Shallow Draft

What It’s like to Work a Season on a Luxury Yacht in the Mediterean

“You’ll have to break it to her we’re not in Rome”

The captain looked at me sternly. This would require the delicate tact of a foreign diplomat visiting a county on the brink of war. I nod and descend the stairs to the guest cabins where a door swings open and a specimen of opulence appears before me, arms outstretched, as if ready to plunge into Trevi Fountain at the drop of a wide-brimmed sun hat.

“Hello Rome!”

“We’re in Naples…engine trouble.” I say, apologetically, my eyes lowered, “but, we should get there this evening”

Crestfallen, the woman moves out of the way so I can set the tray on her bedside table. This is our routine, quickly established in the few days since she first boarded the yacht.

I wake early, after a late night tending to the debauchery of the yacht owner, her brother-in-law, and gather: a selection of teas in a little wooden box, a glass kettle, a delicate tea cup and a portion of Agave syrup. She usually greets me in her underwear, sometimes telling me of her dreams from the night before. At this, I’m always struck with the unexpected intimacy of our arrangement.

I’ve grown fond of her, pity her really. This trip is an olive branch from her husband — he of the late night debauchery and unnerving proclivity of calling me “sweet cheeks” whenever I lean down to refill his drink — after she discovered a string of affairs. I shouldn’t know this, but everybody onboard knows this.

She’s still quite beautiful: fine, red, hair like a china dolls, skin whipped to creamy cosmetic perfection. I have a theory that she was a dancer in another life; a life before breast augmentation rendered her too top heavy to effectively pirouette. She’s a cancer survivor, I know this too, and she travels with the largest assortment of vitamins I’ve ever witnessed one human ingest.

We’re different breeds, she and I. We occupy different lands. She hails from the 1% and I’m coming to her from the cramped quarters of the 99 — the huddled masses twined about my feet.

But, right now, she’s just a woman disappointed that her vacation (maybe even life) isn’t going to plan.

This we have in common.

*******

I found myself working on boats, as it’s called in the industry, during the summer of 2008; that heady, pre-collapse moment when Gabriel’s horn mingled with auto-tuned exhalations of Louis Vuitton and Gucci. If one strained their ears the sound was unmistakable — a raucous conga-line at the end of an error.

It was my thought that I would work on yachts for a season, taking advantage of the ample pay and zero living expenses, and use my savings to fund volunteer trips to The Congo or Bangladesh or some other place rife with human suffering. In my head I was going to do this for a few years, effectively swinging between the worlds extremes as a type of nomadic, anthropological warrior. (The wisdom of all this was suspect).

I simply wanted to be in the world, to collect experiences and stories. This plan for my life, if you could call it that, was the product of accumulated frustration over my career options at the time. Of course, I’d been in the world, as it’s impossible not to be, but my world consisted of asking people if they were still “working” on their dinner entrees and always seemed to have an Old Navy, Starbucks and Forever 21 in its line of sight.

I needed a world with a better view.

So, like all wayward souls with wanderlust in their hearts I thought: I’ll teach English as a second language, I’ll do a little migrant farming in New Zealand or (the holy grail) I’ll join the Peace Corp. It wasn’t until my friend told me of this yachting possibility that my plan took form.

Boats! Yes, boats! I would sail the oceans of the world and get paid. Is there anything more glamorous?

And glamour was a notion I clung to, even while scrubbing four flights of stairs with a toothbrush in an almost Platonic representation of ‘the serf’. When an engineer on the boat stepped over me, smiling in a way that said I’m sorry, but not so sorry that I’d wish to trade places, I glanced at the remaining three flights and chirped: “It’s only up from here”, immediately pleased with myself for such an apt pun and honestly believing it to be true. Were they not marble stairs? And isn’t the chance to experience a form of indentured servitude also, in its own way, glamorous?

