“Accés Interdit,” says the sign on the Quai des Milliardaires in Antibes. Behind a barrier the superyachts rise like a skyline in white and royal blue. This is the smartest address in a smart town. Riff-raff are discouraged.
Still, nobody pays much attention as I wander up to the first of these beasts, the motor yacht Katara. Owned by the Emir of Qatar, it is thought to have cost around 0m. You don’t spend that much on a boat not to have anyone notice. Crew in white shirts and khaki shorts swarm over its decks, making final preparations to the scene. Everything is immaculate. Glasses and cutlery are laid on tables. Sun-loungers are set out on the teak transom, towels rolled in tight cylinders. On the top deck a helicopter waits. It all gleams in the sunshine.
At the end of the gangplank a steward stands with his hands behind his back. The boat is 124m long, he explains. He doesn’t own it himself. They are waiting for someone. He won’t tell me who. No, I can’t have a look around. That’s enough, thanks. His tone makes it clear that he does not want scruffy tourists loitering and that he has ways of enforcing this wish. As I leave I take a final wistful look up at the decking. It does look rather nice, I think, but then again that’s the whole point. More than any other status symbol, these boats are the ultimate projections of global hyper-wealth: floating embassies of a world that is highly visible but impossible to touch.
Unless you get a job on one, that is. The promise of a peek into this rarefied kingdom is the reason thousands of young British people head to the Mediterranean each spring. They are motivated by the same reasons people have always gone to sea: money, adventure and escape. Depending on where you draw the line (“super” is generally thought to start at around 30m long), there are more than 5,000 superyachts in the world. Most of them will pass through Antibes at some point. The biggest need up to 70 crew.
“After school I worked as an estate agent and then in recruitment,” says James, 21. “But I’d had enough of sitting behind a desk. Family members had boats and I’d always loved the sea. I wanted to follow my dream.” He has been in Antibes since May, living off a mixture of savings and day-work while he looks for a more solid position. He is staying at the Grapevine, a crew house which sleeps up to 36 potential “yachties”. As ever in this business, money flows like water. He pays €1,000 a month for his room, but can make that back easily if he finds the right work. “And if it doesn’t work out, there’s time enough to work in an office again down the line.”
“I’d had enough of cutting hair,” says Alex, 23. Growing up in Sandbanks, Dorset, she also found out about the yachting world through a family connection. “My step-brother came out here and paid off all his university debt,” she explains. “He practically begged me to come out.” She left her job in a salon and flew out in April, and has just finished her first proper job – a two-and-a-half month charter.
The work, for the vast majority of men and women, mostly consists of cleaning. Men are usually deckhands, or “deckies”. They clean the outside of the boat. Women are stewardesses, or “stews”. They clean the inside of the boat. “It’s basically a car wash on a massive scale and things have to be immaculate,” says James. A big yacht can easily take two days to clean, and in the season it needs cleaning constantly. The decks are made from untreated teak, a legacy from the days of sail and as labour-intensive as floors come. It would be easy to have a protective coating on the teak or simply to use a different material, but the global elite value its pinkish hue. Toilets are cleaned with toothbrushes and cotton buds.
Many yachts are chartered out to offset the outrageous cost of maintaining them, usually considered to be about 10% of the build price per year. The rule of thumb is that they cost m per metre to build or buy, and more at the top end: by this logic a 50m boat, far from unusual these days, will have cost m to build and m per year to run. At 180m, Azzam, launched last year and commissioned by Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the president of the UAE, is currently the largest privately owned vessel in the world. Built by the German yard Lürssen, it is estimated to have cost 5m.
The charter costs reflect these figures. Roman Abramovich’s boat, Eclipse, is thought to be the priciest available to rent, at m per week, or ,900 per hour. That’s before fuel, water, food and tips for the crew, who will cater to the guests’ every whim as the yacht hops from Sardinia to Monaco to Greece or, during the winter, the Caribbean. They are the perfect tonic for the people prepared to blow millions on a holiday: think Jay-Z, Leonardo DiCaprio, Simon Cowell, and untold numbers of hedge-funders and investment bankers.
For yachties, these charters are the goal. They range from a couple of days to six weeks in length, and pay starts at €2,000 a month. British law has a loophole exempting maritime employees, but few of the people I talk to seem overly preoccupied by tax. Most are paid directly into offshore accounts. Crew live onboard and all food is provided. With no expenses, savings can quickly add up, especially when they are supplemented by tips. The rule of thumb is €1,000 per crew member per week, but these can go up to €5,000 or even higher.
“You earn every cent,” says Lizzie Irving. “I found it unbelievably tough. You work hard and play hard.” Originally from Scotland, Lizzie moved to France after leaving university to start a concierge service, but she was washed out by the recession. She worked on the boats for a year before moving on to land, where she is now sales manager for Bluewater, one of the biggest crew-services providers. They have more than 52,000 people on their books, including 11,000 Britons, for every position from captains to engineers and chefs.
