Perspectives on the Safety Culture in Yachting

Posted: 9th August 2017 | Written by: Sam Watson

Valerie SAR 140

Introduction: Perspectives on Safety in Yachting
Links to all 15 articles at the bottom of this page.

Depending on who you are, working on a superyacht conjures up a lot of things but risk of life and limb isn’t one of them. If you listen to insider stories on incidents and near misses you start to wonder, although the yachting industry is characteristically tight-lipped and a lack of open discussion means nothing much changes.

Publicly the industry and the media have been going round in circles for years, reporting the odd incident or fire, sometimes quoting a captain on the need to raise standards, and that’s as far as it goes.

Privately, mention the safety culture in yachting to a range of experts and you get a range of views with a lot of common ground.  

There are always exceptions but few dispute the need to improve the safety culture onboard many yachts, although there’s little talk of what that looks like in practice and the focus tends to be narrow. In recent years, for example, a lot of attention has gone into leadership training, and while good leadership is important, it’s one factor among many. Similarly, if rules and regulations and umpteen crew training courses were the answer we wouldn’t have a problem. So what’s so peculiar about yachting?

Plage Salis Sam cat mastsBroadly speaking there are two fundamentals: The purpose of a yacht and human nature, each throwing up a myriad of factors which shape the collective safety culture of our industry. To complicate things further, each yacht has its own onboard culture, an individual owner, a captain with their own style of leadership and a different management company. 

How not to win friends and influence people

And we don’t help ourselves. Last year, following a number of sightings of poor safety procedures in port we saw a sudden spate of tell-tale posts on social media which went down like a lead balloon among crew. Candid camera and the blame game are not good strategies for getting people on side.

Neither is it helpful for the press to shout out every incident without a subsequent look at why it happened. Mistakes and accidents happen for a multitude of reasons ranging from poor maintenance to weather to human error, or a combination of several factors, and where lessons can be learned they should be, for the benefit of all. Reports also take years to come out and we rarely see any discussion of the findings in the public domain. Some seem to disappear into thin air; we are still waiting for the official report on Kibo three years on.

Martins Boat and Gucci yacht

Just as serious is the fear of reporting an incident or a near miss in case you lose your job and this extends to cautioning the media in some cases, so we’re all familiar with the commercial pressures in this regard. But there surely comes a point where we should have the confidence to look more critically at ourselves, stand up for ourselves, and measure reputation and money against the cost of human life?

Within the constraints and sensitivities of our industry discretion is important, but the word that sticks in my mind is solidarity. Most of us working in yachting feel a part of something quite special, not least because it’s an industry that makes no sense at all unless you’re in it.  

Answerable unto ourselves

Back to basics and, whatever our particular role, we must remind ourselves that superyachts exist to provide owners and guests with an exceptional holiday, the ultimate luxury experience. And we’re very good at it; the yachts are shiny, the crew are shiny and everything appears top notch. But when the owner steps on board their yacht they presume without question that this extends to their personal safety as well as that of their crew and their multi-million dollar asset. So why is it not always the case?

sunseeker bridge

The very same owner wouldn’t think to question whether the pilot of their private jet is properly qualified, rested, alert and following procedure, although even in aviation it wasn’t always this way. Commercial aviation had its nemesis in Tenerife in 1977 when two fully loaded Boeing 747s collided on the runway killing 583 of the 644 passengers on board. It was a high profile incident that changed things forever, prompting a wholesale review of its safety culture, the training of pilots, cabin crew and air traffic control, the implementation of safe practices and, crucially, the ability to report incidents and near misses without fear or prejudice.

We could argue that more can go wrong in the air or that when it does the consequences are greater, but ask the parents of a deceased deckhand if they agree.

It has also been said that some people ‘don’t get yachting’. I’m not sure there’s anything to get. A boat is a boat and a ship is a ship, each subject to the rules of the sea. Seafaring long precedes yachting as a leisure pursuit and we don’t have special dispensation when it comes to the welfare of crew or mortal safety. The idea that yachting is a special case is an intrinsic part of the problem.

Mast from FB competition

A matter of perspective

In all situations, whether making a cake or driving a ship, there’s a context, there are people, and there are multiple junctions at which things can go wrong. Similarly, the process or system on board is everything and everyone, and all systems contain the seeds of their own demise. A system’s strength is also its weakness and once we accept this we have a choice: to do something or nothing.

As media we’re often on the sidelines looking on but sometimes we see an opportunity to do something really interesting. Many of you have also been asking us to be more challenging and to take more risks, so we decided to tackle this one head on.

While researching the subject we spoke to a lot of people and soon realized that safety is a giant topic that cannot be understood from a single perespective. What started out as a couple of articles became a series of 14 and then we had to consider the level of detail and disclosure and the right voice. For each perspective we decided to ask an expert to give a frank view in their own words. Without exception, the response has been hugely positive and we'd like to thank everyone who has taken part.

Valerie onlooking

Starting this week, the series covers the following perspectives: 

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