That boat was my first real taste of the yachting world: a 200 ft. mega-yacht with a Chagall hanging in the main salon, a gold plated shower with six shower heads and the highest thread-count imaginable. I was onboard as a day worker, the would-be-yachties crews pick up at various ports-of-call to do all the menial work they’re tired of doing. An arrangement I cherished once I was a permanent member on my own boat, handing out to-do lists with a relish only the serving class manages when presented with someone even lower.

My first impressions encountering this elusive industry were: A.) this has been here the whole time? And B.) This is debauched and depraved and will probably turn me into a terrible person.

One of my first tasks on that boat was helping the crew bring aboard a guests’ wardrobe. I think it bears mentioning here that this was only a fractional part of this individual’s wardrobe: their travel wardrobe. We formed a line and passed, hand over hand, Manolo Blahniks, Louis Vuitton travel bags, diaphanous ball gowns, into the spacious guest cabin.

It’s a funny thing, witnessing more money than you’ve ever made in the totality of your life pass through your hands in the span of fifteen minutes. It’s one thing to see these items in a magazine, but to hold one of them — feel the weight of the fabric and trace the perfection of every seam and dart — is something else entirely. Our voices lowered, our demeanor shifted; the objects, and their percieved worth, automatically imbuing reverence to the act. After we placed each piece in the closet — solemnly and with great intention as if lighting votive candles on an alter — we stood before their stunning magnificence and were humbled.

This feeling of reverence would surface periodically throughout my travels into this unknown land, this borderless nation of affluence.

There was an elevator on that boat, right next to the galley, and in the week I helped the crew prepare for their Atlantic crossing, carrying pounds of provisions up and down the stairs to backbreaking effect, we never once utilized this invention. When I asked why we didn’t use the elevator, the head stewardess straightened and piously intoned:

“We don’t ever use the elevator. The elevator is for the owner.”

That we never questioned this logic struck me as odd, but I gathered it wasn’t up for debate. In fact, my clueless inference brought out a glimmer of disapproval as if the very mention of it might invoke this “owner” right there on the spot; and then, there we’d all be, standing in front of Bluebeards’ secret chamber, bloodied key on the ground and cases of Fuji water clasped in our hands.

The term “owner” was used to maintain anonymity, as it was a cardinal rule not to advertise who owned what boat. Talk of money — how much someone had or how frivolously they were spending it — was to be avoided; although, it was the single most obvious subject to talk about when encountering this world.

But, the truth is, I’m not entirely sure these rules were enforced from the top down. A sufficiently motivated chief stewardess could bring about the same effect.

Much like Mr. Carson from Downtown Abbey, the chief stew could demand compliance to a decorum that existed only in her mind. She could spot a thumb print on a Champagne flute from 100 paces. She could request you lay down a clean sheet between the crisp dry-cleaning and the never-been-used-duvet cover; an actual request made all the more perplexing when one considered that the dry cleaning was swathed in plastic. She could take offense if every wooden bannister and stainless steel surface wasn’t wrapped in a protective cellophane layer before taking the boat on a crossing, or “underway” as it’s called.

This is what happened on the boat where I eventually landed a contract (you are a contract holder in this profession, all the better to evade taxes with). The captain, a stern Australian who looked befittingly like Ernest Hemingway, caught wind of this whole body wrap idea and put his foot down.

“This is a boat, not a museum. Let ‘er breathe”, he’d said.

The veteran stewardess eventually relented, but her dissatisfaction with his defiance was evident in her whispering admonishment,

“I mean if that’s how he wants to run his boat, bloody well let him do it. It not what I would do but…”

What she was so ardently protecting remains unclear. Most likely the validity of her own position.

It’s an artful craft, servility. It takes a certain kind of person to pull it off without showing resentment. I mean, institutionalized standards exist, there’s a history, replete with training programs — actual schools — all to better express this butlers’ pissing contest of how deep is your bow.

The art is in the invisible hand aspect. You are there: turning down beds, fluffing deck cushions, arranging flowers, but you are never to appear as though you are there.

