On the 15th of November 2007, I was staying at Trellis Bay in the British Virgin Islands in the Caribbean. I wrote a blog post about how lots had happened since I last wrote a blog post, but for reasons that I didn’t divulge at the time, I couldn’t write about all that had happened. At last, 8 years later, I’m putting it out there.
* Some names have been changed to preserve anonymity.
Offered a Job
It’s October 2007, and I’m sitting in a bar in Tortola, the British Virgin Islands. I’m with Captain Steve Dewhurst and his first-mate Ellie. We’re celebrating a couple of successful yacht deliveries, one three-week trans-Atlantic delivery from the Canary Islands to the BVIs and another from the Bahamas to the BVIs.
Someone slaps Steve on the back from behind. “Steve you old bastard, I thought I’d run into you here!” Speaking in a faint British accent, she’s an attractive 40-something blonde woman with a deep tan. I notice her hands. Calloused and weathered.
Steve and Ellie turn and break into smiles, standing in turn to give the new woman strong hugs. “What brings you here?” Steve asks.
“I just finished doing a charter around the BVIs. 10 days with a group of Chinese clients. I need a strong drink,” she laughs.
Steve introduces me to Captain Kathy Johnson. “This is our most recent boat-scrub for our last couple of deliveries, Rob. He’s a Kiwi, but don’t hold that against him. He was a great deckhand!” She gives me a strong handshake, and turns back to Steve.
“I don’t suppose you know of any chefs looking for some work, do you?” Kathy asked Steve. Steve hardly hesitated, replying in jest “Rob makes a pretty mean curry!”
I didn’t deny it. I was pretty chuffed with the coconut milk and chicken curry I’d put together as one of the many meals I’d prepared during our delivery of a large Lagoon 420 catamaran yacht across the Atlantic. And I had always enjoyed cooking and making meals look and taste nice.
Kathy turned to me. “Would you be interested in being a chef on a 10-day yacht charter? We offer five-star service on our charters, so you’d have to be prepared for a high degree of quality.”
I replied saying that it sounded like an interesting proposition, but that I’d never cooked on a yacht before. Before I could mention that I’d never done any form of paid kitchen work in my entire life either, she said “I’m sure you’d be fine. If you can put together a 7-day 6-person menu proposal and email it to me in a week’s time along with your CV, I’ll take a look and we can go from there, if you like?”
“Ah, yeah, OK, I’ll get back to you in a week,” I said, not quite knowing what I was getting myself into, but pretty confident that if I went with the flow, things would work out.
“Great, that will definitely get me out of a pickle. My usual guy can’t make it on the next charter, so I was getting desperate. I look forward to hearing from you in a week. Don’t let me down!”
Kathy read through my feigned confidence, however. “The thing with yacht cheffing is that you’ve got to keep things simple. Use off-the-shelf sauces, and choose recipes that keep cooking time to the minimum. We’ll be on a mono-hull yacht, so galley space will be limited, and you may find the entire galley leaning at a 40 degree angle sometimes! I’ll put you in touch with some other chefs I know, and they’ll be able to give you some more tips.”
With this, we exchanged email addresses. She then turned to the bar tender, ordered a double-shot rum and coke, and cheerfully greeted another bar-goer next to her.
I didn’t speak to Kathy again for the rest of the night.
True to her word though, the next morning I had an email from Kathy, introducing me to another chef friend of hers. Also in my inbox was an email from that friend, recommending a book called Ship to Shore. She gave me the same advice Kathy had given me the night before. “Keep recipies simple and easy to prepare! The best gourmet yacht chefs make uncompromisingly perfect meals, but know that creativity is key in challenging shoe-box-sized galleys.”
At the time, I was staying at a Joanne’s place. She was a local Couchsurfing host, and I would stay there for a week. I asked her where a bookshop was where I might find the book. She went to her bookshelf, pulled out a well-worn book, and handed it to me. “Hold onto it till you’re done with the charter trip.” It was the very book Kahty’s friend had recommended to me.
I spent two days poring over the book, looking for recipes that looked suitable for my level of inexperience. In the end I had my 7-day menu. I Googled how to best lay out a menu proposal, and nervously sent it to Kathy for review, asking for guest preferences so that I could finalize the dish selection (here’s that very proposal).
Kathy got back to me quickly with a brief email. “That looks great, Rob. Meet me Thursday at 10am at the marina so I can give you some cash to go buy the supplies. I’ll be at dock E prepping the boat. We leave the marina with the clients at 9am on Friday morning, so we need to be fully prepared by Thursday evening.”
