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Home > Editorials > Captains of Ships – Pam Griffin Gardner

Captains of Ships – Pam Griffin Gardner

Born in 1966 (They think it’s all over. It is now…) it seems rather appropriate that Pam Griffin Gardner’s first taste of the world of work was football related. Born in Liverpool, her father had a sign manufacturing business and would take Pam with him on weekend jobs. Most Saturdays they’d rise at 6am, hand-write the advertising hoardings, fill them in with a 4” brush and then paste them up at Anfield or Goodison Park in time for the match. Already a keen Liverpool supporter, Pam recalls a glimpse at the then First Division champions’ trophy room replete with 1976 Charity Shield and 1976 European Cup – quite some treat for a ten year old. Having graduated from Lancaster University with an engineering degree, Pam joined the family business as company director for a few years until she and her father parted due to ‘artistic differences’ – it was time for a career change.

“Coincidentally, my friend was also sick of her job as a police officer and, after some careers advice, was told she’d make a great medical rep,” says Pam. “She said, ‘Pam you’ve got sales experience, you could do that’, so I went to an interview and got a job as a legal drug dealer.”

This was the start of a seven-year chapter in medical sales culminating in a move to Kent to work for pharmaceutical company MSD. Pam’s then boyfriend, another Lancaster University engineering alumni, was already working down south, and eyeing his own career move into yachting.

While Pam’s boating experience was limited to a blow-up dinghy and some knot tying lessons from her ex-Royal Navy father, her boyfriend had grown up in Malawi and was already a keen sailor. After university, he introduced her to dinghy sailing on Ullswater and they decided to do proper lessons on the Solent where Pam earned her Competent Crew and Day Skipper. In 1996, they clubbed together to buy their own boat.

“I was a 29ft Beneteau called Ermintrude and remember it cost 22,500 pounds – we moored it in Dover. We would spend our weekends sailing to Ramsgate, Rye, Calais and Boulogne. The Dover Strait is said to be the busiest shipping lane in the world with around 600 ships passing through each day. Add fog, wind and sandbanks and I’ve always said if you can sail there, you can sail anywhere.”

Pam’s boyfriend decided they should make a living out of sailing, get a bigger boat and put it on charter. The Caribbean was already saturated but Thailand seemed to be an up-and-coming charter destination so, a year later in 1997, they flew with two dogs and two cats to Durban where their wreck of a 60ft charter boat awaited refit.

After a six-month refit on a shoestring budget, putting their engineering talents to good use, the couple advertised on CrewSeekers to find help for each leg of the delivery from Durban to the Comoros Islands across to the Seychelles, Maldives and finally Phuket. Of course, the dogs and cats came too – although they all nearly didn’t make it.

“The sea in the Mozambique Channel was really tricky, huge waves separated by long wavelength, and somehow Daisy the Labrador went over. We’d managed to get ourselves goose winged, with the foresail and mainsail set on opposite sides, and found it hard to switch out of that position while Daisy was getting further and further away from us. Thank goodness it was daylight and somehow we got her back. But Daisy wasn’t out of the woods yet.”

At the end of their two-month journey, they arrived in Phuket and disembarked to take the ship’s papers to the port authority for inspection. Unbeknown to them, Daisy had jumped off the boat in pursuit.

“We’d enjoyed some dinner and were gone about six hours. The water was tidal and despite taking the tender into mangrove swamps, sticking up posters and offering rewards, basically we never saw Daisy again. It was just devastating – it still makes me cry 20 years on.”

The couple visited local charter agents to tout for business and for about a year they had a steady flow of clients, until one day Pamela answered a call on the VHF radio and made the ugly discovery that her boyfriend had not only been cheating on her, but ‘she’ was also on the shore awaiting collection. As a great hostess, cook, engineer and sailor, he didn’t want to lose Pam and asked if the three of them could ‘make it work’? Needless to say Pam gave him the two-fingered salute and flew back to the UK.

“It took a while for me to bounce back from the experience but, not wanting to return to medical repping, I decided to stay in yachting. Instead of earning buttons for the privilege of owning my own boat, I realised I could work for someone else for much more money. I had no real qualifications but loads of experience, so I quickly rattled through an intensive five-day Yachtmaster training course in Anglesey and got my first captain’s role on a 40ft concrete schooner based in Holyhead. It was a watershed moment, I got paid a salary for my skills.”

Pam was still registered with several crew agencies and got a call from Adrian Fisher in Antibes offering her ‘the perfect job’. It was a cook/stew/mate role on a Mallorca-based boat that was about to cross the Atlantic. Pam said a flat ‘no’, she was a captain, not a stewardess, and wanted to remain loyal to her new owner.

“It was January 2000 and the schooner was in the shipyard in Holyhead. It was a friendly environment with a nice bunch of people. They looked at me aghast – ‘warm Mediterranean?’ ‘three times your salary?’ I had a eureka moment. I called Adrian back, flew to London to meet the Italian owners, got offered 2,000 dollars on the spot to cover my travel expenses and picked up the keys to 22 metre Jongert Evening Star moored in Club de Mar.”