There’s a Godliness too it. Also, a fear. There won’t be a trace of entropy in that world. The zenith shall remain eternal. You will not age. You will not die. You will wear white on a daily basis (as the Mediterranean jet-set are wont to do) and never show any stains.

And you won’t show any stains because there is an army behind you, bleaching the cuffs of your pants in the sink at 2am after working a 15 hour shift.

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I ruined the woman who couldn’t get to Rome’s dress. A Valentino. When I handed it over to the Italian dry-cleaner (who offered boat side service) all he could do was clasp the tips of his fingers together and lament, “but, it’s Valentiiino”. He knew I was in trouble. This same woman fired a first mate early in the trip because he was too fat. She simply did not want, “to look at him”. When I asked her what to do with this particular dress, because it was clearly a favorite and because I didn’t have the faintest clue how to wash a couture gown that said do not dry clean, she gave me the strangest look as if to say, it’s always just been done.

I took great care, used cold water, laid it flat to dry, but the colors ran and ran.

The punchline to my glamorous yachting life was that I pursued this existence as a way of escaping domesticity. I was practically feral and had never acquired a talent for what my father exasperatingly called “women’s work”; yet, as a stewardess, my whole existence was bound up with women’s work. I set the table. I ironed an endless procession of linens. I practiced nurse’s folds when making up beds. I tried, but was ill-equipped for the task. What I would have given to know the esoteric secrets of folding a napkin into an approximation of a bishop’s hat or how to best negotiate the excess fabric whilst ironing California King bed sheets. Alas.

When I broke the news of the ruined dress the woman looked at me and said,

“I’ve survived cancer. What’s a dress?”

I respected her immensely for that, yet harbored a suspicion that she never forgave me.

What did that dress mean to her?

Her husband, leaning against the railing of the aft deck, once told me he envied my freedom. I joked with the crew about it later while folding his boxer shorts — my “freedom”. But, I think he meant what he said. I lived like I had nothing to lose, because I didn’t. He lived like 40% of the gross domestic income could slip through his grasp.

Envy is a slippery, relative beast.

And I felt fortunate, wouldn’t have traded places. Every port where we dropped anchor, every dazzling Italian Cliffside passed, left me stunned, beaming with the beauty of the world. I’m sure he felt this too, but the gob-smacked excitement, the novelty: that was mine alone.

Didn’t I get to see the same vistas, feel a sense of ownership when polishing the chrome railing or uncovering the inky gleam of bar tops at the start of each day? I’d spent more time on the boat than him at that point: ferried it across the Caribbean, the wide Sargasso Sea, and the open Atlantic. Had he seen the pods of dolphins leaping along the waves as the sun dipped beneath the horizon in a brilliant green flash? It was ownership by proxy, but it felt real.

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At the height of Louis IVX rule, he insisted his entire court move to Versailles. There, they could better orbit his glorious sun. Historians dubbed this “the golden cage”, and it is widely accepted that he used this as a political tactic, a way to distract the nobility while he stripped them of most of their power. It also kept them close, everyone’s eyes on the same prize: the legitimacy of his rule.

What’s also known is that they clamored for a spot at the table. Not trickle down as much as suction-up; one organism parasitically attached to the lifeblood of the host.

What else could explain my ardent defense of the hyper-wealthy to a disillusioned yachtie at a bar in Antibes. I spoke of the opportunities afforded those willing to swim in the wake, that mini-economy expressed in every polished marble tile, every provision carried onboard, every media technician and contractor traipsing in and out with blue surgical booties on their feet, every crew uniform, certification, piece of safety equipment and tanker truck full of gasoline; those hours upon hours of gainful productivity — packing and wrapping and scraping — all in the service of this industry, this buoyant economic stimulus of one man’s vacation. The yachtie, a 20 year old Brit who’d recently graduated with a degree in poverty studies from Oxford, remained…unmoved.

**************************************

A captain, who’d been in the industry for years, sat me down once and told me about a strange phenomenon he’d witnessed. A type of warning.

