“I was born in the mountains in high-altitude landlocked Mexico City to parents who had absolutely nothing to do with the maritime world – my father is a psychiatrist and my mother an art dealer – not very conducive to a yachting career,” begins Rafael. “I did have a little exposure to dinghy sailing on the Valle de Bravo lake when I was very young, but it wasn’t until I turned 15 that I discovered my real water-based passion – diving. I was the kind of kid who wouldn’t miss an episode of The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, and then a friend of mine took me SCUBA diving. It blew my mind, I fell in love instantly.
Through a series of fortunate circumstances, Rafael finished high school a year early and became a dive instructor at the tender age of 18 – he grasped the opportunity to go diving. Rafael tried commercial diving, but hated it, so left Mexico City for the Caribbean island of Cozumel.
“Back then, there were hardly any cruise ships disgorging thousands of passengers and Cozumel was all about the diving – it was sublime. I had always performed well in science and already enrolled for medical school at university in Mexico City, but I was having way too much fun in Cozumel. I told my family and they were not best pleased. I ended up staying four years on the island, living a healthy innocent lifestyle and being paid pretty much
‘survival money’. But it’s not just about the money – in fact, it hardly ever is.”
Rafael started underwater videography and photography alongside his dive instruction and something clicked (no pun intended). Given his mother’s career, he’d grown up exposed to plenty of art but had never considered himself a creative person, until he realised he could capture great images without trying too hard. Rafael started learning photography in a more serious manner and acquiring equipment.
“I left Cozumel to open an underwater photography and video business in Belize. It was completely unsuccessful. I had a hard time with local mafia and corruption, none of which I had anticipated, and within three months I’d folded – losing what little money I had in the process.”
“I’d grown very close to the guys I worked for in Cozumel, ‘my family away from home’, and they pointed me in the direction of the Revillagigedo Islands in the Pacific, some 220 nautical miles southwest of Cabo San Lucas. They told me it was the greatest dive location in Mexico, but still fairly unknown and largely untouched with no airport, no hotels, just a small military base on Socorro and Clarion Islands – it took up to 30 hours to arrive by live-aboard boat.”
“At the time there was just one live-aboard operating regularly in the area, 112ft motorboat Solmar V, and every dive master in Cabo San Lucas wanted to work on it. I rolled up to Cabo with my dive gear, video editing equipment and the cocky confidence afforded by youth, and told the boat owner I could offer a service they didn’t have but surely needed – a photography professional who could also produce a video of each ten-day experience for guests to take away. A month after arriving in Cabo I had my first trip on that prized boat – then did every trip for the next two years.”
Solmar V was highly commercial, it operated 40 trips per year with just one day for changeover. There was one crew cabin for nine crew members – Rafael bagged the cabin for one night on his first trip and then never saw it again; two years of sleeping on deck followed. It was exhausting work, but incredibly rewarding, and allowed him to squeeze in plenty of fun stuff, including shooting the occasional documentary for the likes of the BBC.
Instead of searching for his next job, it searched for him. “While in Socorro, the owners of sail boats would regularly visit Solmar V asking for water, ice, and so on. They typically cruised on smallish 30-odd foot cruisers and, as a large well-stocked vessel, we were always happy to help. One day, we had visitors asking for advice on dive sites and I assumed they ‘belonged’ to the little cruisers. When I took the dinghy across to share some local knowledge, I realised I was mistaken and instead arrived at a beautifully clean shiny impressive 105ft Ron Holland luxury sailing yacht called Iemanja. They were picking my brains because none other than the President of Mexico was soon to arrive for a diving trip.”
Simultaneously, Solmar V was also preparing for special guests. The crew had just collected a one-man submarine that could reach deep into ocean trenches, ready for a National Geographic team that included underwater photographer and filmmaker Norbert Wu. Norbert was lined up to shoot the documentary and do the still photography. After one day’s diving, it became clear that he didn’t have the time to do both, so Rafael showed his portfolio and the producer took him on. Rafael had one photo published in National Geographic magazine and will forever be proud of this claim to fame.
“Sadly, my National Geographic career came to an abrupt halt when the captain of Iemanja rolled up, a large warship silhouetted in the ocean behind him. He asked my boss if I could be ‘borrowed’ for a few days as a dive guide. With project National Geographic underway, of course my boss said ‘no’. The question was rephrased, would I please act as a guide for the President of Mexico or Solmar V would be asked to leave the area for ‘security reasons’. Inevitably I ended up taking the President diving – my second claim to fame.”
Solmar V continued its usual itinerary leaving Rafael ‘stranded’ on Iemanja. The captain kindly offered to sail him back to Cabo San Lucas but, given the ridiculously long journey time, suggested he stay onboard for a period and make himself useful as deckhand. Rafael stayed onboard for nine years.
“I already had some nautical training. At the time, PADI wasn’t popular in Mexico, so I did my diving qualification through the naval academy in Veracruz. The course curriculum included sailing a boat, plotting a course, reading a chart and so on – so I was well familiar with basic nautical concepts and skills. I rapidly recognised the need to do my yachtmaster, so achieved that within one year of joining Iemanja.”
Rafael was happy with his progress until he got chatting to the crew of converted 78m tug boat Lone Ranger at a BBQ in the Cayman Islands. ‘When are you starting your Class 4?’ they asked. Rafael responded that he was more than content with yachtmaster. Thankfully, they encouraged Rafael not to be so daft and to get his act together and study for the Class 4 to make his job easier. By the end of 2000, Rafael completed this next rung of the training ladder and Iemanja’s captain resigned leaving him to look after the ‘baby’.
