|Java on Antigua|
|Crewed Yacht Charter Reviews|
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Capt. Phil Lacca onboard the 121-foot motoryacht Java has just one question for future charter guests: How much fun can you stand?
By Kim Kavin
December 2007 update: Capt. Phil Lacca has retired from this yacht, and former engineer/mate Krillen Wilkinson is now in command. (He is engaged to chief stewardess Sally Swingler, also still onboard). There is a new chef, Tammy Uetake, an Australian who does fusion cuisine.
The thing is, knowing a yacht’s owner can tell you a heck of a lot about whether the boat will be any good for charter. If I can get the chance to ask the owner a few questions, I can often find out how he treats his crew, how much he’s willing to invest in his boat’s maintenance, and how flexible he’s willing to be to accommodate guests should anything go awry. Some owners put their yachts into charter and then forget about them. Others are intimately involved in trying to build up the best worldwide charter reputation they can—and those are the ones whose yachts I usually find myself recommending highly.
I’m happy to report that the latter is the case with the 121-foot motoryacht Java, which I had the pleasure of spending a night onboard in Antigua in late 2006. I found not just an eager crew onboard a well-kept yacht, but also an owner who was thoroughly committed to continually improving the charter experience for every single guest who booked a week onboard.
My first hint that something was very right onboard Java was when Capt. Phil Lacca—a 22-year veteran of the industry—told me that every single crew member had been onboard for at least two seasons. Low crew turnover usually means happy crew, which in turn means enthusiastic charter service.
A lot of times, you can attribute low crew turnover to an excellent captain, but in the case of Java, there’s even more happening behind the scenes. Yes, Capt. Phil has earned his reputation for being one of the best in the worldwide industry, but he’s also getting great support from Java’s owner. I was surprised at how the owner talked about the crew, as if they were not just his employees, but also people he truly wanted to see succeed in the world.
He equates his charter operation with the hamburger chain In ’n Out Burger, which he says does not build a new store until existing employees are qualified to step up into new jobs and run it. He looks at Java’s crew the same way, always helping them to improve their skills with an eye toward working on bigger and better boats.
He also makes a point of investing regularly in the1990 build, not just to keep her looking good but to keep her running well, too. “There are two things that count on charter,” he told me as we sat in Java’s comfy saloon bar chairs. “The crew, and that we’ve never had a breakdown while on charter. The difference between a new boat and an older boat is the hull. We do some kind of refit every year.”
And it shows, both in the crew’s attitude and in the ambience onboard. When things don’t break down, captains and engineers can focus on making the guests happy. When the yacht’s décor is in good shape, the stewardesses can concentrate on service instead of quickie repair jobs. When the galley has updated tools, the chef can create fantastic dinners.
All of this is a function of the owner’s commitment to charter, and it makes for a lovely yacht with an energetic crew that can completely devote themselves to helping the guests have a good time.
“The question at the end of the day is, How much fun can you stand?’” as Capt. Phil puts it. “It’s an extremely welcoming crew. The ability to make people feel comfortable instantly instead of two days later, that’s huge.”
That’s even the case with special-needs charters, which brokers have sent Java’s way because they know the yacht and crew are in a position to handle pretty much anything.
“We had one guest onboard who had severe food allergies,” explained chief stewardess Sally Swingler. “The mother cooked with our chef, alongside him. She was saying, ‘I don’t want you to take responsibility for my son’s health.’”
“I didn’t mind at all,” chef Kendall Grant chimed in, like a good friend finishing another’s sentence. “It’s a pretty large galley.”
“But there were eight guests onboard and Kendall had to be incredibly conscious and change his routine,” Sally added, like one teammate high-fiving another. “And it worked out really well.”
About a third of Java’s charter guests respond to this level of service by becoming repeat clients. The crew have welcomed everyone from families with 3-year-old kids to a founder of Google and the chairman of the board of Eli Lilly & Company.
One family has actually chartered Java five separate times, giving the crew the chance to really know them and their preferences well.
“Often when people come onboard, there’s a special occasion,” Sally explained. “Up on the top deck we have a disco ball, a smoke machine, massive [music] volume. But these guests, they’re in their 70s. So for them, we gathered up the Frank Sinatra and all that sort of thing. They had a dance contest, the boys against the girls. They loved it. Just loved it.”
As she’s telling me this story, her eyes are dancing like a kid’s at Christmas. The charter guests’ joy is her gift. And the other crew members—as well as Java’s owner—are nodding along in agreement. They seem to believe simply that no matter what the charter guests want, it’s their job to figure out how to provide it.
“There are times when guests come on the boat and party all the time,” the owner said. “And there are times when guests just want to relax. This crew adapts either way.”
From what I saw, that ability to adapt and respond is not just a job for this crew. It’s instinct.
At one point during my night onboard, I was in the galley chatting with the captain, deckhands and chef while the owner and a friend of his sat on the aft deck awaiting dinner. The chef was chopping something on his cutting board as the rest of the crew members sat around the galley table, taking a break.
That’s when we heard raindrops beginning to come down outside. Before I could even put together in my mind that the owner and his guest were sitting at the aft deck table—partially exposed to the rain—the crew members had leapt like cheetahs from their seats to hustle outside and pull down the protective isinglass around the aft deck dining area. By the time I made my way back there, the chef was pitching in, too, and the stewardesses had materialized from out of nowhere to ask whether anyone needed towels or anything else.
I decided that I liked Java the minute I started talking to the owner about his priorities, and I decided that I loved Java the minute I saw the way the crew reacted to that rainstorm. You cannot train people to care for other people the way this team has come to care for their guests. You can only hope to find more people like them, add them to the crew, and keep them around forever—which is exactly what Java’s owner is doing.
“I want it to be like my home, not just for me, but for the guests,” the owner told me. “You feel like you’re in a really nice place, but you feel comfortable.”
Indeed, I did.