Supplies: Only the best will do.
Thursday morning came, and I met Kathy at the marina. She had grease on her hands. She rubbed one on her trousers, and gave me the same strong handshake. Out of her chest pocket she handed me a thick envelope, full of American dollars. “Buy the best quality ingredients they have on the shelves. If there’s a 600ml value-pack of olive oil for $6, and a 200ml option for $15 next to it, choose the 200ml option. Choose the $30 a pound cuts of beef over the $10 a pound cuts. Cost is no option. Our clients are paying big money, so they expect the best. And I like giving the best to them.”
This was like music to my ears. Nothing like exceptional quality ingredients to make my job easier.
As I was waking away from the boat, Kathy called out. “Remember we’ll be away from any sort of civilization for 10 days, so you’ll need to buy food for our 6 guests plus the two of us for those 10 days. As for vegetables like lettuce and other perishables, we should be able to replenish at a couple of spots, but don’t expect too much!”
I got a taxi to the local supermarket and started wandering around the shelves. What struck me was the extremes in prices for most items. There seemed to be clear lower-end ‘locals’ products and those aimed at high-end gourmet meals. It was like being a kid in a candy shop. The prime wagyu steak was going to be a winner.
By just after noon, I had the supplies I hoped would last 10 days. This was just one of the things that I was nervous about for this trip. Forget the fact that I’d never actually cooked a steak in my life. Forget also the fact that this was a 5-star gourmet yacht charter trip, with the clients paying around $15,000 between them, and I’d never cooked professionally in my entire life. To run out of food just wouldn’t do.
When I got back to the marina with my haul loaded up on a borrowed trolley, I asked Kathy to watch as I packed the galley, and let me know if what I had bought looked like enough for 10 days. “It makes me kind of nervous that you’re not sure, Rob,” she said, looking at me sideways. “But OK, let’s take a look.”
With food packed, she looked satisfied. “There’s just one thing that we need to top up on, and that’s alcohol. Drunk clients are happy clients, so here’s a list of what I noticed is missing from the boat’s drinks cabinet. Can you go back to the supermarket and get these? Anything else you want to add, feel free to get it.”
The list was long, and consisted mostly of hard liqueur. I happily obliged.
Meet the Clients
The next day was departure day, and I arrived to the marina at our arranged time of 6am for a final check over the boat. Kathy was in good spirits. She was obviously happy to be returning to her element after a week and a half on land. “Don’t you just love the marina in the morning,” she beamed.
With the boat in order at around 8:45am, Kathy directed me to cast the ropes off the jetty, as we needed to move the boat to the guest landing at the other end of the marina. With my trans-Atlantic trip and Caribbean trip behind me, I felt a surge of pride as I made my way around the boat, making sure the ropes were tidy. Just like Steve had taught me.
It was a short 5 minute trip under engine to get to the guest landing. Our clients were already standing in the morning sun, squinting at us as we approached the jetty. I ran around and dropped the starboard side fenders, to ready the boat for landing. A stiff easterly wind was coming from the starboard side, so I’d have to work quickly with the bowline once we were along side the jetty, so as to secure the boat from being blown to the port side.
Kathy was in her element, and sided the yacht up to the jetty with exact precision. I jumped off with bow line in hand, and jogged to the far bollard. In that moment, all pride in my previous next-to non-existent sailing experience evaporated as I had a complete mind-blank as to how to tie a clove hitch around the bollard. In the panickingly long two seconds as I stood there vacantly, I decided to wrap the line haphazardly around the bollard, hoping that the breeze would not push the boat so much as to unravel it.
I rushed to the port-ward-drifting rear of the boat with Kathy’s cries to “goddamn hurry up!” and thankfully remembered Steve’s excellent instant-cloves-hitch technique. With pride returned momentarily, my moment of glory was interrupted by Kathy’s curses as my miserable attempt at securing the bow came unraveled. I ran back to the bow and grabbed the line just as the last inches of line were being pulled off the jetty, the bow of the boat being quickly pushed towards the other luxury yacht on the port side.
The clients watched on in curious silence.
Katy called me on board and was admirably calm despite the near collision with the next door boat. “Good save. I’m going to brief the clients now, so you can get onto preparing lunch.”
I went down below and started preparing a light lunch of turkey salad wraps, served with a sweet chili dipping sauce, sour cream, and a fresh coriander garnish. All nerves were gone as the calm realization sunk in that there were hungry, exacting clients coming aboard.
