All You Need is Love: LGBTQIA+ Couples Share their Experiences of Life on Board

31 December 2021 By Erica Lay

Owner of international crew agency EL CREW CO in Mallorca, Spain, Erica has been a freelance writer since 2008. She loves engaging with the projects she works on, diving headfirst into the research, investigation, and production of the stories she feels are newsworthy. A curious and proactive journalist, she draws on her own life experiences, her studies, and her work with crew all over the globe.

The industry has room for everyone — these LGBTQIA+ couples share their experiences making their way in yachting...

While Pride month was officially in June, we believe that it should be celebrated year-round. So let’s turn the spotlight on six couples in the LGBTQIA+ community to learn about their stories and experiences — how they met, the highs of working with their partners, working apart, and to see what words of wisdom they’d impart.

For anyone who feels like they don’t fit into the traditional yacht crew mold, we’re here to demonstrate that the yachting industry welcomes anyone as long as they work as hard and have the same adventurous streak we’re looking for when building a dream team. To quote the ultimate Queen RuPaul, “Everybody say LOVE!”

Sharing Milestones

Capt. Anna Strang met First Mate Maggie Kerr when they were both working on a round-the-world science expedition vessel, researching micro-plastics in the oceans. Not your average yacht gig then.

Having worked together ever since, their two-year relationship sometimes feels like five. “Working in the industry is a serious lifestyle adjustment. It can take you to some of the most incredible places around the world and give you some of the most unique experiences,” says Kerr. “Having your partner right there literally by your side allows you to share the highs with them and ensure you have someone there to get you through the lows. You get to go through all of these significant milestones in your relationship together in settings you couldn’t even imagine, like swimming with hammerhead sharks in the Galapagos or weathering a severe storm off Easter Island.”

Maggie and Anna

When asked about challenges they’ve faced, the first mate explained that it’s mostly about finding their positions on the same vessel. “Couple jobs are typically advertised as ‘captain and chef’ or ‘deckhand and stewardess,’ with the assumed female role as chef or stewardess,” Kerr says.  “We are both deck crew with Ocean Master 200gt tickets and found it nearly impossible to find couples positions advertised for two deck crew as females.” But they continue to break that glass ceiling and are now on their second yacht as captain and mate.

LGBTQIA+ Representation

Chief Stew Inge Blum met her partner Second Stew Paige Hanekom in South Africa and they lived together in the Cape Winelands for more than three years. When Hanekom graduated university, they took the plunge and headed to Mallorca to join the yachting industry. They’ve now been together more than seven years and are still going strong. They work together on a motor yacht and have done so for three of their four years in yachting. After their first season apart, Blum scored a chief stew gig on a new-build motor yacht. “As luck would have it and with the universe in our favor, the captain at the time sent Inge a message: ‘You wouldn’t by any chance know of any potential second stews that you would like to work with?’ Right time, and right place! We know how hard it is for couples to get jobs on the same vessel, let alone same-sex couples, let alone in the same department!”

Hanekom also highlighted how wonderful it is to be able to share the adventures with your partner. “When you are feeling down, you are fortunate enough to have your partner to confide in,” she says. “On another note, we have often been commended and thanked for being an openly gay couple within the industry. Social media is lacking queer yachting content, so putting out some sort of representation by just being us has certainly been a ‘high’ for our time in the industry.”

When asked about difficulties they’ve overcome as a same-sex couple in the industry, Hanekom explained they’ve been the victims of “banter” on more than one occasion. “We felt we had a lot to prove working in the same department together, as we had been given this wonderful opportunity,” she says. “Fortunately, we are meticulous with our work and balance each other’s strengths and weaknesses out like no other and run a spectacular interior together. We have been able to prove that we are great at what we do and being a same-sex couple in the same department has only helped the vessel succeed in the past three years.”

Peter and Blair

Yachting is Becoming More Liberal

Capt. Peter met his husband Blair, a purser/interior manager, when they worked together in the past. Becoming close friends, the romance began to blossom seven years ago…and they tied the knot five and a half years ago.

Although they’ve worked together previously, they’ve found their careers have pushed them in different directions, but they still see plenty of each other on rotation. They hold the crown for becoming the first gay couple to marry in yachting (as far as we know). “I’m learning all the time about being in a relationship, being humble, being kind, and also accepting that labeling all of the shelves in our house might not be as high of a priority for him as it is for me!” Blair says.

Noting that the world has changed in the 12 years he’s been involved in yachting, Blaire comments how there’s far less stigma. “The general age of crew is much younger and so this allows more liberal viewpoints, and the average age of captains has come down by the sheer volume of newly minted Masters; this allows for more liberal viewpoints from the other end of the ladder as well.”

Prioritizing Your Relationship

Deck/Chaseboat captain Laura Mound met her partner Nicola Small, a deckie/crew cook, when Nic was dating her step-sibling. They became friends first, then when that relationship ended, fell in love. They’ve been together three and a half years but have only just landed their first couple’s role, doing the long-distance thing before that. That element has been the challenge for them, but as Small explains, “By constantly making each other and our relationship a priority, we managed to come out the other side so much stronger than when we started.”

