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Home > Daily News > Captains Of Ships – Abby Emery
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Captains Of Ships – Abby Emery

Abby is from what society loves to call a ‘blended family’.  Born in 1991, in Redditch just south of Birmingham, her parents split when she was an 18-month-old toddler and stepdad entered the frame by the age of three.  He brought with him a twin brother and sister, and two older sisters – including another Abbey – and life was good.

“We hung out, played out in the woods, made dens, had mud fights and were very happy,” says Abby.  “Sadly, mom and stepdad also parted company when I was just 11.  As something to do together as a hobby, he took us all on a dinghy sailing course at a local lake.  It started on my birthday and the weather was really grim.  I spent a lot of time capsizing and feeling pretty miserable.  We sailed every weekend for six or eight weeks and it appeared I had natural talent, so my stepdad bought a little dinghy to keep on the lake.”

“In time, we added a Topper to our fleet, which I raced every Tuesday and Sunday until I was 16.  That was it, GCSEs in hand, I knew I wanted to sail for a living – but my mom had different ideas.  She insisted I complete my A Levels so I had a backup plan – which I now know was the right thing to do.  Reluctantly, I rattled through two years more education and then worked my butt off pulling pints to fund my Yachtmaster.”

“I knew my passion was for sailing, to be on deck, but, despite my Yachtmaster, every potential employer wanted to send me below deck.  I had encountered my first bout of nautical sexism.  So, in an attempt to stand out from the crowd, I shelled out for some mile builders and passed my Yachtmaster Ocean.  I now had all the tickets but none of the experience – that became my next priority.”

In October 2010, Abby took a flight to Palma believing it to be the right place and right time to find a sailing boat preparing for an Atlantic crossing.  A spot of dockwalking led her to 31 metre sloop Ocean’s Seven² shortly departing Antibes for the Caribbean.  It was unpaid, but Abby knew she needed the experience, that first job on the CV.

“It turned out to be the most disliked Atlantic crossing of my career.  I desperately wanted to leave but my new-found friend persuaded me to stay.  It was character building, an eye opener, and a realisation that the superyacht industry did not come sugar-coated.”

“Upon arrival in Antigua, I was immediately unemployed so rented a small cottage with aforementioned new-found friend and one other of the crew.  It was an epic month.  I got so suntanned and had the best Christmas of my life – that rum punch is marvellous.  Then, in January, I joined 38 metre motoryacht Andrea as a deck-stew.”

“I was overqualified, but it was a means to an end.  I needed both income and experience and, as a seasonal Caribbean-only position, it had an end date.  I hated being without sails and was happy to be headed to Palma to take up a deck-stew role on 37 metre Beaugeste for the summer.  Another seasonal role, we sailed through Sardinia, Corfu, Malta, and more, before the yacht hibernated in Palma for the winter.  I also went into hibernation recuperating from a vile gastro bug I’d picked up somewhere in Greece.”

“2012 heralded my 21st birthday, so I put off my next role until I’d recovered from a lively shindig, then joined 44 metre schooner Lethantia as mate.  Lethantia was in refit in a shipyard in Italy, so there were only two of us on board – myself and the captain.  All very well, but the owner would turn up willy-nilly and expect a full lavish meal on the table.  Rather odd.  In any case, this job came to a very abrupt end on 22 June when said owner let go of a rope supporting a 230kg hydraulic piston.  Regrettably, my hand was between that piston and a winch.  That night I had an emergency operation in an Italian hospital, followed by two in Germany, and eight more in the UK.  I was off work for a year.”

“Naturally, I engaged the services of a lawyer to fight my corner, but the owner knew every loophole and had too much money to throw at the case.  Not usually the sort to get down or stressed, I found myself in a tough place mentally, so chucked the towel in on the fight.  In May 2013 I was ready to go back to work – albeit with a bit of shoulder pain and a slightly bent hand.”

“With employers sceptical of my capabilities with a dodgy hand, I struggled to get work on a sail yacht.  Having sworn blind I wouldn’t go back to a motoryacht, I joined Princess 85 Brodsky in Corfu as deck-mate.  The Russian owner was on board for the summer and didn’t appear to be my biggest fan, although the captain and I got on very well.  The gig ended in September, so I jumped off in Marbella and flew back to Palma.”

“I found day work babysitting a Swan 112 and promptly missed a step in the cockpit and earned myself two huge black eyes.  The next day, I had an interview on Oyster 885 Clare.  I advised the captain that it really would be best if I kept my sunglasses on throughout.  He congratulated me, said not many people would be brave enough to turn up to an interview in that state, and I was hired.”

Clare’s captain was very hands on, keen to coach and mentor me, and it rapidly became my favourite job.  We crossed to Antigua, did a couple of trips round the Caribbean, took part in the St Maarten Heineken Regatta and then the annual Oyster Private View at St Katharine Docks.  It was foggy, cold and miserable, but to sail up the Thames was an awesome experience.  The captain left in May and I took over as skipper for the rest of Clare’s warranty period – my first real skipper gig at the age of 23 – and then I too left in July.”

“Next up was a mate role on brand new 37.5 metre sailing yacht Escapade based in Southeast Asia.  This was my first experience of live aboard owners and it turned out that those who live aboard like to get more involved in the management of the boat’s day-to-day running. You couldn’t write a shopping list without it being scrutinised.  Having sailed round the stunning landscapes of Indonesia, Bali and Malaysia, four out of the six crew resigned on the same day and stepped off in Langkawi – myself included.”

