I have a sudden very early mid life crisis….I’m 28 years old, in a job that I do not enjoy, working 9 to 5 Monday to Friday looking at a computer screen and dealing with the delights of the medico-legal process. My grand illusions as a child of becoming a famous actor or pilot have rapidly dwindled and I feel I am in a rut. I decide to brave another life, another lifestyle and take a step out of the all too comfortable and routine lifestyle I have slowly slipped into.
I leave England on a grey September morning, the temperature is cold, and it is dark and already the leaves are falling. I leave with much apprehension. I have left a salaried job paying me just over £30,000 giving me a comfortable lifestyle. I am entering a new world, one with no guaranteed work, potentially sharing a room with unknown people, entering a new industry worth billions and working with some of the wealthiest people in the world.
I arrive in a beautiful fortified town in the South of France called Antibes, where the harbour contains billions of pounds worth of yachts. These are no ordinary yachts - they are grand excesses of wealth, luxury hotels on the water, the size of them astounding, and cleanliness second to none. It is these yachts, or more accurately super-yachts, I have come to work on. A far cry from my job back in the UK.
In this industry chartering (or hiring) one of these yachts can set you back £1,000,000 a week and this is purely to hire the yacht (no berthing, fuel or crew tips included). To purchase one of these Super-Yachts second hand could cost around £199 million for a beautiful 80 meter vessel. Should you wish to purchase a new one, the worlds largest Super-Yacht Azzam, has been rumoured to cost £400 million.
These vessels are the absolute height of luxury. Some have swimming pools, HD cinemas, submarines, helicopter pads, health suites with full time masseuses. One even has a pool table connected to gyroscopes enabling the table to remain level and playable in even the roughest seas. They are floating luxury hotels with price tags to make a luxurious hotel seem similar to the price of a Youth Hostel.
I arrive at a crew house, one of several in Antibes, designed to house crew members looking for work. I meet my fellow house guests from all over the world who are all in the same boat (excuse pun) looking for work as crew on the Super-Yachts. In some respects it is like a friendly series of “The Apprentice” with everyone competing for work. I meet some interesting characters from people with absolutely no boating experience to those with many qualifications. I meet one chap who left college, decided university was not for him and was trying to get a permanent position. He had struggled though, not through lack of trying, but more it seems from his order to prioritise alcohol, women and then work…he had got life well sussed. He knew most people and has slept with most girls. Everyone has different reasons for being here and interestingly many plan to make a career of it. This is not surprising since tax free earning potential on a captain’s wage could be £10,000 per month within 6-7 years on completion of necessary qualifications, with the ability to travel whilst getting paid. Others here have left previous careers like myself, and come into this later in life with the goal of saving money for that ever illusive house deposit which proved too difficult in the UK.
I am officially now unemployed and have returned to student living, sharing a room with others and cooking basic dinners. Was this such a good move at 28 years – I wonder if I am getting too old for this life?
Prior to my departure I completed a five day course, the STCW95, an essential qualification for this industry and the Royal Yachting Association Power Boat Level 2 (essential to drive the tenders onboard). I also composed my CV enlarging on previous boating experience through my years growing up in Cornwall and registered on the internet with several crew agencies.
I soon discover on talking with room-mates the key way of getting work is to “dock walk”. This involves going up to these imposing yachts, asking if they have any work, trying to sell yourself and, if all else fails, trying to leave a CV with them. I am not a sales person, a little shy and afraid of making a fool of myself and fear this is not going to be easy.
The other avenue for work is through the crew agencies. I meet with one agent who informs me that as I have no super yacht experience it is unlikely I will get a job as she has hundreds of people on her books with far more experience. She advises me to go back to England and ask for my old job back. This is certainly not the start I was hoping for. The image of working on a luxury yacht, visiting beautiful places with tax free earnings was fading rapidly, and this was only my first day.
