Dictatorships: Seduced by the promise of 24-carat glamour, young Britons are signing up as superyacht crew - only to find they're stranded aboard floating tyrannies, forced to indulge the bizarre whims of monstrously spoilt owners
'Access Interdit,’ says the sign on the Quai des Milliardaires in Antibes. Behind a barrier the superyachts rise like a skyline in white and royal blue. This is the smartest address in a smart town. Riff-raff are discouraged.
Still, nobody pays much attention as I wander up to the first of these beasts, the motor yacht Katara. Owned by the Emir of Qatar, it is thought to have cost around $300 million. Crew in white shirts and khaki shorts swarm over its decks, making final preparations to the scene.
Everything is immaculate. Glasses and cutlery are laid on tables. Sun-loungers are set out on the teak transom, towels rolled in tight cylinders. On the top deck a helicopter waits. It all gleams in the sunshine.
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The promise of a peek into this rarefied kingdom is the reason thousands of young British people head to the Mediterranean to become ‘yachties’ each spring
At the end of the gangplank a steward stands with his hands behind his back. The boat is 124 metres long, he explains. He doesn’t own it himself. They are waiting for someone. He won’t tell me who. No, I can’t have a look around. That’s enough, thanks.
His tone makes it clear that he does not want scruffy tourists loitering and that he has ways of enforcing this wish.
More than any other status symbol, these boats are the ultimate projections of global hyper-wealth: floating embassies of a world that is highly visible but impossible to touch. Unless you get a job on one.
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The promise of a peek into this rarefied kingdom is the reason thousands of young British people head to the Mediterranean to become ‘yachties’ each spring.
They are motivated by the same reasons people have always gone to sea: money, adventure and escape. Depending on where you draw the line (‘super’ is generally thought to start at around 30 metres long), there are more than 5,000 superyachts in the world. The biggest need up to 70 crew.
‘I’d had enough of cutting hair,’ says Alex, 23, from Sandbanks, Dorset. ‘My step-brother came out here and paid off all his university debt. He practically begged me to come.’
She flew out in April and has just finished her first proper job — a two-and-a-half month charter.
The work, for the vast majority of men and women, mostly consists of cleaning. Men are usually deckhands, or ‘deckies’. They clean the outside of the boat. Women are stewardesses, or ‘stews’. They clean the inside.
A big yacht can take two days to clean, and it needs cleaning constantly. Toilets are cleaned with toothbrushes and cotton buds.
Many yachts are chartered out to offset the outrageous cost of maintaining them, usually considered to be about ten per cent of the build price per year.
Singer Rihanna was spotted enjoying a Mediterranean holiday with friends on this yacht (pictured above)
The rule of thumb is that they cost $1 million per metre to build or buy, and more at the top end: by this logic a 50-metre boat, far from unusual, will have cost $50 million to build and $5 million a year to run.
The charter costs reflect these figures. Roman Abramovich’s boat, Eclipse, is thought to be the priciest available to rent, at $2 million a week, or $11,900 per hour.
That’s before fuel, water, food and tips for the crew, who will cater to the guests’ every whim as the yacht hops from Sardinia to Monaco to Greece or, during the winter, the Caribbean.
They are the perfect tonic for the people prepared to blow millions on a holiday: think Jay-Z, Leonardo DiCaprio, Simon Cowell, and untold numbers of investment bankers.
For yachties, these charters are the goal. They range from a couple of days to several weeks and pay starts at €2,000 a month. Crew live onboard and all food is provided. With no expenses, savings quickly add up, especially when supplemented by tips. The rule of thumb is €1,000 per crew member per week, but it can be €5,000 or higher.
‘You earn every cent,’ says Lizzie Irving. ‘I found it unbelievably tough. You work hard and play hard.’
Originally from Scotland, Lizzie moved to France after university. She worked on the boats for a year before moving on to land, where she is sales manager for Bluewater, a crew-services provider. They have more than 52,000 people on their books, including 11,000 Britons, for every position from captains to chefs.
Simon Cowell did his Ice Bucket challenge with girlfriend Lauren Silverman on his luxury yacht
Simon giggles as Lauren soaks him for his Ice Bucket Challenge
‘Each boat is different,’ she says. ‘Some captains want career-minded grafters, others want a more relaxed vibe. Outsiders don’t really appreciate the hard work that goes into it.
‘If you are a steward you have to know how to serve every different nationality and religion. You could have Russian or Arab guests, Jewish or Muslim or Christian. I had to serve royalty. You might have three lactose-intolerant guests, two gluten-free and three children.
‘They might want fillet steak when you are 300 miles from shore. You have to be ready for everything. It’s not acceptable not to know what to do.’
Furthermore, compared with the five-star hotel standard of the guest state-rooms, the crew accommodation is usually cramped and shared. Crew will wake up to serve breakfast and then stay until the last guest has gone to bed, meaning days can be up to 20 hours. There are no weekends at sea.
On superyachts the owner is God, followed quickly by the captain and the guests. Owners range from the friendly to the downright tyrannical.
‘On my first job the owner arrived in the night,’ says Sarah, a woman in her 30s with more than a decade’s experience in the industry.
‘We were all lined up on the deck ready to greet him and his wife. The wife went down the line shaking everyone’s hands. When she got to me she said: “Oh, another new one.”
