Drugs, Money Laundering and Rehab: What It's Really Like to Work on a Super Yacht
This article originally appeared on VICE Belgium
One day they're drinking champagne with Hollywood actors and supermodels, the next they're being yelled at by drunk Americans who think Paris is in Italy. Nina*, 26, and her boyfriend, Aaron*, 38, work year-round on luxury yachts across the Caribbean and Mediterranean seas. Nina works as a chef, while Aaron captains the vessels.
I wanted to find out whether life on floating mansions rented by the world's richest people is as wild as it sounds, so I asked the pair about what exactly goes on behind the scenes.
Aaron: I've worked on yachts for about 12 years – as a racer, sailor and captain. In that time I've worked for free, but now I make around €8,500 (£7,500) a month. And I don't have to pay any taxes on that because the boats are all tax exempt. About a year ago I met Nina in a sailor's bar in Mallorca.
Nina: Aaron was the first person I met in this job who had something interesting to say. I moved in with him after two days, and we've been working together ever since.
I grew up in a restaurant, and decided that working as a chef on a boat would be a nice change. I've been making between €3,000 (£2,675) and €8,000 (£7,130) a month for the past year. The latter number is on the high end, because I got tipped twice: €1,500 (£1,337) and then €2,000 (£1,783). While you're out on the boat, you don't spend it, as your meals and accommodation are covered. I wouldn't call it a leisurely life, though. Sometimes you end up working 20-hour days.
Aaron: If you have a good relationship with the people you work for, you can benefit from their lifestyle. We just went to Monaco together to visit an old boss of mine.
Nina: They served us Michelin-starred food and an extremely expensive bottle of champagne.
Aaron: That used to happen every day when I worked for her, to the point where I couldn't stomach another drop of champagne. But it can also be dangerous to have that good of a relationship with your boss. Sometimes you get crew members who start acting like they own the boat.
Nina: You could call it "captain's syndrome". Many captains start to party too much, and so they become lazy, lose their job as a result and go bankrupt because they've started living a life they couldn't afford.
Aaron: When you're a member of the crew you can easily live the life of a rockstar for a while. So if you're not very stable or strong-willed, you can easily get lost in it all. Many of the young guys on the boat develop addictions to alcohol and drugs. Some yacht owners don't mind their crew using, because they order their own drugs through the crew. It can be quite tiring working with people who are high all the time – it's hard to know whether you can count on them. In the past I've had to stop some of my co-workers from being served in bars and clubs when we're on the mainland, and I've even had to help a friend get himself into rehab.
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Nina: They mostly smoke weed on sailboats, while it's mainly party drugs on motorboats. We recently worked for these Americans who were constantly high. They thought Paris was in Italy and that you could take a train from France to Mallorca. Then they accused us of stealing bed linens.
Aaron: They were such weirdos. They couldn't grasp time and distance, and thought the Mediterranean was only as big as the little map on their iPhone. We travelled down the entire Spanish, French and Italian coast, and they often wouldn't even leave the boat. Instead, they sat onboard, calling their friends to boast about where they were.
Nina: Once in a while you'll see a famous face. I once worked for a super friendly British Hollywood actress who had been invited to a private island next to Ibiza. The whole island had been rented out to celebrate her birthday. The CEOs of a very popular coffee brand are also very sweet.
Aaron: Most yacht owners aren't the famous people you know, but the people running the world behind the scenes. I've worked for a well-known Lebanese businessman, for the owner of a bunch of oil platforms in Norway and for an American who was part of a family that owned almost all the licenses to import beer into the United States. Those people are very rich, but they're not recognisable. And because they're self-made men and women, they often don't have an attitude.
Nina: Not everyone is like that, though. The owner of a well-known American denim brand once asked me for a light meal, so I made a fresh Thai curry with a salad. He said: "No, I don't eat cream." I explained it was only a light coconut milk, but he didn't want any of it. "I want cheese," he then demanded. Luckily, I had gone to the market in Palma de Mallorca that morning and bought some local cheeses, because you never know what people end up wanting. So I made a cheese plate with nice crackers, honey with truffles and a fruit spread – super high quality stuff. I brought it out and then he sent it back. "I only want French cheese." The following day I bought the best French cheeses, but he never ate any of it.
Then there are the owners who value their privacy and don't really want anything to do with you. They arrive in a luxury car and someone is there to help them get out. We all have to stand in a line to say hello. Afterwards, everyone goes back to his or her room – there is no contact at all. It can be very distant.
Aaron: An owner's entourage is often made up of a mix of characters. As soon as they're onboard, you can tell right away the hierarchy among them. The richest guests know they can get anything they want, so they don't always ask for it. The people with the least amount of money are the rudest. They don't really know how to behave in a six-star environment. They're over the top and forget their manners. For them, a vacation on a yacht is a once in a lifetime opportunity – they just want to take, take, take.
A bunch of Russians I worked for returned after a night of partying in Ibiza with a gaggle of sex workers. I picked them up in the harbour and brought the boat to a secluded spot along the coast, so they could continue their party without anyone watching. The next morning I had to drop the women back off in the harbour and pay them, because the boss had forgotten to do that. Usually, the captain gets given petty cash, let's say €100,000, to spend on so-called smaller expenses. I don't think most owners check the expense reports. They're happy as long as the money keeps rolling.
Many of these boats are owned by offshore companies, so instead of paying taxes, the companies funnel the money into their second business – the yacht. All those yachts keep getting bigger, just so the money can be laundered. In those cases, they're just big money laundering operations.
*Interviewees' names have been changed because they both signed non-disclosure agreements with past employers.