Battling grief, depression, anxiety and loneliness, Lymington stewardess Gemma Hulbert realised that life at sea no longer suited and with her feet firmly on solid ground, she was able to help and inspire those new to the yachting industry

Former Super Yacht Chief Stewardess, life-style blogger, podcast host and Founder of two successful businesses Gemma Hulbert (31) is a hugely inspiring business women. After travelling all over the world working in exotic locations, Gemma now splits her time between her home in Lymington in Hampshire and Fort Lauderdale in Florida. Her businesses, The Yacht Stew Academy and The Yacht Stew Recruitment, have helped thousands gain the knowledge to enter the world of yachting.

Originally from Canada, Gemma was born on the Isle of Mull in the UK to British parents and moved to Vancouver in 2002 with her family. After studying at university, and working in wedding planning for a short period, Gemma was initially attracted to the yachting industry to pay off her student loan, aged just 18. She remembers: ‘I wanted to pay off my debt and was incredibly lucky as I got on a boat that was based out of Vancouver Island. That eventually lead to being on boats all over the world – America, Canada, Mexico and the Mediterranean are just some of the places we travelled through.’

Great British Life: Working to help those starting out in the industry is what drives Gemma and her team (c) Mattea McKinnonWorking to help those starting out in the industry is what drives Gemma and her team (c) Mattea McKinnon

Some of the vessels Gemma ended up working on were owned and enjoyed by billionaires, celebrities and royals. The smooth running of these boats is entirely dependent on an array of dedicated workers. With sun, sea, global travel and a hefty salary, it’s easy to see why so many are drawn to this industry, but it’s a job that comes with great demands and months away from home.

After starting her career initially as a stewardess, Gemma thrived and was later promoted to Chief Stew, which meant managing a team of stewardesses and a head of housekeeping. Her role encompassed organising the interior to the highest standard possible, to meet the needs of owners and charter guests and to provide an impeccable service. She explains: ‘It was essential to know what the guests want before they know what they want, to anticipate everything.

‘I’m someone who needs to create but also be logical in my thinking and that’s why it worked so well for me, it’s a great balance. Working aboard, I’d view each guest trip as one long event. As soon as guests come on board, every moment had to be maliciously planned, with back-up plans. I loved the travel and the events management side of things.’

In 2013, Gemma met her now-husband Ben, who was a deckhand at the time on another boat within the area.

Gemma tells the story: ‘I saw my husband through the port hole window and dreamed about meeting the ‘boy next door’. I did a few things to get him to notice me, I took up running to try and get his attention after work,’ she laughs, ‘but he didn’t notice. Eventually one night, one of my deckhands told him I had a thing for him after seeing him walk past. My husband is quite shy and not sometime that would usually act on that, but luckily he did and we’ve been together ever since.

‘We were fortunate that for the first six months of our relationship we were long distance, so we built a friendship first which was great. Through that we learnt to prioritise our time for each other, to chat and remain in communication. I was on nights at this time, starting at 7pm and finishing at 10am in the morning so it was a challenge! After that, we nearly always worked together on the same boats. We were always very professional and kept crew and work very separate and it worked really well. Our time was in the cabin together watching a film, having a date night, going for a walk. I’d go out with the girls, he’d go out with the guys. We kept boundaries and never wanted to make people feel uncomfortable with us as a couple on board.’

Great British Life: Gemma runs a regular podcast and has over 16,000 followers on social mediaGemma runs a regular podcast and has over 16,000 followers on social media

In 2016, Gemma decided to create a blog and social media account: ‘I started The Yacht Stew after feeling quite isolated in the industry. It can get lonely out in the big blue! I was working on a boat in Canada at the time and I wanted a platform where I could connect with other people and feel creative again. For the first six months, I didn’t share a photo of myself or my name, it was solely a community. But slowly I came out of my shell and told everyone who I was’.

