Career Advice

How to Get a Job as a Deckhand

29 September 2021 By Kate Lardy
a deckhand on the bow of a superyacht launching a jet ski
Credit: Mark O'Connell

Kate got her start in the yachting industry working as crew. She spent five years cruising the Bahamas, Caribbean, New England, and Central America, then segued that experience into a career in marine journalism, including stints as editor of Dockwalk and ShowBoats International.

A junior deckhand position is the first step in building a career that can lead to superyacht captain if you’re so inclined. Here is everything you need to know to get a foot on deck...

When you’re looking to break into the tight-knit superyacht industry with a job on deck, come prepared to work hard, take direction, and have a positive outlook.

The best candidates are keen and eager, says Marcy Laturno, executive crew placement director at Luxury Yacht Group in Fort Lauderdale. “All too often now we find entry-level crew come with their own list of demands: where the boat is going, how much time off they will get, what they expect to be paid as a minimum...”

Instead, approach your first superyacht deckhand position willing to learn and grow, and concentrate on completing a season or two on a yacht regardless of its program — private or charter, globe-trotting or more sedentary — and you’ll be on your way to your pick of positions.

Credit: Mark O'Connell

What is a Deckhand?

A deckhand is responsible for cleaning and maintaining the exterior of the vessel. Led by the bosun, the deck team also assists in docking operations, launches and stows the tenders and toys, drives the tender, supervises guests’ watersports activities, and pitches in to help the interior crew after their duties are finished for the night.

Will Hollingshead, a first officer who has been hiring deckhands since his days as bosun and lead deckhand, says it’s important to have the ability to keep yourself motivated and working hard. “If I walk on deck and catch a dayworker or deckhand sneaking their phone back into their pocket or leaning back then I’ll let it slide, but if it’s multiple times a day then I’ll lose trust in that person.”

What Does a Deckhand do?

“Be prepared to clean, polish, clean, and polish some more,” says Erica Lay, director of placement agency El Crew Co in Palma de Mallorca.

How close it is to the start of a season will determine the type of work that needs to be done, says Hollingshead. “Mid winter in the Med, then you’re looking at opening up bigger projects; closer to the start of the summer it will be more teak scrubbing, stainless polishing and beautifying the yacht.”

When guests are not on board, “you will be doing the dirty work, especially if you’re junior,” says Madison Bailes, who has worked on deck of yachts spanning 116 to 350 feet. “You’re going to be cleaning the things that can’t be cleaned when the boss is on board: soaking/scrubbing cushion covers, ‘Flitz’-ing stainless, maybe detailing the engine room, paintwork, or if you’re really lucky, hanging out in a bilge,” she says with a smile. She describes this time as “chill” though — a regular eight-hour workday with a lunch break and maybe even a dock beer at the end of the day.

When the owner or charter guests are on board, it is a much longer and higher-pressure day. “The usual is a 13-hour workday, a three-hour break at one point and a longer eight-hour break for your main rest, though this differs from yacht to yacht,” Hollingshead says.

There is no such thing as a typical day with the boss on, Bailes says. “You could literally be in the water all day launching Jet Skis, tenders, paddleboards, doing fly-boarding and snorkeling, or you could be stood at the top of a gangway for hours watching the boss’s McLarens. I’ve done both and it all differs depending on your boat and your program.”

There will be a wider range of duties on smaller boats with fewer deckhands. On the largest superyachts, those in the junior positions may find themselves discreetly cleaning all day, while staying out of the guests’ way.

Credit: iStock

Who Does a Deckhand Report to?

On smaller yachts, a deckhand would report to the mate or directly to the captain. On larger vessels the bosun or lead deckhand is in charge of the deck team.

“The best people to work for are the ones who have the time and inclination to reach and train their junior deck crew, helping them learn how to paint, varnish, repair the yacht, etc.,” says Hollingshead.

What Qualifications do I Need to Become a Deckhand?

The prerequisites for any crew position are STCW Basic Safety Training and an ENG1 medical certificate. In addition, there are several qualifications that entry-level deckhand candidates can consider.

