I have always enjoyed being the early stew. My favourite part of the day (apart from breaks & bed time) are those first peaceful hours when the yachting world is just waking up. Few crew are around- there’s a sole deckie chammying off the capping rail and the chef nods a cheery hello before nipping out on the croissant run. It’s quiet; you can hear the water lapping at the hull and the air is still cool. Hardcore drum & bass is yet to blare out from the sundeck or galley and the guests are dreaming away in soft beds, oblivious that it is 6am.
I like the solitude of preparing for breakfast, alone with my thoughts and a mug of proper brew, mentally ticking off the jobs to be done throughout the day. It’s a great time for contemplation, for reflecting on the pluses and minuses of the previous day and gearing up for the sixteen hours of work that lie ahead. Because, let’s face it, once the other crew start work and the guests get up, there aren’t many more serene moments in an average charter day.
And it’s in this state of calm control that, as chief stewardess, I like to think that I greet the next stew, imparting some positive vibes and a pleasant start to her day. If my timing is right, the kettle would have just boiled and there’d be a cup of tea or coffee awaiting her arrival. Other than the obligatory ‘How did you sleep?’ I try not to bombard her with too many questions, allowing her time to get her thoughts together. (This is especially important if she was working until God-knows what time the night before and is still not quite sure what her name is.)
The chief stew plays a pivotal role onboard- often acting as the link between guests, crew and captain- and in setting the tone for the day she can affect a large part of the team. Hopefully a positive mood has a domino effect and spreads its way through the stewardesses and among the rest of the crew. Now I’m not saying we all sit around just waiting to make tea for each other, complimenting each other’s lipstick and giggling like girlies when a deckhand slides past the pantry window bulging out of his harness (although that’s been known to happen). But nothing is more infectious amongst crew than a good or bad mood and it comes from the top. A captain once wrote me a reference stating that it was my sense of humour that had carried the interior team on “when the strains of a difficult season were starting to tell’. I like to think that was true- I am in a bright mood almost all of the time. I very rarely wake annoyed and usually find humour in the most testing of boat life scenarios. However, like everyone else, it sometimes only takes one or two thoughtless comments at a choice moment to flip that humour 180 degrees.
Joining one yacht as chief stew, I realised in their particular setup, the other stew started first. I was thrown not to be setting the breakfast I was about to serve. Guests were arriving the next day and, not wanting to change too much in my first week onboard, I let the schedule be. You can only imagine my disbelief the first morning to find the stewardess reading her book in the wheelhouse. Without even looking up from her page, she told me that she had set the table but had left me the floors and windows as she didn’t want me to start the day with nothing to do! Deep breath, Michelle, and slowly count to ten. When I came up a few days later to find guests appearing on deck and the table bare as she’d overslept, I let it be known that I was seriously miffed and didn’t believe that she could be trusted on the early shift. You can imagine that it didn’t take long for the news to spread around the boat that the new chief stew was a control freak and a right old bitch to boot!
It is moments like this that unfortunately earn the chief stew bad press. Expressing annoyance, disbelief and anger appear to be acceptable traits for many other heads of department, yet woe betide the chief stew who shows frustration. It is difficult for us to understand how the crew mess duties remain undone despite a full crew mess of people watching TV all night, and it's aggravating in the extreme to find that the ‘missing’ deckhand's uniform, that we’ve just turned the laundry upside down looking for, was scrunched up at the bottom of his bunk. As for teaspoons left in the sink- how can it be so difficult, when the dishwashers are running, to wash up a solitary teaspoon and put it back in the drawer, rather than leaving it (for whom?) in the sink?
In general, everybody aims to please and wants to be liked. However, if the chief stew is to do her job properly, then pulling crew members up when basic standards are falling often renders her unpopular. One friend told me of a captain who, upon joining a new boat, always asks the crew about the chief stew. If he’s met with zero eye contact and uncomfortable shuffling, his response is to say “Good, we’ll keep her, she’s obviously doing her job right!” This is not the way it should be, but it can be difficult for chief stews- especially young ones- to both enforce standards and remain well-liked.
Perhaps it’s because our days are often filled with overseeing what might appear as menial tasks – polishing the toaster, cleaning the fridge, checking the captain’s toothbrush and replacing it where necessary – that if we have to pull a crewmember up because said task isn’t done correctly, then we appear to be getting our knickers in a knot over nothing. If we have to ask more than twice for something to be done then we are nagging. Yet we are responsible for this work; it’s part of our job. If we didn’t care about the details then we wouldn’t make good stewardesses. We do have buttons and they do get pushed, so we also shouldn’t be afraid to voice our grievances when crew don’t fulfil their obligations to the team.
However - and this is key - do so at the right time. It is advisable to wait until the captain has finished parking up before going to him about the deckies leaving mugs in the sink. Allow the engineer first to take a shower after he has been up all night delving about in the black tank before asking him to take better care of his uniform. Don’t tell a junior stew off for something minor five minutes before the guests arrive - or first thing in the morning before you’ve given her a cup of tea and a smile. Don’t store up your irritations and then over-react. It just gives people an excuse to dismiss you as being silly. There is a nice way to get your point across and a way that will make you look like a crazy witch. Where possible, choose the former. Mid-season, exhausted, that can be harder to do than it might seem. I say choose your battles wisely - time them well - and keep the big guns on standby for when all other diplomatic tactics have failed.
It is only natural to get along better with some crew members than others, so it’s a role that needs to be managed with patience and fairness. Which is perhaps why some chief stews see themselves as ‘mother of the boat’. I’ve never understood that one - didn’t most of us end up at sea to escape our parents? Sorry, but if you’re old enough to be away from home, you’re old enough to be without mummy. I may well appear heartless, but I’m not, I’m just from Yorkshire – we tell it how it is. As for the chief stewardess who does want to play Mum – unfortunately you can’t have it both ways: you can’t mollycoddle and lay down the law at the same time. It’s the nature of the beast, but being good at your job won’t earn you any ‘Mother of the Year’ awards.
Furthermore, all behaviour has consequences, and it is very easy to lose the respect of your team. If you do want to be viewed as the ‘responsible mother’ type, perhaps just bear that in mind before posting those pictures of yourself on that well earned post-charter night out. After all, when was the last time you saw your mother licking alcohol off a man’s chest, pole dancing a lamppost or draping herself over a deckie on the bonnet of a Ferrari? I suppose it depends on where you grew up.
Photo credit: Tank sculpture by Hans Hemmert