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  • Writer's pictureScott Munden

Household Managers of the Sea: An Interview with a Chief Stewardess

There are words that have the ability to evoke images and sounds. The name Natasha is such a word. That final syllable – that “shah” sound – is a gentle breeze filling the sails of a sea-faring vessel. “Shaaaahhh...” and I can visualize the sailcloth filling with the warm, salty air of the Mediterranean. I hear the sound, and, in my mind’s eye, I watch the sails, and I feel the movement of the vessel as it takes me from one exotic destination to another.

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The "Shaaaaahhh" of the Wind against a Sail

I like thinking of this as I think of N. It just feels right.

Sometimes a story’s beginning starts with its end. N’s is such a story. I spoke with her recently as I was trying to learn more about what Chief Stewardesses do... and I will get to that in just a bit.

For now, though, I would like to share N’s lovely answer to my most mundane closing interview question... “Is there anything else you would like to share about your experiences working on a yacht?” N's answer came quickly and has the allure of simplicity. With a gentleness, that belies her inner strength, she said “the world is such a beautiful place,” and I felt what, I am fairly sure, were goose bumps.

It was not so much the words, but the way N said them that had an impact on me. They were spoken with such sincerity that they had to come from a place deep within. And in that place can be found the explanation for what drew N to the sea in the first place. The world... it is a beautiful place.

N is a Chief Stewardess of impressive calibre and accomplishment. I have been thinking about writing an article on staff who work on yachts for some time, and when I met N, I knew I had found the perfect source for my story. That she shared in my excitement, confirmed I was right.

N comes from a small community on Canada’s west coast. She started in hospitality as a teenaged chambermaid. She eventually accepted a position as an Executive Assistant for a non-profit that represents the cruise ship industry for the Pacific North West. She did great work while at the non-profit and developed exceptional administrative support skills, but she also felt that she was missing something in her life. Somewhere in N lurked the sense that there was a big, beautiful world out there, and she wanted to see it.

So, N being N, did her research and learned everything she would need to know to find a position aboard a yacht. She gave her Principal four months’ notice and booked a ticket to Ft. Lauderdale – the mecca for Caribbean “yachties” – and found her first position aboard a yacht (after taking one required course after another).

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Super Yacht

She started at the bottom of the yachting ladder, slept in the laundry room, and quickly set out to prove herself. Needless to say, she succeeded and her career on the sea began to unfold.

I had the pleasure of interviewing N about her experiences as a Chief Stewardess and Household Manager. We had agreed beforehand that the objective for the piece was to be informational for those thinking of entering the yachting field, and helpful for those thinking of leaving it for a land- based position. I think N’s answers satisfy both objectives. I think they are also instructional for those thinking of becoming Household Managers.

Most of us don’t know what a Chief Stewardess does. Can you help us to understand? There is no short answer to this question. There are just so many aspects to the position. Our basic role is to manage the interior of the vessel. That includes so many responsibilities.

We’re Event Planners on the sea. We look after guests. We, along with our crew members, look after all service requirements, concierge, housekeeping, laundry and so on. We prepare invoices for charter guests. We communicate guest preferences to crew members. We train our crew and take care of all provisioning – from food to cleaning products to toiletries to crew uniforms.

We oversee interior maintenance work and communicate with the yacht owners. When you are responsible for 23 crew and up 18 guests, that’s a lot of planning that needs to occur. That’s what we do.

What is your most important responsibility as a Chief Stewardess? Basically, a Chief Stewardess is responsible for running the interior of the vessel and anything and everything associated with that.

I don’t think many people understand just how labour intensive working as a Chief Stewardess is. Can you enlighten those of us who don’t know? Working on any vessel is extremely labour intensive. Basically, you must be available at all times. As Chief Stewardess, for example, I am usually the last person to go to bed and one of the first to wake up. When in season, you need to dig really deep because your duties never really stop. When there are no guests on board, we are still working hard to prepare the vessel, process orders, or get into those deep clean and organizational tasks. You have many years of experience working on Yachts. You have also worked as a Household Manager for a Forbes 500 family. Are there similarities between the two positions? There are many similarities, but there are also significant differences. For example, in a household your Principals are constant, and once you learn their likes and dislikes, you have a baseline to run the home.

