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Home > Editorials > Captains Of Ships – Stewart McDonald

Captains Of Ships – Stewart McDonald

Stewart has his Scottish parents to thank for a contented childhood spent in the Inner West of Sydney.  Around 43 years ago, his Mum’s best friend made a career move from Scotland to Australia and quickly sent news that there was work enough for everyone – the McDonalds soon followed.  A few years later, they had identical twin sons – Ewan and Stewart – and Bonnie Scotland faded to just a memory.

“My father, a salesman in the dairy industry, was prone to seasickness, so it certainly wasn’t him who got me into sailing,” begins Stewart.  “Instead, my friend’s Dad had a wooden trailer sailer and we raced around Sydney Harbour a few times a week.  Ewan wasn’t inspired, but I became obsessed.  I read marine engineering manuals, books on celestial navigation, tonnes on seamanship, and I got my Yachtmaster.  I did deliveries anywhere I could from the East Coast to the South Pacific, but it remained a hobby as my construction career took over.”

“As a teen, our next-door neighbour would let me loose on his power tools.  Despite having made it into a rather good selective school, my academic interest was limited – but I loved building.  From 15, I was working on construction sites, and by 17 I’d left school to set up a landscape construction company with a guy called Jamie.  I then decided I wanted to be a pro snowboarder, as you do, and took a minor deviation snowboarding around Canada and Andorra for a few seasons.  The only catch was, I wasn’t good enough, so I returned to Sydney and started my own landscape construction company.  Shame I didn’t stick with Jamie, as he’s now a world-famous landscaper and multimillionaire.”

“I did a lot of concreting and, oddly enough, was subcontracted to assist in the laying of an experimental type of flexible cement on the deck of a P&O cruise ship of all things.  The work was completed underway to New Caledonia and, from then on, I realised I wanted to pursue my passion for the sea.”

“Back then, the yachting industry was much smaller and the only place to complete the STCW was TAFE, Technical and Further Education, in Newcastle, New South Wales.  Together with a commercial General Purpose Hand certificate, I finished the course, sold my truck and tools and bad farewell to construction.”

“I’d raced a lot of X-Yachts, and a Volvo Ocean 60 as a trimmer, but didn’t like the one-dimensional nature of racing with a skipper shouting all day long.  I was more into seamanship than racing, and wanted to know how to drive it and fix it.  In 2002, Mallorca was already seen as the place to be for serious yachting, so I bought an air fare to Palma and within weeks had a deckhand position on a newly-refitted classic 65ft Sparkman & Stephens ketch.  It was owned by an 85-year-old couple from Jersey but they seemed so much younger.  One summer, we sailed up to the Channel Islands and they invited us on their farm where the wife would pick up sheep and carry them across her shoulders – incredible.”

“From there, I headed to the Isle of Wight to race in Cowes Week and met a guy looking for an apprentice boat builder.  With a background in carpentry and a fondness for boats, it seemed like a logical progression – so I moved to Southsea, Portsmouth.  I enjoyed the work, and gained invaluable experience in professional yacht repairs from teak to painting, but didn’t want to be stuck in a shed all my life when I was most happy out at sea.”

“In 2004, I nipped back to Australia for my brother’s wedding.  It was supposed to be a flying visit, but I knew I was a bit over the boat building.  I was doing lots of fibreglassing, washing my hands in acetone all day, and likely playing havoc with my health.  So, when one of my old rugby pals said he could get me a job on commercial vessels in Sydney Harbour, I jumped at it.”

“Almost as soon as I started work, I enrolled at maritime college and studied four nights a week to finish my Commercial Master Class 5 and earn my engineering ticket.  I actually got my first drive age 25, before I was qualified, as one of the commercial captains didn’t show up for work and I was handed the wheel, but went on to legally skipper plenty of tugs and barges around Sydney Harbour.  I also purchased a boat of my own, a prawn trawler that had sunk on its mooring.  I bought it from the salvage company for around 1,000 AUD and spent a year getting it seriously seaworthy.”

“Sydney was becoming very expensive and I wasn’t where I wanted to be financially.  So I sold the trawler for ten times more than I paid for it and, in 2009, headed back to Palma to get on the next rung in my yachting career.  With four years as a commercial captain plus a background in sailing and boatbuilding, I thought I would be a shoe-in for a captain or mate’s job.  It wasn’t the case.  Most crew agents, with the exception of Erica Lay at EL Crew Co, couldn’t see the relevance of my years driving commercial vessels.”

“Looking back, I was probably a little arrogant as I certainly wasn’t ready.  Although my seamanship, manoeuvring, line handling and repair skills were excellent, I was still a little rough around the edges – pirate ship and treasure map tattoos to boot.  I certainly didn’t have the finesse or attention to detail that I have now.  I also had the problem that my tickets were not recognised by the MCA – even my Australian Yachtmaster was not accepted – and I had to start all over again.  At first I was bitter, I had spent several years at maritime college, not to mention the thousands of dollars, but, after a lot of cursing, I bit the bullet and eventually obtained my MCA Master 3000GT.”

