If you find yourself in search of your next yacht crew position, should you consider going the freelance route? Crew recruiting experts and crewmembers discuss the pros and cons of a freelance career and the positions best suited to temp work.
It’s June, and usually the summer season is very much upon us. But we’re not seeing the usual right now — as this is written in April 2020, it’s hard to know where we will be two months from now. We know that this year will see many changes relating to all aspects of our lives over the months to come and most certainly the superyacht industry will not be immune. So now is as good a time as any to look at the way we work and consider the pros and cons of a freelance career, which positions are best suited to temporary work, and what are the drawbacks for owners/captains hiring temps and for the temps themselves?
Transitioning Temp Crew
The decision to take on a temporary crewmember may be a choice — for example, junior crew to help get the yacht ready to go — or a necessity if there is a medical or other emergency that requires someone to be replaced short term. There are specific considerations when hiring a temporary worker — including that a temporary crewmember will cause some changes to team dynamics — whether in a junior or a senior position.
Temp crew must be flexible, learn quickly, and adapt rapidly to the dynamics and procedures on board.
Temp crew must be flexible, learn quickly, and adapt rapidly to the dynamics and procedures on board. “It takes time for the team to bond and to learn the specific working of the yacht, so it will always be easier to take on temp crew when there are no guests present, so the ‘getting to know you’ period is completed away from guests,” says Debbie Blazy, director of crew placement at Camper & Nicholsons. “This is not always possible, and the choice of temp crew is vital: reliable references and proven experience will always be preferable to avoid unforeseen issues.”
Successful, professional temping crew need corporate intelligence to understand that their job is not to “rock the boat” or reinvent the wheel. “The more experienced, the better,” says Laurence Lewis, director at YPI Crew. “It’s a question of going there, getting the job done, and getting out. These crew need to be versatile and able to adapt very quickly to very different environments. Professional temping is not for overbearing personalities or large egos. The job requires a good all-rounder.” Lewis says that 10 to 15 percent of their business is placing temporary crew.
Chief Stewardess Letty Le Moignan of M/Y Sarafsa raises the obvious benefit of flexibility for freelancers — temp crew do have the luxury of flying in for a quick guest trip and then off again on leave afterwards. These crew are free to do other things — put the wedding, holiday, or party in the diary and work around those key dates.
But the freedom of freelance life is not always as free as it seems — it can be a nail-biting experience as you never know when the next job will come through, Blazy says, and candidates can therefore end up foregoing their freedom as they say yes to any work that comes their way and could end up working more. “Hiring parties can frown on CVs with a lot of temp work as the underlying feeling may be that the crewmember can’t commit and won’t be a positive addition to the crew,” she says.
But the freedom of freelance life is not always as free as it seems — it can be a nail-biting experience as you never know when the next job will come through, Blazy says...
Another drawback could be the lack of regular, monthly pay — although the pay is pretty much the same pro rata as for permanent crew, says Louisa Gallimore, group sales manager at bluewater Crew Placement in Antibes. In fact, temp work can be very lucrative, says Blazy, and the daily rate is often higher than the pro-rata standard salary.
But there could be other financial sacrifices. “Often freelancers are not included in tips, but that depends on the boat. And they aren’t always considered like the rest of the crew,” Le Moignan says. Capt. Paul Bickley of M/Y Aurora Borealis believes temp crew should be compensated for any lack of insurance, health care, or job security, but this is not always the case. Perhaps it’s a question of supply outweighing demand, he says.
While Capt. Simon Johnson of M/Y Go suggests there is no need to compensate freelance crew for the job insecurity because freelancing is a choice. “They might be paid a bit more, but there’s not much in it, I’d say,” he says. Johnson notes that freelance crew are covered by medical insurance through the Maritime Labour Convention, 2006 (MLC).
Capt. Tristan Mortlock of M/Y AWOL is well-known in the industry for his superyacht captain YouTube channel. Over the years, he has employed a number of freelance chefs, either before or after the summer season. Like many things, he sees the pros and cons. “The nice thing is, all chefs have their own style of cooking and I welcome the change as it gives the guests and the crew the opportunity to taste something different and to have a fresh personality on board,” he says. On the other hand, it is difficult to adjust to the change in routine as each chef likes to prepare and arrange the galley in their individual way, which can interrupt the flow on board. “Usually, once the freelance chef is just about settled in, it’s usually time for them to leave, which causes disruption again. On the whole, it really depends on the personality of the freelance worker and the amount of time and information they are given beforehand,” he says.
“The nice thing is, all chefs have their own style of cooking and I welcome the change as it gives the guests and the crew the opportunity to taste something different and to have a fresh personality on board...”
Another disadvantage of working freelance is space: Often there is no room on board for the extra staff and they’ll be put up in a hotel or other shore-based accommodation — “which is not the same at all,” says Gallimore. “It’s really important the crew slot into the team and just gets on with the job. This is such a small industry and people have to be careful with things like egos or attitude.”