“We do our best to help people get work, but ultimately it’s down to them,” she says. “And each boat is different. Some captains want career-minded grafters, others want a more relaxed vibe. It’s difficult to generalise.” She adds that although billionaires might seem recession-proof, the industry is not immune to the natural shocks of the world economy.
“In 2008, after the financial crisis, we had a huge number of people from the City coming down to be crew. Economics and maths graduates who had lost their jobs and wanted to try something new. But it was a tough market anyway, because those who had money couldn’t be seen to be using it, and those who had jobs didn’t want to leave them. Now the market is back to normal, and crew are more willing to move around.
“People get shiny-eyed about the boats. It’s a beautiful industry that’s seen to be prestigious. Outsiders don’t really appreciate the hard work that goes into it. If you are a steward you have to know how to serve every different nationality and religion. You could have Russian or Arab guests, Jewish or Muslim or Christian. I had to serve royalty. You might have three lactose-intolerant guests, two gluten-free and three children. They might want fillet steak when you are 300 miles from shore. You have to be ready for everything and it’s not acceptable not to know what to do.”
Culinary choices are only the start of the potential tensions on board. Compared with the five-star hotel standard of the guest state-rooms, the crew accommodation is usually cramped and shared. Crew will wake up to serve breakfast and then stay until the last guest has gone to bed, meaning days can be up to 20 hours. There are no weekends at sea. On superyachts the owner is God, followed quickly by the captain and the guests. A verbal tic of the industry is to refer to “my owner”. They range from the friendly to the downright tyrannical.
“On my first job the owner arrived in the night,” says Sarah, a woman in her 30s with more than a decade’s experience in the industry. “We were all lined up on the deck ready to greet him and his wife. The wife went down the line shaking everyone’s hands. When she got to me she said, ‘Oh, another new one.’ She lifted her shoes up to my face. ‘Clean my shoes,’ she said. I was ready to quit there and then.
“A few weeks into the trip I saw one of the Filipino personal servants running out of a cabin with blood coming from her nose. The wife had thrown a shoe at her head when she found a dress had fallen off its hanger in her closet. I asked the chief stewardess why the maid didn’t quit. ‘She can’t quit,’ she explained. ‘Madame went to the Philippines with a briefcase of cash and bought her. The owner’s wife threatened to throw her passport overboard so she’d never see her family again.’ The next morning I saw her with her hands around the same girl’s throat. I resigned in response, but on my last night I was carrying a tray of drinks and tripped on a Picasso that was lying in a corridor, fell down the stairs and broke my foot. It was quite an eye-opening first yacht job.”
And despite seeing this, Sarah says she still feels bound by a peculiar omerta which surrounds the industry. Nobody I spoke to would name owners or guests on the record. Many are bound by formal non-disclosure agreements, and few are keen to risk a lawsuit from some of the world’s most powerful men. “These guys make their own rules. They have private security all over the boat. You don’t fuck with them.”
Stories as extreme as this are unusual. “That’s the worst story I’ve heard,” says Jo Morgan, who used to work on boats. “It’s certainly not representative. Also, yachts are like a private house. Most crew don’t think it’s right to gossip about someone’s family life. And they’d never get hired again. Discretion is everything.”
Nevertheless, employment rights are nonexistent at many levels. In theory, many of the superyachts’ flag states are signatories to the Maritime Labour Convention, which guarantees certain rights to employees. But they were principally designed for container ships, so unsuited to the yachting world, and many yachts either ignore them or take liberties.
There is rarely maternity leave, and you can’t take a child onboard, so women’s careers in yachting end abruptly when they become mothers. You can be hired or fired on a whim. “I was told I was let go from my last job because I didn’t smile at the captain enough,” says one woman I speak to. “The real reason was that the captain was French and wanted a French crew. You can be fired for being too old or too young, or not having the “right look” (typical translation: not good-looking enough).” It is not uncommon for an owner to wake up one morning and fire the entire crew without notice.
“I struggle sometimes because I have tattoos,” says Alex. “Some people don’t want to be served by someone with a tat. If I had known I would be doing this work when I got them, I might have thought twice.” Alex is lucky that her old job, hairdressing, is coming in useful out here, too. “One of the crews needed haircuts so I went on to cut all their hair,” she says. “The captain invited me for dinner as a reward.” Food is one of the great perks onboard, with chefs catering for the crew almost to the same standard as for the guests and the owners – spreads for lunch and dinner.
Although abuse is unusual, the work can still be unpleasant, particularly for women. While there are female deckhands and male stewards, they are the exceptions. “My feeling is that it’s often a better job for men than for women,” says Jo Morgan. “Men get to drive the tenders and show the guests how to use the jet skis. Often these are skills the billionaires don’t have – most of them wouldn’t even know how to turn their yacht on – so there’s an element of respect there. But they’re used to being waited on, so they’re not impressed by having someone serve them a drink, or having their bed made with hospital corners. Which is a shame, because the level of service is high and requires real skill.”
