Editor's Note, August 19, 2013: After this article appeared in our May 2003 issue, Julie Perry parlayed it into a successful book, The Insider's Guide to Becoming a Yacht Stewardess: Confessions From My Years Afloat With the Rich and Famous. Several cast members on the Bravo reality show Below Deck credit it with introducing them to the industry. Perry, now a local social-media expert, released the second edition of the book this month, with a foreword by Below Deck star Adrienne Gang.
By Julie Perry, as told to Megan Fernandez
I carry this quote from Thoreau in my journal: “Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed, and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.” For two years I sailed the high seas with some of the world's richest people as my companions, and I certainly didn't keep pace with them. I cleaned their toilets.
I'm a born-and-bred Hoosier girl, and I began life marching to the same drummer as most of the people around me. My idea of a successful life was doing well in school and getting a good job — well, actually, getting a great job. When I graduated from North Central in 1993, I was the cheerleader with the 4.0. At Indiana University, I won the Senior Achievement Award, was Phi Beta Kappa with two honors degrees and did everything I could to claim my place on the fast-paced career track. My goal was to spend a while in the “real world” earning some money, then go to law school and become a powerhouse attorney.
But at IU, I read and became inspired by Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, Plato and other adventurous thinkers. And when it came time to suit up for interviews with the Procter & Gambles of the world, I suddenly realized that what I truly wanted was to venture forth like Wordsworth, or be an American in Paris, or even find myself down and out in London.
So I went to England under the auspices of a six-month work program, and one day, a total stranger—the sort of character few Hoosier moms would want their daughters taking advice from—accosted me on the street and told me to leap into the dark and never look back. I was young enough and romantic enough to listen: I quit my job and hopped a bus to Scotland. After paying for a flat, I was left with about $7 to see me through the rest of the week. To survive the next three months, I worked three jobs, and then—joy!—I finished my year abroad traveling around Europe.
Back home, I realized that law school was no longer something I wanted to pursue. I felt I'd seen something on that other continent, and I wanted to go another round. Opportunity knocked the day I was supposed to interview for a job with the Libertarian Party's national office, when a friend from high school, Carl, called and asked me to come to Florida and work for him on a yacht.
Carl's dad had worked in the business for years, helping people from Indiana charter boats. Carl had done stints as a deckhand on a number of mega-yachts; he was always coming home from the Mediterranean with stories about working for famous people. Naturally, when he asked me to join him in serving rich people food and ironing their underwear, I knew it was time for another leap into the dark.
As it turned out, the job with Carl didn't come to fruition, but I was lucky enough to land a job on a 163-foot mega-yacht owned by a Japanese billionaire. It would be chartered out for $25,000 per day, which meant that my 12-person crew could make between $2,000 and $10,000 per charter in tips. I'd be the only American on a ship sailing the Mediterranean.
My previous boating experience was limited to excursions on Lake Wawasee and Geist Reservoir, and a day cruise from Florida to the Bahamas. So before I started, 1 took a weeklong stewardess course. We reviewed nautical terms (even port versus starboard was news to me), cleaning products for opulent surfaces (when in doubt, use water and vinegar), how to fold different types of socks (and yes, how to iron them). We learned about silver service, French service, coffee service, tea service. We tackled the European terms for different types of food — we'd use florentine for “with spinach,” gateau for cake. We studied how to address different stations of royalty, because you never knew who might come aboard a $25 million mega-yacht.
Two of my classmates had worked on the Forbes family's boat, and with little prompting, they were happy to share war stories. Once, they told me, a guest needed a $2,000 garment cleaned for an event a couple nights later. They were in the Caribbean, and my classmate didn't trust the dry-cleaners, so she flew a crew member to New York with the garment so it could be cleaned overnight and returned to the boat the next morning. When guests are paying $25,000 each day—plus fuel, food, oil and port charges—you give them what they want. And I quickly learned that they aren't shy about telling you what that is.
