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All You Need is Love!

Dockwalk October 2021

So, I reached out to a number of couples in the LGBTQ+ community, to chat to them about their stories; how they met, the highs of working in yachting with their partners, working apart, and to see what words of wisdom they’d impart on younger people coming into the industry. The aim being to demonstrate to anyone who perhaps feels concerned they may not necessarily fit into the traditional yacht crew moulds, that we welcome anyone and everyone as long as you work as hard as the rest of us and share the same adventurous streak we’re looking for when building our dream team of crew.

Are you comfortable? Well let’s begin. To quote the ultimate Queen RuPaul, “Everybody say LOVE!”.

Captain Anna Strang met First Mate Maggie Kerr when they were both working on a round-the-world science expedition vessel, researching micro plastics in the oceans. Not your average yacht gig then. Having worked together ever since, their 2 year relationship sometimes feels like 5! Maggie told me, “Working in the industry is a serious lifestyle adjustment. It can take you to some of the most incredible places around the world and give you some of the most unique experiences. Having your partner right there literally by your side allows you to share the highs with them and ensure you have someone there to get you through the lows. You get to go through all of these significant milestones in your relationship together in settings you couldn’t even imagine, like swimming with hammerhead sharks in the Galapagos or weathering a severe storm off Easter Island.” When asked about challenges they’ve faced, Maggie explained it’s mostly about finding their positions on the same vessel, “Couple jobs are typically advertised as ‘Captain & chef’ or ‘Deckhand & Stewardess’. With the assumed female role as chef or stewardess. We are both deck crew with Ocean Master 200gt tickets and found it nearly impossible to find couples positions advertised for 2 deck crew as females.” Plus the fact that these are traditionally male roles on board, but these two continue to break that glass ceiling and are now on their second yacht as captain and mate.

Chief Stew Inge Blum met her Second Stew partner Paige Hanekom in South Africa (where they’re both from). They lived together in the Cape Winelands for over three years. When Paige graduated Uni they took the plunge and decided to head to Mallorca to join the yachting industry. They’ve now been together over 7 years and still going strong. They work together on a motoryacht, and have done so for 3 of their 4 years in yachting. Impressive. After their first season apart, Inge scored a chief stew gig on a new build motoryacht. Paige told me, “As luck would have it and with the universe in our favour, the Captain at the time sent Inge a message: “You wouldn’t by any chance know of any potential Second Stews that you would like to work with?”. Right time, and right place! We know how hard it is for couples to get jobs on the same vessel, let alone same sex couples, let alone in the same department!” Paige also highlighted how wonderful it is to be able to share the adventures with your partner, and also, how “When you are feeling down, you are fortunate enough to have your partner to confide in. On another note, we have often been commended and thanked for being an openly gay couple within the industry. Social media is lacking queer Yachting content, so putting out some sort of representation by just being us has certainly been a “high” for our time in the industry.”

When asked about difficulties they’ve overcome as a same sex couple in the industry, Paige explained they’ve been the victims of “banter” on more than one occasion, “We felt we had a lot to prove working in the same department together, as we had been given this wonderful opportunity. Fortunately, we are meticulous with our work and balance each other’s strength and weaknesses out like no other and run a spectacular interior together. We have been able to prove that we are great at what we do, and being a same sex couple in the same department has only helped the vessel succeed in the past three years.” 

Captain Peter met his husband Blair, a Purser/Interior Manager when they worked together in the past. Becoming close friends, the romance began to blossom 7 years ago… and they tied the knot 5.5yrs ago. Although they have worked together previously, they’ve found their careers have pushed them in different directions but still get to see plenty of each other on rotation. Peter and Blair hold the crown for becoming the first gay couple to marry in yachting (as far as we all know!). Blair said that with Peter he has a “full power, all in, crazy, emotional, uplifting and very rewarding life. I am learning all the time, about being in a relationship, being humble, being kind, and also accepting that labelling all of the shelves in our house might not be as high of a priority for him as it is for me!” Blair commented on how the world has changed in the 12 years he’s been involved in yachting, and how there’s far less stigma, “the general age of crew is much younger and so this allows more liberal viewpoints, and the average age of Captains has come down by the sheer volume of newly minted Masters – this allows for more liberal viewpoints from the other end of the ladder as well.”

Laura Mound, Deck/Chaseboat Captain, met her partner Nicola Small, a decky/crew cook, when Nic was dating her step sibling. They became friends first, then when that relationship ended fell in love. They’ve been together 3.5yrs but have only just landed their first couples role, doing the long distance thing before that. That element’s been the challenge for them, but as Nicola explained, “by constantly making each other and our relationship a priority we managed to come out the other side so much stronger than when we started.”

Chief Stew Cantleigh Groenewald and Chef Beth Mason met in Malta over 5 years ago, when the yachts they were working on docked side by side for the winter. Sadly they’ve struggled to find work together over the years but even with long distance, Cantleigh said, “You get to share this adventure with the person you love and what could be better than that!” She went on to say, “long distance is a serious thing and you have to be willing to do the work! We have gone almost 6 months of not seeing each other which is absurd in land based life. We have also been disappointed so many times with jobs that we both matched perfectly for but as soon as it was known we were a couple or same sex couple when the position was indeed 'couples friendly' has been extremely disheartening.”  And rightly so, surely love is love, however you look at it, and if, professionally, a candidate fits the bill, and their partner does too, why should their sexuality or anything else come into it?