“Some of the stewardesses start buying all the luxury stuff, thousand dollar purses, designer shoes, and five-star hotel stays. They forget that this isn’t their real life and they have a hard time adjusting once they leave their boat”

The Boat (and wealth in general) is a free-floating, insular place.

You start to forget.

Why stand in line at customs when the agent can come to you, stamp your passport while you sip Krug Clos Du Mesnil Champagne in the crew quarters? Why learn the public transportation routes in Rome when a driver will show up and chauffeur you around in a Bentley, depositing you promptly at the entrance of St. Peter’s square? Why think about expense at all when a thousand euro tip is placed in your hands and you’ve got 24 hours of free time in Capri or Cannes and absolutely NO LIVING EXPENSES.

If you’ve ever been close to poverty, or calculated how a five dollar bill will get you through the week, than the effrontery of all this excess is hard to swallow. But, you can see how it starts, the psychological remove: the apartness.

*******************************************

A study by Berkeley psychologists Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner published in The Scientific American suggests that people, as they climb the social ladder, show a marked decrease in their compassionate feeling toward others.

Why?

Wouldn’t the opposite seem true? That a lack of resources would make people more selfish. What the research tells us is that wealth and abundance give us a sense of freedom and independence from others. An “empathy gap”, as it’s called.

What the study doesn’t show is that you can also experience this by proxy.

Whenever I stepped off the boat I noticed a certain untouchable quality — a wild arrogance in my own safety net. I had the boat. The boat had millions of dollars; thereby, I had millions of dollars to blow on a 600 euro a night room in Florence. And that’s how we (the owners and crew) could do brash, inconsiderate things like pull out of a sleepy harbor in Elba, Italy — spot of Napoleons’ exile — speakers bumping to a Jay-Z song while we danced on the poop deck like a hideous cliché. Or, descend upon the Vatican: drunk, loud, molesting classical works of art to take regrettable selfies.

I’m not proud.

I had the time of my life, but I went the way of the Ugly American.

I went the way of the conqueror.

*******************************

At one point in our travels we headed to Monaco, charming little principality where every single resident is a millionaire.

Monaco appeared that day as a sparkling, golden tableaux set against the peaks of the southern Alps — polo horses (actual polo horses) trotted beneath colorful streamers as we cruized into the harbor and I strained to catch a glimpse of an heiress swooshing by on Fragonard’s swing. We only had one night at port and I decided to gamble at the Grand Monte Carlo casino.

A high end casino is not what you’d expect. It’s ain’t Vegas. Instead of frenetic, whirling sound effects you get mausoleum quiet — save the quick clicking of dice. Beautiful women ring emerald tables, 10k dresses hugging their 20k bodies, martini’s perched in their diamond encrusted hands (I’d say “idle hands”, but I wouldn’t want to assume more than I already have); yet, instead of the usual high fives and shrieks, it’s as if their watching an autopsy. It’s the strangest, most non-celebratory pastime I’d ever witnessed. I played a few machines (the ones way in the back, away from the real gambling) promptly lost 50 euro and wandered back to the boat, walking along the cliff side overlooking the marina and staring off at the gathering of yachts aglow from their underbellies to the tips of their spectacular masts, musing all the way home, how boring, how sterile, it all seemed.

Bored, in Monaco. I wouldn’t know what to say to my younger, travel loving self.

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Decadence, as a word, has the obvious connotation of decline and decay, but we’ve perhaps forgotten that in everyday speech. “That cake was decadent”, we say or, “what a decadent pattern, so vibrant”, as if decadence were, in and of itself, something highly desirable.

When tooling around the Mediterranean most boats adhere to what’s known as, “The Milk Run”. Starting in Cannes for the Cannes Film Festival and ending with the Monaco Grand Prix, the Milk Run is a “must-do” checklist of any super yacht itinerary. It includes not only Cannes and Monaco, but also such tony ports as St. Tropez, Nice, Capri, and Antibes. And there’s good reason. They are gorgeous, charming, sun-drenched locales. But, when floating in the midst of it all, ringed by every other super yacht in existence, you start to suspect that it’s little more than a ramped-up Saturday night cruise-in on the world’s most luxurious strip. It’s proscriptive and reflexive and, much like the run itself, done to the point of near death.

