The Freelancer

Crew cabins on board yachts can be very small. They become even smaller when you don’t get to use the closets, drawers or shelves because they’re taken up with the belongings of the permanent crew that you are temporarily replacing.
Over the past couple of months, I’ve been playing the role of the freelancer, taking short-term gigs ranging from deliveries to relief crew and have gotten used to climbing on board with a small backpack full of essentials and claiming a small spot on the cabin floor for it. Not that I need, or even want, to feel settled in these situations, because when you’re only there for a busy week or two, grabbing your backpack off the floor makes your departure that much easier. Hopefully, it’s a bit heavier from your earnings.
However, having worked and lived aboard a yacht for over two years, making the transition back to land and taking work as it comes in this fashion has been a mixed experience. There’s no question that every boat and its crew has something to teach you, and getting to come into multiple yachting environments and see how things are done is invaluable. There are a hundred different ways to do things on deck, as well as the interior, and whether you choose to adopt some new techniques or stick with your existing style, having a comparison is the best way to fine-tune your repertoire of skills.
The downside is that being the temp guy, you don’t always have the time or status to get to implement those skills and do things how you would like. Sometimes, swallowing your pride with your morning coffee and accepting your position at the bottom of the ladder again is necessary to survival in the freelance world. You’re there to do a job, often a quick one, and while your experience and knowledge is likely what got you on board it may not always guarantee you any clout with the permanent crew. You’re the new guy, so fair enough.
Recently, I did a last-minute, very busy, 10-day charter to cover for a bosun who was on holiday. I got a phone call one evening, was letting lines go for the Bahamas the next day and greeting guests on the dock hours after that (a time-frame that seems to be about par for the freelance course). Needless to say, there wasn’t much time to learn their program or worry about what the two stripes on my shoulder meant in the pecking order. It was full-on from start to finish, so even though I felt frustrated at times not having more say or any lasting influence on the way things were done, I knew I held a significant role and had an important job to do. Fortunately, the crew I worked with was great, and after a successful, albeit crazy, charter we were all equally rewarded with a handsome tip. The stripes didn’t seem to matter as much when we all got our slice of the pie.
Being a freelancer also means that work doesn’t always come regularly. I’ve been lucky to get some good jobs, but I’ve also had to pick up daywork here and there to keep the fridge full and the bills paid. Like so many others, daywork is what got my foot in the door in this industry a few years ago and kept me afloat when the economy was struggling and the jobs weren’t around. It’s when you first learned about two-parting teak, stainless polishing, waxing and all the other nitty-gritty maintenance jobs fit for a greenhorn. It’s when you learned about all your deck products and what combinations of them worked the best. It’s when you asked the experienced crew as many questions as you could, practiced your knots and learned the correct nautical terminology so you didn’t sound like a fool when interview time came.
But now, even though there are always new things to learn, it’s more about just making some cash. I’m never above dayworking at all, but doing it can make you long for having a permanent place on board again, a place somewhere up the ladder where you can take some ownership of the deck again and take pride in the power to organize it how you see fit. Not long ago I did a few days of work on my old boat, and as you might imagine, took a few shots from the deckhand I previously trained before I left about now being a dayworker. Ahh…I knew they were coming, but so were the bills.
Beyond the call of duty as a freelancer, just seeing how crew interacts with each other in different situations, as well as how different yachts are set up for them to live, has been very eye-opening. As the unbiased outsider, you bear witness to the dynamic of each crew and all that is involved there. Close friendships, rivalries, alliances and favoritisms all play out in front of you and can help you narrow down the field of who and what situation you would like to work with when the permanent job comes again.
Since my girlfriend and I are currently looking for a team position, it’s been a very valuable experience to work on boats that hire couples as well as those that do not. (From all that I have surmised, these situations sometimes work and sometimes don’t.) There will always be a bit of drama when working and living in those close quarters, but there is no rulebook to predict how much. People who have made the leap into yachting all come with different nationalities, ages and personalities, so sticking them on a boat together never generates the same outcome. Every crew is unique, and all you can do is hope to become part of a good one.
So, now, while I enjoy an unknown amount of days off once again, I wait for the phone to ring for the next gig. Maybe it will be another last-minute charter or delivery, in which case my small backpack and I will be out the door in a hurry. Maybe a yacht will need me for a couple days to temporarily fill the epaulettes of a permanent crew member on holiday, or just need an extra hand to do some dirty work in the shipyard for a day or two.
But maybe, just maybe, I’ll get the call for the dream full-time position again and my ride on the freelance train will come to an end. Whenever it happens, it will be nice to get that closet space in the cabin back again.
Doug Mitchell has been in yachting since 2008 and is the former bosun aboard the 130-foot Westport M/Y Sovereign. He grew up in High River, Alberta, Canada, and studied photojournalism at college in Calgary.