While there are owners of a yacht who you get to know, there is also a constantly changing cast of guests who are usually very different in terms of their likes, dislikes, and expectations. In a private home there are intensive days, but on a yacht in season, things just do not stop. Let’s take the position of a laundress as an example.

In a home, they likely are not responsible for a workload that includes the equivalent of laundering uniforms that change twice daily or bed linens, for all the crew members, plus the laundering needs of guests, towels, table linens, and so on. Again, the difference is a matter of intensity. Being a Chief Stewardess has been the most challenging job I’ve ever had.

So, while there are many similarities that include things like managing staff, pitching in wherever and whenever I’m needed, having an eye for detail, making sure that all aspects of housekeeping and service are met, it does come down to a difference in intensity.

What is the hierarchy / reporting structure on a yacht? There is a hierarchy and the ranking system depends on the size of the vessel. For example, a Purser or Chief Stewardess will have a Second Stewardess, Third, Fourth and so on.

The Captain is the equivalent of the boss and normally has the trust of the owners or Management Company. Below that position is the Chief Officer and (s)he will have a Second Officer and Bosun, then Deckhands, and so on.

How did you become a Chief Stewardess? Is there special training required? I had a dream to explore the world. I wanted to travel, and I have never regretted my decision to enter the yachting world. When I went to Fort Lauderdale, I started taking courses that would help me find work. The courses fall into three main categories.

These are:

Standards for Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping (STCW) Security Awareness Food Safe

Collectively, these courses teach you everything from firefighting to First Aid, maintaining documents, records, and communications to Maritime security threats. I learned about counter piracy [it’s a real thing] and training, drills, and exercises for crew members. And of course, food safety is so important, and I studied best practices for storage, handling, preparation, and premises hygiene.

Throughout I did things like don fire suits, immersion suits, flipped life rafts [it sounds a whole lot easier in theory than it is in practice], and learned correct procedures to abandon ship.

There is so much more that can be studied. When you get right down to it, there is a lot to learn and know in this field. What makes you such a good Chief Stewardess? Really the Captain and Crew make me a good Chief Stew. It really is a team effort, just as it is in a home. But you need to be prepared to start at the bottom so that you know what it’s like when things aren’t done right. I use this experience to bring understanding and patience to my role. It also makes me much better at training new crew members.

Why do you think there are so many Canadians who work on yachts? Is it our winters? But there are so many Australians and Kiwis too, so it can’t just be about our winter. I suppose the attraction in some ways comes down to the money being good, you are rent free, and you get to see so many amazing places.

What advice would you give someone who wants to break in to the field? It begins with booking your ticket. I won’t give advice until the person has done that and committed themselves. You definitely need to have an international attitude and you always need to remember that you are at work on a yacht.

I remember once taking some time out just to enjoy the sight of some fireworks. My Captain caught me and said “what are you doing? Those fireworks aren’t for you.” In just those few words, I was checked and reminded exactly what my role is about.

What sort of character traits go into making a good Chief Stewardess? Common sense. You’ll never last in the role without it. The ability to anticipate the needs of guests and the crew. And you definitely need to be organized. You can better your abilities at cleaning and confidence in service, but these other things are a little more innate.

What does it feel like when you leave port? Do you feel anxiety? After all, it isn’t like you can just jump in a car and go to a grocery store. Oh, when I see those guest cars arrive and line up, I definitely start to feel anxiety. It’s the beginning, and if you haven’t done everything you need to do once you’ve left port, it’s just too late.

What did it feel like when you accepted your first land-based position after working on yachts for so long? Did it take a while to adjust? It did take time to adjust. In some ways I felt like I went from Hero to Zero. On a yacht there are so many cultures and you might be with people for a single season. In a home, you may be working with staff who’ve been with the family for 20 years.

I must say this though... At the end of the day, working as a House Manager, it was nice to leave, go for a walk, and just feel the pleasure of being in your own company. You don’t get that on a yacht.

In my business I’m always looking for “transferrable skills” in people. I define these things as the kinds of skills and attributes that apply in multiple disciplines. Can you think of any important ones for the yachting industry? There definitely are transferrable skills. For example, on a yacht the level of housekeeping is exceptional. It needs to be. Everything is done quickly and to perfection. In terms of service, there is tremendous variety. It’s always being mixed up to keep things interesting for guests.

I would also add that time management must be perfect. There is so much planning ahead, and you need to get things right because you usually don’t get a second chance.

