There were more than a few life lessons in store when a yacht chef found herself trying to open a cafe in England while on charter season in the Caribbean — just as a strange new pandemic plunged the world into panic.
My passion for cooking is what led me into the yachting world, and it would also be what led me out. Food allergies and health issues in my early 20s spurred on my love for food, took me to culinary school, and consequently led me into the galley, where I stayed — on a variety of yachts, both sail and motor — for seven years.
I thrived on providing an integral part of the experience for guests, as well as treating my crewmates with their favourite meals to lift mid-charter spirits. I always knew, though, that yachting would not be a forever job for me. Somehow, some day, I wanted to carve out a career ashore that would allow me to continue sharing my love of food.
That opportunity came suddenly and unexpectedly in the late summer of 2019. My husband and I had just put an offer on a house in a countryside town in Surrey, England, when a friend stumbled upon a continental-style delicatessen for sale there. A partnership was suggested, with my friend handling the logistics and financial side, and myself taking charge of the food. It wasn’t an instant yes, but after some deliberation, I gave the nod of my head and went for it.
Having just purchased a house that needed a complete renovation — and now a business! — I wasn’t in a financial position to give up my cushy job on a 115-foot expedition-style yacht. In what was less than ideal timing, I collected the keys to our shop the day before I flew trans-Atlantic to begin the winter Caribbean season. I boarded the flight with paint still in my hair from the frantic turnaround we’d undertaken in an exhausting 24-hour window.
Starting a business is a challenge at any time, let alone during a three-month stint in the islands — where a phone signal is a luxury — running a typical on-charter schedule with full-time liveaboard owners, 10 hungry guests and five crew to feed. Then, to add to the stress, the news started coming in: Something devastating and deadly called Covid-19 was creating panic around the world.
A global pandemic was declared, countries began to close their borders, and I realized the tables had completely turned. For the first time in all my years of yachting, the supermarkets in the Caribbean were better stocked than those at home. It filled me with worry. While we scrambled to send the owner home and get the yacht safely shipped to a yard, the U.K. entered lockdown. Nobody was quite sure what this actually entailed, but I knew one thing: After just two months, our business was closing.
Despite our struggles, the global pandemic taught us to look for the positive. Yes, we had to close the shop — but that provided the opportunity for renovations. Six long weeks later, we reopened as the little cafe I’d always dreamed of. It was to our advantage that people were now forced to work from home, as our space offered an excuse to step away from bedroom desks and living room offices. We quickly became known as a comfortable place to grab a takeaway lunch and a cup of what’s now been dubbed “the best coffee in town.”
Having finally set myself up on land with my flourishing little coffee shop, it’s safe to say I’ve found the work/life balance that is often missed on busy yachts. That being said, I’ve learnt that nothing will ever compare with yachting salaries, and that living relatively free of overheads on board is something we can easily (but never should!) take for granted. I’ve also learnt that there is no perfect time to take a leap of faith and follow your dreams. In fact, there is no better time than the present, since now is the only guarantee we have.
Lauren Loudon is a British freelance writer. She was a yacht chef/stew for seven years, and formerly wrote the Crew Compass column for The Triton.