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Home > Editorials > Captains of Ships – Steve Lenton

Captains of Ships – Steve Lenton

Born in 1966, just four months before England held the World Cup aloft, it was written in the stars that Steve Lenton was going to be a dyed-in-the-wool football fan.  His lorry driver father was a Nottingham Forest supporter, and weekends were held sacred for taking Steve and his little sister all over the country to watch them play.  There was even a momentous trip to Munich to see Forest defeat Malmö FF and claim the European Cup.  When he was old enough, he went alone.  In time, football would be both Steve’s undoing and his making. Steve’s childhood was played out on a new housing estate in Nottingham.  Built on the site of an old brickyard, he described it as ‘the biggest best adventure playground ever’.

Lucky enough to move into one of the first ten houses, Steve met every newcomer to the convivial multi-cultural community where all the kids played outside, got dirty and picked up the scabs and scrapes to prove it.

Steve left school age 16 and, having been quite handy at Home Ec, fancied himself as a chef in the Royal Navy.  The recruitment officer disagreed.  It was 1982, the Falklands War was playing out, and Steve was deemed to be too short and weedy for HM Forces.  He became a plumber instead.  Then, thanks to Thatcher’s Youth Opportunities Programme, Steve became an apprentice baker before moving to alpine-themed family-run restaurant chain Swiss Cottage.  But his dreams of being a chef were short-lived.

Steve picks up the story: “In 1980s Britain, Thatcher’s youth struggled to find their identity and found it in a hooligan sub-culture that became indelibly associated with British football.  I got arrested a few times and was always being told I was hanging out with the wrong crowd.  When Forest played Sheffield Wednesday in 1988, fans viciously clashed on the terraces and in the streets before the game and 48 of us were arrested.  Due to overwhelming evidence against me, I pleaded guilty and was told to expect 18 months to two years in prison.  I would go on to serve three months at HMP Lincoln, a reduced term on account of corrupt evidence at the hands of my interviewing officer, one DC Lenton – no relation.

“When I was released in December 1988, I’d obviously lost my job at Swiss Cottage and was given housing association accommodation in Carlton with a bunch of weird and wonderful people.  I signed on for the first time ever.  Life, and football, went on and I returned to the stands to watch Forest, including the FA Cup semi-final between us and Liverpool on 15 April 1989 at Hillsborough.

“The atmosphere around Sheffield city centre was electric.  This was a massive game for two great rival clubs and the crowds were huge.  We arrived at the ground an hour early to avoid the chaos.  From our vantage point behind the goal in the East Stand, you could clearly see something wasn’t right at the Leppings Lane end.  The Liverpool fans were crammed in, swaying around, and then the whole thing imploded before our very eyes – all hell broke loose.  Seeing the mayhem unfold and the bodies being laid out in front of the goal was a haunting sight.  It was a truly horrendous moment in my life that could have, and should have, been prevented.  The sad loss of 96 innocent lives still brings me to tears all these years on.

“Football aside, my parents had brought me up to work hard and earn money, so I made regular trips to the job centre.  One day, I saw an ad for camping, canoeing, abseiling, and at first glance thought it was some kind of sales job gimmick.  It turned out to be for the Fairbridge Drake Society, a UK charity that supported underprivileged disengaged youngsters from inner city areas by getting them to make positive changes in their lives through a programme of outdoor pursuits.

“That summer, BBC2 asked charity director David James if they could film a one-off documentary – ‘Holidays for Hooligans’ – on the charity’s 95-foot tall ship Spirit of Merseyside, a replica Mersey Bay pilot schooner built by young Merseysiders in the wake of the Toxteth riots.  The programme would feature 12 screwed up youths from around the country and I was picked to represent East Midlands.  We gathered in Applecross on the northwest coast of Scotland:  four TV crew, four supervisors and a dozen cocky arsonists, heroin addicts, burglars and football hooligans.

“It was an epic 14-day sail around the Scottish coastline to Newcastle.  There were heavy seas, force 9 gales, and everyone except for myself and David was sick.  I’d never sailed on anything anywhere in my life but, from day one, I had a strong feeling I’d done it before, like it was in my blood.  It’s hard to express, but I felt exhilarated, in my natural environment – I’d found my calling.  Apparently I turned to David and said, ‘I’ve never felt so free in my life, I want this’ and he replied ‘you can have a job’.  I didn’t believe it.  Who’d give an ex-con from Nottingham like me a job?  I went home to Carlton.

“Weeks later, David came good on his promise and sent me to Kent to apprentice for well-known barge shipwright Owen Emerson.  He took me under his wing and taught me traditional seamanship skills from rigging to splicing – an incredible experience.  I went on to work on various sailing barges, including 83-ton Wyvenhoe.  These boats were single screw, no bow thruster, and generally operated by man and boy plus dog – that’s just how it was.  We’d host corporate events, and do all the annual barge races around the southeast coast, including sailing up and down the River Thames, Tower Bridge lifting in front of us – it was fascinating.  What’s more, I was only earning 50 pounds a week but had a St Katharine Docks address.  A far cry from a housing estate in Nottingham – I couldn’t have been more proud.

