As Americans wrap up a big holiday in late November (Thanksgiving) and cultures all over the world prepare for the December holidays (Christmas, Hanukkah, Boxing Day, etc.) we were curious how yacht crew make time for this season of family get-togethers.
Like many workers in the service industry, yacht crew are often called on to work while the rest of the world takes a break.
How do crew handle that? So we asked.
We were surprised at the results to our first question Will you go home for the holidays?
The majority of our respondents (51.5 percent) will be working on the yacht over the holidays.
“Even after 30 years in the industry, I cry every working Christmas because I would rather be with my family,” said the chef on a yacht 80-100 feet. “It’s the price we pay to work in this unique environment.”
But the rest (48.4 percent) said yes, that they will be “home” with family. Most of those will be off the boat and at home on the actual day of celebration or pretty soon after. Just one respondent said the yacht is “home” and family would be there.
“Our yacht will be docked in home port for the holidays. The owner and his wife live aboard and tell the crew to go home. The local crew check the boat every few days and are on call should a problem come up.
With so many yacht captains and crew able to be home for the holidays this year, we were also surprised to learn it’s been a common trend recently. When was the last time you spent the holidays with family?
The most popular answer at almost half our respondents was “last year”, with the percentages dropping the more time passed.
“I’ll always be ready to work through the holidays and show others a good time, although that hasn’t been necessary over the past three years and during my tenure aboard my current vessel,” said a captain in yachting 7-9 years.
Just 10.1 percent of our respondents said they haven’t spent the holidays with family since they got into yachting, which was about a decade for most, some more than 25 years. The size of the vessel and the position on board of these crew members were irrelevant.
“Since I started in yachting, the owners either came the night of or the day after the holiday,” said a captain in yachting more than 30 years. “We are in the service industry.”
Despite if and exactly when crew can get home, we were curious to learn Do you celebrate the holidays?
Nearly three quarters do, with the bulk (40.6 percent) celebrating as much as they can by decorating and exchanging gifts.
“On our boat, we have two crew from Israel, one French, one Canadian, and me, an American,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet. “We celebrate in many different ways. I’m lucky to have great crew to spend that time of year with.”
Half as many (20.3 percent) celebrate privately in their own way.
“Regardless of religion, it is the one time of the year that we all, around the world, take a moment to realize there is something greater than ourselves as individuals,” said a captain in yachting more than 30 years.
Half as many again (10.1 percent) take part in the celebrations of the owner and/or guests.
“It’s actually quite nice watching others open presents, if the guests bring presents,” said the chef on a yacht less than 80 feet who will be working the holidays.
Among those who do not celebrate, the bulk (20.3 percent) said it is because they are too busy working.
“My one and only [holiday] is Thanksgiving with friends and/or extended family,” said a captain in yachting more than 20 years. “What comes after is pure Visa and Mastercard BS.”
We also asked simply How will you spend the holidays this year? Not everyone answered this question, but among those who did, we learned that most interpreted “the holidays” as Christmas Day and noted what they would be doing on that day. Respondents who noted they had just the day off, but would return to the yacht the next day, we counted that as working.
And most (54.2 percent) will be working, either with guests onboard, or simply on watch.
“I’ll be heading home for the holidays, but the boss and family always come the day after Christmas so I’ll be coming back to the yacht the day after Christmas,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 10 years. “Then we will be ready for some yacht play around the Palm Beaches and maybe a trip to the Bahamas for New Years.”
“After delivering the boat to the Bahamas, I will fly home to New York for a few days, enjoy some time with the family and fly back to the Bahamas on the 26th,” said the captain of a yacht less than 80 feet in yachting more than 10 years.
“We’ll be working, but we will have special crew meal,” said the first mate on a yacht 80-100 feet.
“Preparing for owner’s visit in the Caribbean,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in yachting more than 30 years.
“Normal working day here in Saudi Arabia,” said a captain in yachting more than 25 years.
“Cleaning, fixing, driving the boat and unclogging heads,” said the captain of a yacht 80-100 feet in yachting more than 25 years. “What else is new?”
Even if they aren’t working, a lot of yacht crew are still working.
“I have time off, but I’m staying close in case the boss calls and wants to go out,” said the captain of a yacht 80-100 feet in yachting more than 20 years.
“If the owner wants to be on board, work as normal,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in yachting more than 15 years. “Otherwise, probably Christmas day off.”
A few (10.2 percent) were unsure how they would spend the holidays, but half of those want to be working.
“Hopefully on charter in the Caribbean,” said the captain of a yacht 180-200 feet in yachting more than 25 years.
Less than a third are heading home, their responses littered with exclamation points and the occasional “hooray”.
“Home, thank you very much Mr. Boat Owner,” said the captain of a yacht 80-100 feet in yachting more than 20 years.
“First time home in South Africa since my yachting career,” said the first officer of a yacht 200-220 feet.
A few crew are doing neither, instead taking their own time off.
“At anchor in clear water aboard my own sailboat,” said the engineer of a yacht 120-140 feet. “I can’t wait.”
One captain wrote “Getting married! :)” [Congratulations, by the way.]
It was interesting to note that the breakdown of responses in this open-ended question were similar in some ways to those to our first question, where slightly more than half will be working over the holidays this month. But more said they were going home the first time we asked (48.4 percent) compared to in this question (where just 30.5 percent said home).
