From Spirit of Bermuda to superyachts
James Daniels usually passes his winters in the Caribbean and his summers on the Med.
He is able because of the years he spent studying and training to earn “the holy grail of engineering tickets”, the second engineer license.
At the moment he is working on MY Shemara, a 212-foot superyacht that berthed at the Princess Marina last week.
He signed on in April 2020, when the pandemic closed LF Wade International Airport and forced Bermuda into its first lockdown.
The call came from the captain, who had hired Mr Daniels for a temporary job on Shemara six years earlier. This time he was needed to complete the boat’s five-year survey, a six-month task.
“This is standard in shipping – to pull the boat out and do a full check of the hull and critical equipment. He was like, the chief engineer is leaving. Do you want it? And I was like, ‘Yes, of course’.
The immediate problem was finding a flight out of Bermuda.
“I remember it was like one a month and you had to apply for it,” Mr Daniels said. “I basically got on the first flight out – I think it was to Canada – and I had to get back to New York and then back to Palma Majorca.”
MY Shemara is a classic yacht built in 1938. The following year she was requisitioned by the Royal Navy and used as a training vessel for anti-submarine warfare throughout the Second World War.
In 1946 she was returned to her owner, the British industrialist Bernard Docker, who threw lavish parties on-board. In 1965 he put her on the market; by 1980 she was rarely used.
Businessman Charles Dunstone bought her in 2010 and began a four-year project to restore her to her former glory.
MY Shemara now has “a contemporary interior while retaining many of her historic original features”. Her machinery was completely replaced with a Rolls-Royce diesel-electric system, the “top of the line” in industry standards.
In Spain, Mr Daniels discovered the full scope of the work he’d taken on.
“The boat had been completely taken apart. It's the biggest challenge I've ever faced working on boats. The other guy, he’d completely downed tools and just left; the boat was in pieces. With [a survey] the boat comes out of the water, everything gets ripped apart, everything gets surveyed, everything's decommissioned. It's physically been mothballed. Add a pandemic into the mix – no one's been on board for three months. You’re basically just going around blowing off cobwebs.
“I had only worked [on Shemara] sporadically. So to take this on and put this thing back together piece by piece was such a challenge.”
Added to the stress, it was May and the boat had to be ready for August when the owner wanted it for a trip to Greece.
“So I didn't have much time to get the boat from dead ship to fully functioning – all the lights working and all the entertainment equipment. The physical propulsion was the most challenging because you can fix a lot of this stuff under way but if you can't spin the props you got a problem. It got down to the last day I had to actually get the props to physically spin to actually physically move the boat – a massive challenge. And I was met with that straightaway.”
Although his interests were in line with a career in marine engineering, Mr Daniels had no idea what he wanted to do when he left Saltus Grammar School in 2007.
“I grew up sailing from a very early age – the whole White’s Island, Dinghy Club experience; Optis and 420s and Lasers and all that. I was an avid sailor and so this is what really kick-started my passion for wanting to be on the ocean originally.
“But I was a typical Bermudian teenager, you start taking your bike to bits at 15, 16 and then putting it back together and getting mechanically able a little bit.”
Through a summer job with Bermuda Maritime Operations Centre he was invited to join a cadetship programme with a view to training as an electrical engineer.
“It was a very, very good opportunity but then, honestly, it was like a shift in the universe, I looked in the newspaper and the Bermuda Maritime Authority, the shipping registry, were advertising for an engineering officer to do basically the same thing but not the electrical side, the engineering mechanical side.”
Five people interviewed. Mr Daniels was offered one of two spots and travelled to England for the four-year programme at South Tyneside College in Newcastle.
Qualifications in hand, he came back home and “sat around for about a month applying for jobs”. Nothing happened.
In need of work he went to Dockyard and walked onto Spirit of Bermudaand asked if there was a spot for an engineer.
“And so I ended up working on Spirit for the first ten months of my career. It was actually a good springboard into what it's like. The other engineer was there and he was helping me and also the captain and crew were supportive. For a first time job, you couldn't ask for anything better.”
James Daniels got his start through a cadetship programme at South Tyneside College in Newcastle.
It offered a combination of “practical on-the-job experience” at sea and “formal, facilitated training” at the college.
The programme was split into five distinct phases.
During Phase 2, Mr Daniels spent four months on a bulk carrier transporting gypsum from Little Haven, Nova Scotia, to New York.
