To friends and family, scrolling through her glamorous social-media photos, Melanie White appeared to have a dream life. The 30-year-old daughter of a Protestant minister from the Home Counties spent half of her 20s working as a steward and chef on luxury yachts, all played out before a dazzling backdrop of billionaire marinas and azure seas.
She earned €40,000 tax-free at the height of that career, plus occasional four-figure cash tips, with board and lodging thrown in, enabling her to save a deposit for the flat she now lives in with her seven-month-old son Alfred. But the reality of life aboard a super-yacht was somewhat less grand than it might seem to viewers of Succession, as she reveals in her new book, Behind Ocean Lines.
For beyond the banal miseries of marine existence (‘stirring a thick sauce over a lurching stove must be the perfect recipe for seasickness’), White tells of gruelling 18-hour days spent micro-cleaning bathrooms with tweezers and cotton buds, and of guests’ outrageous demands. One ‘yachtie’ she got chatting to at a crew bar in Montenegro told White that their ‘last guests had complained about the temperature of the water. Could they do something about it? Perhaps heat the Adriatic?’
There are the darker stories too: captains with ‘God complexes’ who bullied and even assaulted their crew. She recalls an incident in which a captain slapped her bottom with violence as she leant across a galley table.
‘I told myself others have it worse, it’s no big deal. I dampened the speed and severity of the action as a forgettable fraction of time,’ she writes. ‘No one would listen, or it would be my word against his, or someone would turn and say, “Oh she’s one of those overdramatic women that can’t bear someone to touch them, it’s not like it’s rape.” But actually, it was in the systematic chipping away of my self-esteem leading up to this, which meant I felt it all in such a raw way.’
She never reported the incident. ‘There’s no HR department on a boat,’ she says today, with a fragile smile.
On top of that is the strange juxtaposition of her existence in the world of the one per cent. ‘I felt sick from a rich lunch of lobster with the guests,’ she writes. ‘I’d been cocooned by millionaires at evening events and spent days waiting, and cleaning, and smiling. My life had vastly been extrapolated into a continuum I was desperate to find my place in.’
In her first year, White lost ‘a huge amount’ of weight and suffered a kidney infection due to dehydration (‘I just didn’t have time to drink enough’); her tooth enamel was eroded by regular vomiting because of seasickness, and she accrued ‘boat bites’, the painful legacy of on-board knocks and scrapes.
Graver still were the psychological scars. Exhausted and stressed to the point of collapse, White was pushed to a breakdown. ‘Having to perform under that pressure, and on that stage, knowing that there are a thousand people who will very gladly take your place – that takes a very deep kind of inner strength. I had suicidal ideation – I didn’t feel at home on land [any more]… That was really dark, I couldn’t see any light.’
Unbound by traditional employment conventions, private vessels are effectively wealthy people’s own floating kingdoms – staff do have rights, under the Maritime Labour Convention, but there is an economic incentive not to rock the boat. ‘Women who have been abused don’t come forward, because this is a closed world where everyone knows everyone. If you make any fuss, you’ll never get employed again,’ says White. This is a world where few dare to say no.
What makes this all the more concerning is that demand for superyachts is at a high, despite the pandemic and despite international sanctions on oligarchs since the war in Ukraine began. (Russians are thought to own about 10 per cent of superyachts.) What was once a marginal business has swelled into a global industry that directly employs more than 150,000 people.
‘It’s impossible to get a slot in a build yard,’ says Sam Tucker of VesselsValue in London. ‘Even second-hand sales are red-hot.’
One charter firm has also reported that business more than quadrupled between 2020 and 2021. Customers gazump each other to rent superyachts for eye-watering fees that rise to more than £2 million a week for 300ft-plus ‘gigayachts’.
And then there are the expensive ‘add-ons’, many of which will be on offer at Monaco Yacht Show; the 2022 edition of the industry’s annual extravaganza ends today. Yacht owners can, for example, buy Swarovski-crystal-encrusted anchors and swan-shaped taps. A set of luxury bed linen can set you back at least £40,000. Then there are the other, even more costly extras: lobster tanks, glass-walled underwater ‘Nemo lounges’, snow rooms, helipads, £4 million submarines.
Some owners also run ‘shadow boats’ that follow their yachts at a discreet distance, crammed with casinos, spas, fleets of supercars and other lifestyle trimmings that can’t be squeezed into even the largest yacht.
On top of these costs, daily docking fees exceed £2,600 in the ritziest marinas around the Mediterranean. One British superyacht captain tells me that these charges can more than treble once backhanders are paid. ‘Most of the top marinas are rammed but you can’t tell your owner that his yacht must wait in line,’ he says. ‘It sometimes seems that half my job is giving people envelopes full of euros to jump queues, not just at marinas but to refuel.’
Docking at Porto Cervo, the glitzy marina on Sardinia’s Costa Smeralda, Melanie White recalls being astonished to see one of the sailors whose job was guiding yachts to their berths later driving off in a Ferrari.
Living amid so much wealth and luxury can rub off on the crew – and yet few speak about it openly as many, like the superyacht captain, are obliged to sign non-disclosure agreements. After all, for its owner a yacht is a sanctuary away from prying eyes: Tiger Woods even christened his £15 million superyacht Privacy.
The American reality TV series Below Deck, which first aired in 2013, has gone some way to showing the truth of life for the crew on yachts. The show has been criticised as excessively salacious – but the reality on some superyachts is, according to some, more disturbing still.
Even the recruitment of crew can apparently be problematic. ‘Rich people don’t like ugly things,’ says Emma Ross, a steward and chef from South Africa with 15 years’ experience. ‘The industry is all about how you look, more so than any other apart from modelling.’
