Interview with Caroline Stapley by Emily Larkin
What did you do before yachting, and how did your yachting career first begin?
I began my yachting career back in 1990 (!), having finished an Economics and Languages degree (French & Spanish), and tried my hand at teaching English as a Foreign Language for a year in Catalunya. I knew I wanted to spend more time in both France and Spain and back then, it was one of the easiest ways to work abroad – not well-paid though, and my overdraft only increased! I came to Palma to do my month-long TEFL course as I didn’t have enough money to do it back home near London, fell in love/lust with an ex-yachtie fellow student from San Fran with gorgeous blue eyes, and before I knew it, was out in the bay of Palma taking part in the summer regattas and meeting yacht crew. They were all work hard-play hard kind of people, getting paid much better than I was, as basically a child-minding service for parents who worked late, but thought their kids should learn English. The draw of joining a boat to the Caribbean that winter was just too great! However due to my car being impounded by the Guardia Civil (!), I missed the boat (literally) and spent a brassic first winter in Palma, scratching a living as a barmaid. I was pretty clueless and hopeless at dock-walking! I made some great friends during that time, and when the first jobs came up the next March, I was right there at the head of the queue!
What has been your favourite boat you’ve worked on, and why?
My first years were on classic sailboats, such as Shenandoah, Aile Blanche and later, Adix, briefly. On such gorgeous yachts, it is so easy to feel immense pride for the boat as unique, historic, and well worth all the hard work with varnish and brass. I loved being out on deck, helming, learning to navigate. Taking part in classic regattas such as the Nioulargue with many old 3-masted dames gliding about the bay of St. Tropez was a memory that will always stay with me. On Adix, I was very lucky to be on board in the incredible Marquesa islands, then Tahiti and the Society Islands before crossing the Equator to Hawaii – My induction ceremony into the Kingdom of Neptune is also included in those highlights!
What are the best and worst parts about working onboard?
Best bits, of course, are having visited areas of the world I would never have got to under my own steam. Getting to know, and often call home, many of the top ports in the Med and Caribbean. Some amazing places visited, plus mad nights out, too! Plus some rock-solid friendships that will stay til we push up daisies. The sense of community amongst yachties, the attitude of enjoying life to the full, knowing you belong to quite an admired but closed industry all add to the that special feeling that you can’t quite explain! Working damned hard for your money means you can gift yourself some incredible treats in your off-time… we are very lucky to have these opportunities but.. you do give up a lot to get that. I have missed more weddings of good friends at home than I care to mention, their kids being born and growing up. Despite technology now meaning it’s soo much easier to keep in contact than in my early days, you give up many special moments with friends and family back home.
Worst parts – the extreme and utter fatigue of long days and nights. Not being your best due to lack of sleep and not always treating your fellow crew the best in those situations. Dealing with difficult personalities on board can push you to your limits.
How do you keep sane on charter?
Sane? hahaha! Best to keep your head down, and focussed on doing the best that you can, and having a crew that support each other, work as a team, and have a sense of humour to get through the tiredness and bizarre requests or needs. Try to get a bit of sunshine on your face every day, or a moment to take in a gorgeous starlit night, the atmosphere of a famous place or event, even if you can’t get ashore. Oh, and work out when hump day is (middle day of a guest trip, because the second half always go faster!) Recognise that crew antagonisms will always surge on the 3rd day, regardless if it’s a 3 week or 3 month charter. Everyone tries so hard at first, then they hit the wall!
What are your best strategies for spoiling charter guests?
You really can do nothing except try to anticipate their needs, hopefully with a decent preference list too! Put yourself in their position. Know your destination, research it well, both for activities, the history, odd funny facts. Develop a way of guiding your guests so your team can provide the best in your timeline but recognise that at any point, what they have in mind is king. Wherever possible, try to make their requests happen. Making them feel you are 110% there for them at all times. Jaded crew often resent guests wanting to do certain things as it will interfere with their break time, means more work, and you just can’t show that reaction. Listen, smile (really smile!) and treat them like a person with feelings. Many celebs get treated like a commodity. Be friendly and accessible but know when to cut off and keep your distance (there’s always work to get done behind the scenes!)
What’s the coolest thing you have done for guests?
Uuf. Nothing too spectacular, but when you get transport sorted with 5 minutes notice as you are coming into Monaco port… pulling it off, feels amazing! It also feels great when you see famous people able to relax and totally able to enjoy themselves with no fear of paps – those moments are few and far between, and you know they really appreciate having that time to be themselves, no expectations, just at ease with their friends.
What is your signature cocktail?
For years I worked for an owner who barely even drank wine, so cocktails aren’t my speciality. I have enjoyed getting inspiration on recent courses for getting that taste right, and presentation sells a drink so much, too. I love the look of a Bramble for example – Creme de Mure drizzled over crushed ice, gin, lemon juice and sugar syrup. A long way from the Vodka Cranberry’s of the 90’s, and my attempts at creating an alcoholic banana and vanilla icecream smoothie!!
What is your favourite yachting destination?
