Captain Gordon Percy: Reflections
From teaching sailing as a teenager to driving superyachts all over the world, Captain Gordon Percy reflects on more than four decades in the industry, and the travel bug it has helped sate. For Captain Gordon Percy, who is approaching 50 years as a professional sailor and skipper, the pathway was perhaps a combination of both – part inevitability, and part luck.
Sometimes people arrive in yachting via the most unlikely routes, and sometimes their superyacht destiny seems shaped from childhood. For Captain Gordon Percy, who is approaching 50 years as a professional sailor and skipper, the pathway was perhaps a combination of both – part inevitability, and part luck.
Percy grew up in the countryside of Perthshire, just north of Glasgow in Scotland, and had his first taste of the life aquatic as a youth. “When I was young, just up the road there was quite a large loch and a sailing school,” he begins. “I was turfed off there one summer by my parents, I think to get me out of the way! I got my RYA Instructor qualification when I was 16 and ended up teaching at the sailing school in the Easter and summer holidays, and then I started racing.”
After school, Percy went to university and completed a degree in teaching, but the call of the boats was strong. “I knew I had the travel bug,” he says, “and I loved boats – I felt excited being on a boat because you’re close to the water. When I left university I wanted to get into yachting but at that time you only really had the occasional ad for a deckhand in the back of sailing magazines, so I couldn’t find a job. I ended up going off and teaching for three years.”
The travel bug was still biting though, and after giving up teaching to go travelling Percy landed in the right place at the right time. “I was in a doss-house in Singapore and saw a little sign saying ‘deckhand wanted’,” he says. “So I landed on an old topmast gaff-rigged schooner. That was in the late 1970s and I wasn’t being paid – but we sailed up to Thailand, where I came across another boat that was paying which I joined as deckhand. We sailed back to London – it was the end of their round-the-world trip.”
Percy landed more jobs after that, from mate on a 45-foot schooner to skippering a 53-foot Swan, to progressively larger yachts. His early career coincided with the sudden early boom of the superyacht industry, as the superyacht fleet began to grow in both size and number, and it wasn’t long before Percy was standing on the bridge of a motor yacht. “Until then I had always been in sailing yachts, and was travelling around the world, but then I met a girl and got married,” he smiles. “I was in Antibes, the centre of the yachting universe, looking for a local boat, and landed on an 18-metre powerboat.”
It was a fortuitous move – the owner became Percy’s employer for the next 23 years, across a succession of motor and sailing superyachts and with a succession of adventures and cruises to far-flung destinations. “We did a couple of motor yachts called Twizzle, culminating in the 55-metre Feadship,” Percy says. “That yacht had a couple of sailing dinghies on board, and I taught the owner and his son to sail. He got really interested in that and he decided he wanted to build a sailing superyacht.” That became the 57.49-metre SY Twizzle, which was delivered in 2010. “We did all the racing and superyacht regatta scene as well as extensive cruising,” Percy enthuses. “It was great fun.”
Percy remembers the early days of the industry when everything was done on a handshake and where the majority of crew and industry people were passionate boatees. He has seen a change, he says, and sometimes decries the fact that a lot of new deck crew don’t have a sailing background and therefore don’t have an innate sense of the sea, the weather, and seamanship – not to mention sometimes arriving with unrealistic expectations thanks to social media and reality TV shows.
That said, he also sees a change in attitude in modern crews for the better in many aspects. “They do care more,” he offers, “and you even see the changes in conversations down in the crew mess – 30 years ago it would have been talking about which bar to go to in Monaco or Cannes, but now it’s much more likely to be about where the nearest fitness centre is, or about how they’re eating too many carbs. There’s also the plastics issue – my last two builds had taps for filtered cold, fizzy and hot water so we didn’t have to bring all the plastic on board from bottles.”
Since Twizzle, Percy has served as Captain of the yacht Stella Maris cruising between the Med, the Maldives and the Seychelles; as Staff Captain on the 107.2-metre Luminosity; and in April 2022 joined the 82-metre yacht Sarafsa as Captain. While Sarafsa is currently marina-based, which allows for a degree of stability, there’s a part of Percy that misses the travel. “The travelling was always a highlight for me, but as I always say to my crew, just because we’re in a beautiful place it doesn’t mean you will always get ashore to enjoy it – but you do get to see it and think, ok, maybe I’ll come back here as it looks like it’s worth visiting. I have done two round-the-world trips, so you are seeing a few places! And it’s all those special things that most people wouldn’t ever get to see – and we didn’t have to pay to see them!
“Also, the challenge of organising everything as Captain, getting all the logistics lined up and ensuring the owners have a great time is another highlight, and finally, I’ve been very fortunate in being able to do new-build projects. Being in the shipyard for a year is a nice change, then there’s the challenge of getting the boat out and set up how the owner wants it. For me, it’s been a fantastic career – and my eldest son has succumbed in spite of my best efforts to circumnavigate it, and I think he’s going to going to superyachting too!”
By Charlotte Thomas | 7 March 2023 The Superyacht Life Foundation