Captain Chris Delves is on board 65 metre Life Saga II in Marina di Carrara, northern Italy. The weekly timetable includes quiz night, a darts tournament, cricket, badminton, cycling around the yard, weekend BBQs and the occasional treasure hunt. Is this the most relaxed motoryacht on the circuit? No. It’s just a coping mechanism to get through a seemingly interminable Italian lockdown. At least Chris had some unexpected free time to look back on his rich career.
Chris was born in the Wirral in the mid-1970s and had no nautical influences on his life whatsoever. Not a natural academic, Chris had a local teacher to tutor him through his eleven-plus and, as luck would have it, some of the questions in his tuition notes appeared in the final exam and he passed. His dad bought him a shotgun to celebrate and off they went shooting and fishing together.
Chris picks up the story: “A friend of mine, Zander Ozelton, was bought an old beaten up Cadet class sailing dinghy by his parents, so we spent an entire summer swimming, sailing and generally assing around on West Kirby Marine Lake. A member of the Sailing Club asked if we’d like take part in the Friday night race. Why not? We didn’t win, but we did pretty well, so Dad caved and got me a Cadet of my own. The shotgun was consigned to history and I started my competitive sailing career.
“I cut my teeth on the Cadet circuit, competed in the national championships, did the worlds in Holland when I was 14, and was in the UK squad for a while. I also got into Fireflys, Lasers and Larks, ending up as team captain for the Wilson Trophy. My Dad, bless his heart, drove me up and down the country and anything that could be sailed, I sailed it. A highlight was helming for a Liverpool Bay Falcon for physician, geneticist and studier of butterflies, Sir Cyril Clarke, famed for his work preventing Rhesus disease in newborns. I also crewed in GP14s. The Editor of this magazine, Simon Relph, was a legendary GP14 sailor at the time. He was World Champion in 1985 and again in 1988 and I remember being totally in awe of him.
“From the age of 15 or 16, windsurfing became my second love. We lived right on the promenade in West Kirby and if there was wind, I’d be sailing, but if there was too much wind, I’d be windsurfing. When it got dark, I had to come home. I would be in constant trouble for forgetting to switch the oven off, or shut the front door, as I dashed out to play on the waves. Truth be told, I was a bit of a tearaway, but between the sailing and the windsurfing, I kept out of mischief – almost.
“School didn’t invite me to do A Levels, I didn’t get enough GCSEs, so instead I went off to do team racing at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis. By the time I returned, I’d missed the cut-off for most college courses and all that was left was architecture. I signed up. Our syllabus was largely based on drawing, and I was rubbish at drawing, so I skived off, played pool, and politely left before Christmas.
“I got my first job at sailmakers Speed Sails where I was rigging GP14s for Simon’s competition. I was now sailing prolifically, including the Dart 18 catamaran at Dee Sailing Club on the Wirral. One night, over a post-sail beer, a guy offered me a job making those pop-up work tents used by BT when they were digging up the roads. He said he’d allow me to take time off for sailing, so I took it. Most of my workmates had never travelled more than ten miles from Birkenhead, and they could barely compute it when I strolled in on a Monday morning saying I’d been to a weekend sailing competition in New York.
“On the Dart 18 I was privileged to crew alongside Gareth Owen. He was Cadet World Champion in 1972 and Dart European Champion in 1986, and was by far the best sailor I have ever sailed with. He was a policeman, keen to keep me on the straight and narrow, and became a major influence on my life. Age 16, I started out as his tea monitor, basically in charge of the kettle, but he would let me get out on the water for a bit of practice.
“Meanwhile, my career had switched from tent making to PVC window making, and they too were kind enough to let me take leave for long sailing weekends. Delivering a sloop from Portugal to Malta was quite the experience. Going from a dinghy to a 70ft yacht was flabbergasting, I thought I was on the world’s biggest boat.
“In 1998, Gareth asked me to crew for him at the Dart Worlds in New Caledonia. Dad said I must go, and he’d remortgage the house if he had to. Fortuitously, Uncle Sid passed away and the inheritance spared Dad from such desperate measures. It was a good decision, we won. Gareth and I thrashed everyone, winning seven races out of seven, it was incredible.
“A couple of years later, West Kirby local John Flashman said he was going to endorse me to his son Nick and to not dare let him down. Nick asked me to get myself to Fort Lauderdale where there was a deckie job going on 70 metre Amels Boadicea owned by Australian media mogul Reg Grundy. There was also a job for fellow window manufacturer Guy Watkin. I had to borrow money for the flight.
“Boadicea’s captain was Bob Peel, who is currently lost at sea somewhere in the Caribbean, with Nick as second officer. Reg was dead into his wildlife, so we immediately crossed the Atlantic to North Scotland in search of puffins – we didn’t see a single puffin. Next, he wanted red squirrels, so I piped up saying there were plenty at the Formby Red Squirrel Reserve. Barely three months after I left, we received a fanfare welcome in Birkenhead Docks, the first superyacht to have visited. I took the crew to my local pub and the boss left a four-figure tip at the Squirrel Reserve – I don’t think the people of the Wirral knew what had hit them.
“Nick moved across to 36 metre Amels Blue Attraction as captain, succeeding John and Lala Masters. He took me and Guy with him as deckies and previously mentioned mate Zander was also drafted in to the deck team – it was a real Wirral affair. In all, I would be with Blue Attraction for five years.
