Christmas on Board: Big Tips or Big Fun?

19 December 2008 By Rubi McGrory

Christmas in the service industry is a very different holiday than the warm, cuddly fun portrayed in made-for-TV movies. Behind every professionally prepared meal, decorated tree and perfect Christmas anchorage, there is a team of skilled chefs, stews and seamen.

If you're new to the yachting industry, it might be difficult to comprehend a holiday away from your family; but to veteran crew, working on Christmas generally means a day of great tips. For some, working during this season also is an effective way to stave off loneliness and despair.

As one captain put it, “In this industry, Christmas is pretty much the one holiday you are guaranteed to be working. If your guests aren’t on board, they will be flying in.”

When I polled various yacht crew about how they celebrate Christmas on board, almost everyone said the same thing: “That depends if you have people on board or not.” People, of course, refers to any combination of owners, charterers and their guests.

Stew Annie from a large motor yacht said she never really celebrated Christmas anyway. “It isn’t a big deal to me; I don’t mind working Christmas charters. The guests are generally happier and the tips are much bigger; sometimes we even get a present.”

Engineer Ted agreed, saying that no matter the holiday, he still has to make sure everything goes on or goes away as intended when you hit the button. “But I like all the cookies and candy,” he added.

An Australian deckie said she grew up having Christmas barbecues on the beach and has a hard time with so much heavy roasted food; while a mate from Maine laughed and said that if there isn’t snow, it’s just a fake Christmas.

Stew Nikki has 30 different Christmas CDs on her iPod. “I love Christmas and want to make it the best day possible for my fellow crewmembers and guests,” she said. Nikki really misses being with her family. “I hate not seeing my nieces and nephews open their gifts.” She added that she prefers to celebrate the holiday in the crew mess, with her temporary family.

This feeling was almost universal. Capt. John said, “My crew has never liked having to eat with the boss and his family. They all feel like they have to be on their best behavior. They don’t feel relaxed and joyous, and it takes away from the time they could be resting, working or celebrating with each other.”

Another crewmember said that in his experience, being asked to celebrate with guests meant you were going to get a smaller tip. “Like they knew they weren’t going to give you extra, so they assuaged their guilt by asking you to join them in eating the meal you cooked and served to them.”

During the few moments of relaxation crew do snatch when guests are on board at Christmas, among the preferred ways to celebrate are Secret Santa, grab bags, playing games and a quick crew dinner.

Capt. Steve said that with so much to do for the guests, trying to celebrate on the day itself is hard for the crew. He takes his crew out for Christmas after the charter, when they really feel like partying and have the energy for it.

When it comes to Christmas with no guests on board, many crewmembers agreed it’s like “spending the whole day at the kids’ table.” Chef Staci said she always feels a little guilty, like she should be on charter and pulling in the tips, but she loves spending the day with other boat crews on the dock or at the beach.

Mate Jason’s favorite Christmas was a dock party in St. Maarten where every boat brought a few special family dishes. The day consisted of drinking beer, listening to music and hanging out. “It wasn’t about buying gifts or making time to see the right people; it was about having a great time with the folks who were there.”