PORTSMOUTH, England -- In 1805, British Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson set sail from this seaside town to engage Napoleon Bonaparte's fleet off the Spanish coast. The Englishman's victory at Cape Trafalgar established Britannia as ruler of the waves.
Today, the navy that sank Napoleon has a new gig: tending the yachts of the rich and famous.
The Royal Navy and contractors have teamed up to train yachting crews. With the rise in production of yachts, the navy has embraced the sector, teaching everything from napkin folding to fire fighting.
In recent months, a Royal Navy contractor has started training butlers, skippers and stewards who ferry billionaires in their pearly white pleasure boats to exclusive vacation spots. One of its first clients is the captain of Ecstasea, the 285-foot vessel of Russian oil magnate Roman Abramovich.
A descendant of Lord Nelson's isn't amused. "I don't expect anyone thought of such a thing in 1805," says Anna Tribe, the naval hero's 78-year-old great-great-great-granddaughter. If drill instructors divulge too many trade secrets, Ms. Tribe warns, the Royal Navy risks "Mr. Abramovich and his compatriots very suddenly coming to war with us."
But Stephen Mackay, the retired Royal Navy commander who is running the program, says he's fighting a more immediate threat to Britain's national security: the Royal Navy's need for cash.
Britain's warships still provide logistical support to military and peacekeeping missions, and they guard shipping lanes for oil and other commodities. Yet with the Cold War over and the risk of major conflicts at sea fading, public support for the navy has waned. Successive governments have tightened the navy's budget, and it has had to seek other sources of revenue.
The yacht industry is a commercial opportunity too sweet to pass up, says Mr. Mackay, an executive with private defense contractor Flagship Training Ltd. Wearing a pink tie and a well-cut suit, the 63-year-old executive piloted his Mercedes-Benz sedan past the clifflike hull of a Royal Navy warship toward a training grounds one day recently. Thanks to the growing fortunes of billionaires like Mr. Abramovich, there are more "super-yachts" -- boats measuring more than 100 feet -- at sea than all the warships in the Royal Navy fleet.
Annual production of super-yachts has nearly doubled over the past five years, with 253 new boats delivered last year, according to the Yacht Report, a magazine that maintains an international yacht registry.
These vessels are so huge and sophisticated that a work force larger than the Royal Navy is needed to man them all, says Mr. Mackay.
That's why Flagship Training, which helps market the Royal Navy's training facilities to third parties such as the Chilean fleet, recently redeployed Mr. Mackay. He now promotes the operations as a "one-stop shop" where drill instructors can mold yachtsmen in "the navy way." That includes courses in firefighting, submarine navigation and napkin-folding.
The idea of whipping the yacht industry into shape first occurred to Mr. Mackay a year and a half ago, during a summer vacation on the CÃ´te d'Azur. There, he was invited to board a super-yacht for the first time.
The boat's rich, cherry-wood paneling and generous dimensions -- 185 feet in length -- stirred his imagination. "These big yachts are the same size as frigates," he says.
What the yachts lacked were crews trained to weather an emergency at sea. After months of scoping out other boats and touring shipyards, Mr. Mackay was surprised to learn that many deckhands on yachts were mere "backpackers" hired "off the street."
The former commander returned to Portsmouth to float a business plan to Flagship officials and the navy brass. The reaction from the navy was "very positive," Mr. Mackay recalls. Commander Mark Durkin, a navy spokesman, declined to comment on the yacht school, but said the Royal Navy works "hand in glove" with Flagship to "generate income that we can reinvest in our training facilities." Under the deal eventually worked out, Flagship gets 40% of the profit generated by the training courses and the Royal Navy takes the rest. Classes are held at the historic Royal Navy base here in Portsmouth.
Chris Easom, a retired officer formerly in charge of the navy's firefighting school, was brought in to design weeklong courses that include lessons in surviving a shipwreck at sea. Not every naval safety lesson will apply, a stone-faced Mr. Easom conceded recently at the school while sizing up a line of trainees shuffling by in hard hats. "A super-yacht is not going to come under a chemical attack," he said.
A week's program in firefighting kicked off on a recent rainy Monday morning in Portsmouth for Richard Bridge, the tanned captain of Mr. Abramovich's Ecstasea. Joined by a class of uniformed navy trainees, the 44-year-old skipper changed out of his Diesel jeans into a yellow fire-resistant jumpsuit, strapping on a rubber mask attached to a 25-pound oxygen tank.
Moments later, he and the navy trainees were faced with a mock crisis: A blaze had broken out in the engine room of a Navy warship and had spread to the mess hall. A helicopter coming to the aid of the ship had crashed into the vessel and caught fire. Mr. Bridge charged into the roaring flames that snaked through a labyrinthine fire simulator designed to resemble the corridors, engine room and mess hall of the warship.
[Ecstasea, the 285-foot vessel owned by oil magnate Roman Abramovich.]
Ecstasea, the 285-foot vessel owned by oil magnate Roman Abramovich.
The situation was outside the experience of a luxury yachtsman. The steel walls of the simulator, scorched black by fireballs, hardly resembled the plush interiors of Mr. Abramovich's yacht, he noted. He also was surprised at how committed his fellow classmates were to saving the warship at any cost. A yachtsman might abandon ship instead, he said, to save the passengers.
Tailoring naval services to the very rich poses other issues: Training aboard a man-of-war doesn't necessarily prepare students for hazards on a leisure craft.
The navy, for example, knows all about demon rum, but it is less experienced at monitoring raucous parties at sea where fancy people, lavish furnishings, flammable alcohol and cigarettes are all part of the mix. "Dragging hoses across silk carpets does not go down well. Smashing hose ends against grand pianos doesn't go down well," Mr. Mackay says.
Now that Mr. Bridge has completed his training for the Ecstasea, Mr. Mackay expects the captain to take command of Mr. Abramovich's newest trophy: the Eclipse, which is still under construction. At more than 500 feet, the yacht is expected to be among the world's largest, with a crew that Mr. Mackay hopes will want specialized training courses.
Mr. Bridge declined to discuss the matter, and Mr. Abramovich, through a spokesman, declined to comment.
Mr. Mackay estimates that, between the Eclipse and Mr. Abramovich's other mega-yachts, the Russian mogul will need to maintain a private navy of about 400 crewmen. "It's not a cheap man's business," he says.
OK, so it's American journalism, but is this a chance to sell a valuable skill, or are some things better kept just for the fleet?
Wall Street Journal Source.