It's not a bad life

Superyacht Captain, Mike Harris, says there's no substitute for experience and time on the water

RYA Yachtmaster Examiner, Mike Harris, is a highly successful superyacht skipper and has worked on board sailing and motor yachts based all over the world. Mike is currently skipper of a 33m CBI Navi motor yacht. 

However, this is a career that he stumbled on by accident, having had a varied working life, mostly unrelated to yachting. So how did he end up in this line of work?

What's your sailing background?

I didn't get afloat until I was 14, when I did a small amount of dinghy sailing on the Medway, but I was in my mid 20s before I really took to the water.

In 1988 I was on a Mediterranean trip when I was put in charge of a Jaguar 27 and a crew of four, being the only one there with any experience.

On my return I took out a bank loan, got a job on the south coast and bought a 27 yacht which I lived on in Brighton Marina. I immersed myself in the local cruising and racing scene but one February, on a solo trip, had an unfortunate incident with a lee cliff, which left me homeless. Thankfully the insurance money bought a new boat, but I knew it was time for some formal training and embarked on a night school RYA Yachtmaster™ course.

In 1994, I thought Id have a stab at the RYA Yachtmaster™ Offshore exam and persuaded a few friends to crew for me in exchange for a cheap weeks sailing in Wales.

I will never forget the look on my examiners face, I was so bad that he was convinced he was being filmed for Candid Camera! However, I like a challenge, and spent the next six months cramming in some theory and, although I couldn't afford to go sailing, booked myself in for another exam. Miraculously I passed, having learnt everything from sailing books a skill that would come in very handy in years to come.

How did your working life pan out?

Having failed the entrance requirements for the Royal Navy due to slightly poor hearing, I became a trainee chef. This lasted a few years but the hours were too long and the pay too low.

In the booming DIY years I worked for B&Q, before ending up as a kitchen designer for British Gas. I seemed to have a talent for visualising space, applying tried and tested design principles and presenting the idea to the client in an interesting way.

After five years I was offered voluntary redundancy and a retraining grant. I decided to relocate to Birmingham, where was I was soon to be married.

Just 12 months after my Yachtmaster exam, I used my retraining grant to embark on an RYA Yachtmaster™ Instructor preparation week. To my horror, my examiner for the instructor course was the same guy who had examined me for my Yachtmaster exam. To my amazement, he passed me! At the end of the course I met James Stevens, the RYA's Training Manager, and I will never forget his parting words: your education has just started.

How right he was the following five years teaching sailing, running 150 weeks of Yachtmaster preparation training, and plenty of practice were invaluable.

A chance meeting

My career was about to take a whole new path when I ran a Yachtmaster Prep week for one of Austria's richest men. Eighteen months later my wife, Kim, and I were helping him deliver his new 32m Codacasa motor yacht to the Caribbean.

Ten years and 100,000 miles later I am still learning, and have never looked back. I have been lucky enough to continue working with Kim, who started out as a senior stewardess and is now our chef.

What advice do you have for aspiring superyacht crew and skippers?

If you are old enough to have a variety of work experience prior to your yachting career, it will stand you in good stead. Whether I was working as a chef or a kitchen designer, I was building up invaluable knowledge, customer service skills and the ability to communicate with people at any level.

Be prepared. When I started teaching sailing, I gave up wearing suits and ties. But to the amusement of my fellow instructors, I was always able to pull a pair of pressed trousers and a clean shirt out of my kit bag at the end of the week. You never know who you might meet!

While relatively inexperienced people can work their way through the qualifications needed for our industry, there is no substitute for experience and time on the water. The RYA's Yachtmaster Certificate of Competence is a great stepping stone into your career, but is not the ultimate qualification.

The backbone of the superyacht industry is a hardcore of highly experienced yachtsmen and women. They are in short supply and so can demand higher and higher salaries, often taking extended career breaks or early retirement simply because they can.

The number and size of superyachts is increasing all the time, easily absorbing the best crews in the employment market, so there is a great career to be had for those prepared to train and work hard. One guy I trained when I was a Yachtmaster Instructor has moved from his first job in the industry to being 1st Mate on one of the worlds largest sailing yachts in just 18 months.

Its not a bad life!