Chief Officer Marlies Sanders
An ACREW nominee for Chief Officer, previous deckhand, mate, chief officer, and captain, as well as engineer, stewardess, and chef – she’s done it all! Having sailed, cruised, and raced extensively in the Mediterranean, Caribbean, East Coast of the States, and in the Arctic, including the East Coast of Greenland, crossing the Atlantic 13 times, her experience speaks for itself. She loves being on the water and helping the crew become their best. Marlies kindly shared all sorts about her career and future goals with us!
Marlies, you have had an exhilarating life at sea – could you tell us a little bit about yourself and how it all began?
My first experience sailing was when I was about twelve years old, sailing with cousins on a 7m Dutch Valk on the lakes in Friesland. I absolutely loved it and when they let me helm the boat, I was smiling from ear to ear. As we did not live near any sailable water and my parents’ business prevented me from going sailing two hours from home, it wasn’t until I was 17, or 18 that I learned to actually sail; on the same boats and the same lakes. Early on, I learned there can only be one Captain on the boat (imagine four family members all trying to direct one another when coming into a small Frisian port under sail!). I sailed for years for fun without knowing anything about the yachting industry, despite some of the best yards, for both sail and motor, being in The Netherlands!
I picked up my love for travel and sailing during my studies. After an international corporate career where I traveled a lot but never saw anything but airports, taxis, hotels, and offices, I decided to take some time off to travel. After my first Transatlantic on a 54ft-er, I got into racing and found my first job in the BVI’s and I have been sailing ever since. I did everything on that first boat, except captain and stew, including setting up accounts to organising the boat. From there I continued and after a season as a boat captain on a 56ft sailing yacht I realised I had found a new career and decided to do my Yachtmaster.
My first years were much more racing and freelance-focused, with lots of race gigs, deliveries, and relief jobs. Moved to more permanent after a season in Greenland and the Arctic (fabulous!) and then in 2014 decided to get my tickets to the level of my experience and now hold a Master 3000GT. Working as a captain and chief officer on sailing and motor yachts, I have now sailed, cruised and raced extensively in the Mediterranean, Caribbean, East Coast of the States and in the Arctic, including the East Coast of Greenland, crossing the Atlantic 13 times.
Yacht racing has been a huge part of your career, racing all over the globe, could you tell us about your most memorable regatta and why?
It is hard to pinpoint just one as there have been so many incredible moments: being part of the inaugural Caribbean 600 offshore race, and doing my first paid racing job on the Rolex Transatlantic in 2005; among the most memorable ones though is definitely a start on the Swan 51 Star Chaser as bow, where we took a chance and started on port tack on the pin end (unusual, as it means that you need to duck any boats you’re on a collision course with that are starboard tack); we then crossed in front of the whole fleet and were in the lead! Exhilarating! A bonus was the regatta photographer got it all on camera from the air!
How early in your career did you start planning to climb the ranks
Quite quickly after doing that first transatlantic I decided to do my yacht master as that was the direction I wanted to go. I captained lots of smaller yachts, and once I had done my MCA Master 200 (the entry ‘professional’ Master ticket) I thought that was it for me – I couldn’t see myself running yachts over 200GT. So I didn’t start the OOW/ Master 3000 route until quite late! Your experience widens, yachts get bigger, your ambitions change, and you adapt your goals and go after it!
Working on both sailing yachts and motor yachts, which is your preference and why?
I very much started out as an avid sailor and didn’t want to move to ‘the dark side’ for quite a while. Having moved over last year to motor though, I have discovered a whole new world and am equally loving that side of the industry. And there are definitely places where a motor yacht is the better option, like Greenland where there is often either no wind or too much wind. Ultimately, for me it is about being out on the water, working with guests and seeing them have an unforgettable time, making that come true with a great team, most of all, both can be done!
What’s your favourite part about working at sea?
I love nights at sea when sailing, especially mid-Atlantic…it is something truly special to be out there, no land for miles, the milky way to look at, and the sky just one big canvas for the stars and planets, dolphins tracing like torpedos, leaving phosphorescence trails, experiencing a full moon out there – it so surprised me the first time, it is like somebody up there just turned the light on!
What motivates you?
Learning new things, discovering new places, meeting new people: I am always curious to learn more, and discover more! And something that really has inspired me in the last years is to see people around me grow and learn as well, and see a team come together.
I’m passionate about helping the crew become their best, and building a good team on board and love being on the water while doing so. Training, for both crew and myself, as well as being open to keep learning from everyone onboard, are key for me to become a better leader and a better person. And it keeps life at sea interesting!
What do you feel is the most important aspect to leadership?
For me, it is respect, communication and honesty. You cannot always agree or accommodate everything that everybody wants and taking difficult decisions is part of the job. How you deal with these and how you communicate this to your team, sets the tone for your team spirit. It is important to make people feel heard and understood, especially if you cannot accommodate things. Even though a yacht is not a democracy, you can involve crew in a lot of areas, like safety or maintenance, and create support for policies and decisions on board.
Honesty also involves not promising things you cannot deliver and delivering what you promise. And just simply, communicate. Don’t just go silent, especially in difficult situations. Even if you have to tell your team you don’t know (yet), it’s crucial to keep communicating. Like in any relationship, personal or professional, respect is the base of everything and makes communicating that much easier. It is something to be earned though and not something that just comes with the rank.
If you could offer any advice to a young crew member following in your footsteps, what would it be?
Think about what you want out of a life at sea, and why and then make a plan how to get there, and go after it! Find a mentor to help you talk through goals, decisions, or situations that you encounter so that you have a sounding board, support, and maybe even some help to make it happen. And don’t be afraid to change if your circumstances change, or you grow in a different direction than you originally thought you wanted!
And lastly, what’s next for you?
I have just taken some time off to spend with my family, celebrate some milestones, catch up on some new courses (playing on ice with floaty things but also the watercolour painting), and am just starting to look around for my next challenge that could include more polar cruising, a new build or simply a fantastic crew to work with!
Marlies has since done the Palma super yacht racing on the bow on 40 meters and accepted a job as C/O on a 72m converted icebreaker starting in Svalbard, heading to East Greenland and maybe Arctic Canada as we speak! Congrats Marlies, wishing you all the best!