Yacht Chef Michelle Dunnette, who worked on the 125-foot Broward M/Y Showtime and the 130-foot Westport M/Y Sovereign over the past 10 years, died in February after a battle with cancer. She was 46 years old.
Chef Dunnette was perhaps best known for the smile she wore everywhere and her positive attitude.
“Michelle had an immensely bubbly, fun-loving personality, along with a caring, compassionate nature,” Sovereign Capt. Dale Smith said.
“She was a beautiful person,” Chef Neal Salisbury said. “She always kept everything light and upbeat. If you ran into Michelle, you always got a smile, and you knew it was going to be low drama.”
But drama found her in the summer of 2012 when she discovered a small lump in her breast while on a trip in Montenegro. A week later, she flew home for an appointment with a doctor, who removed a grapefruit-sized tumor.
“That original cancer was so aggressive,” said Capt. Smith, her companion for the past 10 years. “She wanted to wait until we got back in October, but it was like ‘no, you’re getting on a plane.’ The owners were incredibly supportive.”
The surgery and follow-up testing were encouraging and Chef Dunnette began to rebuild her life, including going back to work on a yachts as a freelancer last summer and handling a holiday party this past December.
In January, however, she began to not feel well, and by the time she returned to the doctors, cancer had shown up in her liver. She spent a short time in the hospital and tried to recuperate at home before she was admitted to hospice. She died on Feb. 21, just 22 days after cancer reappeared.
“It was so tragic, so unbelievable how fast it happened,” said her friend and Stew Carey Morgan.
Chef Dunnette was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Oct. 16, 1967, and raised in Minnesota. She attended the University of Minnesota, where she majored in Elementary Education and minored in Psychology. She taught English as a Second Language in Japan and Portugal for several years before discovering yachting during a visit to Barcelona in the fall of 1999.
In those early years, as a hostess on charter sailing yachts, Chef Dunnette found herself spending more time in the galley and realized that was where her interest lay. In 2001, she attended the Dubrulle International School in Vancouver where she obtained her culinary arts diploma.
“I was sad to read online of the passing of Michelle Dunnette,” said Capt. Rob Gannon who provides career coaching to yacht crew. “I got to know Michelle about a year ago when she contacted me for some coaching. She wanted to look at some other options other than yachting and wanted some help with that.
“What a pleasure it was to get to know her,” Gannon said. “She was courageous, positive and strong. We just exchanged e-mails about a month ago and in her usual positive way told me she’d had some ‘setbacks’ but things were good.”
Her friends had no trouble recalling situations that best defined her.
“She was a no fuss girl,” Capt. Smith said. “One night she was dancing and really getting into it and her wig came off. The people around her all sort of stopped and looked at her and she said ‘What? It’s just cancer’ and she put it back on and kept going. There was always someone else worse off than she was.”
“She wore a cape and go-go boots whenever she had to go to chemo,” Morgan said. “She was really trying to be bold in what she was going through.”
“I remember once I came to pick her up in Ft. Lauderdale and I showed up on a motorcycle without a helmet,” Salisbury said. “She stood there and read me the riot act about how dangerous it was for about 90 seconds, then she got on and we took off. I just loved and adored her.”
Friends describe her food as straight forward, fresh and inspired.
“She was genuinely spontaneous,” Smith said. “When we first met, she was on a boat next to mine, and she’d come over at 4 o’clock and invite me over for dinner. I’d say ‘what are you cooking?’ and she’d say ‘I don’t know yet.’ She didn’t like to be tied to menus. She’d just open the fridge and make something great. She was extremely creative and not at all repetitive. She was really good at going to the market wherever we were and making something really good from it.”
She loved to share her food, too, often making lunch for the marina staff at Sunrise Harbor when M/Y Sovereign was in Ft. Lauderdale.
Outside of yachting, she spent her time and energy fostering kittens and raising money for animal shelters.
“Every time she had to bring them back, she was just a mess,” Capt. Smith said. “She found so much joy in taking care of them, and so much sorrow in letting them go. She was always trying to get one on the boat, but we couldn’t do it. Once, one little guy died, and she was inconsolable.
“Still, she thought it was great for yachties to do, so you can have a pet when you are home and make a difference.”
“She traveled a lot so I don’t know how she did it,” said Morgan, who said Chef Dunnette helped her raise so much money for the Humane Society one year that one of the thank-yous the agency offered in return was a brick in the walkway with her name on it. Morgan gave it to Chef Dunnette, who also honored M/Y Sovereign on the brick.
Chef Dunnette also loved baseball and would attend games in cities all up the U.S. east coast. Without fail, for the seventh-inning stretch, she would call her father and hold her cell phone up so he could hear the roar of the crowd and in a small way, be there with her.
“Her life was cut short but she lived while she was here,” Gannon said. “She was brave and adventurous and will be missed.”
“I’m so sad,” Morgan said. “I can’t begin to tell you how many friends I have now because of Michelle and her love of life, of how she brought everyone together. I take away from knowing Michelle that wonderful trait of hers, her love of life and her wonderful smile.”
In keeping with her wishes, there was no funeral or memorial service. Five young trees will be planted with her ashes in Ft. Lauderdale, Minneapolis, Iowa and Newport. The ones in Ft. Lauderdale were planted at Hugh Taylor Birch State Park on the ICW in view of Sunrise Harbor where Sovereign docked.
“She was so vibrant,” Salisbury said. “Every time I go to a party, I’ll still look for her.”
Lucy Chabot Reed is editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome at email@example.com.
On Friday, Feb. 21, Chef Michelle Dunnette passed away peacefully in the hospice wing of Broward Health Medical Center in Ft. Lauderdale, just 22 days after being diagnosed with Stage 4 liver, intestinal and brain cancer.
Chef Dunnette is best known around Ft. Lauderdale for the years she spent on the 125-foot Broward M/Y Showtime and the 130-foot Westport M/Y Sovereign, visiting the northeast and Mediterranean several times.
“Michelle had an immensely bubbly, fun-loving personality, along with a caring, compassionate nature,” Sovereign Capt. Dale Smith said via e-mail. “Taken from us so suddenly, at only 46 years of age, she will be sorely missed by her family and innumerable friends.”
Chef Dunnette was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Oct. 16, 1967,. and was raised in Minnesota. She attended the University of Minnesota, where she majored in Elementary Education and minored in Psychology. She taught English as a Second Language in Japan and Portugal for several years before discovering yachting during a visit to Barcelona in the fall of 1999.
In those early years, as a hostess on charter sailing yachts, Chef Dunnette found herself spending more and more time in the galley and realized that was where her true ambition lay. In 2001, she attended the Dubrulle International School in Vancouver where she obtained her culinary arts diploma.
In keeping with her wishes, there will be no funeral or memorial service. Five saplings will be planted with her ashes at locations in Ft. Lauderdale, Minnesota, Iowa and Newport, which had special places in her heart.