Novel Adaptation

On charter with the 114-foot Camille's creative, flexible crew.

Camille, Yacht
CamilleCourtesy RJC Yachts

A blue-green chameleon with dandelion yellow eyes plays mascot on the bridge of the 114-foot motoryacht Camille. On this day, its Beanie Baby body is practically molded to the top of the radar screen, like a lizard bellied up to a favorite hot rock. No matter where the doll is plopped, it looks good and comfortable, in whatever contortion it must assume. Perhaps that's because it's a chameleon. Or, maybe, it's because the ability to adapt is a source of pride for every member of this yacht's crew.

"Flexibility is our middle name," said Capt. Mac McDonald, inflecting a bit of hometown North Carolina charm into every word. "We've had the good ol' boys who want to come on board and sit up top and drink beer, and we've had very formal guests where we only speak when spoken to. Whatever they want, that's what we do."

A lot of charter captains make that promise, but few have a core team so capable of executing it. This crew of friends is so comfortable together, they actually whistle while they work. The captain and chef are recently engaged. The head stewardess has been with them for two years. The personal relationships make the crew members eager to help one another be their best.

"I'm chief bilge cleaner. I'm head bottle washer," the captain said. A lean 6-foot-1, McDonald guides his crew gently, much as he guides his guests, following every suggestion with a broad smile. "I try to lead by example."

His attitude toward charter stems from a lifetime of lessons. He learned the value of behind-the-scenes work while studying theater arts at Wake Forest. He learned the importance of strong leadership while serving as a U.S. tank battalion captain in Germany. He learned to love the sea while living aboard a 35-foot Dufour with his cat, Zorro. Eventually, he learned the value of money and decided he needed to make more. Unwilling to altogether abandon his wandering ways, he became head engineer on a 93-foot motoryacht where his future fiancee, Betsy Durst, was honing her talents as chef. They became a couple, he became captain and, after several years aboard the private yacht, the two went in search of a bit more variety.

They landed on a 95-foot Broward and worked charters for four seasons, with a crew of four. "We were killing ourselves to provide the level of service we wanted," he said. The couple then spent one season in the Med aboard a 132-foot Diaship with eight crew-the size boat they wanted. When McDonald got a call in 1998 about the 114-foot Hatteras Camille, he and Betsy weren't looking to downsize. "I figured I'd make some unrealistic demands and get on with it, but I met the owner and the next day, Betsy and I looked at the boat. It was a done deal."

Camille definitely makes an impression. Her accommodations are belowdecks, accessed by intertwining spiral staircases. One leads to the master amidships, the other to three guest staterooms slightly aft. The master's his-and-her bath is spacious, with the jacuzzi tub next to, instead of combined with, the shower. (An opaque glass divider pulls out to create two private spaces.) Each guest stateroom has an en suite head; the two with queen berths have jacuzzi tubs and showers, and the one with twin berths and a Pullman has a stand-up shower.

The warm maple finish in each stateroom continues throughout the 1996 yacht. In the saloon, light from 10 large windows makes the finish appear golden at dusk, in contrast to lighter-finish yachts that take on a yellowish tone around suppertime. Pieces in this space have the distinction of being elegant and comfortable, from the leather sitting chairs near the above-bar television to the eight dining chairs with extra padding in their seats and backrests. Up one flight is the flying bridge deck, a sun lover's paradise with a wet bar and jacuzzi. Two Wave Runners and a kayak are stowed out of the way, on the after portion of the deck that shades the Eisenglass-protected, air-conditioned afterdeck.

As comfortable as this yacht's spaces are, many guests will find themselves in the country kitchen-style galley, where a large island separates a table for eight from the prep area where Betsy spends most of each day. She's happy to chat while she cooks, letting you taste a bit of homemade sauce or nibble on cookies and brownies. It's like being in your childhood kitchen watching Mom make dinner, only with Betsy, the scraps are gourmet.

Her cooking style matches the crew's flexibility. She prepares whatever each guest requests, down to extra spice on the plates of guests who prefer it. "I know everything I do isn't perfect," she said, "but if you give me a clue about what you like, I can really shine."

Again, that's a claim you'll hear aboard many yachts, but few have a chef talented enough to execute. This native of Durham, North Carolina, has been passionate about cooking since before her days training at the Culinary Institute of America. When she talks about her creations, her hazel eyes gaze into the distance as her hands reach forward, every finger outstretched as if searching for the perfect ingredient.

"I'm neither Jewish nor Italian, but it's somewhere in my heart," she said. "I just want people to eat, eat, eat. And I really want them to make it to dessert. I love my desserts."

One specialty is her chocolate Kahlua bread pudding, which you'll find yourself using to sop up every drop of the Bailey's vanilla bean sauce beneath it. Another is her Heath bar crunch ice cream pie with homemade chocolate sauce, caramel sauce and whipped cream. The ice cream is light, but not full of air; the sauces are thinned, but not stripped of flavor; and the whipped cream is delicate instead of sugary. Many chefs who try to "lighten" such desserts to balance the sweetness of the whole end up dampening each ingredient's individual taste. Betsy's version is more like a fine glass of wine, with complex tastes saturating the tongue in concert.

Betsy's main dishes are just as varied. She makes sea bass with brandied-cream lobster sauce, hoisin-glazed Cornish hens, hand-rolled sushi and fine French cuisine. She complements a daily breakfast buffet of cereal, fruit and muffins with eggs Benedict and pina colada pancakes (she substitutes pina colada mix for milk and sears a pineapple into the pancake, creating a textured, tropical flavor). Recently, she's become interested in Spanish tapas. She also created a zesty afternoon gazpacho served in a martini glass with three olives.

The captain helps guests mark their favorite meals by posting colorful, humorous menus in the saloon three times a day ("This morning, chef Betsy will gladly design for you a custom omelet. At no time will her hands leave her arms"). At trip's end, McDonald compiles the menus into a keepsake album the crew presents with a photo album of the week's activities, from snorkeling and diving off the swim platform to fishing off the 30-foot Scarab Camille tows.

"Nine times out of 10," Betsy said, "they're so pleased they cry."

The albums are among several special touches this crew offers. They keep preference lists about each guest for repeat business. (One gentleman enjoyed olives stuffed with anchovies and capers, which the crew prepared by hand the first time he chartered. "And the next year, when he came back, they were waiting," said stewardess Jennifer Morman.) McDonald creates a daily "newspaper" that includes a weather report and guests' quotes from the previous day. Morman, while keeping each room spotless, turns the basic triangle fold of a toilet paper roll into a fanned piece of sculpture. The crew creates what they call entertainment opportunities, such as setting up a game of backgammon in case guests want to play but are hesitant to ask.

You won't find such eager creativity and easy adaptability aboard most charter yachts. They're character traits McDonald sought as he built his crew, hoping for the same result Betsy gets by stocking her galley well.

"If you start with the best ingredients," she said, "you can't go wrong."

Contact: Northrop and Johnson Worldwide Yacht Charters, (800) 868-5913, (401) 848-5540; fax (401) 848-0120;njricharters@edgenet.net; www.nandj.com, or any charter broker. Camille charters at $37,500 per week for eight guests, plus expenses.