Born in Barmouth, Snowdonia’s most popular seaside resort, Sam’s family has saltwater running through its veins. Grandfather was in the merchant navy and a long-time coxswain of Barmouth lifeboat, earning himself a British Empire Medal for meritorious service to the RNLI. Father, a retired art teacher, also volunteered for the lifeboats, operated the Barmouth Ferry across the River Mawddach and ran a windsurfing and surf school on the beach – the same beach he was instrumental in earning a Blue Flag for as a town councillor. Meanwhile, Sam’s mother was an ironman fanatic and surfing professional who vied for the world championships.
“I loved every minute of my childhood,” said Sam. “We had Snowdonia National Park, the river and the beach as our playground and my younger brother and I had the freedom to go out all day as long as we were back for dinner. We’d throw on second-hand camo gear and build treehouses ‘til it got dark.”
“My parents’ surf connections also paid dividends. The day school broke up, we’d hotfoot it to the French surfing mecca of Hossegor, just north of Biarritz, and live in a motor home all summer until the eve of autumn term. We’d hang out in the stands at the annual Rip Curl Pro surf competition, literally rubbing shoulders with legends such as Kelly Slater and Wales’ own Carwyn Williams, who is a family friend. Living the dream.”
A Levels underway, Sam applied for university as well as attending the Admiralty Interview Board (AIB) – part of the officer selection process for the Royal Navy. He got offers for both but, with only a limited number of cadets accepted for officer training each year, he couldn’t turn the Navy down and went straight to work.
“As an 18 year old who’d never lived away from home, Dartmouth’s Britannia Royal Naval College made a lasting impression. We de-bussed in our civvies and were immediately taught how to iron. It was up at 6am for PT, followed by 20 minutes to eat breakfast and get changed – even now I scoff my food in ten seconds flat. Mid-term I did a six-week stint on aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious, long-since sent to a Turkish scrap yard, as the lowest person onboard doing polishing, painting and ropework. It was quite the baptism of fire.”
Having passed the first year of basic officer training, Sam went off to do 12 months of ‘fleet time’, split between type 22 frigate HMS Cornwall (sold to Swansea Drydocks for demolition in 2013) and Hunt-class mine countermeasures vessel HMS Middleton. At ‘fleet board’, the captains of these ships deemed Sam to be worthy of becoming a Royal Navy officer and his time as a cadet was over
“All my counterparts joined their first ship, but I decided to specialise as a submariner. Someone said ‘it’s more difficult, more challenging, and more rewarding’ and I was sold. So I embarked on another six-month training programme, including the all-important art of underwater navigation AKA black magic. I made the grade and was sent to the Royal Navy’s newest sub, HMS Astute, still in build at BAE’s submarine facility in Barrow-in-Furness.”
Sam was given the role of ‘casing officer’ – basically responsible for the exterior of the sub – but, with the HMS Astute programme fraught with delays, he was promptly reassigned to Switfsure-class submarine HMS Sceptre. (HMS Sceptre was decommissioned in 2010 after 32 years of service, in theory to be replaced by HMS Astute, although she was only declared to be fully operational in 2014, some 13 years after being laid down, but that’s another story.)
“HMS Sceptre was the Royal Navy’s oldest sub, so I went from the newest to the oldest in one fell swoop – and it was one of the best chapters of my entire Royal Naval career. As the last of the S-Class subs, it was packed with old-school crew and there was a Band of Brothers sentiment. We were the rebels, the best. After six months training I was deployed to the Mediterranean and the Gulf for the best part of a year.”
“A Royal Navy career follows a very particular path. You rarely ‘do a job’ as you’re always learning and preparing for the next. So, after HMS Sceptre, I undertook a six-month fleet navigation course. The highlight was being asked to drive Type 23 frigate HMS Monmouth at full pelt through the Solent. Avoiding little sailing boats at 24 knots is a great test of reactions and spatial awareness – I loved it. This is a theme throughout military training, being forced to the limit of your abilities, and I still get a buzz when pushed to breaking point.”
In 2010, as a newly-qualified Navigation Officer, Sam joined HMS Victorious, an enormous 150 metre 16,000 ton ballistic missile submarine (SSBN).
“With a Rolls-Royce nuclear reactor and 16 Trident II D5 nuclear missiles, each of the Navy’s four SSBNs has more fire power on board than was used in the whole of World War Two – and they let me drive it age 24. As navigator, I was responsible for HMS Victorious’ pilotage and I went on nuclear deterrent patrols for almost two years.”
“Since the 1960s, there has always been a British SSBN at sea – and the location will always be classified information. We spent over 100 days underwater at any one time and were constantly at 15 minutes’ notice to give up our payload – not that we ever did of course; we might not be sitting here today if we had. The thought of using such weaponry scared me as much as my colleagues, but it’s important that the Royal Navy has this firepower hidden around the world.”
