Mel Thunderbolt | Magazine Interview with Mel Thunderbolt 2013
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Magazine Interview with Mel Thunderbolt 2013

Engineer Mel Thunderbolt loves boats. Sailing them, working on them and fixing them (although she could happily do without the shore power cable system.) Join her as she describes her sheer love of yachting, a lucky escape from an engine room fire, surviving a Middle East prison, and looking for her Indiana Jones.

How did you get into the yachting industry?

An advertisement for a sailing course in a yachting magazine and the words from a David Gray song called Babylon… ‘If you want it, come and get it, crying out loud’, were the two things that prompted me to get involved in the yachting industry in the year 2000. I had travelled Australia and America for three years before searching for my niche in life and this is how I came to realise that there was no way of me doing boring day to day office work and sitting still behind a desk from 8 to 5!

Without any hesitation, I applied for the sailing course which I did in South Africa and Mozambique and soon found myself doing two trans-ocean sailing deliveries – Cape Town to Dubai and Cape Town to Croatia and from there on to Antibes in France. I will never forget the day I arrived in Antibes. I was dropped off by taxi at The Blue Lady Bar, a total stranger in the town. I had very little money and didn’t know a soul. But that is what made me even more determined to make a success of the career I had chosen. The rest is history.

Is it how you expected it to be?

No, not at all. It’s so much more. It is hard work but fun at the same time and I love the adventure and thrill of it all! Yachting has made me the person I am today. So many exciting and wonderful experiences and opportunities have come my way through yachting. It can be tough when work involves an 18-hour day without any breaks in peak season. That is when I wish I were a florist, so that I could stop for a minute and smell the roses- but if that were the case, I would never have seen all the beautiful places in the world and done the things I’ve done thanks to yachting.

What do you love most about your job?

I love the diversity of my job – the constant learning and problem solving. Meeting up with the most amazing people from all walks of life. Finding myself travelling to the most amazing places. Having the financial freedom to follow other interests and desires of my own. For instance, in 2011 I took a year’s vacation and joined up as a volunteer with a Diving Expedition group in the Pacific Ocean, its mission was “Dive for Sunken Treasure”. Nine months of absolute bliss, sailing and diving from the islands in the Philippines to New Zealand. I met folk that live on atolls and in grass huts and survive living off coconuts from coconut trees. What a tremendous opportunity it was for me because I had the financial freedom to do so, which my yachting career allowed.

What is the single biggest issue affecting yachting at the moment?

I have no idea. I spend most of my days below deck. I sometimes feel that we live in a bubble onboard, with hardly any interaction with the outside world. I do believe there has been a lot of negative talk regarding the new TV show ‘Below Deck’.

What keeps you awake at night?

My roommate snoring from the bunk bed below me. Ten years ago, I would never have believed that I would be sleeping in a bunk bed at the age of 32!

What would you change if you could?

Pretentious people – Guests who think they are the bee’s knees. It is always such a pleasure to have friendly guests on board who are down to earth and who appreciate everything that is done for them.

Also, egotistical crew.

What could you do without?

I could really do without our shore power cable system. Practically every time the yacht reaches a new marina (which is almost daily with our busy schedule) I have to climb and fight my way through all the ‘toys’ which are housed in an already overcrowded garage and position and wedge myself into a minute hole to feed out 30m of shore power cable. It always seems to get caught up and jammed in the middle somehow and I get sweaty and cranky. Once I almost lost my thumb in the process.

If you weren’t working on boats, what would you be doing?

Definitely a helicopter pilot would be top of my list as well as being a travel writer. Being asked to write an engineering column for OnboardOnline has given me a wonderful chance to express my thoughts and experiences on paper! I always love a challenge and like to be involved in more than one project at a time – so besides being a yacht engineer, I also help manage a family event business back home in South Africa and am also currently studying Neuro Logistics Programming and Hypnotherapy on a part time basis. When I do have five minutes, I enjoy reading Tarot cards for friends!