Having sailed Iemanja throughout the Mediterranean, Caribbean and Western Pacific – publishing a book and shooting a documentary on the Sea of Cortez for a Mexican TV channel along the way – Rafael felt he wanted the experience of captaining a motoryacht.
“In 2006, it was time to say a fond farewell to Iemanja and I took on 116ft Azimut Mi Vida. It was a Med-based charter boat, a very different experience for me, but one that only lasted a year as the boat was sold to a new owner. The huge payoff was I met my now-wife, Vicki Melhuish, also a yacht captain. I first encountered her in Capri, but was too shy and didn’t really speak with her. We caught up again in Viareggio and that’s when our romance began. At the time Vicki was working on a 50m Codecasa before captaining a 60m Feadship. Considering she stopped captaining a decade ago, her career was undoubtedly more stellar than mine.”
Followed 18 months on 48m Feadship Audacia, during which time Vicki and Rafael married, and then the spectacular global financial crisis of 2008-9 which forced Rafael to enter an unintentional chapter of employment.
“There were no jobs around at the start of 2009, so I ended up supervising the last stages of construction of 105ft Azimut Amica in Viareggio, before working with a management company as an ‘SOS captain’. I took on the boats that no one else would touch. Boats with mutinous crew, broken equipment and complicated legal situations. I would spend a few months getting things back on track and then move to my next trial by fire. It kept me employed, I was very grateful for it, and I learnt a lot. It also led me to my next stable position.”
Rafael was called to a rather strange job, a 145ft boat with a 70ft hole in the bottom that needed fixing up for subsequent sale. He patched it up, took on new crew and invited the owner for a quick spin. Impressed by the niceties, the polite ‘pleases’ and ‘thank yous’, Rafael inadvertently turned the owner’s opinion on a 180 and he decided to stay in yachting after all, asking him to look for a bigger boat. 50m Xilonen V was purchased and Rafael captained her for three years, with Vicki giving birth to their daughter in the South of France at the start of the role. The owner was most accommodating, allowing his wife and daughter to spend much of those three years onboard.
“Sadly, the owner got ill and was unable to use the boat. I left the yacht and he passed away shortly after. Such a shame, he was a really nice gentleman. I fell into my old routine doing SOS rescues until an old friend, a fleet manager, called asking a) how’s my French and b) could I be in Tahiti tomorrow? The answers were ‘ok’ and ‘no, but I can the day after’, and I found myself as captain-dive instructor for 42m Feadship Odyssey.”
“Yes, it was a smaller yacht than I perhaps wanted, but French Polynesia was super exciting for diving and that appealed. Unbeknown to me, the previous captain had just left, having told neither the management company nor the crew he was doing so, and Odyssey quickly had all the signs of being a really bad job. It turned out to be one of the best jobs I ever had. The owners were very kind and gentle, again allowing my wife and daughter to be onboard often – in fact, between Xilonen V and Odyssey, I think our little girl went through the Panama Canal seven times before the age of three. I was recruited on Odyssey for three months, stayed for two years, and would have stayed indefinitely had the owner not sold up in June 2014, forcing my departure.”
Rafael reverted to deliveries and his legendary SOS jobs, including an out-of-class 56m Oceanco that needed returning to compliance and a 61m CRN that was entering the charter market for the first time and needed Rafael’s commercial experience. Then, in 2015, came the role that would bring Rafael’s story to the present day – 72m CRN Azteca.
“I’d known Azteca’s captain socially for years and, as further coincidence, had taken her owner diving some 15 years previously on Iemanja. It was fate. I have been on the boat three years this month and I love it. It’s strictly private, no charter, and we tend to do a Med season followed by a Caribbean season, with a good itinerary planned by very organised owners. I will be thrilled to stay at the helm of Azteca for as long as they’ll have me.”
Soon after Rafael joined Azteca, he decided to assuage the ‘med school dropout’ guilt he’d been harbouring for the best part of 25 years and take his nautical education as high as he could possibly go. He is now in a very (very) select group of captains who hold the elite Marshall Islands Master Unlimited certificate of competency. It allows the holder to be the captain on any size and type of yacht and is the pinnacle of his deck career – almost akin to a doctorate in maritime studies.
“For me it’s more of a personal thing,” says Rafael. “I have been doing the captain thing for 17 years, but if there is one more step… I love the boat I am on and am not leaving, but you never know when the owner might buy a bigger one – plus, it is good for insurance. But, predominantly it is to brush up on knowledge and for personal gratification.” Presumably his parents are now very proud.
Rafael’s academic endeavours have already been rewarded as he took top prize in the Master Unlimited category at the inaugural impartial ACREW Awards . Held in Nice in October this year, the Awards recognise excellence in superyacht crew and nominees are judged by their CV, references and a video interview. (sponsored by The Islander)
Undoubtedly, Rafael made mention of his latest extra-curricular endeavours in his interview, working with the ISS (International Superyacht Society) to help improve crew welfare and wellbeing – most recently in the sensitive area of suicide. Alongside a group of fellow captains and mental health professionals, Rafael is putting together guidelines on how to detect the early signs and prevent this tragedy from unfolding. A meritorious undertaking.
Rafael said he found it hard to talk about his career successes without sounding pompous. I am delighted to have had the opportunity to do it on his behalf and salute one of our industry’s finest representatives.
By Sarah Forge, email@example.com