Born in 1974, Dominique was brought up in a multilingual French-English-Dutch household in a village towards the north of Flanders. His father was a businessman, his mother a pastry chef and, while other children were given a Mars bar for an after-school snack, Dominique and his three siblings feasted on fruit tartlets and choux buns.
Dominique continues his story: “My grandfather had a 43-foot boat, at the time that was huge – believe me. It was him who taught me how to tie my first knot. When I was eight or nine years old, we went to Deauville marina in France for the school holidays. I was messing about on the tender, wearing my little captain’s hat from the local market, and some kind passers-by indulged my caricature and yelled, ‘Hey captain, can you take us to the other side of the harbour?’. I expertly ferried them across and they popped a few coins in the palm of my hand in return. You could say this was my first paid charter. The light bulb went on and I made a fair bit of pocket money that holiday.
“As I grew older, the family were keen for me to follow in my father’s footsteps, so I studied for a Bachelor in Business Administration. With six languages, I was a shoo-in for many sales and marketing jobs and went on to work in Belgium, Amsterdam, Greece and Spain. By 1999, I was flogging timeshare at Marriott Vacation Club on the Costa del Sol. One day, a sweet Granny popped into the office accompanied by her sons asking me to kindly explain what I had recently sold to her – she really wasn’t sure. There and then I vowed to never push people into buying something from me ever again. I decided to stop all this bullshit and start my own path in life.
“Playing ping-pong with a bunch of friends, I got chatting to Jennifer Caroline Maul. Jenny was captain of a 20-metre Jongert based in Marbella, pretty remarkable for a female in those days, made even more remarkable by virtue of the fact she was only 19 years old. Jenny had been let down by her deckhand and asked me if I knew how to sail. My first reaction was, ‘you can get money for sailing?!’. It never crossed my mind that you could make a career out of such a pleasant pastime. Naturally, I said yes.
“I stepped onboard with my bag and we set sail. It was time to call my Dutch manager at the Marriott. I beckoned him to the office window where he spotted me on the deck of a sailing boat. I confessed I was off and wouldn’t be coming back. ‘Good for you Dominique,’ he replied, ‘this is beautiful, go for it’. He paid every peseta of my commission, for which I was very grateful.
“We sailed the Spanish mainland, Balearics and France, plus a handful of regattas, and I learned the job of deckhand inside out. The mutual friend who’d introduced us over ping-pong, Julie, joined us as stewardess. After five months, the season was over and we returned to Marbella. As Jenny knew all the captains and marineros, and I had a strong head for business, we decided to join forces and create a yacht charter company.
“We scoured the coastline from Málaga to Gibraltar to sign-up every boat we could find with a charter licence. Our first subscriber was a lawyer with a small waterski boat and, from those humble beginnings, we ended up with 50 boats across the Costa del Sol. Treating each customer with the same care and respect, we earned a strong reputation and rented boats to everyone from Saudi’s King Fahd to Mariah Carey. Golden times.
“Concurrently, we helped set up Foundation for Information and Research on Marine Mammals – firmmÒ – working from Tarifa at the tip of the Iberian Peninsula. Together, we took guests on whale and dolphin watching excursions in the Strait of Gibraltar and gave lectures on marine mammals and conservation to more than 20,000 students.
“Come 2007, the atmosphere had changed. Certain undesirable types became increasingly attracted to the Costa del Sol: Brits who wanted crates of free booze for stag parties and Russians who wanted girls as part of the charter package. Our audience was evolving into something we no longer liked, so we gave up that winter – just the right time as it happened, before the financial crisis.
“I ended up skippering a 60-foot catamaran in the Caribbean for a few months but, before I left Marbella, I saw an article about Class Afloat in a magazine. Founded in Nova Scotia in 1984, Class Afloat is exactly as the name suggests, an academic programme for 16 to 19 year olds on board a majestic tall ship sailing the world’s oceans. I sent them my CV – not once but many times – but they never replied. I kept the magazine, and the concept always lingered at the back of my mind.
“So, I sailed the Caribbean and Brazil for two or three years, moving from the catamaran to a trimaran, all the time getting involved in projects related to marine mammals. I came to a realisation that I wanted to sail big ships. The yacht charter company who wanted to offer me work, Sailing Classics, said I would need a commercial shipping qualification to sail larger passenger sailing vessels. There followed three consecutive winters studying with the Merchant Navy in Holland to get the big unlimited tickets, while captaining a 40-metre sailing yacht in between.
“One of those Dutch winters, I nipped to a diving trade fair in Amsterdam and met the owner of Buddy Dive in the Galápagos. Over general chit-chat, he confessed that operations were currently rather disastrous. He was concerned that the Ecuadorians were ripping him off and found the strict maritime law and environment regulations challenging to say the least. He needed help. Ideally, they needed someone who spoke Dutch, English and Spanish, was a qualified diver, and a yacht captain. ‘That’s me!’ I retorted. ‘You’re hired!’ came the reply. My girlfriend at the time was a marine biologist and oceanographer, of course she said we should go – so we went.
“My job description was operations manager for two 40-metre liveaboard dive yachts. Each slept up to 16 guests and 12 crew, with guests paying around 5,000USD a week for the pleasure of diving among big and rare marine life. I got deep into maritime protocol, MARPOL, marine park regulations and so on, and pretty much ran the company for a year. This makes me one of very few people in the world who have lived officially in Galápagos for one year. Normally, the islands are somewhat closed off, they want people to come for a month or two and then scarper.
