They live in an extraordinary world filled with exotic locations, glamorous people and a perpetual sea breeze while tending to the needs of the rich and famous – but there is also a dark side to life as crew member on a luxury superyacht.
While recruiters are keen to promote the ability for young Australians to collect a tax-free income, travel the world and “fall in love”, crew members have also told The New Daily of their experiences with misogyny, drugs and prostitution aboard multi-million-dollar mega yachts.
The sudden death of Australian Sinead McNamara on a $190 million vessel in Greece last week prompted scrutiny of the superyacht industry in which she had been employed.
The 20-year-old was on the final day of a four-month stint working as a crew member on the Mayan Queen IV when she died on board the luxury yacht early Friday as it lay anchored near Kefalonia.
‘If you aren’t a size 0-4, don’t bother applying’
Former superyacht deckhand and stewardess Isabelle, who asked us not to publish her surname, says crew can be exposed to sexist slurs, sacked over a distasteful smile, pressured to recolour their hair, confined to small spaces, deprived of sleep, and tasked with “unfathomable” assignments.
The 23-year-old, who worked on board a 50-metre boat for about four months, recently abandoned the industry due to the sexism she endured.
“Women on deck and women working the interior can be subject to unwanted advances and distasteful comments by senior crew, owners and guests which put them in compromising positions,” she said.
Isabelle said crew members can be fired if they refuse to dye their hair a specified colour, which the yacht’s owner finds pleasing or if the owner simply “doesn’t like their smile”.
Qualified women can also be rejected from a job because of their physical appearance, she added.
Some advertisements state “if you aren’t a size 0-4 then don’t bother applying … That’s what size the uniforms are, for women anyway,” Isabelle said.
It’s one of the only industries where you will be rejected from applying if you aren’t blonde, skinny, big busted – or willing to get a boob job – and tanned.
“That’s not the norm, but it’s definitely not rare.”
Isabelle said she spoke with another female worker who accepted extra pay to “act like a slave” whenever she was around the yacht’s Russian owner.
“All the stewardesses were paid twice the industry standard salary as long as they didn’t look him in the eye when speaking to him and bowed down while gazing down with arms extended to serve him his food.”
Isabelle said the cabins on her vessel, which were often shared between two workers, were “the width of a king single bed and smaller than the length of a standard bed” and had a shower cubicle attached.
Marine engineer Guy Howard who has been working on superyachts for about 20 years, has witnessed owners and their guests using illicit drugs, namely cocaine, marijuana and ecstasy.
“As crew, we turn a blind eye to that,” he said.
When Mr Howard notified the captain of cocaine use on board a vessel, it was decided by the captain that he, along with the crew, would ignore the illegal activity.
As for some of the more “aggressive” drugs, like ice or heroin, Mr Howard said “there would be very few cases where that would be tolerated by any captain or crew”.
Crew are bound by a confidentiality agreement, Mr Howard said, which prevents them from revealing exactly what takes place on board a vessel.
“We, personally as crew, don’t break the law. What happens on board stays on board … we certainly cannot discuss the finer details.”
Prostitution “definitely happens from time to time” on superyachts, Mr Howard said, adding that charter yachts are sometimes booked for that exact reason.
‘Better than 9-5’
Despite some of the things they’re forced to endure, Mr Howard says crew members “generally have a good time”.
“There’s a lot more positives about this industry than there are negatives. It certainly beats the average 9-5 office job, that’s for sure.”
Isabelle agreed, saying while she experienced some “extreme lows”, there were also some “extreme highs”.
Guests on her boat included movie producers, A-list singers and billionaires.
“Talking to crew from other boats and bonding with each other and your own crew over your shared crazy experiences is awesome,” she said.
Unless it comprises the safety of crew, former chief stewardess Joanne Drake said employees could very rarely say ‘no’ to the requests of guests on board.
From flying to a remote island to pick up a piece of clothing that a guest had demanded, to feeding the owner’s dog cappuccino frost for breakfast, Ms Drake said “its like I’ve lived a dream when I look back at some of the things I’ve done”.
When guests weren’t on board, the crew had a very detailed maintenance list to upkeep.
Crew would sometimes use “cotton buds and toothpicks” to clean the superyacht’s interior.
When asked whether she experienced any sexism within the industry, Ms Drake said “I’ve only had positive experiences with the captains and engineers and crew that I’ve worked with that have been supportive of women in typical male dominated positions on board”.
‘A very unique industry’
Joy Weston, owner of recruitment and training agency Crew Pacific, which provides staff to about 5000 different superyachts around the globe, says crew members are often tied to a 12-month contract and live permanently on board the vessel.
Ms Weston, who spent a decade working on superyachts, said employees are “extremely looked after”.
On top of a tax-free monthly salary of up to $US3000 (about $AU4160), employees receive complimentary chef-cooked food all year round, accommodation, toiletries and uniforms at no cost, six to eight weeks paid annual leave plus reimbursed flights and free medical and dental treatment, Ms Weston explained.
Employees can get up to US$10,000 in bonuses, Ms Weston added.
Essentially, crew are paid to meet and please “some of the most amazing, rich, famous people”, she said.
“It’s a very unique industry that people are not aware of … It’s a little bit surreal for a lot of people to understand.”
Ms Weston said a key challenge for many crew members is learning how to “live and work with people that you normally would not even choose to live and work with on a daily basis, let alone regularly”.
“It’s a bit like Big Brother at sea.
“You may end up falling in love with them.”