Alex agrees that the job is not always how it appears to the outside. “My boat went to the Monaco Grand Prix, which sounds amazing,” she says. “But during the race I watched the cars going by on the boat’s CCTV while I was cleaning loos below deck.” Other tales are simply of excess. Everyone has at least one ridiculous story and it is impossible to tell which are true and which apocryphal. The pig flown in from Denmark because someone wanted a hog roast. The owner who hires dwarfs to waterski around the boat for his amusement. The dry cleaning sent to Paris by Learjet. The artificial beach assembled on the back of one boat each day. The deckhands sent into the ocean to manually clear the area of jellyfish before a guest went swimming. Anything and everything procured on demand.
Prostitutes are often brought onboard on some yachts. “You couldn’t work on a busy charter boat if you weren’t happy coming into contact with hookers,” says Sarah. “Sometimes they are underage. You do wonder what you’re doing with your life when you find yourself being bossed around by a prostitute, but then you think that her first day at work was probably worse. What I find harder is when you have an owner on board with his mistress and then a day turnaround before his wife arrives – particularly if you like the wife. If you are a student of politics, it can also be difficult to wait on someone you find morally abhorrent. Islam Gaddafi was on one of my boats just before I joined it, which I would have found difficult. But you have to learn not to take rudeness personally.”
“The other thing you see is the alienating effect of great wealth,” Sarah adds. “I’ve had owners who have just recently come into their money. They buy a yacht and at the start of the season they are very friendly. They let the crew address them by their first names and crack jokes. Then they look at all the other boats and realise how things are done. They close up and become much more formal. By the end of the season they are eating hamburgers alone from a white tablecloth with candelabra, while everyone calls them ‘sir’. They get delusions of grandeur and I think it can be very lonely. You’ll sometimes be cruising along and the guests will be drinking champagne awkwardly on deck. On the shore you’ll see a few people drinking tinnies and fishing with their mates, and you think ‘who’s happier here?’”
Perhaps because of this, relations between crew and guests are unusual, if not unheard of. “That’s what skorts are for,” laughs Alex, referring to the harassment preventative qualities of the short/skirt hybrid favoured by female crew. “I heard of one stewardess who married their owner, but those kinds of relationships are rare.”
Drugs are less ubiquitous than you might think. “If drugs are found on board a captain can lose his licence and they don’t want to risk their whole careers,” says Sarah. “I’ve heard of captains kicking guests off for drug use. But equally there are some who turn a blind eye. Each boat is a unique little society. You can’t generalise.” For the crew it is a high-risk game as well, with random drug tests increasingly common. There are plenty of “dry boats”, where the crew can’t have alcohol onboard. “Don’t screw the crew” is another common policy, but apparently often ignored..
There is plenty of mischief ashore between gigs, as you would expect from good-looking 18- to 30-year-olds who find themselves in a port town with thousands of euros and only a short time to spend them. “Boats are a nightmare for relationships,” says Jo. “There’s so much pressure, and you’re always working in close quarters with other attractive young people. And boats are often reluctant to take couples on board because if you split up it’s a political and emotional mess for the whole crew.”
Yet for all of these difficulties, the allure of the job persists. Good charters are a well-paid way to see some of the most beautiful places on earth, from the comfort of the most luxurious vessels ever made. “If you’re not sociable you don’t last long,” says Alex, “but if you can get along with people you make friends for life almost immediately, from all over the world.” She isn’t alone. Everywhere you go you hear the same story: of people who have tried to leave the industry, but keep finding themselves drawn inexorably back to the south of France.
“When it’s good, it’s amazing,” agrees Tom, 27, who worked in yachts for two years in the Mediterranean and Miami. “We had a charter with a British musician – a household name – and I realised that the key was to make sure his kids had a good time. I concentrated on that: playing games with them, taking them swimming, going on the jet skis. They had a great time, and at the end we got a tip of €6,000. You realised that for all of their wealth, these people struggle so hard to find peace. That’s what they pay for, and why privacy is so highly valued. You’re in the middle of the ocean. Nobody can bother you.”
For the crew, as well, life on board can be as enlightening as it is horrific at times. Somewhere between cutting cigars, pouring champagne and unblocking toilets, this is a job like few others.
“I am so pleased to have worked in yachting,” says Jo. “I have stories for the rest of my life. Every time you join a yacht and meet your new crew, or look out of the porthole when you arrive in the Maldives, or the Seychelles, you get a kick. It’s an adventure. It gave me an education, about myself and the people who rule the world. You cannot come out the same you went in.”
Some names have been changed. None of the events reported in this article took place on the yachts pictured
• This article was amended on 11 September 2014 to clarify information in a photo caption
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