The final couple I spoke to are pretty well known, I’d go so far as to call them a bit of a golden couple of yachting, especially in Europe. Jenny Matthews and Natasha Ambrose, both Chief Officers when onboard, are the founders of She of the Sea. If you haven’t heard of it, where have you been? Go google it! Regular pair of glass ceiling smashers are these two, doing more for women in yachting than anyone ever has before, and now representing the LGBTQ+ side too as they’re part of that community. SOTS was actually how they met – when Jenny posted on the Facebook page “Girls on Deck” to see if there were any other female chief mates out there (she’d been told there were only 10 and couldn’t believe it!), Tash was one of the first to reach out. They became friends, regularly chatting about all things yachting, and when Jenny’s SOTS project started gaining momentum, they finally met up at an organised gathering and “the rest is history”. They work together most days on She of the Sea, and LegaSea (their mentoring programme), and when they do go to sea they do try and go together. Jenny told me, “this can be a challenge as we are both Chief Officers. We have been very fortunate that these opportunities do come up more now, but remember in the beginning this was a real challenge.” When talking about the positives, Jenny explained, “Being connected to someone that feels and represents home in an industry that can isolate people from loved ones is amazing. For me, I have enjoyed the industry in a whole new way now that I have someone to share all the amazing highs, and of course the lows with - it’s a constant in an industry that leaves most of us completely at the whim of other factors- the boss, the weather, the world. Having someone who knows you so well and who can give real, unbiased views on situations is also pretty amazing as that can be hard to come by especially at sea.”

Something I felt was important to get people who are actively in the LGBTQ+ community to share, was their advice for new crew coming into the industry. Jenny said, “The industry is evolving- on the majority of boats, orientation is embraced, and if you find yourself one that is not yet with the program- leave. Life is too short to spend your days in spaces where you can’t embody your full wonderful self. Also- find the LGBTQ+ communities that are growing! They are beautiful, vibrant and SO much fun.”

Paige’s advice came in like a steam train, “Be unapologetically yourself! Do not let anyone try shadow who you are and who you love! Yachting is an incredible opportunity to “start fresh”, so do it as the truest version of you. Be honest from the get go about your sexuality and take up space. Yachting can sometimes be lonely and isolating, but know that you are not alone and there are so many of us out as sea waving our flags in support of you and who have your back. There will be bigots, and times where you are made to feel uncomfortable, but as the great Michelle Obama once said, “When they go low, we go HIGH”. If it does get to a point where you really feel ostracised and vulnerable, inform your superior. If nothing happens from there then remove yourself from the situation and try get placed elsewhere - your mental health and heart is worth way more than being in an uncomfortable situation during long and strenuous hours of work in confined spaces.” 

Cantleigh’s advice is to “Be brave, be open and be proud of who you are! If you feel you have to conceal a big part of you, then it is not the boat for you. It can be hard and there are more close minded crew than you'd think (even though we live in a diverse multicultural industry), do not take comments or lost opportunities to heart. There are some incredible Captains, Owners and crew who will celebrate you!” 

My final question to everyone was where to seek support, if any LGBTQ+ individuals or couples are struggling.

Nicola and Laura recommended She of the Sea as a “safe space for women of the community”.

Maggie also cited SOTS, “10 years ago it was a very different story, now it’s great to see more ‘pride’ in the industry. There are so many people out there on social media who are supporting the community. ‘She of the Sea’ is one that instantly comes to mind. However there is definitely room for more. There has also been a huge boost in mental health awareness onboard, there is loads of support groups online and podcasts. Just reach out.” 

Jenny said, “Tash and I are always on the end of a phone/ WhatsApp for LGBTQ+ individuals/ couples. We have an amazing community to connect people with and feel there is so much to be gained from shared experiences. For those who would like to connect with mental health/ wellbeing support, there are great resources out there such as the ISWAN Crew Help line, as well as the likes of the Crew Coach who offers amazing support. We also always recommend all crew, regardless of orientation. sign up to Nautilus to have access to support, legal advice and more should the need ever arise.”

Blair recommended “Find other gay crew through social media and then ask for help. There’s no shame in asking for help and we can attest that it’s not always bad, things do get better (I feel like I’m talking to my 19 year old self the day I came out), there is more support and help out there than you realise.”

Cantleigh has started up a LGBTQ+ Yacht Crew Facebook page – the perfect place to connect, share stories, and find a safe space. She said her messenger is always open, and hopes to get a strong positive conversation started in the industry.

Paige explained how queer representatives, influencers, corporations and LGBTQ+ allies are becoming more vocal within the yachting industry. “We would highly suggest reaching out to these organisations and individuals who are able to provide solid advice and mentorship, and may be able to put you with the right mix of people.”

I think we’ll close with final comments from Jenny (she’s a wise one…), “It’s been my experience that the real magic happens when we are able to show up as ourselves at work and connect with our job and the people around us authentically. Each of us have a unique road and I want to thank all the individuals, allies and the LGBTQ+ community we are part of for adding so much love and colour to our industry!”

Indeed. Wouldn’t life be boring if everyone was the same? Practice acceptance. Practice love. It all starts in ourselves… Ok one more thing, from my favourite Queen RuPaul again: “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love anybody else?” Amen to that (she types, followed by a deathdrop on the office floor).  

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