Champagne-fuelled parties with some of the world’s most beautiful women lasting until dawn. Ten-course tasting menus drawn up on a whim. Someone to climb five sets of stairs to pour you a drink from the jug sitting in front of you.
Fancy a sea urchin for lunch? Thrown a £2,500 gadget into the ocean in a fit of pique? No problem, sir, let me get my goggles.
Welcome to the world of superyachting, where no request is too extravagant, no desire too outlandish, no guest too drenched in Dom Perignon to have their every impulse catered to. For those aboard these multi-million-pound floating gin palaces, it’s a little (or indeed not so little) slice of paradise.
Because while guests rest easy each night in super-king-sized beds, surrounded by gold, marble and more lovingly plumped feather pillows than you can shake a stick at, below deck, crammed into sub-size bunk beds, are the stewarding staff who make it all possible.
‘My boss, the yacht’s owner, used to play a game with the six crew members, asking us to guess who the richest person was on board and which of his beautiful female guests were actually escort girls,’ recalls Nicole Chretien, 23, who spent four months working on a 42m-long superyacht this summer
For them, life aboard one of the estimated 10,000 superyachts — luxury yachts over 24m long — worldwide means 18-hour shifts, cracked hands from constant washing up, meeting exacting standards when it comes to their physical appearance and biting your tongue as guests with gargantuan wallets (and even bigger egos) let loose. And boy, do they let loose.
‘My boss, the yacht’s owner, used to play a game with the six crew members, asking us to guess who the richest person was on board and which of his beautiful female guests were actually escort girls,’ recalls Nicole Chretien, 23, who spent four months working on a 42m-long superyacht this summer.
‘There were often naked people everywhere from the deck to the Jacuzzi, top chefs hired in at will to cater for countless parties, and new people coming on board almost every day.
‘Guests would make all sorts of bizarre requests that we were then expected to fulfil, including going off in search of sea urchins just so one man could have his preferred lunch in Mallorca. The owner is a successful single European businessman in his 40s, so I knew he’d be having a lot of fun, but I could never have imagined the extent.’
Nicole’s experience could easily be a storyline plucked straight from Below Deck, the hit U.S. reality series available to watch in the UK on Netflix, Now TV and Amazon Prime that returns for its ninth series this month, featuring a group of young people who work aboard similar superyachts that cost millions to buy and tens of thousands a week to charter.
Known as yachties, the crew are on board 24/7 to ensure their clients’ needs are met, whether they be millionaire couples and their families or hard-partying groups of wealthy friends. So how did Nicole, a personal trainer and nutritionist from West London, end up immersed in the upper echelons of the yachting set?
Raunchy: A scene from the reality TV series Below Deck
Her interest was piqued during an impromptu holiday to the Caribbean island of Antigua earlier this year. With yachts unable to set sail due to Covid, there were floating gin palaces all around, overflowing with owners and crew with nothing to do and nowhere to go.
After chatting to various crew members, many of whom said a personal trainer could certainly look to find a place on board, Nicole did the requisite training courses to become a yacht stewardess, including basic safety along with a recognised seafarer medical certificate.
But getting her foot on deck was tricky. So back in London last spring, Nicole mentioned it to one of her well-heeled clients, who introduced her to a friend with a yacht. ‘He became one of my personal training clients and said he was leaving in May to spend the summer on his yacht and would I consider joining him as his PT and also a PA,’ says Nicole.
A month later she flew with him to Milan, then drove on to join his yacht in Portofino, northern Italy, a regular haunt of celebs including Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas, Beyonce and Gwyneth Paltrow. Unlike many yacht owners, he keeps his boat for his own use rather than chartering it to holidaymakers.
With four guest bedrooms plus a master suite, a grand salon, rooftop bar and various sun decks, the yacht slept 12 guests. Downstairs were single beds for six crew members.
A whirlwind of extravagant parties for the guests followed. After five days of celebrations for the owner’s best friend’s birthday, the crew set sail for the Balearics while Nicole’s boss travelled by private jet to avoid the three-day crossing.
Following a further three days in Mallorca, they moved the yacht to Ibiza, the main destination for a summer of debauchery. There, it was moored outside Lio, one of the island’s most exclusive clubs.
Cue a procession of friends, pilots and air hostesses on layovers, and hangers-on boarding the boat for posh lunches and all-night parties. Not to mention a high-profile sports star on the neighbouring yacht who was a regular visitor.
Known as yachties, the crew are on board 24/7 to ensure their clients’ needs are met, whether they be millionaire couples and their families or hard-partying groups of wealthy friends
‘He and his entourage partied all day long and when our guests started going between the two boats, so did we,’ Nicole recalls. ‘One of our female guests fraternised with the sportsman for ten days but when his fiancee arrived she had to return to our boat while all crew on both yachts were briefed to welcome his fiancee as if nothing untoward had happened.
‘A few days later, the sportsman invited my boss and his guests onto his yacht for dinner, and the woman he’d had a fling with pretended she was the wife of the owner of my boat. My boss would kiss her in front of the sportsman and go over the top saying, “Let me introduce you to my beautiful wife!”
‘He had a penchant for Bellini cocktails, smoked salmon and rose from a friend who owned a wine company, as well as £1,000 cases of Dom Perignon.