Not perturbed I visit the next agency. This agent was previously a nurse who wanted a change from the NHS in the UK and moved to Antibes to work as a crew agent; a move she has not regretted. I am filled with hope as she understands my situation, empathises with my career change and congratulates me on the move. She is hopeful I will find work but explains it may not be easy and advises I network through dock walking and handing out CV’s. I leave with hope, excitement and a big feeling of relief. I continue to meet with agents who all offer different advice, but the overwhelming recommendation is to network and dock-walk. I am warned that professionalism is expected and told of stories of crew losing their jobs for being five minutes late to work, being hung-over and I even heard of someone losing their job for attending his grandmother’s funeral. This is a hard industry where there is always someone to take your place, especially someone on the bottom run of the ladder like myself.
I spent two weeks searching for work, dock walking each morning arriving at 0745 hours, smartly dressed, clean shaven and looking like a new pupil on his first day of school. I even had my geeky rucksack at the ready with my days essentials (water, sun cream and spare clothes in case I am offered work). It feels intimidating, approaching the huge yachts and experienced crew, and asking if they would take me on with only tender driving experience and basic qualifications. I am surprised by the understanding and helpful attitude of the crew who look interested but politely inform me there is no work currently though they will keep my CV and call should work develop. In hindsight my apprehension should not be warranted as most crew will have endured this same experience at some point.
After two weeks I receive a call from a yacht that needs a day worker to help prepare it for the Monaco Yacht Show - I jump at the chance, my first step on the ladder, the lucky break I’ve needed. The Captain asks me to start in two days and I am told to meet the boat in Genoa for certainly two weeks work, potentially more.
I arrive at the dockside in Genoa and board the boat, a 54 meter yacht that rents for £320,000 euros per week. I struggle to comprehend the amount of money a charter would cost; especially as securing a house deposit is proving enough of a struggle for me! I liken the cost to a good sized four bedroomed home in Cornwall. Before boarding I am asked to remove my shoes as the teak decks, which add a feel of class and beauty, need to be maintained in A1 condition and shoes would only mark these. I note the lavish exterior and interior as I am led down into the crew quarters or, as it felt to me, the big brother house. This yacht and crew were to become home and almost family for the next two weeks. My room is a student-type accommodation with a small single bunk bed and a small port hole looking down to the water and sharing with two others. I am pleasantly surprised. Although the bed is very narrow and does not have sufficient head room to sit up, the room is compact and better than I thought, even having an en-suite shower room with power shower. I am introduced to the crew who are welcoming and make me feel at home.
These two weeks provided an excellent insight into the industry and a real eye opener. If I am honest it was a time when I seriously doubted this career move. The work was not difficult but somewhat tedious. Being a normal male, cleaning to an A1 standard does not come naturally, but this had to change. Requirements were weekly wash downs, which I thought would be easy like washing a car with a quick sponge and rinse. Not so! This was a wash down on a super yacht and very different from cleaning a car. To explain the laborious process, the yacht has to first be rinsed with fresh water to remove the salt or dirt as washing without doing so will scratch the paintwork. Next it has to be washed with a brush and mitten everywhere including doorways, the deckhands (the ceilings on the outside decks) and even the gutters that drain the water. The soapy water then has to be rinsed off before the water has time to dry otherwise it will leave unacceptable marks (no mean feat in temperatures of 28 degrees+). Finally despite being in glorious sunshine the whole yacht has to be dried in stages to prevent marks being left on the stainless steel or paintwork when the water evaporates. So there you have it. A wash down on a super yacht….this process would take two to three days to complete.
As my time on board progressed I was continually making mistakes. For example I started drying the stainless steel before the deckhand, used a mitten to wash the side instead of a brush, left things on the deck that could mark the teak and wrung the shammy too much before storing it. All these basic mistakes proved to me that even with A Levels and a degree, there is no guarantee of success in practical work on a super yacht. The reality of what this entailed was rapidly sinking in and my illusions of driving tenders and jet skis for the rich and famous were rapidly fading. The crew seemed to have missed the part of their training called positive feedback, and I was bombarded with negative comments about how I need to do this and not that. I found this time hard having come from a profession where I was advising people and being asked for advice. I was making mistakes just washing an ornate object.
