Terry Gilmore, senior yacht staff trainer, tosses some striped cushions from the white canvas sofa and drops several blue monogrammed towels on the scrubbed wooden foredeck of the Latitude superyacht. He watches as his trainees hasten to restore order.
“What do we always ensure?” he snaps, looking with irritation at the new arrangement. “That the zip is down.” He rotates several cushions to conceal barely visible zips.
In any case, it turns out that the towels should be picked up first, so that they do not soak dampness into the sofas, and the lesson proceeds with detailed instructions on the correct method for rolling a towel, so that the monogram is prominently displayed (not easy). “Not like that; totally wrong,” he tells a trainee, pointing out in passing that his belt is too long, and the creases on his polo shirt are insufficiently sharp.
As the economy internationally struggles with the fall-out from recession, the lives of the super-rich continue largely unruffled by the constraints of the global downturn. There are few starker examples of pure extravagance than the superyacht. Because a luxury yacht is less an investment, more a bottomless pit to throw money at.
Owners of superyachts are not people who worry much about penny pinching. These are people who are used to getting what they want and, as employers, they tend to be extremely exacting.
The expanding ranks of billionaires worldwide are creating a new market for servants for the super-rich, often providing esoteric services.
At the more arcane end of the spectrum are the people who staff superyachts, who need to be equipped with discretion, servility and good ironing skills, and are relatively well-paid for their work (starting salaries of between €1,700 and €2,500 (£1,450 to £2,130) a month, which includes a berth on the yacht and all meals, rising to €4,000 (£3,400) a month for more senior staff.
Sara Vestin Rahmani, founder of London-based Bespoke Bureau, a high-end domestic staff recruitment agency, has this year launched this yacht staff training course in Antibes with local firm Abacus & March, because she identified a demand from her clients for well-trained staff capable of working on board superyachts (the term for a large yacht, more than 50m, or 164ft long, usually on sale for anything between £30m and £60m).
Her placement agency has thrived and expanded throughout the economic downturn, and she is also running butlering courses in Norfolk, for the European market, and Chengdu in south-west China, for her clients there. “We’re lucky in the sense that the rich get richer in a recession,” she says.
On board Latitude, a vessel occasionally chartered by musicians such as Rihanna, trainees are being instructed in the art of humility and occasional invisibility that should make them attractive to superyacht owners.
Gilmore has spent a career serving members of the Saudi royal family and rich Russians on board their yachts and is well-qualified to pass on his expertise; his fellow trainers have worked on vessels owned by Roman Abramovich and the Emir of Qatar. Students have paid €900 (£770) for the week’s course, hopeful that it will help them secure a job on board one of the world’s superyachts.
The work appears steeped in glamour, but Gilmore is at pains to dis-abuse his trainees of any starry-eyed notions about the role. A couple of days on Gilmore’s training programme stamps out any lingering sense that this might be a desirable job. Staff need to understand they will simply be “glorified cleaners”, he tells them.
Trainees must memorise correct forms of address from a training manual, which informs them that it is unacceptable to ask “Why?” (it should be substituted with “May I know the reason?”). The inquiry “Are you done?” should be replaced with “May I ask if you have finished?”
Trainees are told that some guests may request that they stand silently on board deck, motionless in the sunshine, waiting for instructions. “It’s stupid, because they could use a buzzer,” Gilmore says, but much of the staffing on yacht businesses is about ostentation and if a motionless steward, standing by on deck is what the owner requests, then staff are not to argue.
He tells trainees they must never wear sunglasses while addressing guests on board a yacht, because guests want to see be able to see their eyes.
A daily list of housekeeping tasks includes polishing the television remote control and checking the towels for stray threads, which need to be chopped off with nail scissors.
Students need to monitor the bathrooms and lavatories, and are given guidance on the correct amount of time they should pause before they can scurry in and tidy up after a guest, refolding the end of the loo paper into a pointed V. “Be aware when people have used the rest rooms. You must be their shadow, but not too close,” Gilmore explains.