The Real Below Decks
The secret lives of superyacht crew have been the stuff of legend, folklore, and—most recently—reality TV. The truth is often untold, until now.
When people ask what I do for a living, I always respond with one word: travel. And invariably, they ask the same question. “But how do you get paid to travel?” The answer is simple: I serve owners and clean aboard megayachts that cruise the world. I like to think of myself as one-part Cinderella, one-part Little Mermaid.
Is this life of traveling the world at sea and working for some of the most powerful people on the planet something I had always envisioned myself doing? Nope. Younger Melissa dreamed about becoming a teacher or nurse. You know—a “normal” job, the kind everyone tells you about when you’re growing up.
So, how did I get into the yachting industry? Let’s rewind back to the ’90s on the north shore of Long Island. Every weekend in the summer was centered around boating. My family and I would often take overnight and weekend trips to Connecticut, Block Island, Mattituck, Port Jefferson, and Greenport. (New England is a prime spot for megayacht stopovers during the summer, so I was always around them. I just hadn’t had the idea of working on one … yet.) Over the years, we also cruised to places like the Caribbean, Canada, and Bermuda. Of all my favorite childhood memories, those boat trips are without a doubt at the top of the list. Friends would ask to hang out, and I would respond, “Sorry I’m going boating. Want to come?”
I couldn’t get enough of waking up on a boat; walking out onto the deck and being greeted by a sunrise and the smell of salt water. There is just something about the quietness of boats bobbing in a marina or an early morning boat ride that is so full of Zen.
Fast forward to my college years. I was always the one to have a plan and know what step to take next. I ended up graduating a year early once I found out about the yachting industry and the possibility of being out at sea 24/7. For the first time in my life, I didn’t want to have a plan anymore. I just wanted to go, work hard, and travel the world by sea.
I went to Ft. Lauderdale to acquire my certifications. Anyone looking to work on board yachts is required to get STCW certified. That process includes a weeklong course with classes in personal survival skills, first aid and CPR, and basic fire fighting. An ENG-1 medical exam is required as well. (Some yachts also look for crew with a Maritime Security Awareness certification.)
About a year after I was certified it was time to leave. I said goodbye to family and friends, rented a car, drove down to Ft. Lauderdale and signed up with various crew agencies. Almost immediately I received a call from an agency. “Hi Melissa, we have a captain that is interested in hiring you. Are you available for an interview?” I was shocked and excited at the same time. I remember thinking, Wow that was fast!
Little did I know that within five minutes of pulling up to a beautiful 230-foot yacht I would be hired. Two hours after that, we cast off our lines and I was Bahamas-bound. Is this real life or am I dreaming? I remember asking myself that as I watched the marina slip away behind our stern. Who gets hired this fast in a new industry they have no experience in? I had only five minutes to call my parents to let them know where I was going.
From the perspective of an outsider, working onboard megayachts probably seems like the ultimate job and I have to say it’s pretty awesome, but it’s an insane amount of work and long hours.
A typical day with guests on board goes something like this:
700: Wake up, put on my uniform and walk into the busy crew mess. Sit alongside some coffee-deprived crew members and eat breakfast.
800–1330: Morning service until lunch buffet service is over. Greet guests when they awake and alert crew members over the radio that guests are up. Help with lunch service. Clean, clean, and clean. Interact with guests and direct them to opportunities to view wildlife such as whales, seals, eagles, etc.
1330–1720: Break time! Go way belowdecks to work out, which includes boxing and running stairs. Speak to family and friends. Relax for a bit and then get ready for nighttime service, when we switch to our black uniforms. Eat dinner.
1720-Until whatever time the last guest goes to bed: Provide excellent dinner service and help with housekeeping. Keep an eye on guests: where they are, who is still up, and who has gone to bed.
Around 2400: Go to bed. (If the yacht is leaving port, I stop what I am doing to help out on deck with lines and fenders, a job that can take an hour or two.)
A typical day without guests on board:
700: Wake up, put on my off-guest uniform and walk into the busy crew mess. Sit alongside some coffee-deprived crew members to eat breakfast.
800-1200: Start work—including organizing equipment, new projects, excel sheets, inventory, packing or unpacking boxes of inventory onboard, occasionally shopping with owner or Chief Stew for provisions.
1200-1300: Lunch and break time!
1300-1700: Continue working on projects. Chief Stew gives us all a list of jobs to do. Mine is mostly organizing. One time I outfitted the entire crew mess and pantry with non-skid shelf-liner, including all drawers, shelves, and counters for crew area, which means a lot of measuring and cutting, so when we’re out at sea valuables won’t slide off and break.
1700: On a good day we end early, but sometimes the day goes much later. Then go for a run with any crew member that wants to join to view the port. (Fridays are washdown days for the deckhands, so I help out for three to four hours and then go back to interior work.)
My favorite tasks are organizing, interacting with guests, shopping with the owner, and being on watch—we get to be on the bridge, which has an awesome view of the bow. The most dreaded task aboard has to be stowing provisions. One day we unloaded a truck full of meat that was to last us for the next four months. It was a workout!
While under way, each crew member has to spend an hour of watch during the day and again at night. Watch includes being the second pair of eyes for the watch-keeper at the helm. We walk around the interior and exterior every 15 minutes to check for anything out of sorts, for example, glass doors not locked, furniture untied on deck, loose covers, unwanted smells, or anything else out of the ordinary.
Run your crew like a superyacht does
♦ Have your VHF charged and on you at all times. Communication on board is a necessity. It keeps crew informed and guests safe.
♦ Designate positions on board for when you dock or leave a dock. For example: Put two people on fenders, one handling the stern line, and another on the bow line.
♦ Wear proper footwear. Yacht crew are on their feet all day, so it’s an advantage to have the best possible shoes.
♦ Keep seasickness medicine or bands on board and up to date. Weather and waves are sometimes unpredictable.
♦ Let the captain know when you leave the boat or go outside on deck when under way.
♦ Check fire and safety equipment at least once a month. I like to have an excel sheet of all new and used equipment with purchase date, expiration date, and location.
I love being under way, but it’s not all sunshine and champagne. Once we were out at sea for two weeks straight. We experienced 11-foot swells that launched me from my berth, almost to the ceiling; the rocking was that intense. Even a practiced hand would occasionally lose balance and bounce off walls or furniture; carrying trays of food up and down the staircase while under way made things that much tougher. (Can’t drop the crystal!)
If you’ve seen any shows about the life of crewmembers on board yachts, please know that they’re likely far from accurate. As superyacht crew, you need to provide the best possible service to those who own or charter the yacht. We work all day and sometimes all night. But in exchange we get to witness things like guests crossing things off their bucket lists, experiences they’ve always dreamed of having.
Superyacht crew work with some of the friendliest people and sometimes not-so-friendly people. We care for the ship as if it were our own.
It’s not all waxing and washing, however; we do get to leave the boat from time to time. That’s when we get to explore and, yes, sometimes party. But let me be clear, we’re professional seafarers and don’t go crazy on our nights off; we pride ourselves on representing the yacht everywhere we go, in uniform or not. Trust me, people are watching.
Various superyacht shows often focus on larger-than-life dysfunction among the crew. That’s a far cry from what really happens, but there can be tension and fighting. When you spend your time around the clock eating, working, and sleeping on the same deck in closet-sized rooms, it’s bound to happen.
Like any job, it has its advantages and disadvantages; there are good times and bad, hard workers and slackers. Despite this, becoming a crew member aboard a megayacht was the best decision of my life.
This article originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.