“Having ploughed through various courses, including Yachtmaster and Officer of the Watch, I joined 50 metre Braveheart as first officer. Zander and Guy came with. She was based in Mallorca but, having been bought by a Floridian guy, spent a lot of time in the Caribbean. We bought three diddly remote-controlled Lasers and spent two years gambling our wages and competing against the boss – anything to get out of doing any real work.
“In 2007, I was among the first batch of captains to complete the Master 3000 and had a three-day interview in Port Forum, Barcelona, to join 62 metre Amels Sarah as first officer. I passed the test. And, you guessed it, Guy and Zander came too. Although mainly cruising the Med, we did a stint in Saudi Arabia and I always joke it was the worst three months of my career due to the ban on booze.
“Back in Barcelona, I was sipping a cup of tea on the wing station when the skipper of 42 metre Heesen Life Saga next door asked me if I was looking for a captain’s job as he was about to quit. She’d been parked next to us for two months and I’d never really given her much thought. The exterior was pretty inconspicuous but, after a dramatic 11 million euro refit, the interior was phenomenal. A day later I packed my bag and jumped across. It was the easiest transition ever, my first captain’s position and I didn’t even have to meet the boss.
“The first time I moved Life Saga was a short journey to MB92 shipyard for her five-year survey. As problems were exposed, I was giving the owner bad news from day one. He asked that I came to Moscow pronto. I missed the only daily direct flight from Barcelona, so arrived a day late. His receptionists greeted me sucking wind through their teeth, so I was the guy who had the audacity to turn up 24 hours late for a meeting with their wealthy ex-boxer boss. I was shown to his office where he confronted me in a bearskin coat and fur hat, wielding a two metre sword. I sensed trouble. He reassured me he was off to a fancy dress party that night and was just trying the outfit for size. We got drunk that night, so drunk that my hangover prevented me from meeting him the next day, so we finally had a proper meeting the day after. By and large, we’ve got on like a house on fire ever since.
“The boss has houses and cars in various locations in Europe, and for six or seven years we followed the same routine chasing the sun from South of France down to Sardinia and Malta. He’s on board for five months solid each year and every day is different, speed boating, surfing, and going ashore for dinner, although there are no remote-control Lasers which is a shame. In 2012, we sailed to Holland where I oversaw another massive interior refit and then back to the Med via Estonia, Sweden and the Norwegian Fjords. The boss didn’t join us for this one, the weather was foul.
“With more metreage of boat than Roman Abramovich – including multiple tenders, day boats, 49 metre shadow marine vessel Mystere Shadow and 28 metre Heesen sister ship Heartbeat of Life – a Mallorca-based management company pitched to look after the entire fleet. This pitch coincided with me borrowing the owner’s convertible BMW for a week, on the proviso that I wouldn’t ask for a pay rise for an entire year. Then, completely out of the blue, the boss decided he didn’t need a management company, and announced that I was his new fleet captain. I was gobsmacked. I instantly had three times the workload and asked for a commensurate salary. He refused, a deal’s a deal. A year to the day, we agreed a new rate of pay over a handshake. The boss likes to wind me up, and me him, it’s one of the reasons our relationship is so solid.
“From day dot, there had always been talk of a Life Saga II. In 2013-14 this talk got more serious and a global search got underway. It was Alex Banning from SuperYachtsMonaco who understood the brief best and he joined the team to build a 65 metre at Admiral Yachts, the flagship brand of The Italian Sea Group in Marina di Carrara. Not only was the shipbuilder competitively priced, but they also agreed to customise any aspect of the general arrangement of the boat. The keel was laid in 2015, and she was delivered in September last year.
“The other landmark event in 2015 was meeting my fiancée Marian. The fleet has a family office in Estonia and Marian looks after his non-profit-making assets from there. Until then, she’d never set foot on a superyacht, so when she came on board and we met in the wheelhouse there was an immediate connection. Marian is now the boss’s PA and follows him wherever he goes, so that means she’s with us on the boat most of the summer. She actually prefers not to stay on board, but it’s good for me and good for the boss. If this summer season is a total coronavirus write-off, then we will start to plan the wedding.
“So, having made our world debut at Monaco Yacht Show last September, Life Saga II cruised Malta and Turkey in beautiful late autumn sunshine, before returning to Carrara in December for a warranty period. Now, thanks to COVID-19, winter is completely wrecked. We could see it coming, so locked down a fortnight before the official state of alarm and, as Life Saga II is a new boat, we are prohibited from carrying out any maintenance work. No crew member has left the boat, armed guards protect the marina, and we get food delivered – in such quantity that we have to pump fuel across to the starboard side to level it up. The good news is I am getting much better at darts.
“Aside from those weeks in Saudi, I have loved every minute of my career. I am so glad that I stumbled across superyachting – my school careers officer never mentioned it, that’s for sure. I do think the boss has an 80 metre in him, it’s pure speculation, but if Life Saga III appears, I would be honoured to continue the journey with him. It would also be nice to sail a little more. I have a house in the Welsh seaside resort of Abersoch that I have used for about 12 weeks in six years, and I would like a sailing boat there one day. I won’t get competitive again – unless of course I start winning.”
By Sarah Forge firstname.lastname@example.org