“Next, I was invited back to Spirit of Merseyside as bosun.  I was almost unrecognisable from the disillusioned delinquent who’d sailed on her a year prior.  We competed in The Cutty Sark Tall Ships‘ Races, Round the Island, and did a big winter refit at McGruer of Rosneath inside the Firth of Clyde.  I acquired even more skills.

“It soon became clear that the Society was struggling, running out of money, and a chap called Richard Merriweather appeared.  An accomplished professional racing sailor, Richard was a well-to-do public school party guy with a heart of gold.  His privilege meant nothing and he saw something in my rawness and, again, took me under his wing.

“Together we concocted a plan to fundraise for the Spirit of Merseyside and managed to secure an interview on BBC Scotland.  Within days, Sir James Hann, the boss of Scottish Nuclear, got in touch and, having shown him round the boat and our crew lodge in the middle of Rosneath forest, he fell in love with what we were doing and gave the charity a six-figure sum – the boat was duly renamed Spirit of Scotland.

“It was Richard who told me to go to Palma.  He said if I wanted to work on superyachts, that’s where I needed to be.  As I am forever indebted to David James for opening that first door, Richard opened the second, and gave me named contacts to look up in Mallorca.  I took a one-way flight, strolled into the bar at Club de Mar, and told the waiter I was looking for three particular individuals.  Legendary yacht photographer Chris Moorhouse overheard the conversation and asked ‘who are you?’.  I explained I was looking for work and he took a shine to me and introduced me to a great bunch of old-school captains.  I spent the next two or three years boat bumming, learning the trade and the necessary skills to maintain these beautiful yachts.  I also completed my first Atlantic crossing, a couple of Caribbean seasons, and met my wife to be – Angie.

“In 1992, I went back to the UK to study for my Yachtmaster.  A year later, the round-the-world British Steel Challenge came to a conclusion with 20-metre Commercial Union skippered my old mate Richard Merriweather coming ninth overall.  There followed three months of corporate shindigs and I was invited to help crew, including racing Etchells and Solings at Cowes Week.  I was introduced to ocean racing legends, the likes of Sirs Chay Blyth, Robin Knox-Johnston and Peter Blake, who’d recently won the Whitbread Round the World – a phenomenal set of encounters.

“Back to Mallorca and more boat bumming.  I was picking up skills, earning enough to have fun, and had no real ambition for more.  Whilst working on Majulema with great captain and friend John Horn, Angie and I saved up enough money to get married in October 1996.  We found work on various boats – her as chef, me on deck.  Summer 1999, I took the bosun role on 60-metre motoryacht Libertad under the watchful eye of captain John Masters, then jumped to new-build 50-metre Van Lent Feadship Blue Moon.  This was the start of another special chapter in my career.

“Having left the Royal Van Lent Shipyard in Holland, we cruised to Antigua, via the Canaries, followed by the Bahamas and up the Eastern Seaboard to Savannah, Chicago and the Great Lakes of North America.  It was magnificent.  We then hopped across to in-build 46-metre Feadship Northern Light – me as first officer, Angie as chef.

“There’s such history in Feadship, the family-run shipyard dates back to 1849, and CEO Dick van Lent and his colleagues really did treat us like family.  I’ve fallen over Dick breakfasting with captains of industry at Monaco Yacht Show and he’ll always take time to shoot the breeze with me.  Such a genuine man.

“The Swedish owner of Northern Light said he’d sponsor me through my Class IV, but the captain said I couldn’t leave, so I resigned.  In 2002, I studied for my modules, conducted a few small boat charters in the Med, and then went back to Libertad for a brief stint as second officer before she was sold.  I spent the rest of that summer driving an 18-metre support RIB around Greece and Turkey at the time of the 2004 Greek Olympics

“I wanted to break into skippering.  I’d been mate or bosun for so many years, trying to crack skipper, but it just didn’t happen.  I became disillusioned with yachting and was ready for something completely different.  The owners of Angie’s yacht had a holiday home in Esporles, a 400-year-old olive mill they were meticulously restoring.  During the build, they decamped to their parents’ house in Mustique and invited us to join them as estate managers.

“Yemanjá House is one of the largest on the island and has to be seen to be believed.  Life centres on a massive ocean-view palapa giving way to infinity pools and tropical gardens.  I managed 12 staff, all Vincentians, and Angie was executive chef.  There was always a party to organise and we met them all:  Mick Jagger, Bryan Adams, Tommy Hilfiger, Bernie Madoff, to name but a few.  The logistics of provisioning high-end food was challenging to say the least.  National Marine Suppliers organised enough meat to last the season, flown by private jet from the US, and I recall nursing a two-metre kingfish wrapped in cling film from Barbados to Mustique on a six-seat plane.  Crazy times.

“When the Esporles house was ready, we switched locations to Mallorca.  Prince Felipe and his wife Letizia came to dinner one evening and I served digestifs in the Moroccan-styled olive press bar.  The plastic pourer happened to be missing on the bottle of malt I selected for Felipe, so I drenched his hand in whisky.  Like a scene in a comedy, I frantically dabbed at his wet sleeve with a towel.  It was clear I wasn’t butler material, so we handed over at the end of summer 2005 and the sea came calling once more.