Years ago, Johnson cut his teeth on deliveries and loved them. “The phone rang and off I went,” he says. “Typically, I went from the UK to the Mediterranean or did Atlantic crossings. They needed my astro navigation skills before GPS. Nowadays, navigation is easy, and I lost my foothold,” he jokes. He loved the flexibility and always took his own crew friends with him, never the crew already on the yacht. “And I took all my own equipment, so I never relied on anything I didn’t know,” he says. He got the work by word of mouth and there was plenty of it. “I did at least one delivery a month and charged per mile plus all expenses,” he says. There were one or two experiences when he had difficulty getting the second 50 percent of his fee upon delivery but, he says, “Usually, it was the other way — the owners were so pleased that they tipped me almost double.”
Best Temp Positions
Obviously, some crew positions work better for freelancing. Blazy takes the view that the more junior roles are often seen as the easiest to fill as they require less training and competencies. “Junior deckhands and stewardesses are generally in demand to assist getting the yacht ready for the next charter, or out of the yard more quickly,” she says. “The easiest temp roles to fill, however, are always those on well-run and professionally organized yachts, where we know there will be a competent team on board to support the temporary crew.” In Blazy’s experience, she places more chefs in temporary positions than any other, but the deckhand and stew roles follow close behind.
“The easiest temp roles to fill, however, are always those on well-run and professionally organized yachts, where we know there will be a competent team on board to support the temporary crew.”
Bickley suggests that higher ranking officers and galley crew are more likely to be switched to freelance positions. Junior crew are more readily available and easier to swap out. “Ranked crew with responsibilities require more diligence and documentation. COVID-19 may see more freelance work as owners cut back on crew, but they must mitigate the costs associated with terminating a crewmember as often the paid holidays owed, repatriation, and severances sometimes are more costly than taking on a freelancer,” he says.
YPI’s Lewis says engineers, chefs, and stewardesses are most often called on for temporary placements, while Gallimore notes that the summer months are when the bluewater phone starts ringing for temporary crew, mostly for interior positions. “We get quite a lot of contract work in the summer months and work with companies organizing events around the Grand Prix or Cannes Film Festival, for example. It’s often extra help needed for service, nannying, or laundry,” she says. But chefs are also in demand, she notes. “Chefs are a particularly valued commodity in the summer months and they can earn a lot of money. For example, a yacht might phone looking for a sushi chef for a week and we’ll know who to call and the kind of fee he’ll be looking for.” Contract positions for captains or engineers are not so common, but they do happen. “I might get a panic call from a yacht desperate for an experienced captain who can take over last minute to replace a captain who has fallen ill, with a charter starting in just a few days. And the same with engineers; they are always a valuable commodity,” she says.
Capt. Johnson believes there are a number of positions that the vessels and the pertinent crew can benefit from freelance work — ocean crossing deliveries for captains with well-established careers might be all they need or choose to do when there is no longer a need or desire to work full time. “These deliveries, perhaps two or three a year, might be enough to keep the plates spinning,” he says. “The vessel benefits because they get an experienced captain who they can learn new skills from. There is also no risk of toes being trodden on in the delicate balance that makes up yacht seniority.” Johnson also suggests the role of set-up stewardess is one that can work well for freelancing crew. “There is a completely different set of skills required to set a boat up with proper motion-time-management (MTM),” he says. “There may be a completely different set of skills to get a yacht out of the yard and guest-ready, for example. Whilst the interior team are using up their well-earned leave before the long season ahead, often a skilled freelance interior leader is well-placed to arrange the worklist items, and final detailing (working closely with the purser or the chief stewardess instructions).”
Think about your motives for going freelance: Is it a lifestyle choice? Is it just to finish up the season? Is it to gain more variety of experience?
Another freelance possibility he suggests could be the guest-specific skilled crew such as beauty therapists or masseurs/masseuses, yacht space permitting. “It might be possible to replace a crewmember who desired to take their leave at this time,” says Johnson. Any crew, he advises, who choose to go freelance really need a good grounding and experience in being a crewmember and pulling together as a team. “I am convinced that you can only be freelance after yachting experience and not before,” he says. The role of engineer is difficult to fulfill as a freelancer, he suggests, because there is too much to know or learn to make this a viable proposition except to perhaps double-up on a crossing.
Perfect the Position
As a hiring captain, Johnson thinks freelance crew are great as long as they respect the hierarchy on board the boat. “Also,” he says, “sometimes they are freelance for a reason — it could be that they are completely unable to take orders, hence they can’t work full time on a boat. So it is important to know why they are freelance.” Johnson has enough contacts to source freelance crew by word of mouth and that in its way is already an endorsement of reliable crew. “It can be too easy to be hit and miss getting freelance crew and I’d rather have the hits by doing a little due diligence from reliable recommendations,” he says.
Blazy offers this advice to people thinking of going down the freelance route: Think about your motives for going freelance: Is it a lifestyle choice? Is it just to finish up the season? Is it to gain more variety of experience? Maybe you’re studying for your next modules and you need more flexibility? Your reasons may help to reassure a hiring person when they look at your CV, so it can help to state them. You should also be sure that you have rock-solid references and that all the contact information is up to date and stated clearly. Temp positions often move very fast, so if the hiring person has to chase the information, you might miss out on the job. Also make sure your current location and availability are on your CV. “Oh yes, and please make sure your passport is still valid!”
This feature originally ran in the June 2020 issue of Dockwalk.