Keen to see daylight, Sam moved land-based for his final job in the Royal Navy, deputy special operations officer at NATO Allied Maritime Command, Northwood – in a bunker. If you’ve ever watched 2015 British thriller Eye in the Sky, starring Helen Mirren, you’ll have an idea what Northwood is like. And, having spent all those years working in a sub, to be sent underground once more helped confirm Sam’s decision to leave the Royal Navy.
“I’d met my partner, JP, in Manchester in 2010 and swiftly joined HMS Victorious, going offline for months on end. When you’re underwater, you can’t transmit or you’ll be detected and give away your position. This enforced silence tested and strengthened our relationship, so JP moved to London with me for the special ops job.”
“By then, I’d been toying with the idea of leaving for a while. The Navy was shrinking, budgets were being cut and, at my lowest morale at the lowest point of the ocean, I would flick through copies of Boat International and Superyacht World and wonder at the glamorous lifestyle. JP always spoke about living and working abroad and the importance of doing it young and not in retirement. So, in 2014, age 28 after ten years’ service, I swapped submarines for sunshine.”
Neither JP nor Sam had been to Mallorca but, in weighing up the dream of sunshine, beaches, palm trees and lifestyle, Palma won. They packed two cases, booked one night’s AirBnB, scooped up dog Toby and flew to Mallorca. Within two weeks they were both in gainful employment.
“I tried half an hour of dockwalking in Ibiza and hated it. As a captain now, I can totally see the benefit of the process for a young school leaver; it allows you to meet your peers, toughens you up to rejection and teaches you to be competitive. But, for a long-in-the-tooth ex-submariner it was an annoyance. Thankfully, I’d registered with all the agencies and got a call from Sally at Döhle Yacht Crew. In general, agents aren’t good at spotting the transferrable skills between military and commercial, but Sally had good insight and matched me to RoMa captained by Janusz Walinski.”
Sam jumped onboard the 62 metre motoryacht in October and spent the winter in the shipyard reliving his first year of basic officer training by polishing, painting and generally being the junior. He learned a lot, supported by a captain who wanted his crew to grow and further their careers. Sadly, for family reasons, Sam had to leave after just four months.
“I wanted to stay longer, but had to have time off. When I returned, I got my first captain job on 17 metre Ferretti El Bueno based in St Tropez. Working for members of the Royal Yacht Squadron, I got to fly the White Ensign of the Royal Navy again – it was magical. We cruised Corsica, Sardinia, places I was familiar with, but only from beneath. It was incredible to finally see them from above, complete with daylight and sunshine. And, with a love of engineering, I often lent a hand to the engineer – probably to his annoyance.”
El Bueno was a seasonal cruiser and, although Sam was invited to come back in summer 2016, he was offered captain on a larger boat – 21 metre Princess Minkie. It was a South African family’s first boat and they quickly upgraded to Princess 82 La Vie, with Sam once more at the helm.
“Having attended the MYBA Charter Show in Barcelona in spring, we spent a brilliant summer chartering throughout the Balearics. Many captains would disagree with me, but I love chartering. You constantly meet new families from a wide spectrum of society and see the results of your work every week through happy smiley customers. In the Royal Navy, we would spend three months working on a plan and then the Government would say ‘scrap that, we’re not doing it anymore’. Charter is far more satisfying.”
As summer drew to a close, Sam received a call to become captain on 120ft custom-built Palmer Johnson Ascari – it was impossible to turn down.
“While La Vie’s owners had said they wanted a bigger boat, in this industry you’re never quite certain if it’s true or not, so I seized the Ascari offer. I’d had this boat in my sights, it looks like a mini warship so really appealed to me, and we spent summer 2018 chartering in the Balearics – in particular Ibiza which suits Ascari perfectly. Ironically, the South Africans did swap La Vie for a 108ft Benetti, but I don’t regret the decision.”
As 2018 drew to a close, Sam realised he wanted his first time off in 14 years. He did an end-of-season handover to a new captain and promptly got married to JP at the imposing grade I listed hotel Crewe Hall in Cheshire on 5 October. With JP bringing in the centimos at Aigua Sea School, Sam eyed six months of ‘relax’. Then the phone rang.
“At the end of November, Bluewater called to say they had an in-build 110ft Riva Dolcevita for me – Elysium. Although I’d had my heart set on a 45 to 50 metre captaincy, this was the Italian yard’s flagship, the largest yacht they’d built in GRP, and it would be the Bentley of superyachts – so I said ‘yes’. Owned by a Swedish family, the idea is to be ready for May’s Monaco Grand Prix and tour the western Mediterranean. I’ve already started recruiting my crew, including a deckhand who is, serendipitously, the son of a previous captain on HMS Astute.”
Sam and JP have hedged their bets and made a pre-Brexit property investment in Cheshire, with the plan to stay connected to their beloved Palma.
“I can’t remember this but, apparently, at primary school I would boss all the kids around and my teacher said ‘he’ll be a captain one day’. So, I guess I have found my destiny. And, perhaps one day people will finally stop singing ‘Yellow Submarine’ at me.”
By Sarah Forge, firstname.lastname@example.org