By Franki Black
On a recent radio interview aired on SAfm — a national South African station — the interviewee advocated yachting as a career, but also as a good gap-year option.
Some crew members called the promotion of yachting as a gap-year option “a disgrace.”
“Yachting is a great long-term option, but doing it as a gap year is having negative effects on crew members whose livelihoods depend on it,” said one caller, a stew from France. “Take it seriously or go home.”
This caller pointed out that eager new crew will work for 1,000 euros a month, a fraction of what experienced crew command.
“Serious-minded crew spend vast sums of money to get certified and to advance their careers, while plenty of newbies spend their time drinking up a storm in Antibes,” she said.
Salary and experience fluctuations are nothing new in yachting.
“It’s a free market, and entry-levels jobs are bound to be in high demand,” said Capt. Jeff Ridgway, who has been in the yachting industry for 32 years. “There have always been fluctuations of available crew from season to season.”
Former Stew Genia Nowicki never saw yachting as a career. Instead, she approached it as a six-month Mediterranean adventure aboard M/Y My Drizzle, a 180-foot Feadship.
“In 2009, I finished university with a student loan hanging over my head,” Nowicki said. “I wanted financial freedom and the freedom to see the world. Yachting gave me both.”
With a lot of hospitality experience, Nowicki had no problem finding work in Antibes. Her short stint in yachting allowed her to pay off her student loan and start a photography business when she returned home. “I bought professional camera equipment and started on a clean slate,” she said.
Duncan Bray, crew services manager with Northrop and Johnson, said he sees all sorts of crew members approach yachting with short-term vision.
“People from all over the world are drawn to the yachting lifestyle and its perks, albeit for a season only,” he said. “Cost of living makes short yachting stints less frequent in Lauderdale, however in the Med you see skiing instructors, backpackers and college students attracted to seasonal work.
“You can’t really blame them,” he said. “They can spend the summer working on a yacht, while earning big money and having fun at the same time. If it satisfies both the employee and the captain, there is nothing wrong with it.”
Each year, thousands of new crew sign up to see what this industry is all about.
“Out of the 5,000 people who register with us each year, 3,000 are brand new to the industry,” said Ami Ira, managing director of Crew Unlimited. “There are just too many people trying to get in, while demand is really for skilled and experienced crew members.The availability of new, inexperienced crew do tend to bring salary and service standards down, though,” she said.
“It takes time to learn an owner’s preferences, and it takes effort and training from senior crew to bring someone up to speed,” Ira said. “The only winner is the crew member with a year of adventure under his or her belt. It’s not ideal for the future progression of the industry.”
Alison Rese, a former yacht crew who is now owner and chief instructor of Supercrew Training in South Africa, said she’s noticed a change in attitude toward yachting’s traditional green position of stew.
“The Professional Yachting Association’s recent focus on interior crew career-path development is making yachting a more attractive long-term prospect for interior crew,” said Rese. “Now, interior crew, too, have a set standard of training they can follow, with training facilities slowly starting to be available almost everywhere in the world.
“There are many crew members who are attracted to the glamour and the money of the industry, but they don’t have the faintest idea of what is really necessary in order to sustain the job: the discipline, the dedication, the hours and the amount of work,” she said.
At the end of the day, however, there is room in yachting for short-term crew.
“Many greenies are calling yachting a gap year, but are really using the year to see if the industry is something into which they can slot,” Rese said. “You can’t knock them for that. Seasonal work is just that – a season – and if short-term crew give it their all, work their hearts out and have a great attitude, then that’s all that counts.”
Former yacht stew Franki Black now lives and works in South Africa. Comments on this story are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.