Meet Chief Officer Katy McGilvray
Katy’s extensive sailing knowledge and ability to lead and mentor her deck crew has helped her progress through the ranks and obtain her Chief Mate 3000GT ticket.
Katy is currently looking for her next adventure as a Chief Officer onboard either a sailing or a motor yacht and we have talked to her about what makes a successful Chief Officer and differences between working on a sailing yacht and working on a motor yacht.
1. What attracted you to the yachting industry and how did you end up being a part of it?
I grew up in Gourock, Scotland, a town just about 40 min west of Glasgow. This is where I started sailing when I was about 11 years old but the reason that I found out about yachting was actually through my best friend’s older brother. We all used to sail together as kids at the local yacht club and we were all in the same school as well. Her brother was only one year older than me and he was in school with my sister. We all used to hang around together every day, until all of a sudden, he disappeared with this new job. None of us really knew what he was up to, we just knew that he was away and he was on a boat.
He had 5:1 rotation so every 5 months he would come back home and we would be like “Oh, Michael is home! Where have you been? What have you been doing?” And he would tell us about his job. He was working on a massive motor yacht with a sailing yacht on the side of it and his job was taking care of the sailing yacht too. I thought that sounded so incredibly cool that I wanted to do it too. That’s how I sort of found out about it.
But at the time I was finishing high school and then I was going to University so the idea of yachting was just sort of sitting in the back of my mind. I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I still wanted to finish University and I did but I couldn’t get out of there fast enough and find a job onboard a yacht. So, I took a chance and I came to Antibes to look for a job. That’s where it all started. I stayed at the Crew House, I had a great time, I met a lot of friends and every time I go back to Antibes I just love it.
2. What is a typical day in a life of a Chief Officer during the season?
I would usually be up at 8am since my day would run from 8am to midnight. There was 4 of us, Chief Officer, Second Officer and 2 Deckhands. I first check that the morning guys finished all their jobs and that everything is set up for the guests before they wake up. I would then meet with the captain to have a chat about what the guests would like to do for the day. If they would like to go sailing, where will we sail and what will be the final destination.
If they want to go sailing, we have to get everything prepared as much as we can in advance. So that when breakfast is finished and everything is cleaned and stowed, we can just pick up the anchors and go.
Come evening I have to make sure the boat is turned down properly and everything is tidied away and ready for the guests to have their dinner. We also have to keep our eye on the weather. If there’s anything I anticipate might happen, I might go down a bit earlier and come back up when the deck guy goes down so I can do the anchor watch until the morning. So, I just try to be there whenever I am needed.
3. What are in your opinion some skills or personality traits that a Chief Officer should have in order to be successful?
One thing that is key for me is organisation. You have to be as organised as you can be. It will definitely help you day to day, to be on top of things like paperwork and schedules.
In my experience, to get the most out of the people you are working with you also have to be fair. People respond much better to you asking them to do something when you explain why that is important rather than just telling them to do it.
You also need to be professional because there is a fine balance between being a mentor and working with your deck crew. You can be their friend but at the end of the day my main role is to be the Chief Officer and to make sure that everything is done.
4. What do you find are the most challenging things in a Chief Officer’s life?
The most challenging thing is to try to keep everyone happy in such a small environment. For example, I am in charge of my department but I also oversee operations of the whole boat so I have to be able to take a step back and look at the whole boat and see if everyone else is happy. This is especially important during busy periods where it doesn’t take much to start setting people off.
The greatest lesson that I learned in yachting was when someone said to me: “It has to work back here with us before it works out front with them.” So, if your crew are happy and working well together then you’ll find that everything is just much easier and the guests have a much better experience.
5. What are your favourite aspects of your job?
My job has taken me to some amazing places and allowed me to work with some amazing people. I just love to see people progress and learn. When they first come onboard with not that much experience and they are a bit timid and then you get to see them get better and more confident in their work. And then two years down the line you bump into them and they are on another boat and maybe even stepped up in another position. It’s a very nice and rewarding feeling.
6. Being a woman on deck that is also involved in the She of the Sea initiative, in your opinion, what does it mean to promote equality in yachting?
I recently participated in the discussion about the old ‘male due to cabin arrangements’ line. I feel this is really interesting in promoting equality. In my opinion, if you are hiring someone and you want to hire that person, you will make it work with cabin arrangements. Most of the time boats can shuffle people around cabins so I don’t think favouring a certain sex due to cabin arrangements should be such a big thing. I don’t think you should be putting things like that in job descriptions.
