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

Marie Claire (South Africa) - - CONTENTS -

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.

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