When our boat opened for business, our first guests were from a prominent pharmaceutical family (not Lilly); they'd chartered us for two weeks in the Caribbean. One guest noticed that we had only 100 videos on board and immediately went to a video store on St. Martin and tried to buy every movie in stock. Another guest “needed” a down duvet, which isn't easy to come by in the Caribbean. By the time the Mediterranean season rolled around, I'd be used to this kind of thing; I wouldn't be fazed by the guest who freaked out when we couldn't find Special K cereal in Croatia, or the guest who asked us to ship some leftover ham to her apartment in Paris. But in the beginning, simple Hoosier girl that I was, I was surprised by what constituted a “necessity.”
Stewardesses are not Julie from The Love Boat, nor do they exist simply to clean and serve. A stewardess' job is akin to managing a five-star hotel—which for me meant getting things done at any cost. Once we arrived in the Mediterranean, for instance, we prepared to leave Mallorca, Spain, and pick up a charter group in Venice. But we were still waiting on a shipment of $10,000 worth of crystal glassware, crew uniforms and 250 videotapes. Two hours before departure, I learned that the items were stuck in customs. I grabbed two bottles of Johnnie Walker Black Label scotch and three bottles of Jack Daniel's whiskey and hopped a cab to the airport, where I bribed two guys to let me have the stuff. One of them even escorted me to the police station, helped me get the last bit of paperwork signed and loaded everything on board.
Throughout the Mediterranean, we were surrounded by scads of celebrities. In Monaco one day, I was sitting on the back of the boat after my shift when 1 heard Diana Ross singing on the next boat. And if we didn't see—or hear—the celebs ourselves, we certainly heard about them. According to my cohorts, Barbra Streisand was cheap when it came to tipping, but Pierce Brosnan (someone had been lucky enough to serve him breakfast in bed) was a really great guy.
Most of our guests weren't celebrities, though—just rich families or business types. In Monaco, Virgin mogul Richard Branson was a guest of our guests. After living in London, where people drink Virgin cola and talk on Virgin cell phones, if there was anyone I thought was cool it was Richard Branson. He left behind his pocket change on the nightstand, and it amounted to more than $100.
But the funny thing was, even though these guests spent more than my annual salary each day, I always felt as though I was the one gaining—without spending a dime. Several guests commented that they envied my lifestyle; when they left the boat, they pointed out, I'd get to stay, sitting in the hot tub with the champagne and strawberries (well, okay, the champagne and strawberries they left behind). And who knew where I'd go next? Maybe Monaco, maybe Naples, maybe Israel or even the South Pacific.
No matter where we went, being from Indiana made me a novelty. I wore my sunflower overalls from my hippie days in Bloomington and told stories about the leaves changing in Brown County. I felt an obligation to show the world a bit about my home, so I played “Little Pink Houses” by John Mellencamp, posted headlines about Bobby Knight around the ship, and made my crew watch both Hoosiers and Breaking Away. From port to port, I drew maps on bar napkins that showed people how to get from the Indianapolis airport to Highway 37 South. All my Italian deckhand buddies wanted to bring their friends to visit.
And I could see their point. The truth is, I was never questing to get out of Indiana as much as I was just seeking something new. So when an illness forced me to quit the boat and head home after 20 months as a servant on the seas, I decided to treat Indianapolis like any other port of call and find ways to experience it anew. I moved downtown, started visiting the art museum and began hanging out at the Slippery Noodle and Lockerbie Pub. Having graduated from a school as large as North Central, it wasn't easy to travel incognito, but I quickly developed a knack for seeking out places where I could assume the identity of a stranger in a familiar land.
I do miss the boating life, especially when I see pictures of Rupert Murdoch's daughter in Vanity Fair and remember how I once tried on her Prada shoes. I eventually hit the road again as a tour director for Ambassadair, but not before briefly operating my own travel agency, called Utopian Travel. It was as close as I could get to talking about Plato's Republic without making people think I was nuts. I liked to think of myself as a travel therapist. Even if they had only a week or two of freedom, I wanted to help my clients leap into the dark and nor look back.
Photos courtesy Julie Perry and Workonayacht.com
This article appeared in the May 2003 issue.