‘She lifted her shoes up to my face. “Clean my shoes,” she said. I was ready to quit there and then.
‘A few weeks into the trip I saw one of the Filipino servants running out of a cabin with blood coming from her nose. The wife had thrown a shoe at her head when she found a dress had fallen off its hanger in her closet.
‘I asked the chief stewardess why the maid didn’t quit. “She can’t quit,” she said. “Madame went to the Philippines with a briefcase of cash and bought her. The owner’s wife threatened to throw her passport overboard so she’d never see her family again.”
‘The next morning I saw her with her hands around the same girl’s throat. I resigned, but on my last night I was carrying a tray of drinks and tripped on a Picasso that was lying in a corridor, fell down the stairs and broke my foot. It was quite an eye-opening first yacht job.’
Stories as extreme as this are unusual. ‘That’s the worst story I’ve heard,’ says Jo Morgan, who used to work on boats. ‘It’s certainly not representative. Also, yachts are like a private house. Most crew don’t think it’s right to gossip about someone’s family life. And they’d never get hired again. Discretion is everything.’
Nevertheless, employment rights are non-existent at many levels. There is rarely maternity leave and you can be hired or fired on a whim.
‘I was told I was let go from my last job because I didn’t smile at the captain enough,’ says one woman I speak to. ‘The real reason was that the captain was French and wanted a French crew.
Beyonce and Jay-Z hired this yacht (pictured in South France) to celebrate her 30th birthday
A luxury yacht, like this one hired by Beyonce and Jay-Z can cost up to $2million to rent for a week
‘You can be fired for being too old or too young, or not having the “right look” (typical translation: not good-looking enough).’
It is not uncommon for an owner to wake up one morning and fire the entire crew without notice.
Other tales are simply of excess, and it is impossible to tell which are true and which apocryphal. The pig flown in from Denmark because someone wanted a hog roast. The owner who hires dwarfs to waterski around the boat for his amusement. The dry cleaning sent to Paris by Learjet. The artificial beach assembled on the back of one yacht each day. The deckhands sent into the ocean to clear the area of jellyfish before a guest went swimming.
Anything and everything procured on demand. Prostitutes are often brought onboard some yachts.
S arah says: ‘You couldn’t work on a busy charter boat if you weren’t happy coming into contact with hookers. Sometimes they are underage. You do wonder what you’re doing with your life when you find yourself being bossed around by a prostitute, but then you think that her first day at work was probably worse.
‘What I find harder is when you have an owner on board with his mistress and then a day turnaround before his wife arrives — particularly if you like the wife. If you are a student of politics, it can also be difficult to wait on someone you find morally abhorrent.
Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton pictured aboard a luxury yacht in Sardinia, Italy last month
‘Saif Gaddafi [the dictator’s son] was on one of my boats just before I joined it, which I would have found difficult. But you have to learn not to take rudeness personally.’
‘The other thing you see is the alienating effect of great wealth,’ Sarah adds. ‘I’ve had owners who have just recently come into their money. They buy a yacht and at the start of the season they are very friendly. They let the crew address them by their first names and crack jokes.
‘Then they look at all the other boats and realise how things are done. They close up and become much more formal. By the end of the season they are eating hamburgers alone from a white tablecloth with candelabra, while everyone calls them Sir.’
Relations between crew and guests are unusual, if not unheard of. ‘That’s what skorts are for,’ laughs Alex, referring to the harassment preventative qualities of the shorts/skirt hybrid favoured by female crew.
‘I heard of one stewardess who married their owner, but those kinds of relationships are rare.’
Drugs are less ubiquitous than you might think. ‘If drugs are found on board a captain can lose his licence and they don’t want to risk their whole careers,’ says Sarah.
‘I’ve heard of captains kicking guests off for drug use. But equally there are some who turn a blind eye.’ There are plenty of ‘dry boats’, where the crew can’t have alcohol onboard.
Yet for all of these difficulties, the allure of the job persists. Good charters are a well-paid way to see some of the most beautiful places on Earth, from the comfort of the most luxurious vessels ever made.
Everywhere you go you hear the same story: of people who have tried to leave the industry, but keep finding themselves drawn inexorably back to the South of France.
‘When it’s good, it’s amazing,’ agrees Tom, 27, who worked in yachts for two years in the Mediterranean and Miami. ‘We had a charter with a British musician — a household name — and I realised that the key was to make sure his kids had a good time.
‘I concentrated on that: playing games with them, taking them swimming, going on the jet skis. They had a great time, and at the end we got a €6,000 tip.
‘You realised that for all of their wealth, these people struggle so hard to find peace. That’s what they pay for, and why privacy is so highly valued. You’re in the middle of the ocean. Nobody can bother you.’
For the crew, as well, life on board can be as enlightening as it is horrific at times. Somewhere between cutting cigars, pouring champagne and unblocking toilets, this is a job like few others.
‘I am so pleased to have worked in yachting,’ says Jo. ‘It gave me an education, about myself and the people who rule the world. You cannot come out the same you went in.’
A version of this article first appeared in the Observer Magazine.
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2752879/Dictatorships-Seduced-promise-24-carat-glamour-young-Britons-signing-superyacht-crew-stranded-aboard-floating-tyrannies-forced-indulge-bizarre-whims-monstrously-spoilt-owners.html#ixzz3D5N4c48o
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