Nicola and Laura

Making Distance Work

Chief Stew Cantleigh Groenewald and Chef Beth Mason met in Malta more than five years ago, when the yachts they were working on docked side by side for the winter. Sadly, they’ve struggled to find work together over the years but even with long distance, “You get to share this adventure with the person you love and what could be better than that!” Groenewald says, adding that “Long distance is a serious thing and you have to be willing to do the work! We have gone almost six months of not seeing each other, which is absurd in land-based life. We have also been disappointed so many times with jobs that we both matched perfectly for but as soon as it was known we were a couple or same-sex couple when the position was indeed ‘couples friendly’ has been extremely disheartening.”

And rightly so; surely love is love, however you look at it. And if a candidate and their partner fit the bill professionally, why should their sexuality or anything else come into it?

Making Waves as a Couple

Jenny Matthews and Natasha Ambrose — both chief officers on board — are the founders of She of the Sea (SOTS). They’re a regular pair of glass-ceiling smashers that represent the LGBTQIA+ community.

SOTS was how they met: when Matthews posted on the “Girls on Deck” Facebook page to see if there were other female chief mates out there (she’d been told there were only 10 and couldn’t believe it), Ambrose was one of the first to reach out. They became friends, regularly chatting about all things yachting, and when Matthews’ SOTS project started gaining momentum, they finally met up at an organized gathering; “the rest is history.” They work together most days on SOTS, as well as LegaSea (their mentoring program), and when they go to sea, they try to go together. “This can be a challenge as we are both chief officers,” says Matthews. “We have been very fortunate that these opportunities do come up more now but [I] remember in the beginning, this was a real challenge.”

When talking about the positives, Matthews says, “Being connected to someone that feels and represents home in an industry that can isolate people from loved ones is amazing. For me, I have enjoyed the industry in a whole new way now that I have someone to share all the amazing highs, and of course the lows with,” she says, referring to the boss, the weather, and the world. “Having someone who knows you so well and who can give real, unbiased views on situations is also pretty amazing as that can be hard to come by, especially at sea.”

Paige and Inga

Advice for Incoming LGBTQIA+ crew

“The industry is evolving,” Matthews says. “On the majority of boats, orientation is embraced, and if you find yourself [on] one that is not yet with the program, leave. Life is too short to spend your days in spaces where you can’t embody your full, wonderful self. Also, find the LGBTQ+ communities that are growing!”

“Be unapologetically yourself! Do not let anyone try [to over]shadow who you are and who you love! Yachting is an incredible opportunity to ‘start fresh,’ so do it as the truest version of you. Be honest from the get-go about your sexuality and take up space,” Hanekom says. “Yachting can sometimes be lonely and isolating but know that you are not alone and there are so many of us out [at] sea waving our flags in support of you.”

Should you come across any bigots who make you feel uncomfortable, Hanekom suggests keeping Michelle Obama’s words in mind: “When they go low, we go HIGH.” If it does get to a point where you really feel ostracized and vulnerable, inform your superior, she says. “If nothing happens from there, then remove yourself from the situation and try [to] get placed elsewhere. Your mental health and heart [are] worth way more than being in an uncomfortable situation during long and strenuous hours of work in confined spaces.”

“Be brave, be open, and be proud of who you are,” Groenewald says. “If you feel you have to conceal a big part of you, then it is not the boat for you. It can be hard and there are more close-minded crew than you’d think (even though we live in a diverse, multi-cultural industry). Do not take comments or lost opportunities to heart. There are some incredible captains, owners, and crew who will celebrate you!”

Natasha and Jenny

Where to Seek Support

“Ten years ago, it was a very different story — now it’s great to see more Pride in the industry. There are so many people out there on social media who are supporting the community. She of the Sea is one that instantly comes to mind. However, there is definitely room for more,” First Mate Kerr says. “There has also been a huge boost in mental health awareness on board; there is loads of support groups online and podcasts. Just reach out.”

“Tash and I are always on the end of a phone/WhatsApp for LGBTQ+ individuals/couples,” says Chief Officer Matthews. “We have an amazing community to connect people with and feel there is so much to be gained from shared experiences.”

For those who would like to connect with mental health/wellbeing support, there are great resources out there such as the ISWAN Crew Help line and The Crew Coach. “We also always recommend all crew, regardless of orientation, sign up to Nautilus to have access to support, legal advice, and more should the need ever arise,” Matthews suggests.

“Find other gay crew through social media and then ask for help,” Purser/Interior Manager Blair recommends. “There’s no shame in asking for help and we can attest that it’s not always bad; things do get better. ... There is more support and help out there than you realize.”

Chief Stew Groenewald started a LGBTQ+ Yacht Crew Facebook page, which is the perfect place to connect, share stories, and find a safe space. Her Messenger is always open and she hopes to get a strong, positive conversation started in the industry.

Cantleigh and Beth

Second Stew Hanekom explains how queer representatives, influencers, corporations, and LGBTQIA+ allies are becoming more vocal within the industry. “We would highly suggest reaching out to these organizations and individuals who are able to provide solid advice and mentorship, and [who] may be able to put you with the right mix of people.”

Be an Ally

“It’s been my experience that the real magic happens when we are able to show up as ourselves at work and connect with our job and the people around us authentically,” says Matthews. “Each of us have a unique road and I want to thank all the individuals, allies, and the LGBTQ+ community we are part of for adding so much love and color to our industry!”

Practice acceptance. Practice love. It all starts in ourselves. As my favorite Queen RuPaul says: “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love anybody else?”

This feature originally ran in the October 2021 issue of Dockwalk.


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