Perhaps that’s because they had other options or plans that didn’t fit into the yes/no of our first question.
Despite what the realities of yachting require, we were curious to know philosophically Should captains/crew get time off during the holidays?
The majority (61.8 percent) said no, acknowledging that the December/January holidays are a busy time in yachting.
“Christmas holiday season is probably when owners and guests get time off to enjoy their yacht,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in yachting. “If crew want this time of year off as well then they are in the wrong game.”
“Holidays are always prime rate charters, and time for the crew to make money,” said a charter captain in yachting more than 10 years. “That is a choice when you became a crew.”
“We choose to spend our time making other people happy during the holidays, and that’s not a bad thing,” said a charter captain in yachting more than 25 years. “We as crew should enjoy that. I know I do. It’s a great job.”
The remainder were split: 22.1 percent yes; 16.2 percent maybe, that time off is a perk for senior crew.
“Owners do need to understand that their crew have families, and plans need to be made to allow the crew some time off around the holidays, even if it’s every other holiday season or maybe you get to pick either Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Years,” said a captain in yachting more than 10 years.
“If possible, crew should get time off if they are not doing a winter season,” said the captain of a yacht 80-100 feet.
If you cannot get away for the holidays, does your family understand?
Nearly 90 percent of respondents said yes.
“My family has adapted to my schedule,” said the chief stew of a yacht 140-160 feet. “We try to have a family vacation somewhere in the Caribbean in January or February when all of our schedules work. I do miss Thanksgiving dinner a lot.”
A vocal minority admitted their families just don’t understand.
“It’s hard to accept at first, having to work over holidays and birthdays and anniversaries,” said a chef who hasn’t been home in 3-4 years. “If you love the industry enough, eventually you get used to it. You learn to celebrate things whenever you can. It’s not for everybody, which is why I still have a job.
“The hardest part is your family being disappointed in you for not insisting on spending the holidays with them,” this chef said. “They do not seem to understand that asking for the holidays off is synonymous with telling your employer, ‘You can go ahead and replace me because I’m not willing to sacrifice anything for my job.’ Your family thinks you’re just a workaholic and don’t care about them.
“Would I sound like Scrooge if I said the holidays are just another day to earn a paycheck?”
“This question needs a ‘sort of’ answer,” said the engineer of a yacht 160-180 feet. “Does my family give me a hard time about it? No. Can I tell they are disappointed? Yes.”
The most fun part of this month’s survey was our question asking respondents What’s your favorite holiday memory in yachting? Answers spanned the gamut from memorable locations (St. Bart’s, Anegada, Exumas) to memorable times (the millenium, a birthday, a crew meal).
The most common holiday memory was when the yacht owner allowed the crew member’s family to come to the yacht.
“The time a charter cancelled and our parents got to fly down with the owner’s good graces,” said a captain in yachting more than 25 years.
“Costa Rica when the boss flew the crew’s family in,” said the captain of a yacht 80-100 feet who will be working through the holidays.
There were the occasional and presumably rare memories of visits home.
“When my return flight to the boat on Dec. 26 was canceled due to a blizzard,” said a captain on a yacht less than 80 feet. “I was home through New Years. That was my first time since taking the job.”
Several respondents remember fondly the busy times when several yachts were docked or anchored together, all sharing in the holiday spirit.
“New Years in St. Thomas with several yachts, all working, and guests jumping from one to the next,” said a charter captain in yachting more than 10 years.
“Christmas in the Bahamas,” said a captain going home for the holidays. “All 10 yachts owners did not show and all the crew had a huge Christmas celebration that lasted seven days.”
Sometimes, the most memorable times were the simplest.
“The New Year’s fireworks are special, no matter if you have guests onboard or not,” said a chef in yachting 4-6 years.
“There’s a 30-minute window where everyone stares face to the sky in wonder, both guests and crew. And then it’s back to serving cocktails.”
“I was ill about two years ago onboard and my wife sent down a picture album of all of the family at various Christmases past,” said a captain in yachting more than 25 years who will be working this holiday. “Very touching, and thoughtful.”
“Seeing the owners and their grandkids on the yacht during the holidays,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet.
“When a captain in Ft. Lauderdale had a Thanksgiving for every crew member he could find that couldn’t get home,” said a captain in yachting more than 30 years.
Some crew remembered most the time they got to spend time with each other.
“Playing a tipsy Santa and passing out the Secret Santa gifts to the crew,” said the captain of a yacht larger than 220 feet who will work the holidays.
“Christmas at sea one day out from Cartagena, Colombia,” said an engineer who hasn’t been home for the holidays in “a long time.” “It was fun in the crew mess. No politics, no drunks, no grumps. Just Christmas and laughs. It was nice to put aside all of the B.S. for an hour or so and see everyone as a human being.”
It wasn’t clear if some respondents were recalling actual memories or dreaming of new ones.
“Christmas on my own piece of property in Abaco,” said the captain of a yacht less than 80 feet, “drinking rum while decorating a palm tree and not being worried about work the next day.”
Lucy Chabot Reed is editor of The Triton. Comments on this survey are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org. We conduct our monthly surveys online. All captains and crew members are welcome to participate. If you haven’t been invited to take our surveys and would like to be, e-mail email@example.com to be added.