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April 14, 2014 at 1:00 AM

Crews share ups, downs of life on a luxury yacht

By Emily Roach / The Palm Beach Post

Photo of crew member

Yacht crew member and 2nd engineer Bryan Millspaugh, 34, sits for an interview at Rybovich Marina in West Palm Beach, Fla. (Allen Eyestone/Palm Beach Post)

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Want to see the world and get paid well for it?

Consider the life of a stewardess aboard a superyacht crew. While you’d be a glorified housekeeper in a crisp white uniform, the perks are many. Education requirements vary, but start pretty low, and you can work your way up the career ladder.

No experience? Start at $3,000 a month with room and board paid. With 10 years’ experience, you could be making $7,000 a month or more, depending on the job. Technicians and engineers can start higher, as can someone with the captain’s license.

Superyachts are over 80 feet, though the pay and perks are better the bigger the boat gets, for the most part. Working for a charter company gives extra earning potential, but a lot more stress.

“It can be a great career path for the right individual,” says Donna MacPhail, who started Palm Beach Yachts International with husband Duane in 1995 as a crew placement service. The company has grown into yacht management, brokerage, sales and charters.

A service-minded person who is willing to work a varied schedule and give up many family holidays can take a $900 safety course and join a yacht crew, probably with a years’ contract, she said.

Yachting is a niche industry. About 4,500 superyachts roam the world and provide employment for 30,000 people in the United States, including landside jobs, according to the U.S. Superyacht Association based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

For a $6 billion industry in the U.S., “it feeds a lot of people,” says John Mann, chairman of the association.

“It’s like a floating stimulus package,” he says.

These ships sail the planet’s oceans, primarily the Caribbean in the winter and Mediterranean in the summer, and call at such exotic ports as St. Martin in the Caribbean; the San Blas Islands off Panama; Hvar, Croatia; Ibiza, Spain; and Bermuda.

“Like nothing I’ve ever seen,” Bridget Alsup of Portland, Ore., says of the San Blas Islands.

While the job is demanding and long when owners are aboard in these exotic locations — maybe for just a few days, maybe for a month or more — the in-between times are much more casual.

“You shouldn’t look at it as just a game,” says Judy Le Riche of South Africa, who serves as a lower-level stewardess on the same crew as Alsup. The two were part of a group of crew members chatting last week at Rybovich marina. “It’s hard work.”

Don’t believe the antics you see on Bravo’s reality show “Below Deck,” says Sean Dunlap, 37, of Annapolis, Md. Dunlap serves as first officer but has worked his way up in the business after working part-time in the Savannah, Ga., shipyard during college.

When in exotic ports, you usually get a chance to get off the boat and have fun, “but you don’t play with the boss’s toys,” says second engineer Bryan Millspaugh, 34, who has been based in Jupiter, Fla., for the past year. With seven years in the business, he moved from working at a marina to working on a crew and figures he’ll always be doing marine mechanical or carpentry work, things he has learned on the job.

Alsup, 27, joined her current crew as third stewardess in July in Germany when the 191-foot yacht was finishing maintenance. That means she supervises the housekeeping side of things. She knew when she took a cruise at age 12 she wanted to work on a boat.

Alsup saw a good deal of Europe before the boat departed for an extended stay in West Palm Beach at the Rybovich marina ΓÇö with stops along the way in Norway, England, the Azores, Bermuda. And the yacht made a quick run to the Bahamas once since it got here.

Next port? Unknown, but Alsup knows the yacht will probably depart in June. (The crew is circumspect with boat names, because the owners prefer privacy.)

Rybovich, in West Palm Beach and Riviera Beach, is a major repair and maintenance center where boats stay for months sometimes — thus the crews stay in the area. Rybovich even has a “campus” for crew members with a private restaurant and bar, gym and more.

“They love the privacy,” says Anthony LaCavalla, Rybovich vice president for north end development.

It’s a work-hard, play-hard life.

Just ask Reid Dickson, 24, of Toronto, whose title is second engineer — but you can call him “pirate.”

For a while he worked on a charter yacht, where he could earn half his salary again in tips in just a two-month span. “At the end of it, you get this big honking envelope,” he says.

But the pace was brutal: up at 6 a.m. and no sleeping until the last guest went to bed. Burnout is fast. Now he prefers a private yacht.

Dickson joined a yacht crew on a whim, and plans to keep working his way up. Maybe captain someday.

While Millspaugh and Dunlap have their captain’s licenses, only Dunlap has run a boat before and is first officer on his crew. With 12 years in the business, he knows the top job is tough. He’s happy to be the second, instead of captain.

“He’s the man in charge,” he says. “It all stops with him — or her.”

More in Workplace Topics | Topics: career profile, featured, salary

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