Working on Yachts: Can it be Sustainable?

My decision to return to work on yachts was not one without its difficulties. I had begun to enjoy being in a place long enough to make new friends and catch up with old ones; to get involved in local activities, things I was passionate about and get into a (much needed!) fitness routine/healthy eating pattern…for the most part anyways!

But my finances were quickly dwindling, I became more unsure about what direction to take (I’m 30 now!!!) and yachting’s allure of getting paid to travel/potential to save was setting it up as a forerunner in my ‘what to do next’ conundrum.

Having the freedom to eat what I want, when I want is a big thing for me. As a vegetarian and someone who generally tries to buy local, organic produce with as little packaging as possible, yacht life seems like a massive contradiction and one that might prevent me from continuing my positive habits.

Why the Scepticism?

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The yachting industry is rife with toxic products (anti-fouling, teak acid, harsh cleaning products, etc), masses of waste, pollution, packaging and a general disregard for the environment.

On a previous yacht I worked for, we had a boss who was obsessed with big game fishing. He would insist on putting a reel off the back of the boat every time we were under way – which was most of the time, as we rarely went into port.

We caught fish after fish; including threatened species of tuna and one time a mite-ridden marlin (about 2 meters long!!) that we, soft-stomached westerners, could not eat. Unfortunately, the two-hour fight with the creature had resulted in its exhaustion and ultimate death.

Our captain at the time was a very gentle soul. He didn’t enjoy seeing these majestic creatures killed for human pleasure neither, so he took it upon himself to locate a small local Philippino fishing vessel in the area; he set the plot and headed in their direction. When we got close enough he signaled with exaggerated hand gestures (pointing at the fish!) that his intention was to give them this massive marlin. They slowly approached our vessel.

A little dubious at first, they soon relaxed and were delighted with the gesture. The fish would bring in some much needed money for them at the market. They fished for their livelihood, for a daily survival. We were fishing for ‘sport’.

They also timidly asked for some sugar for their tea, which we happily handed over, smiling a little at the simplicity of their request and the immense gratitude we received for fulfilling it. They told us with glum faces that they had had to endue bitter tea for weeks at sea and were desperate to sweeten their drinks.

We got a little cheer when we handed over the sugar. They were so excited! In exchange, they gave us a gift of a small mahi-mahi, which we felt we had to accept, though again, did not need. But we could see the kindness in the gesture and the importance of accepting.

It made us (some of us) inwardly reflect on how lucky we had it and how greedy we could be. Here we were, in crisp white uniform shirts on a multi-million dollar yacht, cruising the pacific for pleasure, not for survival, complete with the latest and most expensive fishing, medical and dive gear.

We had so much surplus food on board that had we been stranded somewhere remote, we could quite easily survive comfortably for months, whereas these fishermen depended on the fruits of the sea for their livelihood.

I felt such shame that day and somewhat helpless in that I couldn’t voice my opinion to the owner that we had enough food on board and didn’t need to kill any more fish. His greed and general ignorance got the better of him.

The chef at the time was getting fed up with having to fillet these fish that were getting caught daily and often ended up throwing them away as there were so many being caught and not eaten. I felt so powerless and so sad that we had needlessly pillaged all this life from the ocean only to get thrown away.

What’s the point?

Fast-forward a couple of years later, when I have been consciously altering my lifestyle habits to live more sustainably in day-to-day life. My time in Antarctica, with various science talks and daily observations of the wildlife, illustrated just how delicate our natural habitat is, how the effect of just a few degrees of temperature rise can affect a whole eco-system.

We learnt (and continually witness) just how much plastic is now in our oceans, affecting our wildlife and the food chain. Down there, I was surrounded by people who gave a sh*t, immersed in an environment of people who cared. That level of passion is simply contagious and furthered my determination to protect what we have.

Is there a positive side to yachting?

How could I re-involve myself with an industry that I would generally be abhorrent to the habits of? I was torn. I love to travel and I love even more the idea of getting paid to travel. That’s what yachting provides; an outlet to travel, to see the world. Plus, it’s undoubtably a great way to save money, being unable to spend at sea and all that. It’s an adventure. A life experience. An opportunity to make incredible memories.

I then had this debate with someone whose opinion I truly value and who knows me very well. He, also having made the decision to return to the industry, justified the return it in that it continues regardless of whether we’re working on board or not.

The cycle of waste production on board continues to happen on a daily basis, regardless. He argued that I’m not adding to the problem but may potentially help in some very small way by joining it and encouraging change and awareness on board.