Now, Gemma has over 16k followers on her Instagram and two global businesses, as well as being highly respected in her industry. In 2020, like so many of us during covid, Gemma’s life took a dramatic turn and she had a ‘bit of a wake-up call’. She remembers: ‘I just knew my time on board was coming to an end. The transition was hard, lonely and I wasn’t prepared. For years I only knew myself as Chief Stew Gemma and leaving all that behind was scary. I didn’t know who I was without being on a boat. It took a few years but I am now finally confident in who I am. I’ve figured out what brings me joy without just saying yes to everything that comes my way’.

After experiencing a breakdown in her mental health during this period, Gemma has spoken openly about her anxiety and depression. She also has interviewed experts on her podcast to help introduce people in the yachting industry to holistic wellbeing techniques such as tapping, breathwork and yoga.

‘Since moving to the UK during covid, after being at sea for 10 years, I dealt with intense depression and anxiety. I realised that being outdoors makes the world of difference, I feel like a different person when I take time to go outside in nature. As a stew on board, it wasn’t as easy as it sounds, if you’ve got guests on board, you can’t just zip outside. It was a breath of fresh air when I moved here – long walks on the beach helped me find myself again. I am also a huge advocate of therapy; it is so healthy to have a safe space to share and to just be yourself.

‘On board things are very ridged with the schedule – your set uniform, your start time, your whole life revolves around serving the owners and ensuring all their needs are met. When I left yachting, finding my own schedule and what worked for me really helped me to manage my anxiety and to walk through a season of depression. Now I know what I enjoy in my personal time, I can incorporate that into my everyday’.

In 2021, Gemma lost her best friend and work colleague to cancer cervical cancer. Her friend, with whom she was inseparable, and also called Gemma, sadly passed away at just 31-years-old after a long battle with the disease. Gemma shares: ‘Grief is a beast and something I’m not sure I’ll ever quite grasp. I’m reminded every time I think of Gem that life is so short, so do what sets your soul on fire.’

The down time during covid gave Gemma the opportunity to give birth to her two companies, The Yacht Stew Training Academy and The Yacht Stew Recruitment. Community is at the heart of both companies, and Gemma and her team have written and created online and in-person courses to help newbies learn everything you need to know to excel at life at sea. Gemma explains: ‘We wanted to be the torch bearers, informers, educators and virtual big sisters of the new wave of Super Stews.’

Great British Life: Gemma's advice is always to try new things and don't be afraid to fail (c) Mattea McKinnonGemma's advice is always to try new things and don't be afraid to fail (c) Mattea McKinnon

A self-confessed ‘workaholic’, Gemma now realises the importance of making space for the mind and soul, despite having to fight the urge to keep busy. In her down time, she loves baking, spending time with her husband and friends, and walking along the sea wall in Lymington. She smiles: ‘I love that there is a thriving yachting community in Lymington, people are very understanding of the industry and it’s great to connect with likeminded individuals. From our living room we can see the Isle of Wight in the distance. I love walking around by the coast and the salt marshes. It’s a small, quaint, beautiful spot. I adore the Sunday market, we get all our meat, cheese and bread there and of course - fresh flowers.’

Gemma has recently returned from working at a boat show in Florida. She says: ‘The first time I found a yachting job was at the Fort Lauderdale boat show in 2011, and to go back 12 years later with a team of nine as a business owner has been amazing’. She continues: ‘To spend a week serving the crew community, supporting them, encouraging them, creating events just for them. It’s my dream come true and I really believe in empowering ex stews. The companies that helped me get into yachting all those years ago are now sponsoring my events as a business owner.’

It is clear Gemma is passionate and exceptionally driven with an enormous amount of understanding and compassion for ex stews and those just starting their career.

‘The yachting world is wonderful, but it can be lonely, demanding and sometimes overwhelming.’ Her businesses support new stews to find their community and gain insightful knowledge.

Her advice for others who want to follow their dreams in life: ‘Ask yourself what brings you intense joy? Make that your priority and hold yourself high enough to regard that only you will accept peace, joy and love into your life. Life is meant to be filled with overwhelming happiness, and whatever is holding you back from that, get rid of it. Try new things, don’t be afraid to fail, and love deeply and intensely.’