The South African Dream: Yachts, Failure and Attitude

We’re a nation fighting against the odds: a cumbersome passport and a currency that’s fourteen-to-one. And in more recent years, we’ve also picked up a shoddy reputation that will be difficult to shake.

And then there’s always the harsh fact that there are more of us than there are jobs available.

But nothing has stopped South African crew from piling into the yachting industry, season-after-season.

I wanted to understand what our chances really are when we touch down in Nice — bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and keen for an industry we know very little about.

TRAINING SCHOOLS

It all starts back home in South Africa — where new recruits have heard about this yachting thing, how much money they can make and what a jol it is.

“It is almost like a yachting season has become the new gap year experience,” says an instructor at one of Cape Town’s reputable training schools.

“[But] no matter how hard I try to prepare them for the realities of the industry, it seems they are unrealistic about the hard work and the professionalism required.”

In recent years, legitimate training providers and ‘wart’ one-man shows have popped-up all over the country — and all are profiting from a growing market of green South African yacht crew.

The online marketing speak of some schools does well to sell the dream: ‘Earn mega bucks in the international yachting industry’ and ‘picture your perfect oasis: perhaps it is a tropical island hideaway with white powder sand and azure seas,’ (which is followed by a rubric of how much you will earn).

Selling a dream: The marketing speak of some training schools
Selling a dream: The marketing speak of some training schools

But Erica Lay of El Crew Co — a well-known crew placement agency — is optimistic of training provided by the accredited schools in South Africa: “There are some excellent schools I work with — namely Sail Due South and 2 Oceans Maritime Academy. We talk regularly and the crew they send to Palma/Antibes are generally well-versed, prepared and have the right courses, CVs and attitudes.”

Alison Rentoul — The Crew Coach — agrees: “This year, many of the South African crew seemed a lot better prepared and better informed than they have in previous years.”

She still believes that some South Africans have been given unrealistic expectations by training providers about how easy it will be for them to find work.

“Do courses that are PYA– and MCA– certified. Otherwise, you’re wasting your money. Check out the school’s credentials before handing over your hard earned cash.”

Green crew need to do their research and ensure the training providers they choose are both legitimate and uphold a good reputation in the industry; before they invest thousands and make the commitment to come yachting.

VISAS AND MONEY

For South Africans who make it to Europe, finding their first job is a race against an expiring Schengen visa and running dry of money.

“The problem South Africans have is often visa-related,” says Erica. “So it’s really important they get their Schengen [visas] updated and have a Seaman’s book – this acts as [their] ‘yachtie passport’.”

Back in South Africa, most Schengen refusals are because applicants lack proof of will to return — a concern for yachties who tend to come over in their first season under the guise of a tourist visa, and then stay beyond their welcome without boat documentation.

They inevitably get tripped up by boats or captains who would rather employ green crew that come with less admin.

 

A Seaman’s book can only come in-hand after a valid letter of employment is obtained. The same goes for opening an international bank account, which is sometimes needed when salaries are paid for day working.

It is often with the paperwork that South Africans are unprepared. They inevitably get tripped up by boats or captains who would rather employ green crew that come with less admin.

“It’s essential to do your homework because getting things wrong could cost you a lot of money or prevent you from succeeding,” says The Crew Coach, who helps crew build successful and lucrative careers in yachting. “There are plenty of sources of information [out there].”

If South Africans come to the industry with an application for a Seaman’s book, all their paperwork in order, excellent contactable references and the correct training, a yacht will notice them. No matter what passport they hold.

Crew house living: Away from home comforts
Crew house living: Away from home comforts

Coupled with the visa issue is the economic conundrum. South Africans who come to yachting are often ill-prepared for the cost of living while finding work in Europe.

A studio apartment will cost around €100 per week (around R1,500), a bag of basic groceries is €60 (R870), a glass of rosé is €8 (€115) and a return train ticket from Antibes to Monaco is €15 (R215).

Green crew who get sucked into the hard partying scene before securing a job are bound to fail — at least financially.

“Sometimes I look at newbies’ Facebook pages and all I see is party and travel shots – and I wonder how much dock walking, networking and crew agent appointments they have had since they arrived in Europe,” says the Cape Town-based instructor.

“Often it’s a case of right place right time,” says Erica. “Sometimes the most proactive crew just aren’t lucky! Frustrating when they see a lazy bar fly get that permanent gig they wanted.”

South Africans are best off planning their money carefully and spending their hard-earned cash wisely. That goes too for seasoned crew who are sold on the industry’s famous ‘golden handcuffs’.

“Yachting represents a fantastic career opportunity which gets better the longer you stay in it,” says The Crew Coach.

“If you are prepared to put in seven to ten years, you can easily retire early with one or more properties under your belt, an armful of Rolexes (if that’s what you want) and a wealth of experience.”

The frustrations of first season living in France
The frustrations of first season living in France

A POOR ATTITUDE

Sadly however, the unrealistic sales pitch of training schools, the ‘green mamba’ passport and our weakening Rand have all become easy excuses for South Africans who go home without work.

The truth is that the last season or two has seen South Africans pick up a reputation for being arrogant and with a sense of entitlement to the riches of the yachting industry — without the hard work, humility and professionalism to back it up.

[These] have all become easy excuses for South Africans who go home without work.

 

“I think there has been a big shift in the attitudes and the type of people coming over from South Africa to join yachting,” says Mike*, a seasoned Engineer.

“The newer generation are making it difficult for everyone else and particularly themselves.”

“As a South African, I find it embarrassing being in Antibes with the number of my fellow countrymen behaving quite poorly around town. [We] are still guests in another country.”

Many who have come to yachting in recent years come from an affluent part of South African society. They hold university degrees and they have been spoilt by maids and moms who did it all for them while they were growing up.

Not in all cases, but in many it seems to have fostered an attitude of preciousness — where the will to serve and the desire to start at the bottom scrubbing toilets are not taken seriously.

“The newer generation are making it difficult for everyone else and particularly themselves.”

 

A recent debate in the Facebook Group ‘SAFFA yachties unite in the Med & Caribbean‘ gave insight to the frustrations of seasoned South African crew who feel disadvantaged by the bad apple newcomers to the industry.

“Some of us have sacrificed everything to come over and try make it. For those of you [who] are here for the jol…stop ruining our once pristine reputation,” lamented Mary-Ann.

“This is not a glamorous industry. We are servants to the super rich. We are no more than what Eve is to Madam.”

The Facebook debate
The Facebook debate

It is a sad day when those who have invested in themselves, and who show through with their work ethic and professionalism, are dragged down by the few who believe that yachting owes them something.

THE LAST WORD

In the end, the basic rules of supply and demand still apply. In an industry where cheap, unskilled labour is in heavy supply but not in demand, some will go home empty-handed.

And when the odds are stacked against us, the least we can do is readjust our attitudes, put our heads down and remember those who take the industry seriously.