What is your idea of the perfect boat?

My idea of a perfect yacht would be an expedition yacht that could go anywhere. A boat that has great, relaxed owners who wanted to explore different cultures and sail to remote places. A boat that has a close-knit captain and crew. Boats and their equipment malfunction from time to time, that’s normal. It’s the crew that work onboard with the right attitude that make the boat as perfect as can be.

Where is the most beautiful bay in the world?

Of all the bays I have seen in the world, the bays in the Philippines, Fiji and Palau in my opinion are the most beautiful! Although any secluded bay with crystal clear water where there is no struggle for anchorage amongst other boats is what makes a bay beautiful and magical.

What is your greatest experience on a boat?

My greatest experiences have always been on the smaller sailing yachts and not being able to see any land in sight for days on end. This is REAL sailing. I have spent many nights out at sea. Night watches are my absolute favourite- especially when it is full moon – just little old me and the stars and moon for company. To see the moon casting its silver highway of light for us to follow and to spot so many shooting stars in the sky to wish upon. I am in total awe as the skies slowly start to grow from dark navy blue to beautiful shades of pastel pink and lilac with the approach of a new dawn, a new day. It is the promise of a new beginning, a gift of a new chance to give life your best shot! It doesn’t get better than that. The feeling of freedom and the realisation of how small we all are on this enormous planet called Earth is the best feeling in the world.

What is your worst experience on a boat?

Having an engine room fire onboard. A few years ago, I was feverish and ill with the flu as well as alone onboard. I was dosed up with flu medication and didn’t hear the fire alarm sounding in the early hours of the morning. The hydraulic pack in the engine room had caught alight due to a malfunction which started a hydraulic fire. The yacht was not MCA compliant and where I was sleeping I couldn’t hear the alarm, and if the yacht had fully caught alight there was not an escape hatch where I was sleeping. It was a serious fire in the engine room. The only thing that saved me was that the fire burnt through a small PVC water pipe that was connected to the aft deck shower! The water tank emptied onto the flames and put out the fire. Many lessons were learnt from this and it showed me just how quickly bad situations can happen. It is a miracle that I am alive today to tell this story.

Generally speaking, which nationalities tend to be the best bosses?

It all depends on the individual character so it’s difficult to generalise. Most of my bosses have been wonderful people to work for, especially those from Germany and Russia. My current boss is French Canadian and both he and his family are exceptionally good people to work for. It makes my job so much more enjoyable!

The best charter guests?

I would have to say Americans are the best guests to have onboard as they tip very generously!

What is your motto?

Live each day like it’s your last.

What is the greatest virtue?


Without love within ourselves, towards other people and in what we do – we have nothing. From love stems all the other virtues – kindness, humbleness and honesty and truth.

Who do you most admire in the world of yachting?

There are so many great yachtsmen and women out there that deserve profound admiration.

I admire Ellen MacArthur as I’ve read her book. She does plenty charity work – The Ellen MacArthur Trust, which takes children sailing in order to regain their confidence while recovering from cancer and other diseases. Another charity of hers is The Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Any person who can give back to the world with such stature deserves a great amount of respect.

What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?

Surviving two and a half weeks in a Middle East prison.

What is your greatest regret?

No regrets – ever!

What is your favourite story of the sea?

I love all stories of the sea and sea adventures especially those that go back in history – from Shackleton to Robinson Crusoe. I am particularly fond of the biography and incredible journey of Mary Bryant.

What will you be doing in five years?

 I am so grateful that my life is filled with excitement and adventure every day. I love it the way it is and it certainly changes from year to year – who knows where I will be in five years’ time. I can see myself doing a self-drive trip through Africa offering my services doing volunteer work in small villages with the local people. Maybe that is where I will eventually meet my ‘Indiana Jones’ and live happily ever after.

Melissa Van Der Walt