Sandy Yawn’s career on and around the water has spanned 27 years, moving from earnest boat cleaner to widely respected captain of yachts up to 157 feet. One of only a handful of female captains in the industry, Yawn has seen her share of adventure, from being chased by pirates to containing major fires on board.
Last year, Yawn’s career took a turn as she traded three dimensions for two when the producers of the Bravo television network hired her on as captain of 157-foot Heesen motoryacht Sirocco for season two of the series “Below Deck Mediterranean.”
She shared with Editor-in-Chief Kenny Wooton some thoughts on her life, her new gig and what her future may bring.
Kenny Wooton: Yacht charter is the most expensive holiday people can buy. Some professionals in the yachting industry have complained that the “Below Deck” franchise is not an accurate depiction of what luxury yacht charter is really like. Are your crewmembers on “Below Deck Mediterranean” the raucous, drinking and carousing types we saw on previous “Below Deck” installments?
Sandy Yawn: The yacht industry doesn’t really want to hear the truth, but the truth is, as a yacht captain running charter boats, it’s a reality. The difference, in our professional world, is we make sure it stays below deck.
I’ve had crewmembers arrested, I’ve had crewmembers fighting, I’ve had crewmembers jumping overboard, I’ve had some psychotic crewmembers. I’ve always thought we should develop a barge, put all the green crewmembers we’re going to hire at sea, give them the worst conditions, don’t feed them, deprive them of sleep and see how they do emotionally. Oh, and add alcohol. The reality is, they make a lot of money really fast, they’re very young and the first place they go is to the bar. Fatigue, starved for affection, alcohol—it’s the mixture and it exists.
Why I was so successful as a charter captain all these years is I was the glue of the crew. I didn’t fire crew, because the reality, for a charter captain, is that it’s about impressing the brokers and making sure their clients are happy. If you go through crew, you’re not a good charter captain.
We give all the tip money right after the charter. We have one or two days’ turnaround. You can’t keep them prisoner. You have to let them go out and let go. Honestly, I don’t know if it’s going to be any different. I know my style of management is very different from the other captains. I think, as a female, we must have different styles than our male counterparts.
KW: You’ve mentioned before, you believe there’s a difference between being a boss and a leader.
It’s interesting because I got to see a little bit of what it could be and I am a leader. I am not a boss that just sits there and tells people what to do. I grew up in yachting working as a crewmember and my captain never helped me, ever. He never allowed me on the bridge. He was very boss-like.
I was never like that. I was going to help the last crewmember make the last bed. I am not going to bed until they go to bed. If I expect them to perform at all levels at all hours, always with a smile, then I have to do the same thing. In my opinion, that’s the difference between a boss and a leader.
KW: How does that approach translate to the show?
You’re going to see me really getting into the mud with them. You can see me getting dirty, not giving up. When we’re faced with challenges, I’m going to be right in the middle of it.
KW: Talk about the transition from being a yacht captain to a TV yacht captain.
That was a transition. I think a big part of it was having the cameras on you 24-7. They talk about the “fourth wall.” The cameraperson is not allowed to talk to us and we’re not allowed to converse with them so you don’t create a relationship. It’s almost like they’re not there, which feels pretty bad. You want to acknowledge them and say “how are you” and get to know them.
It’s interesting, the fact that you have all these cameras in your face, you have people who are ear-miked, so when you go to the bathroom, that can be a little odd.
KW: Tell me more about this fourth wall.
That creates a non-personal relationship. Essentially, it’s like they disappear into the wall. You start doing your job and it starts to click. And you realize, wow, this is a real charter. This is really happening. I’m actually going to be on camera so I’d better look good.
It’s really fun. You watch the production side, and logistically, their lives are parallel to our lives. The planning, the scheduling, the location, the weather, the scenery—for the clients and also for the filming.
They have a lot of challenges and the boat has its challenges. When something doesn’t work well, it’s great footage for the camera crew.
KW: How did they find you?
Actually, through a friend who encouraged me to apply.
KW: People wonder if the crew comprises professionals or actors.
They’re definitely not actors.
KW: What made you want to get into the yachting business?
I fell into it, just like every other person who’s done it. I was washing boats for a living. I grew up in Florida. I used to maintain boats in my Jeep with my boat brush.
A yacht owner asked me if I wanted a job maintaining his 67 Hatteras. That was the beginning of my career. [That owner] believed in me and saw I was a hard worker. He taught me how to drive a boat. He sent me to school and I ended up working for that family for nine years.
KW: More than two million people watched the season one finale last year. Is it reasonable to assume you’ll end up a celebrity? Are you going to end up being a TV star, or will you go back to yachting when it’s all over?
Yachting grounds me. People in this industry ground me. I love every boat show I get to see. I’m hoping it goes over well and I get to come back for the third season.
KW: What if they don’t bring you back?
If it doesn’t work out, I could be very happy going back to sea. This is my passion. If I do become a celebrity, my focus will be on autism. My sister has a school [for autistic children] in Jacksonville, Florida. I see how she dedicated her life to it, and if there’s anything I want to get behind, it’s her school. And, of course, there’s SeaKeepers [International SeaKeepers Society] because I’m into the sea, the oceans. I’m on the captains’ advisory council for SeaKeepers. I was a lost kid until someone believed in me. I was pretty aimless. Someone finally said “You’re worth it,” and helped me up, and now I am where I am.
KW: What was the coolest thing that happened during production of the show?
The coolest thing was really about all the clients—the interesting, diverse set of clients.
I never interfered in the crew’s lives below deck, unless it migrated above deck. I didn’t really see the disasters. I’m sure I’ll see some things that are part of this show that will shock me. If you had a camera in the crew mess and the crew cabins, you would be shocked, even in the real charter world.
KW: What is the value of this show to the charter industry and yachting in general?
My experience on the show was amazing. Knowing how many viewers the yachting industry is reaching is gratifying. The reality of this show is probably the same as the other shows. Again, I’m not involved in their lives below deck, but things will happen. They happen in the real world.
Let’s think about how many charters we’re getting from the show and how many people we’re introducing to the yacht world because of it. The season I’m on, I know, had four charters come from people watching [previous] shows.
I think we work in the greatest industry in the world. We go to the most fascinating places, we meet some of the most interesting people who own and charter these yachts. What other industry creates that—people from all walks of life, from all backgrounds? It offers that and it offers me that.