Tears, tantrums and tragedies below deck: SIAN BOYLE exposes the seedy reality of superyacht crews being overworked, abused and facing mortal danger while chasing tips from spoilt guests
As a wildly successful TV show, it has provided a burst of escapism and glamour to millions of Britons denied a holiday abroad this summer.
In each shamefully addictive 44-minute episode of Below Deck, the young, attractive and often sleep-deprived crew of a magnificent superyacht scrub, squabble and sometimes sleep together as they struggle to win the approval of the vessel’s endlessly pampered guests.
The show was a sleeper hit on America’s Bravo network until this ‘Caribbean Sea version of Downton Abbey’, as one critic called it, launched here several weeks ago.
It features spoilt and demanding customers — who might request that a foam machine be obtained or a plane chartered to buy a McDonald’s meal at a moment’s notice — as well as a grumpy captain and a breakout British star in arrogant chef Ben.
Below Deck’s Kate Chastain, Brianna Adekeye and Jen Howell. The show was a sleeper hit on America’s Bravo network until this ‘Caribbean Sea version of Downton Abbey’, as one critic called it, launched here several weeks ago
In the sun-kissed, high-pressure world Ben inhabits, he is not unusual. More than half of the 37,000 crew members working on the world’s 7,000 superyachts are Brits.
The lifestyle attracts energetic twentysomethings who fancy some sun, fun and glamour, and are enticed by the prospect of seriously juicy tips.
The typical handout is between ten and 15 per cent of a boat’s weekly charter fee, shared among the crew, who otherwise earn relatively meagre wages. But as the most expensive charter fees can run to hundreds of thousands of pounds a week, as a summer job it beats flipping burgers.
It all sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?
William Black (left), 28, from Ripley, Surrey, was presumed dead in 2010, having apparently fallen overboard from a yacht in Monaco. Jacob Nichol (right), 22, from St. Austell, Cornwall, died in 2017, two years after he was permanently brain damaged while working on a yacht
But in fact, as I discovered when I travelled to the superyacht hub of Antibes, on the French Riviera, last summer to investigate the industry, real life ‘below deck’ is characterised by punishing hours, cramped conditions, minimal job security and relentless drudgery.
Worse, it is often peppered with health and safety abuses and even exploitation.
I was drawn to look at what life is like for crews aboard superyachts after several young British crew members died in tragic circumstances.
In May last year, on the final night of the Cannes Film Festival, 29-year-old Jake Feldwhere from Midhurst, West Sussex, was killed in a superyacht collision while pulling up the anchor. One of the captains was charged with involuntary manslaughter after allegedly steering his boat too fast.
In 2017, Jacob Nicol, 22, from St Austell, Cornwall, also perished. Two years earlier, he had fallen from a harness while cleaning a superyacht in Majorca and suffered serious brain damage.
Michael Hanlon from Windermere, Cumbria, was also only 22 when he died after falling from a £65 million superyacht in Antibes in 2013, shortly after receiving his first payslip. His family claimed he was exhausted after working a day and a night shift back to back.
A luxury private motor yacht under way on tropical sea with bow wave at sunset. A serving crew member on a yacht docked in the harbour, who refused to be named, gave a glimpse of how life at sea can be a misery of overwork and abuse
Finally, William Black, 28, from Ripley, Surrey, was presumed dead in 2010, having apparently fallen overboard from a yacht in Monaco.
But such warnings have done nothing to dent the aspirations of young Brits eager to join the crews of these floating palaces, as I discovered in Antibes.
And what a chic and alluring world it appears. Near the harbour, I watched Ferraris and RollsRoyces gliding past romantic seafood restaurants and galleries lined with bank-breaking works of modern art.
It was a far cry from life ashore for would-be yachties, many of whom live in ‘crew houses’ — squalid hostels featuring, in the one where I stayed, broken glass and mattresses on the floor.
In another, I saw condoms laid out in the check-in lobby alongside the usual town guides, leaflets and maps. From these houses, young people desperate for work aboard the superyachts, rise at dawn each morning to start the demoralising process of ‘dock-walking’: pounding the palm-lined docksides with a stack of CVs to hand out to any yacht in the port that might consider them.
They are judged like meat. Recruitment agencies won’t refer anyone for a role on board without a photograph — and most resumés feature beaming young women in short skirts and strapping young men. One agency asks candidates to state their weight on its registration form, another their dress size.
A serving crew member on a yacht docked in the harbour, who refused to be named, gave a glimpse of how life at sea can be a misery of overwork and abuse. ‘You don’t get enough rest,’ he told me, ‘and that creates a lot of tension between crew. Quite frankly, unless you work on a 50ft-plus boat, none of the crew are getting the breaks required. We’re forced to lie about it as well.’
Michael Hanlon (left) from Windermere, Cumbria, was also only 22 when he died after falling from a £65 million superyacht in Antibes in 2013. Jake Feldwhere (right), 29, from Midhurst, West Sussex, was killed in a superyacht collision while pulling up the anchor
Cocaine use among staff and crew is rampant, he said, adding: ‘I’ve heard a few times of crew being sent ashore to buy drugs for guests.’
My journey into the not-so glamorous world of superyacht crews had started some weeks earlier on the Isle of Wight, where I undertook a United Kingdom Sailing Academy (UKSA) training course to prepare for a job below deck.
This was not about reef knots, fenders and splicing the mainbrace: during the course, I was shocked at what it was deemed necessary we should know.
The Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping (STCW) course included a video, ‘The STI House’, informing would-be yachties of the dangers of having rampant ‘unprotected sex with strange people you’ve only just met’.