“Fittingly, I found my third Van Lent Feadship, 46 metre classic Antarctica, and then, after a curious meeting in Sharm El Sheikh involving questionable interviewing techniques, I joined 37-metre Amels Blue Attraction as first officer with my good friend Mark Millward.  It was Mark who gave me the opportunity to skipper Blue Attraction from the Caribbean back to Mallorca.  We had so much fun on that boat, with a legend of an owner, and managed to maintain the same crew for four years – very special times indeed.

In 2012, I moved to 47-metre Oceanco Anna J, again as first officer.  She was sold three times in six months and, weary of the instability, I took my first real captain’s position on 28-metre Heesen Heartbeat of Life – part of a fleet of Russian-owned yachts.  This opened the door to a relief captain role on 30-metre Azimut Atmosphere owned by, would you believe it, the proprietors of the Esporles property – ‘Felipegate’ was clearly forgiven and forgotten.

“Relief duties over, 43-metre Sea Dream asked me onboard as mate to my old captain John Masters.  The idea was to train crew, get the boat seaworthy, then move on.  At the end of the season, John handed in his resignation and suggested I take over as captain, the boss was not so sure.  I offered to stay on a month-by-month basis until he’d found the right man or woman for the job.  And that’s exactly what we did – for five years.

“I have two standout memories from my time on Sea Dream.  The first was heading into Cannes.  I began to lose power and called the chief engineer who diagnosed an air leak on the controls.  With the bosun on one engine and the engineer on the other, we stayed in radio communication and navigated gingerly into the anchorage.  The boss was following us on Vessel-Finder from Gatwick, about to grab a plane to France.  ‘Captain, you seem to have slowed down’, he said.  ‘Don’t panic, take the flight’, I replied.  He arrived at 10pm with piles of luggage and I tendered guests and baggage to the boat, oblivious to the fact that I’d ripped my trouser seam front to back putting my underwear on display.  The icing on an eventful day.  The other happened two days later when the boss called me into the main saloon.  He told me he’d never seen the boat so clean, in such good condition, and acknowledged that my job hadn’t always been easy.  I was handed a little velvet pochette with a Rolex Oyster Perpetual Submariner inside.  I was deeply moved.

“By 2019, the wheels were slowly coming off.  Angie and I had divorced, a dear friend had passed away and I felt pulled in all directions by the boss, lawyers, management office and so on.  I was getting numb, my emotions had dried up, and the joy had gone.  One afternoon, the boss called me to shout about something and I broke down.  I finally resigned, he found a new captain and, after a six week handover, I stepped off Sea Dream in June 2019.  I felt an enormous sense of relief.

“I slinked in to the bar at Club de Mar and immediately felt the comfort of old friends.  The plan was to be pampered in a fancy hotel but, fat chance, they were all full, and so I ended up in a budget hostel in San Augustin for two weeks while I frantically sought an apartment.  I found it in a top-floor two-bed overlooking the sea and began to find my peace.  At first, my brain was in overdrive trying to process the last years.  I felt the urge to travel, but didn’t feel in the right head space to appreciate it, so I swam, rested, relaxed and let the momentum in my mind settle.  Then, after Christmas and New Year with my family for the first time in ten years, on 2 January 2020 I flew to Thailand.

“I envisaged a journey of enlightenment, spiritual healing, but, with the scuba diving, partying and catching up with old friends, time slipped through my fingers. I headed south to Bali to catch up with an old yachtie friend from Palma, Neil Hempsey, and gradually made my way to Ubud – the spiritual centre of Bali.  I found myself in a hotel that formed part of an old palace residence.  It had a peaceful lotus garden with a beautiful temple and I was overcome with a sensation that this was where I was supposed to be.  In a fit of ‘in for a penny in for a pound’, I parted with a few hundred euros to see a healing guru in a small village.  He led me through the most mind-blowing cleansing and purifying session that left me with a huge sense of calm – it hasn’t quite worn off yet.  By the end of February, I was back in Mallorca, invigorated and ready for my next challenge, but COVID-19 had other ideas.

“I’m 54 now and I am not quite sure how long I have left in yachting.  Yes, I would absolutely be open to working for a nice family with a 40 to 50 metre boat that winters in Palma, or perhaps a new-build Feadship, but I also have one eye on what ‘the universe’ thinks I should do next.

“I have always been passionate about my job and hold a strong belief that we should give young crew responsibility, pass down skills, watch them grow personally and professionally, and teach them how to look after and respect their fellow crew members.  Society has changed so much over the last decade that youngsters don’t seem to have the same emotional strength to handle the demands that are placed on them – and demands come from all angles in yachting.  It’s a very transient lifestyle and it’s our duty as captains to stay alert to addiction and other mental health issues among our crew.  Who knows, there could be a role for me within a charity or helping others less fortunate than myself.  As I said, my mind is open…”

Sarah Forge, hello@sarahforge.com