Another yachtie, Alice Tiller, 35, who spent eight years in the superyacht industry, told Marie Claire Australia in 2020 that job applicants were often expected to provide full-body photographs, plus their height, weight and dress size. ‘I’ve been there when captains have gone through a pile of girls’ CVs and said, “Too fat, too short, too ugly”… These people can just buy what they want. It’s like prostitution.’
The owner of one boat she worked on offered to fund breast enlargements for six female employees. (Tiller declined.) She also reported that one captain would try to open the bathroom door while she was in the shower. ‘He would get into my bed when I was asleep and try to kiss and touch and feel me. Multiple times he tried to make it lead to more.’
Ross recalls being summoned to a cabin, and opening the door to find a male guest and his wife lying naked on top of the bed. ‘Sorry,’ she said, ‘I thought you said, “Come in.”’ ‘We did,’ came the reply. Ross made her excuses and left.
An experienced superyacht captain told a British newspaper earlier this year that he knows of yacht owners who have had sex with stewardesses in exchange for luxury watches and other gifts, and of female crew members being required to test regularly for sexually transmitted diseases. ‘It’s the norm in the industry,’ he said. ‘The owners want to hook up with the stewardesses. It’s quite crazy, and disgusting.’
Emma Ross and Melanie White have now set up Seas The Mind, offering ‘mental health first aid’ training programmes for crews. Ross explains, ‘Long periods away from home, high-pressure situations, accidents on board, a lack of awareness and stigma all contribute to high levels of poor mental health among those in our industry.’
Both she and White experienced suicidal thoughts while working on yachts. Almost six per cent of deaths at sea are connected to suicide, according to one study – about six times the proportion in the UK. And yet, partly out of a determination to prove herself, White continued working on superyachts until 2019, sailing the equivalent of twice round the globe.
It is a familiar story that the lure of the sea draws yachties back. Stella* spent four years as crew aboard the Leander G, a 246ft superyacht, when it was owned by the late Sir Donald Gosling, former chairman of National Car Parks. (When the yacht was later listed for sale by its new owner in 2020, it was with an asking price of £40 million.)
‘When the boat was chartered out to guests we would get €5,000 tips – the crew had this on-board safe that was literally full of cash,’ she recalls. But there was a dark side.
In her first week, Stella says she was harassed by a party of Saudi princes who had chartered the Leander G on the Côte d’Azur. ‘One guy was obsessed with me, he kept saying, “You’re my future wife, I’m going to take you home.”’ Later, the guests allegedly ordered the deckhands to go ashore and ‘bring us back some hookers’. When they returned, the women were instructed to stand in a line on deck. ‘They just went down the line saying, “Not her, keep her, not her, keep her – now take all those ones back and bring us some others.”’
Gosling was said to have been appalled when he learnt about the behaviour aboard his boat and thereafter his charter guests were closely vetted. ‘He was a lovely man,’ stresses Stella. ‘Not like some owners I heard about.’ One senior yacht broker says that a well-known basketball player invited aboard a party who wrecked a boat in a single morning, spraying walls with Champagne and blocking every toilet with vomit.
‘It’s the entourages who are the worst,’ argues the anonymous British superyacht captain. ‘I had Puff Daddy on board once. He was fine, but some of his hangers-on were obnoxious, really rude and messy.’
Melanie White has her own take: ‘The properly super-rich guys are generally very laid-back and friendly, and knock about in old T-shirts and deck shoes. When charter guests turn up with Louis Vuitton bags, the fake-it-till-you-make-it types, you know you’re in for a hard time.’
Russians feature prominently in many superyacht crews’ least-wanted lists. Many of those whose boats haven’t been seized are now moored in countries that have not signed up to international sanctions, for example Turkey.
‘[Russian guests usually] want huge portions of everything and they’re not big on thank-yous,’ says White. Emma Ross describes an oligarch who announced during his charter that he hated the dining table and chairs and wanted the whole lot changed at once. ‘We were miles out at sea,’ she says. ‘All we could do was try to sweet-talk him. He sulked for the rest of the week.’
These sorts of capricious requests are sometimes the last straw for crew members, as are the maniacal cleaning regimes: vacuuming the air with a special device called a Rainbow; cleaning the inside of taps with toothpicks. ‘It’s so bizarre,’ says Ross. ‘After a while this deep sense of shame sets in: why am I doing these things for these people? It gnaws away at your sense of self-worth.’
Some simply resign but occasionally departures can be rather more dramatic, such as in the case of the Ukrainian engineer who was arrested in Mallorca earlier this year after attempting to sink a yacht he worked on, owned by Alexander Mikheev, CEO of a Russian arms company. ‘The owner of this yacht makes a living selling weapons which are now killing Ukrainians,’ he told police.
But for some, the draw of ocean life is worth the downsides. The tips are certainly an incentive, and not all guests are unpleasant. Stella recalls serving Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip, King Charles and the Queen Consort on the Leander G. ‘They were all so gracious and kind,’ she says. ‘[King] Charles gave us nice leather wallets as tips. I remember Queen Elizabeth running up the gangway like a schoolgirl.’
It was those positives that kept drawing White back. ‘Despite everything I went through, there is a magnetic allure,’ she admits. ‘Golden handcuffs, I suppose. You’re on the periphery of all this wealth and glamour, and it’s addictive.
‘And those sailing days, with no guests, when it’s sunsets, dolphins and whales, and you jump in the ocean and swim to a deserted white-sand beach, are what keep you going back for more.’
Behind Ocean Lines: The Invisible Price of Accommodating Luxury, by Melanie White, is out on 10 October (Lemon Quartz, £16.99); pre-order a copy at books.telegraph.co.uk