Crew are supplied with condoms, I learnt, ‘because there are young men and women, people are having fun’.
Those who are hired are then confronted by the reality of superyacht life below deck. Any trainee stewards who think their role will entail lounging by a pool and bragging on Instagram are in for a shock.
Stewards typically work five months on, one month off and deckhands often complain of exhaustion and a chronic disregard for health and safety. Staff sleeping quarters are no bigger than jail cells and are often shared.
Some vessels impose a punishment known as ‘weekend watch’, whereby if a crew member is a single minute late for their shift, they are made to work an entire weekend shift.
Other staff report working for months without a day off. Rest periods are a legal requirement for staff but the rules are routinely flouted. For the richest of the rich, stewards are always on call — and dispensable.
Then there are the grotesque initiation ceremonies that would not seem out of place at an undergraduate rugby club.
I heard lurid stories of buckets of rotten slops being thrown in crew members’ faces, stewards forced to drink concoctions of milk and beer, silly dressing-up games and bacchanalian drinking contests to celebrate crossing the Equator.
Captain Sandy Yawn, Hannah Ferrier, and Malia White were in Mallorca, Spain, for Below Deck season 5
And in this hard-working, hard-partying atmosphere, good practice can sometimes go overboard.
‘Clients who own or charter vessels are used to an extremely high standard of service, which means their demands can range from the obscure to the illegal,’ revealed industry magazine The Crew Report last year.
It recommended what stewards should do if a client asks them to buy drugs on their behalf (the advice was to refuse, explaining that ‘as a crew we would be held directly responsible in the event that drugs are found on board and we can’t accept that level of risk’).
Yet the siren call of a supposedly glamorous lifestyle on board a floating palace continues to draw countless young hopefuls.
This year, in defiance of the coronavirus restrictions that have ruined summer for millions of ordinary families, the yachting world has boomed.
Superyachts are believed to have been one of the few leisure industries that saw surging demand during lockdown, as the mega-rich sought respite from the virus and its pesky travel restrictions (a luxury boat, after all, is an ideal place to self-isolate).
Celebrities spotted blissfully enjoying the Mediterranean yacht life this year have included Kate Moss in Ibiza, Tamara Ecclestone in Croatia and Tom Hanks in Greece.
In March, the billionaire movie mogul David Geffen faced a furious backlash after posting online a tone-deaf message from his £446 million superyacht Rising Star, which has its own cinema, pool and basketball court and has hosted guests including Sir Paul McCartney, Leonardo DiCaprio and Steven Spielberg.
‘Isolated in the Grenadines avoiding the virus,’ Geffen wrote, alongside a picture of his enormous yacht against a perfect sunset. ‘I’m hoping everybody is staying safe.’
He has since deleted the post, and has spent the summer cruising between Mallorca and the Italian island of Capri.
This week, dozens of yachts owned by the 1 per cent were moored along the French Riviera.
The Al Raya, a 500ft leviathan with two helipads, owned by Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov, was docked in Antibes.
Superyachts are believed to have been one of the few leisure industries that saw surging demand during lockdown, as the mega-rich sought respite from the virus and its pesky travel restrictions (file image)
Over in Monaco, the £118 million Lionheart, plaything of the disgraced Topshop mogul Philip Green, bobbed gently.
Those crew members who do manage to gain a toehold in the industry will swiftly realise it is a world characterised by rampant one-upmanship.
Four brothers from an Emirati royal family are said to have competed with each other over who could have the biggest yacht built, commissioning not just a superyacht each but a further ‘chaser’ yacht to accompany it. These eight yachts would then race each other around the Med.
During my time on the UKSA course, I saw pictures of a yacht in the Gulf of Aden — a volatile strait between Yemen and Somalia — equipped with tripod-mounted guns for clay-pigeon shooting at sea.
When I asked what nearby boats might have made of gunfire in such a dangerous region, the instructor pointed out the huge naval vessel near by, brought along to give the gun-mounted yacht ‘protection’. (During the UKSA course, we were given decommissioned AK47s, revolvers and automatic handguns to pass around.)
Meanwhile, the Russians and Saudis are said to be particularly stringent about not employing any yacht staff who speak their native languages, preferring to talk in absolute privacy.
One deckhand who had read Russian at university but failed to declare this in his job application was working aboard a Russian-owned yacht when he smiled politely to acknowledge a joke between two security guards. He was immediately removed from the boat and dismissed.
The manager of one of the online recruitment centres warns prospective crew: ‘You are joining yachts with no contract, or shockingly low salaries. You are very vulnerable. Jobs found via “loose” forms of recruitment are risky . . . be sure your contract contains all it should.’
Yet despite the risks, and regardless of the pandemic and concerns about a second wave of Covid, demand for new, enthusiastic young stewards remains high.
Grapevine, which runs several crew houses in Antibes, says: ‘We are currently open and accepting new guests into various properties in town.’
The UKSA’s £830 entry-level course is fully booked until the end of October, and its £2,999, three-week superyacht stewardess hospitality course has no places until the end of November.
In a statement, the UKSA said it takes great pride in ‘delivering training to the highest standards’, and that by offering real-life anecdotes ‘our instructors deliver an educational, engaging and realistic course filled with appropriate . . . examples of working on board’.
It added that it follows the syllabus given by the Merchant Navy Training Board, employs a full-time welfare officer and ‘takes the safety and welfare of students extremely seriously’.
But neither the working conditions nor the risk of injury will do anything, it seems, to prevent more young Brits queuing up to experience life below deck.
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