I was fortunate to experience a crossing from Genoa to Monaco where the yacht was to be taken for sale in the Monaco Yacht Show. Thankfully my fears of sea sickness did not come true. Neither sadly did my hopes of sitting watching the sea pass, as we began yet another wash down just thirty minutes after leaving the harbour.
The Monaco Yacht Show was an experience. Having washed the yacht down yet again prior to arrival making it immaculate, I was told we would be rinsing and drying it the next day as salt splashes from the crossing needed to be addressed. Day workers are employed to help. They are assigned to polish all the stainless steel on the yacht, taking four workers two solid days. Then comes the finer detailing. My role was to use a rag and cleaning product and work over a small area approximately one meter square, cleaning any slight mark which would seemingly go unnoticed, but has to be removed to maintain the A1 condition. This level of cleanliness would be a house-proud person’s idea of heaven, though perhaps not mine. I soon realise that everything in this industry takes time. This is not a job for people who like to cut corners, or those who hate cleaning.
The yacht show starts and we are asked to wear our uniform, consisting of white shirts with lapels, black trousers and deck shoes, We wear them all the time as the owner and family are at the show. Interestingly the owner is selling this yacht for a bigger more modern one he is having built. This is not uncommon and I am told of one owner who, before he had even seen his brand new 78 meter yacht which was being built, had already put in an order for a larger one as he felt it was too small. This is, as I said, a crazy world. I was also told of an owner with seven super yachts and on asking why so many I was informed that there are seven oceans and they wanted one in each ocean.
At the show my role is to stand on the yacht and follow (out of sight) any perspective buyers to remove any finger prints left on the stainless steel by them. I stand on the yacht, hands clasped behind my back, with a cloth in hand ready to follow the finger prints…..oh how I start to resent people touching the steel!
So here I am, standing on the back of a super-yacht in one of the most lavish cities in the world, where Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Austin Martins are as common as the Ford Transit’s in England, watching millionaires and billionaires view these incredible yachts. I look around at the beautifully dressed attractive women meandering graciously through the crowds arm-in-arm with their wealthy partners. I am confused by the saying “that money does not bring happiness” as their lives look pretty perfect to me from here. However it is only when I start watching people viewing the boat that I am confused. This beautiful vessel, for the majority aboard, did not bring the excitement and amazement that I personally felt on aboard. I note a blankness, perhaps even emptiness, as prospective buyers look around, as though trying to find fault in perfection. It is then I realise that if you can afford 54 million euros on a yacht, effectively a toy to perhaps be used for only a few weeks a year, then the excitement I feel when buying something is quite different. To be in the league of buying these yachts it seems money almost loses its value as nothing is out of reach financially. I think to myself, “would I want their wealth?” The answer is of course that I would, though if life offered me the choice I would rather have less so that the concept of money maintained its value and the enjoyment and excitement of buying remained.
And so the yacht show came and went. I learnt a great deal from the crew on-board and I was offered a permanent position. After much deliberation and thought I declined as the yachts future looked somewhat uncertain as it was for sale. Instead I returned to Antibes and continued my search. With the experience gained the past three weeks, I was in a much better position for work. My CV improved with the experience and I had an excellent reference from the Captain. After two weeks of dock walking, I landed day work on a beautiful 62 meter motor yacht, which developed into a three month trial and progressed into a permanent position. I was absolutely delighted to be working on a fabulous yacht with a lovely crew.
Ben Proctor left to work on a super yacht aged 28. Through his experience he has written a book, available online titled, “Work on a Super Yacht: The Beginners Guide” and developed a website www.workonasuperyacht.co.uk with the aim of helping potential new crew learn about working on a super yacht and how to secure that dream job.