Mark inadvertently spent his youth preparing for a nomadic yachting lifestyle. His father was an engineer in the RAF and this career took him, and by default his mother and two younger brothers, all over the world. Mark quickly learned that home wasn’t a place, but a feeling.
“Of all the countries we lived, Norway had the greatest influence on my upbringing,” explains Mark. “Oslo has a very outdoorsy vibe and, from the age of six to ten, I basically sailed in the summer and skied in the winter – the perfect childhood. At ten, I was shipped off to boarding school, King’s Bruton in Somerset, where, after years spent on military bases, I could finally form strong friendships. Like my younger brothers, I became an exceedingly sociable little monkey.
“Academia was not my forte. School reports would routinely state that I was more than capable, but not interested. Back then, education was all about rote learning, repeating everything in a parrot fashion and following rules, none of which appealed. My focus turned to sport, in which I excelled.
“With no appetite for higher education, after my A Levels I went to live with my parents who were now based in Belgium. For an entire year I did nothing but swim, play rugby and socialise. Qualifying for the NATO rugby team, I competed all over Europe, and also entered plenty of swimming competitions – although none professionally.
“Having learned how to play hard, I joined my Uncle’s designer fish tank and water display business in London and learned how to work hard. Looking after fish is a 24-7 job and there was little free time, so the sport inevitably slipped by the wayside for a few years.
“My girlfriend at the time’s father bought a Swan 37 and planned to berth her in Puerto Portals. Would we help? Having never been to Mallorca, I grabbed the chance and, in spring 1995, we loaded a trailer and drove down to Spain. Flyering local hotels, we drummed up a summer’s worth of day and week charter – it was seriously good fun.
“Our neighbour, 65-foot Siesta, used to come in each week and do a guest swap around. Inevitably we’d chat, and the captain asked if I fancied a trip to the Caribbean. Hell yeah. So I did my first Atlantic crossing on a proper sailboat, an ultra-light cruiser-racer, and stayed on as mate. Age 23, I was fit, toned and tanned – I also had white-blonde hair. The running joke was that Siesta had employed some extra from Baywatch. The nickname stuck. To this day there are plenty of people who don’t know my real name.
“We went back and forth across the Atlantic, and competed in a couple of Antigua Race Weeks, until one day Siesta was sold. My sixth crossing was to deliver her to Antigua whereupon the new owner signed me off with the cheapest airline ticket possible – a one-way to Guadeloupe. I stayed with friends in Antigua and picked up day work where I could.
“Lazing on the beach one day, classic three-masted schooner 57-metre Fleurtje was coming in. She’s an old boat, built in 1961, so needed to lower down two tenders to assist with berthing – one to wait at the dock, and the other to act as a bow thruster. Somehow, Fleurtje drove over the second tender. It got caught under the bobstay, flipped over, and dragged under – taking the engineer with it. Instinctively, I nicked a random RIB from the shore and saved the poor guy from drowning. I guess you could say I was now Baywatch by name, and by nature.
“The next day I had an interview with Fleurtje – I got the job. A lot of people wanted work on Fleurtje, and I suspect my lifeguard antics sent me to the front of the queue – it certainly wasn’t my qualifications. Back in those days you didn’t even need a Yachtmaster, you got a job based on how many miles you’d done and what you’d experienced.
“Going from a modern 60-odd footer to an all-manual 60 metre was quite the jump and I learned a lot – varnishing, painting, rigging – but sadly my career didn’t make the same advancing leaps. Having reached the dizzying heights of watch leader and chief tender driver, there was no promotion ahead of me. The 14-strong crew was solid, no one ever left, and if I wanted to progress, I had to leave. A shame, as I adored the Caribbean summers and Bermudan winters, but it was a healthy decision to move on.
“Now armed with a Yachtmaster Offshore, in March 1998 I joined old racer-cruiser Bristolian. The owner had very high-end expectations and we were five crew on a 29-metre, including a separate engineer and mate. To be fair, she was very manual and needed the bodies. Before long, less than a year in fact, I realised it was high time I ran my own programme, so I got off Bristolian in Palma.
“On Fleurtje, I’d met a girlfriend, and together we travelled to London to interview for new-build modern classic 23-metre Braveheart of Sark. The owner must have seen something in 26-year-old me and flew us to Baltimore to meet the boat. While being heavily assessed by the owner and current captain, I nervously sailed her down to West Palm Beach and somehow snared the job
“We did thousands upon thousands of miles on Braveheart of Sark. The boss loved sailing and we’d stop only for lunch, visiting a new harbour every day. In fact, he’d measure how good his holiday was by the number of miles in the log book. He was a tough man, from English yachting royalty, and I shared a small space with him for three years, but overall it was fabulous. The girlfriend begged to differ and became my ex halfway through…
“Braveheart of Sark contested a lot of regattas, and our second Les Voiles de Saint-Tropez led me to my next captain role. We raced hard and apparently pushed brand new 37-metre Camper & Nicholsons Our Blue Dream off the race course. The captain chatted to me back on dry land and said the Russian owner would like to meet me. I fully expected a bollocking, but instead he asked if I’d work for him.