It’s decadent, in every sense of the word.

It’s then that the poolside soirees and tender rides to romantic, secluded coves start to become more like a question, a doleful refrain of: “Is that all there is? Is that all there is to a ten-thousand euro candlelight dinner at anchor?”

************************************

When we pulled out of Monaco we passed the Island of Sainte Marguerite, site where the fabled “Man in the Iron Mask” was imprisoned. The identity of the Man is still a mystery. Was he, as Alexander Dumas and Voltaire proposed, the illegitimate older brother of Louis XIV, whisked away and obscured by a ‘black velvet mask’ in order to hide his existence from any that might question Louis’ rule?

I’d read somewhere that “The Man In The Iron Mask” was made a Valet, as prisoners were from time to time, and I thought of him then, delivering chalices of wine and bread, bumbling his way about the fortress beneath that black velvet mask…

When we passed the island, the owner poured a round of Champaign. The woman with the china doll hair handing me a glass. We toasted in the Kincaidian glow of the Mediterranean, salt water spritzing our Bulgari scented skin as the ominous truth of that island, and the history it helped set in motion (Antoinette’s severed head, The French Revolution) drifted out of sight.

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One night at anchor, as I poured libations and lit cigarettes the owner turned to me and propositioned a ménage a trios.

“Excuse me?”, I demurred

“You heard me”, he said.

I pretended not to hear and quietly took my leave.

A leave made permanent when I was fired a week later. Whether or not I was fired for my refusal or for my inability to properly polish the cutlery I’ll never know. I, however, do know that one doesn’t press a sexual harassment suit against a multi-millionaire and expect to win.

One does not question Louis rule.

But, at the time, that wasn’t what broke my heart. I cried when I was fired, not because it seemed arbitrary and unfair, but because my ticket to the party was revoked. I cried, because in a crashing recognition of reality, I grasped that I was no longer the “us” but the “them”.

How does one come to this? How does one throw away an entire case of cd’s (about $300 in value) at a Barcelona airport in the assumption that they’ll always have enough money to buy more? How does one begin to compromise luxury purses and designer shoes and 5-star hotel stays enough to serve potential despots and war criminals and women (mainly from Ukraine) who may-or-may-not-be there of their own free will, and serve them with a smile?

I’d like to think there’s a line that couldn’t be crossed, but I have my doubts.

That day in Rome is up there as one of the best in my life. I could do and eat and see anything I wanted within that 12 hour reprieve — without the nettling anxiety that usually shadows all my decisions. I was falling in the empathy gap and it felt sublime.

Freedom, pure financial freedom — when first felt — grows like an irrepressible algae bloom in the soul, with similar consequences.

*******************************************

I return to the states in the fall of 2008, figuratively and literally. Newscasters were beside themselves with ominous portend as one bastion of the US economy after another faltered. Landing a new job at that time was no easy task and I found myself one afternoon on the tail end of a disturbingly long line of jobseekers vying for a position at a new hotel. As I stood in line, I felt all the old anxieties cropping up.

Without my borrowed safety net, my empathy switched to overdrive and I found myself weeping over the homeless I encountered in the streets (legion in San Francisco) and the foreclosure signs on the houses I’d known and loved back in the Midwest. Empathy is partially born out of fear: fear of a suffering greater than what we can endure. I thought of the woman with the china doll hair while waiting in that line. Wondered if the crash had absconded with her fortune and boat. I knew that she was waiting in her own kind of way, stuck behind a procession of nubile blondes and seductive brunettes. And, thinking of her like this, I could almost see her standing before me, appearing as she had on that one occasion, arms flung open to the sky.

Two woman, face to face, both wondering why the glories of Rome are just so very far away.