“I then tried something completely different, 55 metre luxury sailing yacht Adele – a big boat with a big crew.  I thought it would be exactly what I wanted, fun, sociable and an entirely new experience, but it was all hydraulic captive winches, joysticks and buttons – not ‘real’ sailing.  The internal politics were also terrible – something I had not experienced before.  So I did the Atlantic crossing, a few months in the Caribbean and left St Thomas for the UK the day before my 24th birthday.”

“By now, I was sick to the back teeth of the yachting industry.  Despite my impressive CV, I was still overlooked in favour of male candidates with fewer qualifications.  I was often patronised and taught how to suck eggs.  But, no sooner had I decided to jack it all in than I was on a plane back to the British Virgin Islands to crew a 70 footer back to Ireland – proper sailing.”

“We encountered the worst weather I’ve seen on an Atlantic crossing.  Despite going 500 miles out of our way to avoid it, we still faced 45 to 55 knot winds and ten metre waves over a 48 hour period.  It proved to be a really really long journey – but surprisingly enjoyable.”

“Contract over, I found myself back home and unsure which way to turn.  So, I took on a freelance race crew role with Performance Yacht Charter and did the Round the Island Race, Cowes Week, The Fastnet Race and the Oyster Regatta Palma – plus various corporate events.  Most of it was on 40 to 50 foot boats and it took me back to my sailing roots and reminded me why I do what I do.  I felt grounded, my heart came alive and essentially I found myself again.  It was one of my most memorable summers.”

Abby then did a Caribbean delivery trip on an Oyster 72 and spent two days in Antigua, only to be flown back to join Swan 90 Alix in the Canaries for its trip across the Atlantic to St Maarten.  She stayed on as mate for a busy private and charter winter season but left in May 2016 when the boat went on the market.  There followed a period of freelance racing and deliveries, ending with a bona fide skipper role on a 55 footer travelling between Plymouth and Palma, and then a re-encounter with the Russian owner of three years previously.

“He’d always hinted at replacing his Princess 85 with a sailing yacht and turns out he did, with a smart Oyster 745.  I was quite surprised to receive an invite to race the 2016 Oyster Regatta Palma on board with him. I’d always stayed in touch with the captain, and we are still good friends today, but for the owner to invite me on board came as a shock.  We’ve since become friends and I am very much looking forward to racing with him for the fourth time at this year’s Oyster Regatta Palma.”

Off the back of the Palma regatta, Abby was scooped up by an Oyster 885 as a mate/relief skipper.  The boat was supposed to be doing the Oyster World Rally, starting January 2017 in Antigua, with the owners living aboard for its entirety.  They recruited an entirely fresh crew on the same day with instructions to prepare for the Atlantic crossing in two weeks – no mean feat.

“It was an unusual crossing.  The owners joined us, along with a handful of mates, none of whom were accomplished sailors.  They expected full table-served meals throughout and the owner was reminiscent of my Southeast Asian employers and also prone to a grumble or two.  Somehow a fishing rod got snapped and it felt like he didn’t speak to anyone for a week.  I invited them to find a replacement and stepped off the boat the day the world rally started.”

As that door closed, the peachiest door in Abby’s career opened.

“I was invited to join brand new 58 foot Hanse Seahorse as captain.  She was in build in Germany and it was a steep and stimulating learning curve.  I advised on-site in the shipyard, popped her on a truck down to Barcelona and then put her through a six-week commissioning process.  I got on with the British owners – husband, wife, three young children – like a house on fire and we had a busy summer sailing from Malta to Sicily, Sardinia, Menorca, Mallorca and back to Barcelona for winter.  In summer 2018, I returned for more of the same but, by September, he announced the boat was for sale.”

“It was his first boat and, as is often the case with first-time boat owners, his expectations were somewhat skewed from the reality.  He’d envisaged spontaneity, announcing ‘I am free this weekend, let’s go sailing’, but it doesn’t work like that.  Boats need washing, provisioning and crewing – plus the weather also has a big part to play.  It was put on the market, sold and handed over to a new owner in less than a week, with many compliments about how she was in better condition than when she was handed over from the shipyard.”

“There was a part of me that was relieved.  My learning curve had reached its peak and, with such a small boat, I often worked alone and felt a little isolated.  I stayed on in Palma to do the Oyster Regatta and, the morning after the prize-giving, flew back to the UK with a sore head to attend a wedding.  I then went back to Palma for some R&R, before returning to the UK in December.”

Although she’s certain to cross the Atlantic for a delivery or two in the coming months, Abby is now looking for her next role.

“Ideally, my next step would be to captain on a 70 to 80 foot sailing yacht – something that’s large enough to require more than just me as crew, but small enough to really sail without the help of a joystick and endless buttons.  For sure I would love to stay in the industry for the next five years or more.  I set myself goals when I started out in yachting, goals I wanted to achieve before I left the industry.  Those were to complete ten Atlantic crossings, and so far I have only done eight; to sail 100,000 nautical miles, I smashed that long ago; and to captain a 90ft sailing yacht which, in my opinion, is about as big a boat you can go whilst still being able to achieve the feeling of real sailing.”

“I also want to do my bit for the girls.  While I don’t identify with the ‘feminist’ label, on account of the radical, angry, man-hating connotations surrounding the word, I do believe that men and women should be treated with equality.  Female captains are few and far between and those I chat to have all been on a similar ride to me in terms of discrimination.  I would like to see an industry where female engineers and male interior crew are the norm rather the exception.  It often feels as though the yachting industry is able to get away with prejudice that would not be tolerated in any other.”

Sarah Forge, sarah@purplecakefactory.com