“I started to network with key industry players, blowing my cash on 20 euro cocktails trying to keep up.  Down to my last centimos, I was offered a bosuns job on 43m Feadship Eclipse – I accepted.  I spent two seasons learning the finer points of detailing and guest relations.  Coming from tugs where we used truck tyres as fenders, to a first officer telling me to move a fender 2cm lower and 10cm towards the bow, was a bit of a shock, but now I too have uneven fenders as a pet peeve.  I also used to drive my tug past the Sydney Superyacht Marina and laugh at the guys polishing all day and never moving off the mooring – the irony is not lost on me.  But, by far, the best part of Eclipse was the gorgeous chief stew Leonie – I married her in 2014.”

“In 2011, I was recommended for a captain’s job on new-build Sunreef catamaran Sister.  I spent four years on her covering the Baltic, North Sea and the Mediterranean, with a brief interlude to be with my ailing father and study for Officer of the Watch.  In my last year on Sister, the owner decided he wanted to learn how to kitesurf and we had an instructor on board all summer.  As kite destinations are all windy by default, it was not very relaxing for me as captain.”

“Then, in 2015, my old chief mate was captaining 50m Amels Volpini and asked if I’d join him as chief officer.  As I wanted to get back into large motoryachts, it seemed like a good move.  It was – I ended up relief captain.  At the end of 2016, I was offered captain on new-build 47m 484GT Wider 150 Bartali.  Winner of Most Innovative Yacht at Cannes Yachting Festival 2016 and a Neptune trophy at the World Superyacht Awards 2016, the Wider 150 is a hybrid diesel-electric yacht with cutting-edge Azipod technology – which I had fortunately learned how to drive in my tug days.”


“Early January 2017, I was about to fly to Italy to meet Bartali for the first time.  I was sitting in Palma Airport sporting a broad smile at the thought of getting stuck into my dream job, when the phone rang.  It was my doctor.  He’d found a large neoplasm on my kidney, it was malignant.  In other words – ‘you have cancer’.”

“My brain had felt a little cloudy, I lacked some of my usual enthusiasm, so I’d been to see a doctor who found zero testosterone in my blood.  He referred me to an endocrinologist who suggested one possible cause was kidneys.  They sent me for an MRI, perhaps it was kidney stones – that phone call revealed it wasn’t.”

“I didn’t get upset.  Instead, I called my wife, told her not to worry, and got on the flight.  A few weeks later, having found an excellent German kidney surgeon in Palma, I flew home and had my right kidney removed by keyhole surgery on Wednesday and was back on board Bartali by Monday.  Unfortunately, as I was technically between jobs, I had no insurance cover and had to foot the entire bill.  I could’ve had cheaper open surgery in another country, but couldn’t afford months of recovery thus jeopardising my new job.  In fact, running the new build really helped – I had no time to wallow in self-pity.”

“A year later, after a routine six-month check, they found a tumour on my spine.  I didn’t need Dr Google to tell me that, if malignant, this time it would be secondary and terminal.  Leonie also announced she was pregnant.  I waited two weeks for the biopsy results, two weeks where I knew I was going to be a father but not sure if I would see her grow up.  The tumour was benign.”

“You would imagine that cancer was the worse thing that life could throw at you, but I stood corrected.  Leonie phoned and urged me to return home.  She was in hospital with severe preeclampsia and would have a stroke if they did not deliver the baby.  Leonie was just 24 weeks pregnant.  I was in the UK and, before I got to Son Espases Hospital, they had already prepped her for surgery.  A nurse took a final check of Leonie’s blood pressure and discovered it had fallen.  The premature delivery was called off.  A week later, the same again, prepped for surgery followed by a last-minute retraction.  Leonie hung on in there for another week and it saved baby Summer’s life.”

“On 10 November 2018, at 26.5 weeks, she was delivered three months early to the day, weighing just 600g.  I found a temporary relief captain for Bartali and we spent the next three months in the NICU.  Summer is now home, she’s perfect and thriving.  Unfortunately, thanks to a busy Caribbean season, I have only been back to see my daughter for a week since she was discharged.  It’s so tough.  Leonie has been nothing short of amazing.”

“We divide our time between the UK and Mallorca but truly adore Palma.  It’s the best place in the world to bring up Summer and our very loveable little rescue Patterdale Terrier Beau.  My plan is to captain the biggest motoryacht that will have me, be the best father and husband I can, and help others.”

“When I got the cancer diagnosis, one of my first thoughts was, if I die tomorrow, would I be proud of everything I’d done?  The short answer was ‘no’.  I had a very happy life with a loving, supportive family and great friends, yet never really went out of my way to do charity work.  Through my experience, I came across so many people who had not come to terms with the cancer and were really battling to cope mentally.  It made me incredibly sad for them as I knew it didn’t have to be that way.”

​“I started looking for ways that I could contribute.  I had no money left to donate and had to go straight back to work, but stumbled across Imerman Angels.  This charity provides free personalised one-on-one cancer support for cancer fighters, survivors and caregivers, by matching them with a mentor angel of a similar age who has been previously diagnosed with the same type of cancer.  I could contribute while still working at sea – I promptly joined.”

“While waiting for my first ‘match’, I did a counselling course and set up www.thecancercarer.com.  I want to show people that there are many good things that can come from an experience like this, to make the most out of it and use it to better your life rather than ruin it.  Wherever I may be in the world, I am always contactable via whatsapp for anyone who needs emotional or moral support.”


Sarah Forge, sarah@purplecakefactory.com