Working on yachts can be an exciting, fun and incredible lifestyle, but it is also a serious job that requires a high level of commitment and professionalism. Much of the work we do as yacht stews could actually be considered domestic service, and there is not always a positive spin on this term.
What some seem to forget is that domestic service has a long and respectable tradition throughout history, and it is a profession that will not go away anytime soon.
The historical aspect of service captivates many people. Understanding how things were done two or three generations ago is fascinating, and many people like to relate to how society worked in earlier times.
The popular BBC television series “Downton Abbey” depicts many aspects of historical service that relate closely to service on yachts. The most obvious similarity relates to the wealth factor, and to the protocols and rituals that separate the working staff from the principals: the Lord and Lady of the household.
A hierarchy or chain of command comparable to that of yachting is in place. Ranking beneath the Lord of the manor came the butler, the under butlers, the footmen, the grooms, the chauffeurs, and the gardeners. Under the Lady of the house were the head housekeeper, the cook, the ladies’ maids and the assorted housemaids, kitchen maids, and scullery maids.
We could roughly correlate these positions with the various departments onboard: deck, engineering, and interior.
Another similarity that the series incorporates is a “lifestyles of the rich and famous” perspective, which is a commonly held perception of yachting. (As a former yacht stew, I jokingly used to refer to our job descriptions as “lifestyles of the people who work for the rich and famous.”)
People are fascinated with the daily routines of the upper class and captivated with celebrity images. They cannot seem to get enough of the intricate and intimate details of society’s elite. As yacht crew, we know the ins and outs of daily life and realize that people are just people when it comes down to basics. We also know that the weight of celebrity status and public image can be a heavy load to carry sometimes. When you are placed on a lofty pedestal, it is a long fall from the top.This is a recurring theme in the spotlight of today’s news as well as on “Downton Abbey.”
Social protocols have changed greatly from the World War I era depicted in the series. The “old school” rules of relationships and social convention are fascinating and somewhat inspiring. In today’s volatile and rapidly changing world, many people long for a return to more predictable and formal social behavior.
As a culture, we do not get much guidance or direction from popular television or media. “Downton Abbey” is a welcome antidote to the indignity of relationships seen on “reality TV.” You have to admit, while there are mixed reviews, many love to hate the Bravo series “Below Deck”. Some who have chosen a professional career in yachting feel that it demeans the hard work and standards of professional service on yachts. The image given off by the reality show downplays the skill, competence and character traits that set highly trained professional yacht crew apart.
In contrast, the characters on “Downton Abbey” don’t always follow the predictable and formal rules of behavior, but their indiscretions are a little bit more discreet and their moral transgressions are a little less immoral than what we see on reality television today.
“Downton Abbey” has a nostalgic appeal for many viewers. We often relate to stories told by friends and relatives about the fortitude and resolve of previous generations living through major world events such as the industrial revolution, the sinking of the Titanic, World War I and the Irish-British conflicts. These are all portrayed in the BBC series and introduced within a personal context. As such, the show offers more sophisticated entertainment than many people are used to these days.
It also offers a glimpse into the existence of people who seem larger than life. In today’s world, great wealth is quite often a symbol of personal accomplishment and success rather than exclusively of social eminence and status.
In the past, the decision to serve in a private environment was usually the result of an economic or physical necessity. Some were forced into service while for others it was the only career option available. At different times the historical aspect of “service” has had a more positive perception than other times.
Service today is a sophisticated combination of technical and practical skills along with a high level of education and training. Whereas domestic help of bygone days were sometimes at the mercy of ruthless and unscrupulous bosses, today’s yacht workers are under the protection of strict international maritime laws and conventions.
While domestic servants in the distant past had little possibility of advancement past a certain point, today’s professional yacht workers often work closely alongside modern titans of commerce and industry with admirable character. They have no limit of opportunity and influence which, if used properly, can lead to resources and an existence that others can only dream of.
This new paradigm of service is just as captivating, just as fascinating as bygone eras, and will shed a new light on service for generations to come.
Alene Keenan has been a yacht stew for more than 20 years. She teaches at MPT and offers customized onboard interior training and consulting through her company, Yacht Stew Solutions (www.yachtstewsolutions.com). Order her self-published book “The Yacht Guru’s Bible: The Service Manual for Every Yacht” from Amazon.com or directly from Create Space at www.createspace.com/5377000. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.