Being on a yacht entails being on a confined space with multiple people with all kinds of personalities. Did you ever experience conflict? How did you handle that? For sure. After all, you work long hours with people from all over the world in very confined spaces. There is bound to be tension and conflict, but you learn patience and begin to understand that there is no time to hold grudges.

As Chief Stew, I recognize that I need everyone on the vessel. No matter what personal issues might exist, we always need to remind ourselves that the guests come first. They are my number 1 priority!

How would you define your role / relationship with the owners of the yachts, their guests, and people who would charter them? My relationship with the owners is direct because every request that is service and interior-related comes through me. The Captain runs the “ship,” but the Chief Stew looks after the guests.

If a guest tells me to source canary yellow socks in France or blue shorts in Croatia, or specific flowers or wines, it’s up to me to make sure they get the things they want.

How do you feel when you are on the sea fulfilling your role? You know it’s so busy, it just doesn’t register until afterwards. I lose track of time when I’m at work. I’m just always preparing for the next thing.

Were you ever scared in your role? How did you manage your fear? In some ways, there is always a degree of being scared because there is so much responsibility attached to the role. So many boxes need to be checked off, and each of them fall on my shoulders.

But I also know I’m good at what I do. If, however, I was afraid for my safety, I would not take on the job. There is a difference between those two things. My fear is more about doing a good job consistently.

I like to think of Chief Stewardesses as Household Managers of the Sea. Do you think this is accurate? If so, why? Yes, it’s very accurate. We are managers of the sea. There are many parallels between the positions. Our Interior Team is a Household Manager’s staff. Our guests are a Household Manager’s Principals. And a Chief Stew manages it all.

What is it about you that made you such a successful Chief Stewardess? Simple. It’s my love for guest satisfaction.

What do you look for in employees when you are hiring for a yacht? This might sound strange to people who have always worked on land, but on a yacht, you need to get the right mix of cultures. From there, you hire for skill. It’s different in a home. You hire for experience and attitude. Culture cannot come into it.

Tell me what you like most about working as a Chief Stewardess? And least? I love the mornings, when the sun is rising and I’m setting the table. It’s quiet and a breathtaking time. The thing I like least has to be cabin life. Things like not being able to escape and go to a gym is very difficult on you. And sometimes you have to work with people that you simply don’t like. Spending time with them while thinking about loved ones is really hard.

At this point in your career, with all of your experience, what kind of position would interest you? I want a room I can call my own. It’s so simple, but it’s true. My ideal position would be to manage a home for a family. I have so much to offer and I would like to find a family who will value my abilities.

Did you ever fear for your safety and the safety of your crew and Principals? I’ve never personally had that experience, but it happens. This is where trust in your Captain comes into play. Without it, I would imagine it would be difficult to feel confident and safe. I would leave those situations if I encountered them.

Can you identify the single-most fulfilling experience you had while working on a yacht? I don’t know if I can boil it down to a single experience. But, the places I’ve visited have been life-changing experiences. For someone who grew up in a small town, I’ve sailed to some of the most spectacular places in the world and I am so proud of myself for doing it.

What do you miss most about working on a yacht? The excitement of the unknown and the constant personal evolution that travel brings.

Is there anything else you would like to share about your experiences? I guess it’s that the world is such a beautiful place. I can’t put a dollar value on my experiences. I think doing the work I’ve done has helped me to understand not to worry about people from my past since there are good reasons why they didn’t make it into my present and future.

Do you ever think that you’ll return to the sea? Ha ha. I said I would never go back and yet I just did a trip through the islands of Bahamas, and I’m getting ready to go to sea again. I think the sea will always be there for me. I want to hold onto that thought.

And that’s how my interview with N ended – with a plan for the future and a comforting thought about the past and achievements made.

As for me, I would like to end the article with this thought. If there is not an expression for the beauty to be found in people who find beauty in the world, there definitely should be. And if there is such an expression, it is applicable to N.

As she sets off on her next life voyage, I want to wish her my very best. I know that, wherever N lands (she has landed into a Household Management position since this interview occurred), her employers and colleagues will be incredibly fortunate to have someone with her talents, strength, intelligence, dedication, decency, discretion, and that something extra that elevates a good employee and person to someone who is exemplary in every way imaginable.

Thank you, N, for the opportunity to interview you and tell your story. It has been an honour.

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