When Kathy called me up on deck, the clients were seated around the outdoor seating area looking relaxed. They introduced themselves as three couples from Las Vegas. They were obviously all old friends. Only one offered what they did for a living. He said he owned four successful restaurants in Las Vegas. I smiled and tried to hide my shock at the fact I’d be preparing meals for a man who should by all means know what a good meal should be.
I served their light lunch and we were then under way.
Fake it till you make it
The next few days are a blur. I remember wedging the cookbook in a corner of the galley, referring to it as I prepared the dishes I had planned on my 10-day menu (most for the first time in my life). I tried to avoid the clients noticing the cookbook, but the clients seemed to have complete confidence in my abilities, and paid little to no attention to my movements in the galley. I found this fascinating considering that the galley took up at least a quarter of the space available in the under-deck saloon of the yacht, and was in clear view of the clients when they were down below.
Early on in the trip I prepared sushi for lunch one day. The weather outside was uncharacteristically drizzly, so the clients were all sitting in the galley chatting loudly. One looked over to me and asked where I had worked prior to working on yachts. I answered honestly, saying that previously to cycling half way around the world, I had worked in Japan. Before I could elaborate, she exclaimed to her friends “hear that guys? Rob used to work in Japan as a chef!” I smiled and chose not to comment (for those who don’t know, I worked in a very normal municipal government office in international relations). Luckily the conversation steered towards my cycle trip, and any probing questions into my deeper professional past were avoided.
Also memorable was the evening I prepared my only steak dish for the trip. Steak served on a bed of crushed potato with a gravy sauce and vegetables on the side. This would be the first time in my life I had cooked steak in any form. And here I was preparing it for Americans from Las Vegas. If there was anyone more qualified to judge good from bad steak, these people were it.
Referring to my saving grace cookbook, I learned for the first time how to cook a steak in the various rareness options. It was one of the two times I was genuinely nervous about my cooking performance. The whole operation went smoothly, however, and the plates came back empty.
Perhaps my personal favourite dish of the trip however was a peach schnapps tiramisu, using real peaches (expensive in the BVI’s!) as an ingredient. I followed the cook book’s recommendation to make the dessert three days in advance. This allowed plenty of time for the flavors to develop. It did not disappoint.
My biggest disaster was a lunch towards the end of the trip. The plan was for vegetarian stuffed eggplant, with a curried lentil stuffing. At the last minute Kathy advised to add some sort of meat. These Las Vegas clients were unlikely to be wooed with a no-meat lunch, she advised. So I hastily added some sliced ham as a lining to the eggplant cases. The issue however was that I had left the preparation of lunch too late. The drastically under-powered and minuscule oven on board refused to cook the eggplant cases through, and I ended up serving the dishes under-cooked.
They were returned with lentil stuffing and slithers of ham gone and eggplant cases still on the plates. Kathy was not impressed.
My cooking skills were not the only thing that I was lacking. One one occasion it became achingly clear just how inexperienced I was as a deckhand. One particularly blustery afternoon, we had to take refuge in a particularly shallow-reef bay for a night. Like most moorings on the trip, this bay required that we moor at an off-shore buoy. Like many evenings previously, Kathy edged up to the buoy bow-first, and it was my job to lean over the railing, hook the rope, haul it up, and attach our bow line to the buoy. All this had to be done with clear communication from me as to how close we were to the buoy. With little crewing experience, I had yet to figure out how to communicate with my hands how far we were from the buoy, while simultaneously holding the hook ready to grab the buoy.
On this blustery evening, after five frustrating attempts at hooking the buoy, and the yacht being pushed further and further towards a shallow reef, Kathy’s composure with my lack of skill finally cracked. Finally after I had the boat secured, Kathy stomped up to the bow and let loose. “What sort of deckhand are you?! You put us all in danger! A four year old could have snagged that rope? What’s wrong with you?”
I felt slighted. “This is not what I was hired to do,” I retorted angrily. “I never claimed to have skills as a deckhand, so your insults are unfair!”
I think Kathy and I realized at that point that the stress of six days on the water was wearing both of us thin. She decided to head into shore to the bar in the bay with the guests for the afternoon, and I stayed on board. It was the first time that Kathy and I were not on the boat together during those first six days, apart from supply runs. It was bliss having the boat to myself. I went for a swim in impossibly clear waters, and relaxed while everyone was away. It did wonders for the sanity of Katy and I as a team, and the rest of the trip proceeded without any major confrontations.
The trip was not without its more petty drama however, either for Kathy or myself. One such drama consisted of me losing one of the client’s $5,000 diamond earrings.
