INTERNATIONAL REPORT ‘Wish you worked here?’ Life on board a superyacht
MUST BE PREPARED TO: MEET THE RICH & FAMOUS ACCEPT $1 000 TIPS SAIL TO THE MEDITERRANEAN WORK 18-HOUR DAYS CLEAN TOILET SEATS WITH EAR BUDS REMOVE‘ UNSIGHTLY’ SEAWEED FROM THE OCEAN BE USED AS A HUMAN OTTOMAN BY GUESTS
WELCOME ABOARD THE WORLD OF THE SUPERYACHTS, WHERE BILLIONAIRES SOAK UP THE SUN WHILE THEIR STAFF TEND TO THEIR EVERY WHIM. THEY TOIL AWAY AT SEA – AND PARTY JUST AS HARD ONCE THEY REACH LAND
WORDS ALICE GREGORY
lauren Valkoren is enjoying the weather. She’s barefoot; her legs are bare. It’s early December, which in the Caribbean means it’s breezy and warm. A gleaming white ship creaks against the dock behind her. It’s the final day of the Antigua Charter Yacht Show, so she’s finally free to breathe a little. Maybe tonight she’ll even get to slip into the spa.
Australian-born Valkoren, 30, spends most of the year aboard the 55-metre-long, Turkish-built superyacht Sequel P, flitting between the Caribbean and the Mediterranean. But she’s not the owner or even a guest. Instead, she’s one of thousands of other Australians who staff these floating palaces.
As chief steward, she’s spent the past six days serving carousels of truffled foie-gras lollipops to yacht brokers, arranging orchids and cleaning shower drains, a chore she considers to be a small price to pay for living under the equatorial sun. Besides, it’s nothing compared to the tasks demanded by some other superyacht owners: to arrange Pizza Hut deliveries from the US to France, to serve multiple glasses of water – all at different temperatures – at every meal, or to organise to have a dress flown from the Caribbean to New York to be dry-cleaned.
As any deckhand will tell you, the world of a superyacht crew member is equal parts glamour and grit. It’s a job that offers access to some of the world’s most beautiful locales and its richest and most powerful citizens – as well as a window to the darker side of the excess and extravagance that comes with a superyacht-sized income.
The Caribbean has long been home to yachts of the rich and famous, but never before have their vessels been so luxe.In the past seven years,the number of superyachts (to qualify as such, they must exceed 24 metres and be professionally manned) has increased by 43 per cent.The starting price for these superlative ships is $200-million* – a staggering cost for some, but priceless for a certain echelon of sun-loving billionaires seeking privacy from the paparazzi.
The vessels look like spaceships and function like luxury hotels. And every December they all head for one place: St Barts. From Christmas to New Year, this tiny Caribbean island is where the world’s richest VIPs come to do nothing. Here, delis playing calypso music stand alongside luxury boutiques – Chanel, Chopard, Hermès – making the French territory feel like a kind of beachfront Champs-Élysées. St Barts, a Caribbean version of the Côte d’Azur, is frequented by the likes of Beyoncé, Jay Z, Gisele Bündchen, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Bill Gates, Giorgio Armani, and numerous anonymous Russian oligarchs.
It’s estimated that 60 per cent of the thousands of deckhands, stewards and chefs who staff these vessels are Australians or New Zealanders. These mostly 20- and 30-somethings have made a career out of travelling to some of the world’s most isolated and exclusive destinations. And they’re expected to prepare personalised meals, make cashmere-coated beds, iron designer clothes and never say no. That’s their job description, at least.
They also get plates of fettuccine thrown in their face, have to fetch individual peaches by helicopter and clean toilet seats with cotton ear buds, and can be used as human ottomans. During a charter, a yachtie might work 18-hour days for four months without a day of leave.
‘You really need a sense of humour,’ remarks Deborah Brand, who has worked as a steward on yachts for more than a decade. ‘You have to be able to laugh – these people request the most ridiculous things.’
Some ridiculous things include Big Macs helicoptered to the middle of the Mediterranean, and a winter-themed party (complete with snow machine) in the middle of July because some Italian guests were ‘bored with summer’. One guest, a sheikh, demanded that strands of seaweed be removed from around the boat with nets so he could swim, debris-free.
That yachties spend most of their time toiling unseen doesn’t mean they’re allowed to be too invisible. It’s an image-driven industry, where a surplus of weight on a woman and a deficit of hair on a man are professional liabilities: female stewards are often fired for going up a dress size and captains are dismissed for going bald. That said, it’s not uncommon for owners’ jealous wives to prohibit blondes, for example, from working on their boats. It’s honour code not to ask about the guests on a yacht – shipowners and charter guests alike are paying top dollar for anonymity. There are rumours, though: the yacht that once belonged to Johnny Depp was supposedly upholstered in red velvet; the Eclipse, Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich’s yacht (the second largest in the world after that owned by Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, president of the United Arab Emirates), has two helipads, a disco hall, a mini submarine, a German-built missile defence system and an anti-paparazzi shield that somehow involves lasers.
