Rich rewards at sea

By Mark O'Connor

It's OE with a difference - Kiwi sailor Mark O'Connor shares the highs and lows of working on the yachts of the super-wealthy.

Superyachts in Palma, Mallorca, Spain. Photo / Mark O'Connor
Superyachts in Palma, Mallorca, Spain. Photo / Mark O'Connor

All right, you're hired" said the captain. And with that, I was about to sail across the Mediterranean on a 33m superyacht. People had told me that getting a job in this industry was simply a matter of being in the right place at the right time ... but this was a little extreme.

I had gone to the internet cafe in Antibes to print off a few CVs for the coming week, before heading home for an early night. Now, due to a chance meeting with a captain waiting impatiently outside for a guy to turn up for an interview (luckily he didn't), I had edged my way into a job.

With two hours to pack up my stuff, clean up the caravan I had called home for the past week and be back at the dock, things were moving fast - we would leave for Spain in the morning.

Sure it was only a three-day trip across the Med to Mallorca, but it was a paid trip across the Med and, more importantly, it was much-needed sea time for a greenie like me. It is this sort of flexibility and readiness to move at the drop of a hat which is crucial to getting a start in this industry - one that is growing rapidly in popularity.

Every year more and more travellers leaving home on their OE are foregoing the traditional two-year stint in Britain. Instead, they are heading toward the Med and the Caribbean, seeking jobs on the boats of the exorbitantly wealthy.

A one-week course and seafarer's medical are the only bits of paper you need. Ten years ago, finding work was a breeze. Take a walk down any dock in France, Italy or Spain and you would have had a job lined up in no time.

These days, however, docks are littered with wannabe yachties dressed in white polos and khaki shorts, handing out CVs to anyone on a boat who they can strike up a conversation with. This is "dock walking" - the most common way to look for work - and it is a brutal life lesson if you aren't prepared for the frequent denial - or even if you are.

Despondent faces litter the docks every morning as they walk unsuccessfully back from a string of turn-downs. A typical dock walk exchange goes something like this:

Dockwalker: "Good morning, I was just wondering if you had any day work or permanent positions going today?"

Fortunate boat employee: "No we are fully crewed, thanks"

Dockwalker: "Can I leave a CV with you in case something comes up?"

Fortunate boat employee: "Sure thing, but we leave for [insert exotic location here] in two days' time, so I wouldn't bother unless you want to contribute to our scrap paper pile".

And on it goes, boat after boat, day after day. Of course jobs are out there, and some people find them easier than others, but it can be a tough road (or should I say dock) to walk. This is also the time you realise that your one-week course and medical are starting to look a little flimsy. If only you had spent a bit more time sailing at the weekend rather than in the pub.

Competition for positions is tough. Good pay rates in strong currencies, coupled with living costs which are next to nothing, have sparked a rush of aspiring sailors to flood the market. An entry-level position can pay anything from US$2000-$3000 dollars a month. Work up to being a captain and the money gets very good.

And, because you're living on the boat, expenses are minimal, even toiletries are covered. These are the perks. Plus, of course, the visits to exotic places at prime times: Monaco for the Grand Prix, Cannes for the film festival, the Greek islands in August.

But unless you have a few hundred grand to spare, it is more likely you will be working these trips rather than enjoying the sights.

More often than not, when people hear that I work on a superyacht, they respond with something like, "Oh you lucky sod, how glamorous!" This is not quite the case, however. Working on a superyacht is a lot different to owning one.

In the work I have had since arriving in Mallorca - polishing stainless for hours on end, sanding toxic antifouling paint from the bottom of boats, cleaning oily engine rooms until they gleam and sparkle - glamour has been the furthest thing from my mind.

Similarly, on a three-week charter a stewardess may be lucky to leave the boat or even make it on deck. She will, however, keep a washing machine running for 18 hours a day and push an iron the equivalent length of the Nile. No, the glamour is reserved for the lucky ones who can afford to charter or own these boats.

Sure, there are some great opportunities available, and the stories about them help to fuel the rush to join in, tales of trekking across Egypt on camels with the boat's owners, taking clients diving in the Galapagos Islands, even - according to one rumour - a guy who was such a perfect tennis match for the owner that he was paid to come back the next season to be on call whenever the owner wanted a hit.

I once had the pleasure of motoring around Spain's Balearic Islands just to run in the boat's new engines.

But unfortunately these delights are not the norm. Long days cleaning decks and painting or washing boat hulls, polishing silver or cleaning interiors with cotton buds is the reality of life for the superyacht slave. An employer giving me instructions one day said, "If it's on a yacht and it doesn't shine, it probably should."

People pay big money to use these boats and they expect an incredibly high standard in return. One stewardess told me how the owner's wife invariably managed to find a few specks of dust missed on her morning polishing rounds. "At least she stopped going through the boat with a white glove and looking for dust like she did for the first three months."

And, of course, the rich and famous value their privacy, so no photos and no gossip. What happens on the boat stays on the boat. If you want to crew a superyacht, you have to be discreet.

So what keeps people doing it? Why put yourself through the stress and give up the freedoms of a normal life back home?

Money, is one answer. There is no shortage of people with an ultimate goal in mind a few years down the track. Whether it is a freehold house, a business venture or a smaller boat to call their own.

But for the overwhelming majority of people it is the wanderlust that they can never satisfy. Moving around from port to port, the life at sea, friends they make and leave along the way.

As one captain pointed out to me, "When most people go to work they have the same view every day, the location never differs. When you work on a boat, your view is always changing. The office goes wherever you want to take it."

Crewing

If the idea of crewing a luxury yacht appeals, Mark O'Connor says, "the best advice I can offer is to get some sea time before attempting to get work. It is crucial as there are so many people without experience looking."

Antibes in France, Palma de Mallorca in Spain and Fort Lauderdale in Florida are the main places to look for work plus a number of smaller ports in the Caribbean.

Aspiring crew members will also need to do a one week STCW '95 Course and have a seafarer's medical certificate.

Good agents are: YCO Crew, Crew Network and Recrewt.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf03 at 23 Oct 2014 05:03:39 Processing Time: 870ms