“It was pretty similar to the Oleander in size. We worked every single day. It was pretty tiresome.”
For Phase 3 he went back to college and began working towards a Higher National Diploma.
“You do your first two phases to see if this actually is a career for you. And then the third phase of college you actually get stuck right into the engineering of it – all the thermodynamics and mechanics; all the serious maths work that you do as an engineer.”
For Phase 4 he returned to sea on a “much, much larger” bulk carrier, that weighed in at 100,000 gross tons.
“We were taking coal from Colombia up the East Coast of the states in random places. And then we ended up moving over to the North Sea for a time.
“That was probably some of the worst seas I've ever been in in my life. It was absolutely hellacious. It gave me an idea of what it's like to be an actual seafarer in the merchant and quite frankly, it wasn't really for me. I worked every single day down in the engine room. Every day is Monday because you work every single day. There’s no weekend.”
As such, it is “quite a demanding job” although there are various benefits once a person qualifies as an engineer.
“You work a rotation. You could do four months on, two months off and get a pretty decent wage and all that but for me this was just a means to an end. I definitely just wanted to get my qualification and look at other options on the ocean.”
On completing his fifth phase Mr Daniels earned an Engineer Officer of the Watch license and a National Diploma degree in marine engineering.
He continued searching however. Mr Daniels estimates he sent his CV out about 3,000 times – to cruise ships, oil tankers, agencies.
Months later he stumbled on a former engineer who was working as an agent and within a week, he had an interview with a 57-metre motor yacht based in the south of France, Diamond A.
“The idea was to join the motor yacht and be a second engineer in September 2012. That's where I got my first yacht job and I've basically done this since then. That's just been my main career path.”
He was there for about two years before he decided he needed a break.
“It's actually quite normal to move around in yachting. Sometimes a commitment of two years is all any boat will ever ask of you,” he said.
“It's quite a demanding lifestyle. Don’t get me wrong it is fun – you're travelling all the time to these amazing places, laying up there for a few days and experiencing the place and going on your charter trips and guest trips. But being in a relationship is quite difficult.”
After a few months off he joined Shemara in a temporary role as its owner unveiled her refit in Venice.
“It's such a strange surreal thing to have all these celebrities walking on the boat, shaking your hand. I had to show them the engine room which I barely even knew – I’d been here two days. I did that and I delivered the boat back to Palma Majorca, Spain.”
Back in England he joined Le Grand Bleu, a 364-foot motor yacht.
“That was really cool. I was tender engineer for that, so I looked after eight tenders on that boat. One of them was a 68-foot Sunseeker; there was also a 75-foot sailboat on deck and they had four 32-ton cranes which they used to lift these boats on and off the big boat. There were also two helicopter pads. It was the craziest boat I’ve ever worked on.”
Despite that, he couldn’t resist the opportunity to join Christopher, a 164-foot sailing yacht.
“I'm a sailor at heart,” he said. “That's probably been one of my most favourite boats of all time. I did two-and-a-half years on that, travelled all around Europe, sailed all around the Caribbean – multiple crossings back and forward.”
As an engineer he realised it would be better if he switched to a boat that was primarily powered by an engine. He’d also just come to the end of a relationship and wanted to spend time with his father, who “was very sick”.
“I decided to take some time out and focus on studies.”
His goal was a Class 2, a license that would allow him to be second engineer on any type of vessel.
“It actually took me about a year-and-a-half to get my next qualification with everything that was going on in my exterior life,” Mr Daniels said.
He returned to college and then to Bermuda, where his father passed away, and then rejoined Spirit, in 2018.
Nine months later he went back to Europe to see his friends and look for a job. In Palma Majorca MY Shemara came calling once more, interested in his help with the five-year refit.
“I knew that I would be able to get a job there just walking around seeing some friends and all that and I did actually did that,” he said.
“I was doing them temp work at this point I wasn't actually fully employed in any real capacity. I was working there and then of course the pandemic hit about that time and so me, not being a full-time crew member I basically was let go for a bit and I went back home.”
Back in Bermuda this week he described MY Shemara as “quite special”.
“He basically commissioned Wight Shipyard in the Isle of Wight and Shemara was born from that. They completely ripped everything down to bare hull. I think it went into the yard at about 700 tons.
“And at its lightest point, it was about 100 tons. And so they built it back up to what is now an 850-ton ship. So they did a massive refit.”