The owners were a little tricky and didn’t inspire too much loyalty, so they got through two captains in two months. Moored on the next quay was 33 metre Codecasa My Way captained by the charming Norman Griffin – who Pam began dating. Norman tipped Pam off that his chief stew was leaving and that he also needed a first mate for insurance purposes. Pam handed in her notice and, whilst anchored offshore in Antibes, Norman romantically collected her by tender and she joined My Way. As Norman was 23 years older than Pam, the German owners were pleasantly surprised to see a bright young thing turn up to work and she was thrown straight in the deep end with a busy Med charter season followed by an Atlantic crossing to the Caribbean.

“Sadly, two things put a temporary halt to both our careers. Firstly, this was a period of great change in marine laws relating to safety and training and, without the correct formal qualifications to match the flag state, Norman had to resign. Also, my mother died in January 2001. We left My Way and studied for our Class 4 and STCW, fitting in odds and sods of work around the edges. We both qualified in February 2002, with me being one of the first women to ever pass the Class 4. It was time to find our next role.”


The captain of Al Mirqab moored in Club de Mar was aware of positions available on the 72ft Hatteras Qatar moored in front. He headhunted Pam and Norman on the Qatari owner’s behalf and both were offered full-time contracts – Norman as captain and Pam as the more agile deckhand-stewardess.

“Despite both being Class 4 qualified working on a dinky 72 footer, we were perfectly happy with Qatar until something larger cropped up. We did a summer season followed by a small winter refit then, without warning, the owner announced he was buying another boat. He asked us to go and see it in Italy. The timing wasn’t overly good. Norman had fallen on Qatar, broken a vertebra and was in a spinal support cage, but we flew to Italy and kitted out the new Azimut 80 with everything from bedding to canteens of cutlery, saucepans to ironing boards, and then delivered Qatar II back to Mallorca.”

The owner ran Qatar and Qatar II together for a couple of seasons, using the smaller as a floating hotel and the larger for cruising. They toured around the usual destinations, South of France, Sardinia, until one day the owner realised that Qatar II’s galley wasn’t just a bar, it was in fact the boat’s only kitchen and, having seen the size of the oven, announced they ‘needed a bigger boat’.

An Azimut 105 was commissioned in 2006, with Pam and Norman involved from the start to offer valued opinions and help spec the boat – including the all-important oven. The original Qatar was shipped to Doha and Qatar II v1 was part-exchanged for Qatar II v2 – she was launched in 2007 and they delivered her back to Mallorca. The island was super busy and it was hard to find space to moor her. They were in Pantalán del Mediterraneo for a while then decamped to Alcudia as it was ‘full’ down south. In 2009, a berth came up in Puerto Portals and Qatar II has been there ever since.

“In 2011, Norman started suffering with pain. He was 68 and thought it was his hip so dosed up on painkillers to get him through the season. As a captain, you tend to put the boss and boat first and hide any personal issues. In September, he saw the doctor who diagnosed a spinal tumour that had metastasised to the bones. It was too late, Norman was given three months to live.”

Due to a high age-related premium, Norman had cancelled his medical insurance three months prior and, as a non-resident, was ineligible for free treatment in Spain. Qatar II’s warm-hearted owner stepped in to pay whatever it took to get Norman better, whilst keeping him on full salary.

“I had the same qualifications as Norman and knew the boat like the back of my hand so persuaded the owner to let me take over. I had a great deckhand and stew and called on Norman for advice. I juggled the boat and Norman’s health until, after a rollercoaster of diagnoses, things took a rapid nosedive and we lost him on 3 July 2012.”

Understandably, Pam didn’t work the first part of the 2012 Mediterranean season and a temporary captain took over. For the second part, she was still grieving but had a mortgage to pay and was ready to get back on the bike.

“The boat had been a big distraction, a big focus in my life, and I was lost without it. I came back to assist the temporary captain but we didn’t get on too well. I wanted the owner to trust me to captain the boat, after all I was more than qualified, but, as a woman, I was advised it was unlikely to happen. So from that day forward I’ve accepted my position as manager of the boat, working alongside a temporary captain each season. He has none of the hassle of berth bookings, accounts or HR, and just gets on with driving the boat while I handle the rest. We have mutual respect and it works well.”

Pam’s private life is also working out rather nicely. She has settled into a new relationship and shares a house with him and several rescue cats who seem to think Pam has ‘mug’ written on her forehead and drop their newborns on her doorstep. She’s also taken up golf, entering her first Pinmar Golf Tournament last year. Pam became president of Classic Car Club Mallorca in May (she drives an AC Cobra) and has entered the Oris Classic Rally twice.

“As for yachting, after 20-odd years afloat I think my days of going to sea are numbered. The industry is very different now. It used to be laidback, free and easy, but now things are very structured – and rightly so. In a few years I’d like to physically step away from the boat, manage it remotely, and perhaps help the owner with some of his land-based projects in Mallorca. Let’s see. I am happy and healthy and ready for whichever path life takes me.”


Sarah Forge, sarah@purplecakefactory.com