In issue 77, we brought you a snapshot of how 57-year-old Alison James set foot in the industry. Here, in her own honest words, she tells you about the ups and downs of her first year as a superyacht stew.
In May 2015, aged 57 and freshly armed with my STCW, I moved from Colorado to an infamous Fort Lauderdale crew house. My first job came through within a week via Daywork 123. I got a call from a captain looking for help delivering a 94ft Lazzara up from North Carolina to the Chesapeake, and I was to help with overnight helm! The captain and I got along famously and it was like being on a private cruise for two. We are still pals.
Next came a cook/stew job on a boat out of Miami heading up the east coast. This was a job I should not have taken, but who knew? It was the disaster job that I heard everyone has to go through. The owner had never owned a boat before, the captain had never supervised a stew, I had never been a stew. I was not only clueless, but I realise now my over-the-top enthusiasm must have been a bit irritating at times. The family wanted junk food, and I had just emerged from a granola hippy phase. When I told the owner I liked the farmers’ market for the tastiest veggies, I got a glare in return. I cooked up some feasts for the two other crewmembers, but catering to the owner’s family resembled an ‘I love Lucy’ episode, with me rushing around, between cooking at the barbeque and serving drinks and sandwiches, all the while forgetting where things were stored. All I know was the owner expected excellence and I wasn't the person to deliver it.
We were approaching St. Augustine and I had the feeling I've so often had when I know I'm about to get “the old heave ho.” But then I espied a ship at the dock and saw that it was a magnificent galleon. As expected, I got “marooned” in St. Augustine. I joined the galleon in Philly the day before the tall ships parade. I was quite excited, but the other five American crew were not amused by my enthusiasm. I didn't know there was a problem for a few days, but then I started to sense that all was not right. One of the Americans, Susan, explained that the rest of the Americans felt I had not paid my dues by being a volunteer for months beforehand and merely joined the ship in time for the sail. Her husband positively loathed me, and there was another woman who gave me the silent treatment, so I ignored her and made friends with the Spanish crew instead.
After about a week we sailed up to New York. Sailing up to Manhattan under the Verazanno Bridge was a thrill indeed. We docked at South Street Seaport, where, years ago, I would go sometimes when I worked on Wall Street in the early ‘80s.
Then we started up the coast, staying to the south of Nantucket, and saw whales and a few porpoises. We all did overnight watches and it got pretty cold. I spent a good amount of time at the helm. There were 24 crew on board; we worked 40 hours a week for $35 worth of food each per week.
Next stop was Portland, Maine for another tall ships parade, and then the delightful colonial Portsmouth, New Hampshire. We were the main attraction as we drove up the river; crowds cheered us along and a flotilla of small boats accompanied us to the dock. Right before we left Portsmouth I just happened to glance at my junk mail folder and caught site of an email from another tall ship, the Kalmar Nyckel in Delaware. They had one spot open on their three-week training class starting in 10 days and do I want to join them? Yes!
I was quite excited, but the other five American crew were not amused by my enthusiasm. I didn't know there was a problem for a few days, but then I started to sense that all was not right.
The sheer amount of information you are given was overwhelming, but the fellow trainees were the best set of people you could ever wish to meet. And all for $170, including room and board. I then lined up an east coast boat delivery, a 46ft trawler in Annapolis, and off we went down the Intercoastal Waterway. The Dismal Swamp and Pamlico Sound are lovely and zen-like. Things went well until the boat hit a log in the Alligator Canal and the propeller shaft bent. Oriental North Carolina was as far as I got.
Down to Fort Lauderdale and the infamous crew house to catch up with fellow yachties, and network. Miracle of miracles, an agency came through for me and I got a seasonal job. It is a perfect starter job on a boat as a stew/cook. I'm here now in the galley and happy to report that all is well. I've got the stew routine down – it has become the brain-dead part of the job that I can do without much thought. Best of all, the owners love my cooking and that is the challenge that I thrive on.
But it wasn’t quite as good as Alison thought. We decided to catch up with Alison to see how she was getting on…
That job I ended up with, well, the captain turned out to be an abusive bully. I had to stick with it because it was my first real professional cook job, and he knew that.
Next came a couple of freelance jobs to the Bahamas with nice owners and captains but they involved cooking while going over the gulf stream. In the first one I was left holding on with one hand for dear life and a full pan of oatmeal in the other. The second job had me doing short order breakfasts for eight people, with oil splattering and knives (left by the stew on the edge of the counter) falling onto the floor. Both jobs in bare feet. Not complaining, just saying. I'll be heading back for more, but forewarned is forearmed: no more cooking while going over the gulf stream, shoes allowed, and a happy crew and owners.
Don't miss our feature in issue 77 where we talk to stews starting in the industry as their second career - download now.