman is capable of. Initially this concerned physical strength and capability at the helm.
Lately, it has had to do with work-life balance.
As Carol sits in a swivel chair at the helm of Mariu, discussing her career and style of command, a small boy runs in looking for his shoes. He asks Carol where they might be. And suddenly she’s no longer Captain Carol Benbrook; she’s Mummy. She tells her eldest, five year-old Jack, that she thinks the shoes are in Mummy and Daddy’s room, near the bed. He looks at her skeptically for a moment before responding, “Umm, okay!”, and bounds off again.
Carol smiles. She pauses a moment, gathers her thoughts, and returns to the conversation. “We don’t really talk about family matters when we’re really busy at work,” she says, referring to her husband, Donovan Benbrook, the chief engineer on board. “But if we go for a walk, we’ll talk about family. You know, it’s changed since we had kids, which sort of helps you develop as a person, because being on yachts is all-consuming.”
A balancing act
For many crew, family life is sacrificed in order to work in the industry. This often forces good crew back to shore, and particularly affects female crew.
One stewardess tells OnboardOnline that this mindset is often the cause of burnout for female crew. “Obviously a lot of women want children and will therefore leave the industry when the time comes", she says.
But it can work. Carol Benbrook worked hard to prove that a female captain could continue working while pregnant. It was while she and Donovan were on board M/Y Sedation, 44m (144 ft), that Carol became pregnant with Jack. She continued working through the pregnancy, managing a refit up until four days before giving birth.
“It was good for me to keep working while I was pregnant and to prove I could do it, because a lot of people retire when they have kids,” she says. “So I’ve proved that women with kids can still do it.”
Not only have Carol and Donovan Benbrook proved this, but so have many others. An article in the June 2013 issue of Dockwalk cites advice from various crew who, like the Benbrooks, have succcessfully raised their children on board. It’s an unusual situation, but one that can work under the right circumstances.
The first concern is obviously to have an owner who is comfortable with the arrangement. One captain commented on the same forum that he and his wife have raised their two-year-old on board, saying, “It is the biggest gift for me to spend every day with my family. There are challenges, of course, but it is a family yacht – the owners have five children."
Generally, the younger owners who have kids of their own are much more accommodating in this regard, says Donovan. “We were lucky to keep Jack on board for the first two years of his life. So he spent a lot of time with us. And then on the occasional trip, he’d have to go ashore,” he says.
But then Carol became pregnant with their 3-year-old daughter, Charlotte, who goes by the nickname Charlie. “When Charlie was born, obviously, we couldn’t have two kids on board. So we had to kind of reevaluate,” Donovan says.
It was never a clear choice for the Benbrooks whether to have children. The fact that Carol and Donovan could live together and work on the same boat was a blessing. Adding kids to the mix seemed like asking too much at times, Carol says.
After all, even if the owner is fine with it, there is also the rest of the crew to consider. Children bring added pressures and responsibilities to everyone on board.
Another commenter, who worked on a boat with a captain-chef couple and their child, said it was often too much for the more junior crew, which led to high turnover. “However, it worked for the owner, the captain and the chef, despite replacing crew on a regular basis.” said the commentator... “Without the nanny/tutor it would have been impossible.”.
Once Charlie was born, the Benbrooks had to change tack, and they bought a home in Andorra. The children stay there with the full-time nanny while their parents are working, and live on board when the boat is not on charter. Lucky for the Benbrooks, the nanny is Carol’s mother, Marjorie. “I have a very supportive family,” Carol says, admitting it might not work otherwise. “I wouldn’t leave them with anyone else.”
Some people question the long spells that separate the children from their parents, or raising a child on board such a vessel. The underlying concern is a lack of ‘normality’ for the children, but the Benbrooks don’t buy into this.
“The thing with kids is, I find they don’t know any different than what you show them. So, to them, it’s normal,” Carol says. “I was reading a book about female astronauts and they asked what their kids thought about this, when they go up in space. And she said, ‘You know, she thinks that every Mum does it.’ And that’s what kids are like.”
Captain Len Beck of M/Y Battered Bull commented on the Dockwalk forum that it provided his daughter with invaluable experiences early on in life. “Her exposure to multi-national adults and a rich mix of culture was of tremendous value in shaping her outlook,” he wrote.
That doesn’t mean the Benbrooks dismiss outright the concerns over normality. Whenever based somewhere for any length of time, Donovan says they will often rent an apartment in town and bring in the kids, eating dinners at home together and trying to create a normal living situation as best they can.
The right environment
Raising children on a yacht is one thing, but since yachts are always on the move, many parents choose to home-school their children. Not only does it give them greater flexibility with their schedule, but a boat can also be a wonderful place to stage lessons, allowing subjects like science, geography and oceanography to come to life.
The Benbrooks have chosen this educational path. “For me, when I’m around my children, it’s quality time. We’re traveling or we’re exploring new places. And it’s really quality time. It’s extensive time. And I’m teaching them, because we’re homeschooling and it’s very intimate,” Carols says. “When they were in school, I found we lost contact with what they were doing.”
Donovan notes that most parents only see their kids in the mornings and late at night, after the child has been to school and the parents have been to work. He and Carol each justify their longer absences by ensuring that they spend quality time with the kids when they are together. “The hardest part is being away from the kids,” Donovan says. “Every professional person in the world has to spend X-amount of time away from their kids. It doesn’t matter what you do.”
As the children get older it becomes less manageable on board, so Carol and Donovan are looking for new opportunities. “As they start to get older now, we’re looking more at being there for them more often,” says Donovan. “So we’ve got to look at being a part of a rotational schedule or being based in a port, where we have a set amount of time we know, okay, we’re going to be here from then until then.”
Ultimately, they’re looking to create an environment in which their children will thrive.
“We just want them to be happy,” Carol says. “I wouldn’t particularly want my child to aim to do this as a career because it takes you away from your family when you have one. And when I chose this industry, I never thought that far forward. And I’m addicted now. I love my job, and I’m still trying to be a good mother, as well.”