It was when we were moored at Shipwreck Bay. On the program for the day was some snorkeling around a shallow shipwreck, a short swim away from our yacht. The clients were changed into their swimsuits and ready to jump into the water when one realized she still had her “favorite earrings in the whole world” (her words) on. So she removed them and handed them to me for safekeeping. I put them into my top short pocket and promptly forgot about them.
It was not until an hour after the clients had returned and were getting ready for dinner that she asked for her earrings back.
They were not in my pocket, and I had no idea where they were. The feeling of complete sinking despair was something I would rather forget. I realized that the earrings must have fallen out of my open-topped pocket when I leaned over to pick something up off the deck. I searched for 30 minutes, to no avail. I had to let the guest know what had happened, and that I was sure they would turn up (I wasn’t in the slightest). She was surprisingly pragmatic about the situation (as was her partner who had bought her the earrings).
Two days later, however, as I was doing the early morning scrub of the deck, I found to my indescribable relief two diamond earrings wedged between a line of rope and the very edge of the deck. My bacon was saved.
The inter-island cable
Another drama was not, thankfully, my doing. We had dropped anchor at a sandy-bottomed cove one evening, and anchored overnight. The following morning, however, as I was raising the anchor, I noticed the anchor winch straining more than usual. A few moments later, the bow of the boat dipped perceptibly. I immediately stopped the winch, and called out to Kathy. She skipped over from the helm and tried again, first dropping then raising the anchor. Again the winch strained and the bow dipped. “Fuck,” Kathy muttered under her breath. “Let’s have a look at the charts. I have a bad feeling about this.”
Back in the saloon, Kathy pointed to a dark line on the GPS map screen, running along the screen at least 75 meters away from our port side. “That’s a bloody inter-island cable, which we should be more than enough far away from. I never knew cables could drift this far!”
Kathy disappeared into our shared cabin, and returned in her swimsuit. “I’ll have to go down and try to free the anchor from the cable. Otherwise we’ll have to cut the anchor loose, and I’ll be in deep trouble.”
The anchor was in at least 10m of water, so it was hardly an easy task to dive down and dislodge a very heavy anchor from a very heavy cable. Kathy was doing it all with just a snorkel and goggles. It took her four dives to get the anchor free, each dive inching the blades of the anchor little by little away from under the cable. By then the clients had congregated on the bow of the boat, looking on curiously at the proceedings, a couple of them offering advice on how to best go about the problem.
On her fourth attempt Kathy came up and as she hurriedly swam to the back of the boat to take the helm, she yelled at me to draw the anchor up. This time the winch lifted the anchor with ease, and the clients broke out into applause.
As the days wore on and food supplies dwindled, I found it particularly difficult to supply a varied selection of fresh vegetables on the menu, particularly in the form of salads. Despite heading into shore on a couple of occasions, stocking up on lettuce, tomato and cucumber became difficult in the smaller settlements along the coast. Luckily, however, I still had a strong supply of hardier vegetables such as carrots and purple cabbage. This meant that for the last three days I could supply the guests with refreshing coleslaw rather than green salad. This did not go unnoticed by Kathy or the guests, however. “Rob, apparently the coleslaw is getting a little repetitive,” Kathy said on the second-to-last night of the trip. I apologized and reassured her that they’d only have to endure it for one last night.
“We knew we’d have our own personal chef, but wow”
After an exhausting ten days on the water (in which I had to endure making lunch at a 40 degree angle only once), it was time to say goodbye to our guests. It was 2006, and my official pay rate for the trip was US$120 a day. Like most service industry jobs in that part of the world, however, it was the tips that really made the payoff worth the effort of being on call 24 hours a day for ten days.
After the guests had all left and Kathy and I had cleaned up the yacht, we sat down to take a look at what the guests had left us in tips. Kathy had told me to expect anything between 5% and 10% of the total charter cost (around $15,000 total for 6 people). We found two envelopes in the larger envelope left behind. One addressed to Kathy, and one to me. They both contained US$650 each, along with a personal note.
I was already amazed at my good fortune of landing and finishing the job without entirely stuffing it up, but to receive $650 in tips was incredible. Add that to what I expected to be paid by the yacht charter company, and I’d just landed almost $2,000 in ten days, more than enough to fund my planned longboard trip across the US.
The personal note, however, laid at rest any insecurities I had over the reception of the meals I had prepared. “The home-cooked style of the meals really made us feel at home,” the note read. “And we knew we’d have our own personal chef, but wow. You were brilliant.”
The note went on to say if I ever found myself in Las Vegas looking for work, there would be a chef job ready for me at one of the restaurateur’s eateries.
I sat there and shook my head. I had actually pulled it off.