“Once my time there was up, I was immediately offered a job on an atoll in French Polynesia. Not wanting to go from one remote Robinson Crusoe existence to another, the answer was a resounding ‘no’. Instead, the first thing I did was catch a plane to NYC for a dose of fashion, food and civilisation- a bit like Mick Dundee. Actually, I hated it, and cut the ten-day trip short to head back to Europe and the familiarity of Sailing Classics.
“A call came in from a former captain of mine: ‘there’s a first officer job going with some American thing for kids, Float Boat or something, a 70-metre tall ship sailing round the world – are you interested?’. Of course it was the Canadian ‘thing’, Class Afloat. They never did acknowledge the CV I sent three years prior, but somehow the universe had transpired to get me in by the back door and, in October 2014, I joined as first officer.
“Class Afloat is for privileged kids whose parents think it would be a great experience for them to be educated at sea for nine months and travel the world. These parents are not wrong. On board there’d be 60 students, ten crew, seven teaching staff, one medical officer, and everyone would be involved in the operation of the ship – they had to be, it took 20 people to set the mainsail alone. The youngsters would rotate between watch, working in the galley, studying in the classroom, performing maintenance duties, hoisting sails, and learning navigational skills, and you’d literally watch them change and blossom before your very eyes.
“After two years as first officer, in the Columbian port of Cartagena, the owner took me on one side and divulged he wanted me to be captain. Seeing my dumfounded reaction, he reminded me I’d sailed 50-metre yachts no problem, a 70-metre Tall ship was basically the same thing and, if I stayed on as first officer, I’d only have to explain everything to the new captain anyway, so I may as well do it myself.
“So, age 40, I found myself captain of Sail Training Vessel Gulden Leeuw, a three-mast top-sail schooner, and one of the larger sailing vessels in the world. I sailed her for five years.
“Each season we had a new itinerary, covering perhaps 15 countries in nine months. A passage between say Cape Town and Barbados would mean weeks and weeks at sea, with just a few days in port before moving on. I clocked up thousands of nautical miles. We were four captains on rotation and for sure you needed the rest. It’s an intense close-quarters experience and after six to eight weeks you’re done, ready for a recharge.
“During the ‘recharge’, I would go back to Sailing Classics. With one 40-metre and two 56-metres, the business was getting larger and more unwieldy. They were keen to have my involvement as a consultant, helping with training, procedures, project management for refit and repair, and also as a freelance captain. Time off from Class Afloat became as hectic as time on.
“I took a look at myself in the mirror. I was stressed, overweight and grey. All I was doing was working. Even though I loved it, I did nothing but work. Since the day I stepped on that Jongert in 1999, I felt like I’d already lived the dream, so within two or three months I gave it all up. It was a great decision.
“Every time I finished something, I kept coming back to Mallorca. So, in 2017, I bought a ripe-for-renovation country house. I already knew how to do painting, electricity, plumbing, and set to work. For the bits I couldn’t do, I invited engineer mates and their families to take a free holiday in the Tramuntana in return for some hard graft. It was like a shipyard, but without the pressure of a deadline. In three years it was done. The bank account was bare and I needed to earn some money.
“Since winter 2019-20, I now spend two months each year in the Arctic as captain of Rembrandt van Rijn, a 50-metre three-masted passenger sailing schooner that takes people on once-in-a-lifetime trips to see whales and the magical aurora borealis. With only four hours of light per day, it’s highly professional work and, as a result, rather well paid. I wouldn’t say it’s fun, but for sure it’s interesting – and helps keep those merchant tickets up.
“For my ‘free’ ten months, I’ve decided to do freelance captain work while starting my own company – Dive Operations Buddy. Its aim is to support those working in marine conservation through diving and expeditions by providing the submersibles, setting up the dive operation, and supplying dive professionals.
“To help me, I found two partners. The first I met at The Superyacht Forum in Amsterdam, Canadian-born LA-based Charles Kohnen, the president of leading manufacturer of small personal subs, SEAmagine. The other is Tommy, a retired Swedish fireman who had been a scuba dive instructor in the army and for the fire brigade. Charles has the submarines, Tommy has the dive knowledge and, as for me, I have the technical, operational and sales background, plus bundles of enthusiasm.
“Right now, I am working on manuals which outline clear safety standards and operational procedures for owners, captains, crew and divers to follow in order to minimise accidents and incidents. In maritime language, a sort of International Safety Maritime, or ISM, code for scuba diving operations. In my experience, there has always been a huge gap between divers and crew but, in case of emergency, they must work together and have set procedures to follow. There is barely one expedition ship out there with that kind of structure, and I have only ever seen the flimsiest of manuals – Dive Operations Buddy is plugging that hole.
“The tall ship captain who has been a guiding force in my career once said to me, in our industry you do things for three reasons: money, fun and experience. All jobs in the world need to have one element, some jobs have two – if you find one, stick to it. If you find one with all three present, call me, because I never found it. I hope with Dive Operations Buddy I finally have.
“Submersibles were a boyhood dream. I worshipped legendary deep ocean explorers such as Sylvia Earle, and now with the new platform that has been created I want to get involved in the operational side and join in the missions to protect the oceans. This is my new passion, and I can’t wait to add ‘sub pilot’ to the CV one day.”
By Sarah Forge firstname.lastname@example.org