Crew Compass: Working for liveaboards a seismic shift from charter life

Aug 16, 2019 by Lauren Loudon

Crew Compass: by Lauren Loudon

People always ask me what it’s like to work on yachts? You must have some good stories, they say. What’s it like to work for the rich and famous? What’s the craziest thing that’s happened on board? Do you ever have celebrities on your boat? The list goes on and on.  

But, as we all know, yachting is a very broad industry. Each crew member has a unique experience within the industry. My answers to those questions will be completely different from those of others. 

The differences from boat to boat are vast, and not just in their physical characteristics. Charter vs. private can be worlds apart in terms of what the guests want. Sail vs. motor is also a story of two halves. And then there’s liveaboard owners. I’ve done them all. 

I’ve spent nine months in a shipyard organizing cupboards and cleaning up after everybody at the end of a dusty day. I’ve spent long winters of back-to-back, weeklong charters in the Caribbean, gently tweaking my somewhat set menu to suit preferences, and a busy summer running day charters out of the Bahamas, cooking buffets for big crowds. I worked on a private sail yacht for more than two years, providing a high level of service and creating a new, unique menu for every trip.

And now, here I am, in a completely different circumstance, and I am still deciding whether it correctly falls under the umbrella of “yachting.” It’s a world of difference from anything I’ve known before: Owners who have just retired from 40 busy years of successful work,  who now live on their boat with their dog and are just starting out on a 10-year circumnavigation – but with no real plan.

I spent the past two years as a chef cooking for up to 10 guests and 5 crew. Like most chefs in the industry, I was spending long days on my feet in the galley, cooking two- to three-course guest lunches, canapes, and themed guest dinners of up to seven courses, as well as lunches and dinners for the crew­ – all the while adhering to specific dietary requirements for each guest and coming up with new ideas so as to not repeat the same dish with the same people. 

I never strayed far from a radio so that I could help the stew to clear the plates in between courses. I prepared all the elements to my dishes while I listened to radio calls asking the stew to top up wine and bring some fresh ice, as she ran from doing turndowns to dinner service at the speed of light. With five crew and demanding guests, we were always required to be on our A-game – available, yet busy, all day long.

On the average day with guests on board, I had about an hour in the mid-afternoon to sit down, shower and put on a clean chef jacket before crew dinner, cocktail hour, canapes and the guests’ dinner. I would finally get out of the galley around 10:30 p.m., when service was over, the dishwasher was loaded and the counters and floors had been cleaned.

I rotated with the stew to “late/early girl,” constantly checking on and topping up wine glasses or blitzing a batch of fresh margaritas, waiting up until the last guest had gone to bed to clear up, wipe down and turn off the lights.

I’ve now traded my 5:30 a.m. alarm for a gentle buzz at 7:45 so that I can have a few moments of calm before going through to the galley and clearing up from the night before. Usually there’s an empty bottle of wine on the side and two wine glasses next to the sink. Occasionally, the wine or whisky glasses are left out on the aft deck table, or the tea cups are in the salon behind the couch. Sometimes there’s a plate or two from a snack they’ve had in front of the TV, or an oily pan on the stovetop from some eggs she has scrambled. The ashtray is always full. 

I fluff up the cushions and clean up any crumbs. I tuck the TV back into its cabinet, tidy any magazines that were read in the evening, and dust the sides before setting up to prepare lunch for the crew – for some reason crew lunch and guest breakfast almost always coincide – after which I turn up the owner’s cabin, set the laundry, and then clear the plates.

The owners will call on the internal phone system if they want anything; often they get it themselves, preferring their privacy over constant service. This means that instead of continually tiptoeing around, watching the levels of their glasses or interrupting to ask if they’d like anything, I get far more than that one hour to myself in the afternoons, be it to do some yoga, read a book or write these columns. I often bake just for the heck of it, try new recipes and make treats because I have the time. 

Recently, while anchored in the most beautiful bay, known as Shipwreck Beach on Zakynthos island in the Ionian Sea, the owners came to us and said, “The dog needs a walk – why don’t you all go to the beach for a while? We are fine on board.” 

So we did. The three of us crew got to watch the sunset from one of the nicest spots I’ve been to over the years, playing with the dog and watching him run in between the rusted metal of the wreck.

It’s essentially the difference between being a part of somebody’s once-in-a-lifetime charter vacation, where they want everything, all the time – or even giving private owners an amazing time with special food and extra service while they’re in holiday mode – and being there to provide for people in their floating home, where they don’t want to be doted on and eating all the time.

The question now is which do I prefer? This or that? 

I honestly can’t choose. I loved the family I worked for before and the opportunity to get super creative with food. And despite the long days when guests were on board, I also enjoyed exploring the gorgeous places we traveled to in between their trips. 

In my current situation, I am very lucky and also very happy. The owner is great and the situation is perfect. I enjoy the down time during the day, though I don’t get the two- or three-week breaks every two weeks. I’m not cooking the kind of food – or as often – as I’d like, but I am enjoying the change and a chance to experience yet another side of this beautiful industry.

Lauren Loudon has worked as a yacht chef for more than four years. She hails from Lancashire, England. Comments are welcome below.