“It was a huge boat, a massive step up, but a tough year and a half. The boss was nice when he was nice, and not when not. He and ten others would come in at 4am after a night’s partying and unsportingly wake the chef up to cook. I met Samantha, the mother of my daughter, on board, and it was hell for her below deck clearing up the debris of the night before. It was a learning curve, a reminder of how lucky you are when you get a normal job.
“Anyhow, I got fired in front of the entire crew at The Superyacht Cup in 2002. The weather was light and patchy and Our Blue Dream came last. I wasn’t happy about my dismissal, in fact I was horrified, felt it was a slur on my behaviour, but when half the crew walked with me, I felt better.
“Samantha and I had just bought an apartment in Palma and were now financially screwed. I plugged on and completed my Class 4 without the stress and distraction of a full-time job. It was worth it, as we then landed 106-foot Wally B.
“Wally B was laid up in La Ciotat. The captain had fallen out with the young Swiss-German owner and the boat was out of the water, rig on the ground next to her, alongside four containers full of pieces – no one had a clue what went where. Somehow we got her going, and the plan was to take her across the Pond. I was beyond excited at the prospect of skippering a Wally over the ocean, but she ended up staying in the Med. I was gutted.
“Now I had one clear goal – a round-the-world itinerary. I thought I’d found it in 43-metre Dubois Gimla. She was just emerging from Vitters Shipyard in the Netherlands and preparing for a three-year circumnavigation. As the boat hit the water, the Swedish owner went financially belly-up and the whole thing was called off. But, the nightmare had a silver lining as Vitters reacquired the boat and sent us round the Med to show her off, enter her in regattas and conduct viewings. I also became very close to the owners of Vitters, they’re really good people. Gimla sold to an Australian with crew already in place. It’s a shame, she was a charming boat, and is still on the regatta scene, albeit known as Guillemot.
“A call came in from Chris Cecil-Wright, an Edmiston veteran, with news of a vacancy on 53-metre Dubois Drumbeat, launched in 2002 as Salperton. The owner was a real entertainer and Samantha and I had a full-on two years. He’d come aboard for four, five, six, weeks at a time, with a full-house of rotating guests, then he’d jump off and a charter would begin. He worked us to the bone but was a nice man, a true English gent, and always eternally grateful for our efforts. In 2007, Drumbeat was sold and, around the same time, Samantha fell pregnant.
“Samantha hung up her sea boots and we swapped the Palma apartment in favour of a baby-friendly house with garden in Costa de la Calma. In the meantime, Edmiston nudged me in the direction of 47-metre Royal Huisman Hyperion owned by a delightful American. We had a great team and it was a lot of fun. I stayed for almost four years, until I was ‘poached’ by a charter guest…
“In the process of deciding which boat to build, the aforementioned Scandinavian guest conducted four years of back-to-back chartering – 27 different yachts in total – including Drumbeat and Hyperion. He’d meticulously quiz the crew, find out the glitches and the merits. All this research climaxed in the construction of 66-metre Dubois-designed Aglaia. I was taken on right at the start, and watched her launch from the Vitters Shipyard in 2011.
“Captaining Aglaia, the biggest performance sailing yacht on the planet, was a real culmination of decades of hard work – putting up with a lot of shit along the journey. I felt a great sense of pride and achievement. Although I’d split from Samantha when our daughter was four years old, I was, and am, a hands-on father. Aglaia followed a Mediterranean programme, wintering in Palma, and this afforded me the great pleasure of co-parenting Mila.
“In 2015, Aglaia was sold and we were given six weeks to take her out of winter hibernation in Palma and ready her for a round-the-world trip with a new owner. My first mate, who is now the captain, and I delivered Aglaia to the Caribbean. Pretty much by the time I came back, 54-metre Red Dragon had been bought as an interim boat, while my owner considered his next move. This was going to be a crazy 75-metre performance sailing yacht, but costings went through the roof and the plug was duly pulled. He’s now giving back to society by financing the build of eco-friendly 183-metre Research Expedition Vessel REV. Ice-class explorers are way out of my skillset, so I remain focussed on Red Dragon.
“She’s a lovely boat, solid and simple, and, although a downsize from Aglaia, the owner keeps me busy in a million other ways. He’s got a fleet of boats to manage – among them a 42-metre Ferretti and a 35-metre Sunseeker – and the idea of ‘free time’ is still rather alien to me. Any I do have is spent with my daughter, who is now at senior school in the UK, or enjoying my classic cars – an old Porsche and Cobra. I also like the idea of hiking every day and keeping fit – I’m working on it.
“I’ve made a conscious decision to stay with sailing boats, I prefer their owners, they have a different mentality. I adore the family I work for and my owner inspires great longevity from his team. In five years on Aglaia, maybe three crew departed – testament to the loyalty that is earned from both sides of the relationship. I have no plans to move on, but I also know that I, like every other captain, am highly replaceable. I must perform at 100%, earn my place, and never get complacent. The day you think you’re settled, the day you put your slippers on, is the day they take them from you.
“My biggest remaining ambition is to do a solo transatlantic in a racing boat. You should do something that scares you every now and then, I think a solo ocean crossing would fit that brief quite nicely.”
Sarah Forge, email@example.com