‘But the irony is that despite all the alcohol he’s a health junkie who’d start his day with a shot of lemon and ginger, and an egg white omelette. For lunch the chef had to make him his favourite chicken schnitzel every day.’ After two months in Ibiza, Nicole and her boss flew to Monaco to meet the yacht for its final destination of the summer. She returned to London in September with tips in cash from the guests.
‘One guest gave the crew ¤2,000 to share and my boss gave me ¤800 as a tip. Tips tend to be greater on yachts that are chartered and therefore hired out for a week or two at a time by different groups of wealthy people. But we had few tips, and one thing I learned is rich people can be surprisingly stingy.’
While Nicole had only one ‘primary’ guest to cater to, for those working on charter yachts there is an ever-changing cast of guests — which can lead to more eyebrow-raising antics.
Former yachtie Gina Pane’s time on yachts spanned the South of France, Italian Riviera, Amalfi Coast, Sardinia and the Caribbean, working on boats up to 60m long. Like Nicole, stewardess Gina also had to turn a blind eye to the escort girls who’d board the yachts.
‘There was a sad side to being a yachtie too,’ she says. ‘I witnessed countless families on board over the years but only two or three of them stick in my mind as being loving and happy. Some families were disgusting, with parents and primary-school-age children swearing at each other. One father had me, the yacht’s chef and another stewardess fired because he burnt his mouth on a prawn at dinner.
‘In fact, you could be fired for anything on the whim of an owner or guest — being fat, having the wrong hair colour. Nobody wants overweight or unattractive crew.
‘We had one owner who demanded freshly squeezed mango juice from fruit that had been untouched by hand and another who was so adamant he must catch a tuna while fishing from the boat that some of the crew surreptitiously bought a huge one from a local fish market and attached it to his fishing line.’ She adds: ‘Another owner sent a deck hand into the sea to check for jellyfish before he was prepared to dive in himself. And there was one chap who’d get frustrated with the music system and throw the remote controls into the sea in a temper at £2,500 a time to replace them.’
Still, yachting did have its rewards. After one busy year on board a charter yacht, Gina, 38, earned so much money in salary and tips that she was able to put a large cash down-payment on a house in Mallorca.
‘The average starting salary was around ¤2,200 a month tax-free, but after a few years I was earning up to ¤6,000 a month excluding tips on bigger boats,’ says Gina, who works as a project manager.
‘The biggest tip I ever received was 6,000 euros for a two-week charter. But that was small change to many of the owners, including the Russian oligarch whose yacht I worked on a few summers ago in Corsica.
‘He tasked me with organising a firework display for his 18-year-old daughter, which required many palms to be greased as Corsica is so arid that you can’t even smoke cigarettes in some areas due to the fire risk. It cost him ¤19,000 for 12 minutes of fireworks.’
On rare days off between charters, the money she earned afforded Gina and her crew members a taste of the yacht owners’ lives.
Take the time they chartered a private jet to fly them from Puerto Rico to a luxury hotel on the island of Vieques.
‘Yachting can be so lucrative that one can easily take six months off at a time to enjoy other life experiences, like the time I flew to Uganda to see gorillas,’ she adds.
‘But after nine years I was ready for a life on land. I’d worked 18 hours a day, was exhausted, my hair fell out, my hands were split from washing up and my heels cracked from being on my feet all the time. I gave up yachting in 2018, but have had adventures that will see me through a lifetime of dinner-party conversations.’
Beauty consultant Nicola Burgess, 45, has similar memories of her time as a yachtie. Now living with her husband — a former yacht’s chef — in Lancashire, she left her life at sea four years ago after a decade on the waves.
And you couldn’t get more glam than her first job on a yacht moored in Cannes for the Film Festival, with Ryan Gosling on board and J-Lo partying on a yacht hosted by Donatella Versace next door.
‘It was an incredible debut to the yachting world,’ she recalls. ‘Another memorable job was a winter season on a privately owned yacht that we sailed from Gibraltar to Antigua, where the American owners came on board.
‘I’d been forewarned the husband was very demanding, and his first instruction was there must be a real Christmas tree for the boat. We wouldn’t be able to get one in the Caribbean so bought one in Gibraltar in October and had to keep it alive for two months.
‘At breakfast he’d demand we lay everything out on the table — milk jugs, butter dish, still and sparkling water, the full gamut of crockery — and he’d just order an omelette.
‘He paged me one day while I was cleaning the cabins to go upstairs and pour him some water from the jug that was right in front of him.
‘He wouldn’t allow their ten-year-old twins and seven-year-old to dine with him and his wife, they had to eat with the nanny. As soon as dinner was done, he’d go off on deck to listen to classical music and smoke cigars.
‘He insisted on everything being inventoried. If he opened a bottle of whisky and had two glasses, I’d have to record it so he knew what was left. His wife, however, was lovely and treated me to lunch.
‘On another yacht, the female owner would insist on the chef devising a three-course menu for lunch and dinner every day, then she’d rip them up and tell them she hated every bit of food he’d suggested. It was all a little power trip for people like them.
‘They were used to everything having a price and being able to pay to get what they wanted.’
Still, the financial rewards for Nicola were plentiful, typically ¤2,000 in tips a week.
‘Better than any of that were the magic moments surrounded by dolphins, spotting a whale on an Atlantic crossing, sitting beneath a starry sky and, of course, meeting my husband when we were crew on a yacht in Italy,’ she reflects.
‘But even luxury has a shelf life. So four years ago we sailed off into the sunset and back to a life above deck.’
Some names have been changed.