Anywhere with crystal clear water. Being out at sea when dolphins play on the bow. I’ve always loved Italy as there is so much to discover and experience onshore! History, food, fashion, architecture, that whole Italian attitude to life!
If you owned a superyacht, what would you do differently?
Hehe, I wouldn’t have white carpets, marble bars or basins! I would want to help myself to drinks, not be served hand on foot, so I could have my privacy.
What is your on-board pet hate?
Things not getting put back in their place. Items stored with no labelling or inventory change. Chauvinism. Diva crew who actually aren’t all they think they are!! (The ones who can rock it, I can cope with!) Petty arguments about whether a job is deck or interior responsability! Lack of interest or understanding from captains or management about what we aim to achieve in our department providing the best possible for our owners and guests. Making a double bed that’s against a bulkhead is always a pain, of course, and then cleaning some men’s toilets can really turn your day around!! (sorry but true!)
What career achievement are you most proud of?
I never wanted to be a Chief Stew because frankly, most of the ones I had worked under, had been such utter cows! I don’t think I am a great people manager, but I have remained good friends with many of my stews. I dragged one of them to get her hormones checked and she is now a mum to the cutest little girl. Leaving it til you have earnt enough money, will get you middle aged and childless. Know if you want kids, ladies. It’s so un-PC to want to admit to it in society these days. If it’s a dream, don’t let it pass you by.. Because the years will fly by in yachting!
A guy once told me and my Chief Stew that we would never make it in yachting – I never meant for it to be more than a quick phase to pay off my overdraft, so I am quietly amazed that I am still here. And I get upset that so much is said about the short life span for women in this industry. Utter brain washing! I truly believe there is a place for the older, calmer, more experienced crew member, if you choose to carry on longer than “is normal”. I haven’t risen to the upper, stratispheric echelons of the megayachts but feel that suits my personality and also life choices. I worked for one owner for over 11 years and wow, how the yachting iindustry changed in that time! Quite intimidating to come back into yachting with “experience” but not that sort of experience! – For sure, the pay has not changed much in a decade, though, but that is due to my career choices. I still think I am paid well and should be endeavour to be “worth” what I am paid. Oh and that Chief Stew from earlier? She now owns and runs the most elite crew agency Stateside!
Best housekeeping tip/hack?
Squeegee and buff dry those showers, mirrors and basins. If spots have dried on already, rinse it again, and buff. Often, too much product is used. Sit on the guest loos to see what they see. Always sweep your eyes around the room as you exit, to make sure you haven’t left something behind accidentally, or forgotten to do something. Don’t forget the fingerprints on the backs of doors. Don’t be afraid to have cheatsheets and consult them. Tiredness robs you of a sharp mind, and even caring as much as you would like to. Treat your guests as the humans that they are – stars need thoughtful service, not sycophants, nor best friends. Be available to, and aware of, your guests at all times. Sometimes there is too much rush to be efficient, when being an effective service provider, noticing your guests needs, is far more important and valued than getting your pantry tidied up so you can get to bed!
Tell us about your funniest embarrassing moment on board.
Well now, that would be telling! So I will stick with the classic Stewie boo-boos of trying to serve an uncorked bottle of wine, forgetting to lay plates on a table for family style buffet… When you have committed a clanger once, you tend not to repeat!!
What’s your favourite adventure in Mallorca?
There is still so many corners of this island to discover! But I really enjoy the volunteering I do for animal rescue. I run a Saturday morning group for yacht crew, Palma Dogs, who visit government pounds and private refuges to walk the ownerless dogs, plus I foster kittens every spring, bottle-feeding them from days old til a forever home is found. Very time-consuming but super satisfying!
If you could give your 20yr old self one piece of advice, what would it be?
Work on more charter boats! I ended up mostly on private yachts. That is fine but private owners can be hard to please long-term, whereas charter guests come on board knowing they want to enjoy themselves. Yes, you do burn out much quicker on charter yachts, but the extra money makes it seem worthwhile! Having done charters, it can be hard to wave goodbye for the nth time to owner and/or guests having received a small, but thoughtful gift, or nothing, or a bag of marshmallows as I got from one Russian guest, 2 years running! ….??
Second thing that I think is not addressed much, is that whole issue around having a family. This industry is full of Peter Pans. Both sexes appear to stay younger for longer than our landlubber friends back home, but relationships are notoriously hard in this business. If it is something you know you want, strongly consider leaving the industry! I have too many fabulous friends, still single, who have “missed the boat” and yet are amazing women! If you always wanted kids, don’t think just because it all seems to be working down there, that you are still fertile! (Sorry but this is one of my as-yet untackled crusades!) If you are getting close to 35, please consider getting the big 4 hormones tested. A blood test costs €50 or so for all 4.. Then you know where you are at, and can make decisions appropriately, rather than life making them for you, once you have finally decided you are ready! Don’t put off getting yourself to Dr Joh or your gyny!
What’s your plan for the future?
I am not one for having plan B’s – maybe a big mistake! I always just wanted to be happy, and playful until the day I die. To always be open to new experiences – which is why I still jump out of planes, or do Spartan races for charity, for example! Every year, I promise myself more sleep (!), and to be a better friend! Friends make the world go around!