Here's What It's Like To Be A Crew Member On A Luxury Yacht In South Florida
We see them all the time, majestically docked along canals or gracefully cruising our waterways—those sleek and gleaming nautical conveyances, some so big they could pass for military craft. We enviously glimpse at passengers sunning on open decks, and often we notice those figures in tan or white, going about the task of keeping luxury afloat.
It was once a fairly obscure profession, crewing on a major yacht. But with the tremendous growth of the pleasure boat industry, especially in Florida where so many luxury yachts spend much of their time, keeping luxury afloat has become a serious industry. There are hundreds of expensive yachts that call South Florida home or spend part of the year here. They employ an estimated 10,000 people as crew, and many thousands more in support jobs on land. The profession is big enough to warrant its own TV show, “Below Deck,” which is entering its sixth season.
When it comes to service afloat, the crew in this field are at least on the level with the staff of the best restaurants. But unlike a restaurant worker who has to be gracious for just a few hours, yacht crew have to be unfailingly pleasant and accommodating for up to a week. That’s the length of a typical charter.
“The crew has to show up with a smile every day,” says Douglas Meier, captain of Renaissance, based in Fort Lauderdale. “They have to learn that they can’t tell somebody they can’t bring three more people on board down in the islands.”
“You have to be wired for this job,” says Ray Leskanic, captain of Wild Kingdom in Palm Beach. Most of the people we visited on two yachts for this story were wired from an early age, growing up around boats. Both boat captains are New Jersey natives who got into boating as youngsters summering on the Jersey Shore with its chain of barrier islands. An exception is Collette Byrne, stewardess on Wild Kingdom who spent her early years traveling between London and Dublin. Her only boating experience was taking the ferry between the two countries.
The two yachts featured are in the 112-foot range, medium size as luxury yachts go. The number of the crew varies upon the size of the boat. A 150-footer could have as many as 10 crewmen. The smaller crews of five to six tend to be more experienced. Larger ships can afford “greenies”—people on their first job looking to gain experience. They can be trained on the job by more senior crew members. Not so a smaller craft. Some yachts have even larger staffs. One of the largest is the 282-foot The Seven Seas owned by film director Steven Spielberg. It is often seen in Florida waters.
“I need crew who are professionally trained with experience,” Leskanic says. “We help each other out. But I’m the only one who drives the boat, although the crew will do watches.”
The two yachts featured here are typical of their class. Both are owned by families who don’t reside in Florida. Both owners use the yachts at certain times of the year, but keep them available at prime charter months. The income from the charters helps defray the considerable cost of maintaining the boats. The latter is full-time work for most of their crews. The exception is the chefs, who obviously aren’t needed when the boats are in port—which explains why they are not in the crew photos.
“Our crew is on a regular 8 to 4 schedule, with weekends off,” Meier says. “It allows them time off so they’re recharged when we go out again. It’s an extremely tough job. It’s become a real industry. You have to be trained for it.”
Leskanic confirms that thought. “Our crew works 100 hours a week when the owner is aboard,” he says. “It’s a job where you can take your passion and make money on it.”
It is a rewarding calling. Captains earn at least $100,000 a year. Some make much more, depending on the size and value of the boat. The starting position of a deckhand on a big yacht can earn more than $40,000.
There are schools that train people for the work. Among them are Maritime Professional Training in Fort Lauderdale. That’s where Ray Leskanic trained and still takes periodic courses to upgrade his skills in such essential areas as radar. Two others in the Fort Lauderdale area include Sea School and International Crew Training.
This 116-foot Hargrave was built in 2016. It has five staterooms that accommodate 10 guests. Its toys include two Yamaha Waverunners, a Laser Pico sailboat and West Marine 310 dinghy, a 28-foot Chris-Craft motor launch tender, professional drone aircraft and a Deep Trekker submarine capable of diving to 400 feet.
The yacht is berthed on the New River west of Interstate 95. Its owners, Dr. Robert and Christine Emmons live in Santa Barbara, California. He is the retired CEO of several companies. They also own the home where the Renaissance and two other yachts are docked. They use the boat personally two months a year. The rest of the year is chartered, averaging 10 cruises per year. The vessel spends seven months in South Florida. It usually sticks to Bahamian waters, although recently it took a repeat client over to the Naples area. In the summer, it moves to Newport, Rhode Island, and cruises the northeast waters.
Denison Yacht Charters in Fort Lauderdale markets the yacht to individuals and brokers, for four days or more. Its marketing tools include a database of 160,000 yachtsmen. Denison handles the relationship between the captain, owners and charterers. A typical charter runs $82,500 a week plus expenses.