There are many positive aspects to yachting. Working as a divemaster on previous yachts, I managed to elicit a new found passion from some of those I took diving to protect marine wildlife. Seeing the lush (and not so lush) dive sites, pointing out and telling stories about certain creatures and their delicate nature elicited a new awareness. I guess that’s another outlet to spread a positive message.

Getting to explore and travel to places you would otherwise never have the opportunity to see is something invaluable. Working on a yacht certainly facilitates that nomadic desire so many of us have.

New opportunity on the high Seas

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In any case, I made the move. I decided that the pros far way out the cons for me personally at this point in my life. I am now sole stew (responsible for the interior and guest service) on a beautiful wooden gaffed schooner classic yacht, but I also get to help sail, which is genuinely really exciting for me!!

I am the only girl onboard, running with seven other guys. They’re all very sweet and have really made me feel welcome on board. The only bickering so far is what films to watch in the evening as we squish into the rather cozy-sized crew mess TV viewing arrangement!

It’s a completely different vibe on board this yacht to any others I’ve worked on before. The captain is so laid back and really works hard at creating a good camaraderie between crew mates. I think because he’s so fair to us that we try to be equally hard working in return.

There’s an unspoken respect we all have for him and so far, for each other. It makes for a pleasant atmosphere.

What about the environment?

With regards waste, we’re not too bad, all things considered. We all have our own drinking bottles and fill up from the water fountain on the fridge in the galley (boat kitchen), meaning no plastic bottle waste – a joy compared to some previous yachts I’ve been on, where at minimum 20 plastic bottles a day are discarded into the landfill waste. Though in developing areas, I’m convinced a lot of it gets washed back into the sea.

We could be better at recycling on board but we’ll slowly work on that. On the interior, I use only natural products. I use vinegar and water for cleaning almost everything . For anything that requires a little more welly, I make sure to seek out eco-friendly products that are not harmful to sea life.

As for our carbon footprint, well, we tend to turn the engine off as often as we can during crossings, covering the miles only by the power of the wind. In fact, when we sail it’s often quicker than motoring.

There’s generally an awareness on board of how efficiently we are running at sea, with the engineer often looking into how we can use less power – turning off lights, short showers, etc. I don’t fully understand everything, but it’s definitely a positive thing.

The Peace of Sailing

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Taking my turn at the helm

Switching the hum of the engines off soon seems to bring with it a sense of calm and an almost meditative-like atmosphere. The sound of the water lapping at the smooth sides of the boat and the rhythmic crashing of the waves against the bow is incredibly soothing and almost hypnotic.

If the weather is dry, I’ve noticed that most of the crew tend to gather on deck, rather than lying in their bunks. It’s nice just chilling together and quietly taking in the peaceful, rhythm of the ocean under our feet and the wind filling our sails above…or telling stories, taking the piss out of each other or doing push-up competitions and ab workouts!!

For me, I enjoy the novelty of harnessing nature and travelling by wind. It is an ancient and unchanged mode of travel and often makes me daydream about the explorers of centuries ago. What a fabulous thing to be part of really and I’m thankful for the opportunity.

Life on board the yacht

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Hoisting the sails for the first time on our crossing – a poignant moment

Work on board is fun. We’re like a little family, taking the mick out of each other, having a good laugh and generally working together as a team. When we’re in port, we sit and watch nature programmes together, all genuinely and equally enthralled by scenes of nature on the screen. I’m so appreciative to be able to work with a crew like that.

We are currently sitting in the marina of La Línea, on the Spanish side of Gibraltar, waiting for bad weather to pass to allow us to continue with our crossing to the Caribbean. After visiting the monkeys (or apes, rather) on the rock of Gibraltar twice now and having walked up, down and around the town, I am looking forward to getting on the move again, towards the Caribbean and in search of new adventures, acquaintances and experiences.

Fingers crossed we’ll get a few more visits from our friendly dolphin friends.

The final word

I have a gut feeling that I’ve made the right choice to come back to yachting. This will be my last boat, for sure, but I hope to have a long stint on here and save some much needed cash to set me up for study (or my own eco business venture- watch this space!!) I also hope to make a positive impact in my choices, my approach to things and hope I can help to influence others to make their own steps towards positive changes. Little changes all add up!

In a nutshell, yes, I think you can still keep moral values intact and work on yachts. I guess it’s largely dependent on the crew, the captain and the owners, but it is achievable. For me, I think I’ll be happy here and will endeavour to do my little bits where I can towards making a more sustainable, healthy and happy environment.

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