One yacht owner flew in a tiger so his guests could take selfies with it. Another got bored and ordered a group of dwarfs to waterski around his boat for a laugh.
These were a few of the stories we had come across after arriving in Antibes, France, one of the superyachting hubs of the world. Myself and two Irish friends were on a cycle trip along the southern coast that eventually landed us in the French Riviera, a string of aqua-blue beeches that have attracted the world’s wealthiest for centuries. Among the Lamborghinis, Armani suits and 150-foot yachts with helicopters on top, three sweaty cyclists was the sight that obviously didn’t belong. We googled the name of the yacht next to us to find out that it was owned by a Sikh and worth a paltry $300 million.
The hostel in Antibes was full, so we ended up staying in the quarters for those hoping to become crew members on superyachts. Called the Grapevine, it was run by an ex-captain from Australia who boasted to have connections with over 400 yachts and charter boats all over the world. Although it was not cheap, part of the advantage of staying there was access to his network and job postings sent through a Whatsapp group. What we had stumbled into was an underground world that we never knew existed.
Everyone at the Grapevine was young, good-looking, and cleanly dressed. They appeared from out of nowhere to introduce themselves, coming at us at all angles with their hands spread wide and ready to shake. They never stopped smiling…never. I was starting to fear that we had fallen into the hands of a cult, and may find our doors locked from the outside that night. Only later did I realize that those were the prerequisites of the job, and to break character might be a sign of weakness.
We asked the residents of the Grapevine what brought them across the world to compete for the privilege of serving billionaires. Most, like Mark—a lawyer who gave up his job to try to be a deckhand—said the same thing: the love of the sea and the chance to travel the world. We asked what it took to make it. You had to be clean-cut and professional, he said, glancing at me as if to suggest that my looks were more appropriate for an Alaskan trawler.
Mark explained the difficulties of finding work, and then of the work itself if you can get it. While the Maritime Labour Convention is technically supposed to safeguard crew’s rights, the boats are owned by the most powerful people in the world. In short, they create their own rules. Sexism is unchecked in the industry, with attractive females finding work much quicker (unless, Mark added, the owner’s wife was choosing, in which a girl couldn’t be too attractive). On the other hand, the women are more often subjected to harassment (one reason why they tend to wear the skort—the shirt/skirt combo that is hard to lift up). Regardless of your gender or position, you’re expected to meet every whim of the yacht owner, some of them bizarre and others tyrannical. (It is not uncommon for dry cleaning to be sent off in a seaplane or a meal from a Parisian restaurant to be flown in by helicopter.) According to some articles, prostitutes and mistresses are common guests on superyachts, making discretion a part of one’s duties.
I’m still not sure what to think of crew work on the superyachts, as I understand work to be from the point of view of a farmer’s son. The farming lifestyle, it seems, has made the opposite trade-off. While never the apex of luxury, one swaps his or her hard labor for the opportunity to see themselves as independent. A common term in the yachting industry is for the crew to refer to the boat’s owner as “my owner.” In farming, all of the gods one must bend their knee to—the weather, the market, politics—are all faceless. Instead, a yacht owner has a face, and that face is often telling you to do bizarre or degrading things.
On the other hand, I admire those willing to take a chance and hustle for their dreams. Not many do. All of those we met in the Grapevine had left their homes without any guarantee of getting on a boat, and it seems like in the end most don’t. They also tend to have many stories to tell—especially after they leave the industry—which may be the mark of a life well-lived.
We walked along the marina, taking in the various yachts, but eventually they all started looking the same. Most of them had well-groomed people in white clothing hanging off the bow and polishing the sides or on their hands and knees scrubbing the floor. I would have pitied them before, but now know them to be the lucky ones. Every boat had one deckhand at the entrance to scowl at the onlookers that passed by, to make it clear that we didn’t belong. I couldn’t disagree with him, so I kept walking.
This article is part of The Milk House column series, published in print across three countries and two languages. It can also be found at themilkhouse.org.
This article appeared in a similar form in Progressive Dairyman.