Generally, when it comes to equality, from the report that just got released from the She of the Sea, the figures for females in the Head of Department roles were very interesting. The numbers aren’t equal compared to males in the same roles but I think we are getting there. I can certainly see the difference from when I first started in the industry 10 years ago. It’s also great to have platforms like She of the Sea and see a lot of big companies that are supporting this movement.
7. What is the difference between working on board a sailing yacht and a motor yacht?
I’ve done both motor and sailing yacht and I find the difference is that on the sail yacht the guests are generally there to sail and they don’t really want to be seen. They don’t want to go to the places where everyone else is. They just want to make the most of the boat itself. This is really nice because I think it’s great to have the guests involved, under the eye of myself and the captain, of course. In the past we haven’t hesitated to show them how things work, let them have a go at the helm and they absolutely love it.
The water toy situation is also a bit different. We carry water toys but I, for example, have not yet been on a sailing yacht that had jet skis and I’ve worked on some really big sailing yachts. The main issue is space. We would still have seabobs, inflatables, kayaks, paddleboards, it’s just a little bit scaled down since you really have to think about space.
On a motor yacht you would spend the day doing water sports but on a sailing yacht we would generally spend the day sailing so having a huge selection of toys is not that required.
8. Is there a certain type of person that you would say would do better on sailing yachts? What would that type be?
The mentality on a sailing yacht is that everyone helps our and we all have to work together to get the job done. It’s not very departmentalised, there is many more blurred lines. If you, for example, want to work on deck and you’ve envisioned it as just working on deck, cleaning, taking care of the water toys etc. you might be in for a surprise because that is not really how it works on sailing yachts.
Say we are going sailing and we need to prepare the boat during guest’s breakfast, the deck department will have closed all the doors, put all the toys away and got the boat prepared for sailing but the boat still needs to be stowed and there’s only so much the Stews can do. So, when we finish, one of us will always start washing the dishes, drying them and putting them away. We will do anything that will help smooth the process along. You just have to be aware that you will be involved in pitching in and helping every department. So, if you have a more departmentalised vision of work, then a sailing yacht might not be a good choice for you.
A 50m sailing yacht will only have about 8 or 9 crew. That’s not a lot of people. My sailing yacht was 60+m long and we only had 12 crew in full capacity. So you would see the captain being much more hands on compared to the captain of a same sized motor yacht. He would drive the tender, take the guests out, help wash the boat down between charters, you name it. I’ve seen them do it all.
9. Would it be possible for someone who doesn’t have sailing experience to join a sailing yacht and learn on the job?
Ideally, we want the whole deck crew to know how to sail but when we are recruiting for the deck department, we look at who we already have onboard. If it was for example a deck team of 4, I might be fine with 3 people that knew how to sail and if 1 person was quite new to it. We could then teach that person as we go.
It’s possible to hire someone with no sailing experience just as long as whoever is in charge is willing to put in the time and give them a little bit of a know-how. Some people actually prefer to train the crew themselves so they are sure they haven’t picked up any bad habits but are more of a blank canvas. They can then tell them: “Ok, this is how we do it and this is how I like things to be done.” So, I wouldn’t say that it’s impossible at all but for me, I would prefer to have someone with at least a bit of a sailing know-how.
10. What are some of your favourite destinations you’ve visited while working?
I’ve been fortunate to have done a lot of really cool destinations. I’ve been in the Med, in the Caribbean, in the Pacific, in Alaska… Alaska was for sure my favourite. I loved it! It ticked off my Bucket list wish. The boat at the time was an amazing sailing yacht with amazing owners. They were a lovely family and we just went on this great big adventure together. It was brilliant. I actually got to take that same boat to my home port and that was a really great thing.
I also really enjoyed my time down in the Pacific. Being amongst the atolls and feeling really far from anything else. It really does feel like you are very far away. I’ve enjoyed it because there is just so much to explore. So many islands, so many lagoons, so many things that you can see and do.
11. What would be the biggest piece of advice you would give your younger self while starting in the yachting industry?
Make the most of it because time flies. I’ve enjoyed my career; I’ve absolutely loved it and I still love it but your priorities start to change as you get older. You start to think about finding a partner, starting a family or spending a bit more time at home. Also, in our positions, you don’t really get to switch off even when you’re off from work. Your mind is still on the boat. When you progress, there is a lot more responsibilities involved so your mind is constantly occupied.
In the beginning you are young and carefree; you are getting paid good money and yachting is an adventure. You finish at whatever time you are finishing at and you just close the door to work; go about your business and carry on having a jolly good time. I want to tell people to just enjoy that for as long as possible.