After months of hard toil, reaching shore can be cathartic – and boozy – for the crew
Among the other rules are: ‘Don’t screw the crew’ and ‘If you can speak Russian, don’t let anybody know it’. The first one is in place to prevent romantic distractions; the second ensures that oligarchs can conduct business privately.
Not that the superyacht owners themselves adhere to the rules. Brand has seen religious laws suspended at sea – bacon sandwiches requested by Muslim guests at 4am (after all the pork has been removed from the ship), Scotch sipped from teacups lest any maritime neighbours catch a glimpse, and gambling on deck while a harem of women dances on command.
There are also horror tales, like that of the African prince flying 16-year-old Siberian girls to the Caribbean and doing cocaine until dawn.
After months of hard toil, reaching shore can be cathartic – and boozy – for the crew. Free at last and flush with cash, chefs, stewards and deckhands will descend on beachfront bars with an urgency that is perhaps even more intoxicating than the liquor they’ll consume.
‘Nobody can drink like a yachtie,’ says Olivia Bunny, 29. It’s 10pm at the Soggy Dollar Bar, one of the most beloved bars on the Caribbean island of St Maarten, and the yachties are in the early stages of what’s gearing up to be a huge night. The floors are made of unsanded wood, surfboards hang from the ceiling and there’s a significant amount of Jägermeister on tap.
Dylan Reece, a British yacht chef, lays out the basic economics of yachting. A year of maintenance costs between 10 and 20 per cent of the boat’s price; for every metre you can expect to pay about $1-million in maintenance costs. He says a premier yacht can charter for up to $750 000 a week, which doesn’t include fuel, food or service.
Yachties are, however, well compensated. A junior steward can expect to earn $2 500 to $3 500 a month, and chefs up to $12 000.And room and board (as well as everything from razors and toothbrushes to laundry detergent and pens) are covered. ‘It’s a shock when you go on land and suddenly you have to pay for everything,’ says Bunny, who is originally from Perth. ‘It’s like, What? You mean I have to pay for toilet paper?’
Jane Morton, who spent seven years working on superyachts, returned to Australia with enough savings to buy two houses. She remembers one particularly lucrative season: ‘For eight weeks my husband and I worked 18 hours a day. I think I had one afternoon off in that time. There were nights when I got two hours sleep, max.We functioned on Red Bull and coffee, but at the end of those weeks we had 22 000 euros [about R310 000].’
However, Morton does sound a note of caution, explaining that although the short-term benefits of the superyacht scene can be incredible, job security and advancement are limited – and convincing future corporate employers that skills gleaned aboard a yacht are transferable can be challenging. ‘If you tell someone you were a chief steward on a yacht, they think you were sitting with your feet up, sipping a martini, and that’s not the case. We worked damn hard.’
’You live in the rich man’s bubble, which is something you can’t do as a backpacker,’ observes Joy Weston, owner, founder and operator of Crew Pacific, an Australian training and recruitment agency. ‘The friends you make and the fun you have along the way are out of this world.’
But enjoying the benefits granted by one’s proximity to extreme wealth doesn’t mean a yachtie can’t be critical of it all. Casey Elmer, the chief steward aboard the Jaguar, remembers a male guest who packed 56 pairs of board shorts for a one-week charter, and a female guest who spent thousands of dollars in a day in a shop in Monaco to replace items on the boat she didn’t like. In her role, Elmer changes guests’ sheets every two days and irons them directly on the bed itself. Towels are used only once.
Anyone who’s scrubbed teak and handled excessive requests issued from remote tropical islands will tell you that imaginative consumer spending doesn’t look so enjoyable or fulfilling when you see it up close. ‘I never want to be that rich,’ concludes Elmer.
In fact, talk to most yachties and they’ll tell you they have the best end of the deal: a home aboard a luxurious yacht, a lifestyle bouncing between the world’s most glamorous beaches and hard-partying stints with fellow yachties. All of this and it doesn’t cost them – unlike their billionaire bosses – a thing. As Bunny puts it, ‘Why wouldn’t you want to work in an industry where you’re paid to travel?’
CELEBS ON THEIR YACHTS
Lauren Valkoren (left) aboard the Sequel P and (above, far right) enjoying downtime with other yachties. Opposite, clockwise from far left Penélope Cruz holidaying off Ibiza; Rihanna aboard a St Tropez yacht; Kylie and Kendall Jenner off the coast of Mykonos, Greece.