First of all, an RYA Powerboat Level 2 (PBL2) is what Lay calls “imperative” for working in the Med as it allows a crewmember to drive a tender in countries that require a certificate to operate small craft under 10 meters — which is most of Europe. International Yacht Training also has a course that satisfies this requirement called IYT Small Powerboat and RIB Master, which is MCA recognized.

Large motor yachts may require an MCA STCW95 certificate in Proficiency in Designated Security Duties, or PDSD for short. The one-day course is necessary for anyone with security duties on ISPS-compliant yachts, which are greater than 500 gross tons (roughly 55 meters and up).

“Those (qualifications) are for starting out. Once a deckhand has a season or two or more under their belt and knows this is a career for them, I’d recommend they do Yachtmaster Offshore and consider looking into their EDH (MCA Efficient Deckhand), which must be held 18 months before going for OOW (Officer of the Watch),” says Lay.

In addition, Hollingshead adds, “Having a PWC license or even a PWC Instructor license is always a good short course to set yourself apart from the rest.” The RYA PWC license is a one-day course. It’s a prerequisite for the Instructor course, as is two years’ experience riding personal watercraft, which allows the crewmember to run the “RYA Introduction to PW Safety course” for guests on superyachts.

Credit: Mark O'Connell

What Experience do I Need?

“Most jobs for junior crew I receive usually start with ‘must have at least a season’s experience,’ which is frustrating for the new crew to hear but sometimes we can get around that by demonstrating how transferrable their skills are from other industries or recreational activities,” Lay says.

Laturno also uses the term “transferrable” and gives some examples: “recreational boating backgrounds, skilled labor backgrounds, watersports experience, tender driving skills, to name a few.”

One way to break into crew work is by getting real-world experience in the maritime world, adds Hollingshead. “Go and get a job in a marina, work for a boat-building company, learn about teak, painting, epoxy, etc.

“There are two main work/life experiences that I value in a candidate,” he continues. “The first is any construction or building site experience. I grew up working on building sites with my dad and it teaches you about hard work, fixing things with the tools you have on hand, and also that most problems are solvable with a bit of forethought and working as a team. The second is anyone who has worked as a watersports instructor. I spent seven years as a windsurf/sailing instructor in Greece and Turkey before getting a job as a deckhand. When you’re hiring someone with that experience, you know they can drive a tender and that they’re comfortable on and in the water with your guests and their children.”

Bailes, who started her maritime career as a dive instructor, adds that any trade where you have acquired people skills correlates well in yachting, as does work involving cleaning, mechanics, and outdoor activities.

How Much Does a Deckhand Earn?

“Starting pay for a junior deckhand in the Med is €2,500 (per month), with possibly more for skilled newbies, i.e. watersports instructors, so €3,000,” says Lay. Laturno at Luxury Yacht Group sees monthly salaries averaging $2,750 to $3,000 with the same amounts in euros.

For the ultimate answer, we turn to the Dockwalk Salary Guide, for which a dozen crew agencies around the world shared the salaries of the deckhands they placed. The numbers increase as the boat size does, and the range given for each size vessel spans various experience levels, so those just entering the industry should pay attention to the lower number. These start at $2,500 per month for boats under 80 feet, go up to $4,500 for yachts under 200 feet, and finally, $4,500 for yachts 200 feet and up.

While this may not sound like big bucks, keep in mind that a crewmember’s living expenses are close to zero so nearly all of your salary can be saved. In addition, charter yachts can offer some pretty lucrative tips on top of salaries.

Credit: Mark O'Connell

P.S. A Side Note for Women

Yacht deckhand jobs have historically been dominated by men, but today more women than ever are starting their yachting careers on deck rather than inside, and gender should never be an obstacle.

Bailes, who joined the industry with a Yachtmaster license from her days on dive boats, still encountered yachts that wanted to make her a stewardess. “They see long hair and a pretty face and, boom, they want you in a skort cleaning cabins.

“While being a stew is an excellent career, if you want to be on deck, stand your ground and turn the job down if you have to,” she advises. “Do your Powerboat Level 2, not silver service, go for as many courses as you can and daywork as much as possible to gain experience. I know for a fact that I beat most guys to a job because my resume is stacked!”

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