“We try to get our name out in the market, keep the name fresh,” Meier says. The yacht in its brief life has already been the subject of seven articles. The crew:
Capt. Doug Meier grew up near Princeton, New Jersey, and first began boating during summers on the Jersey Shore at Chadwick Beach Island south of Bay Head. He served in the Coast Guard for five years. He has been on eight yachts over 25 years and has won numerous awards—most recently the 2017 Newport Charter Yacht Show for best charter yacht.
Chef Ian Gabbe grew up in Jacksonville and recently returned to Florida after 10 years in Seattle. Although new to the yachting industry, he has been a chef for 25 years, worked for several world-renowned chefs and won numerous competitions, including last year’s Newport Charter Yacht Show.
First Mate Amber Mickelic was raised around water in Panama City Beach. She is a licensed massage therapist and has an extensive background in hospitality. She is very much an outdoorswoman. In her time off she enjoys kayaking, cycling, yoga, surfing and just catching rays at the beach.
Chief Stewardess Brittany Harris is from Fort Lauderdale (Monarch High) and has spent three years in the yachting business, recently joining Renaissance. In her time off she plays tennis and hits the beach.
Deckhand Mitchell Davison comes from Orlando. He studied pre-med for several years, but his fondness for travel led him to the yachting field. He joined the ship last year. He’s an outdoorsman who enjoys rock climbing, free diving and mountaineering.
Second Stewardess London Shaw grew up on a lake in Fenton, Michigan. She worked in customer service in a family business before deciding to move to Florida last year for the weather
and a new career.
This 112-foot Westport was launched in 2012 and refitted in 2015. It is berthed at the Peruvian Dock at the Palm Beach Town Docks. Owners Hank and Patricia Lewis are from Boston and own Vantage Deluxe World Travel, which has six riverboats in Europe. They use their yacht from June to mid-October when it is based in New England. From January to May it is chartered out of Palm Beach. It averages six cruises during those months.
Wild Kingdom has four staterooms, features an extended swim platform and offers skiing, paddleboarding, kayaking, fishing, snorkeling and scuba diving. It tows a $350,000 30-foot Scout tender. The charter price is around $50,000 for a week.
Mike Burke of Westport Yachts in Fort Lauderdale handles marketing for the ship and is also the broker for its sale. The owners, who are asking $8.5 million, are planning to move up to a 132-footer. Burke can be reached at 561.722.1063. The crew:
Capt. Ray Leskanic grew up in North Jersey, boating on Greenwood Lake and at Barnegat Lighthouse on the Jersey Shore. He came to Florida to attend Palm Beach Atlantic University where he majored in business and marketing. After graduation in 2005, he got his first nautical job by “walking the docks and asking, ‘You guys need help?’” He was hired as a deckhand on the 191-foot boat. With his valuable youthful experience, he moved quickly up the ladder and became a captain 10 years ago. He has put in more than 60,000 nautical miles and had two Atlantic crossings.
Chef Jeff Ciucevich hails from Athens, Georgia, and early on developed his cooking skills working with his grandmother. His more formal training includes an associate degree in culinary arts and a Bachelor of Arts in hotel and restaurant management. He has 20 years of experience cooking on land and sea and has won multiple awards in yacht competitions. He loves to travel with his family and experience cuisines around the world.
First Stewardess Collette Byrne grew up between London and Dublin. She came to the U.S. 26 years ago. She was working in a Fort Lauderdale restaurant when the wife of a bartender who worked on a yacht suggested she look into the yacht business. “She said I might give it a go. After two days I said, ‘This is the life for me,’” Byrne says. “I went to the Swap Shop and sold everything I had, including my car.” That was 22 years ago. She joined the yacht recently, but has worked with Leskanic on several previous yachts.
Second Stewardess Virginia Batres was California born but moved to Florida at a young age. She studied and worked in hospitality before deciding to seek more adventure in the yachting field. She is bilingual (English and Spanish), which is a helpful asset in her field.
Mate Robert Martin comes from Duxbury, a seaside town south of Boston, where he worked through high school as an oyster farmer. At 26 years old he has considerable experience, working on private and charter yachts ranging from 25 to 130 feet, based mostly in the Bahamas and Caribbean. He has experience on fishing boats and uses his skills by taking guests fishing on the yacht’s tender.
Palm Beach International Boat Show
Peruse luxury yachts beyond these pages at the 33rd annual event.
What: Global yachting show for high-level boat buyers, charter clients, sport fishing enthusiasts and blue water anglers.
When: Thursday, March 22, through Sunday, March 25
Where: Along Flagler Drive in downtown West Palm Beach
Price: $24/adults, $14/ages 6 to 15, Free/ages 6 and younger