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Sexual Harassment in Yachting

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There's no denying it – sexual harassment occurs in the yachting industry (as it does to varying degrees in many other industries) and you only have to look at the Dockwalk forum on the subject to confirm it. But are yacht crew more prone to it and less protected from this type of behaviour than employees in other business sectors? 

The superyacht industry differs greatly from others in that it is not officially protected by any sort of union, yachts don't have designated human resources departments aboard and legal jurisdictions vary.  Stewardesses are often chosen for their looks, their height/weight ratio and are, in some cases, being asked for full-length photographs prior to interview to ensure that their physical bodies 'fit the spec'.  Add to this, working in a predominantly male environment and these factors could add up to a higher likelihood that sexual harassment might occur.

The issue of sexual harassment is an emotionally loaded one because it is so personal and intense, involving both sex and power. It is also, on many occasions, completely subjective insofar as what might be a fun, flirtatious remark to one crewmember, may be construed as being sexually charged or discriminating to another. 

I agree with Captain Ted Sputh who pointed out that it's important to avoid being duped into thinking that some people ask to be sexually harassed because they send off certain “signals.”  Being subjected to harassment is a painful and traumatic experience that can be very difficult to reconcile.

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A key factor in that emotional storm is confusion, both for would-be harassers and their potential targets. No one’s sure where the boundaries lie anymore. That’s particularly true in the superyacht industry, where crew relationships often turn intimate. The closeness and intensity of the living conditions can blur the professional boundaries and lead people to step over the line.

So, what is sexual harassment? If the first mate asks a stewardess out for a drink, is that harassment? If you tell the chief stewardess that she looks pretty, will you get sued? If a guest hits on you, should you report it?  Where's the line between flirting and sexual harassment? 

Almost all crew in the superyacht industry have taken their STCW qualification and have thus been taught, in the PSSR (Personal Safety and Social Responsibilities) section of the course, the legal definitions and examples of sexual harassment.  If you have forgotten, I shall outline it below, but it may be time to re-read your notes too.

Studies on myths and misconceptions about sexual harassment indicate that most harassment has nothing to do with flirtation or sincere sexual or social interest on the part of the perpetrator. Harassment is largely about control, domination and punishment. This is a very important point to remember when you are talking about sex in a lewd manner.

Let's firstly examine how sexual harassment is defined:

Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination. The legal definition of sexual harassment is: “Unwelcome verbal, visual, or physical conduct of a sexual nature that is severe or pervasive and affects working conditions or creates a hostile work environment.”

Now, let's break this down:


First of all, conduct is not sexual harassment if it is welcome!  For this reason, it is important to communicate (either verbally, in writing, or by your own actions) to the harasser that their conduct makes you uncomfortable and that you want it to stop.  In other words make a stand for yourself if you feel you are being sexually harassed. But by the same token, be aware of your own behaviour, passing remarks, glances and so on which might be interpreted by others as signals from you welcoming attention.

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"Conduct Of A Sexual Nature"

There are three different kinds of conduct - verbal, visual or physical - which, if it is of a sexual nature, may be sexual harassment, IF the behaviour is unwelcome and if it is severe or pervasive. Some examples might be:

"Verbal or written"
Suggestive comments about someone's clothing, personal behaviour or a person’s body; sexual or sex-based jokes; requesting of sexual favours or repeatedly asking a person out; sexual innuendoes; spreading rumours about a person’s personal or sexual life; threatening someone.

Assault; impeding or blocking movement; inappropriate touching of a person or a person’s clothing; kissing, hugging, patting, stroking, pinching.

Looking up and down a person’s body; derogatory gestures or facial expressions of a sexual nature; following someone.

Posters, drawings, pictures, screensavers or emails of a sexual nature.

It is also interesting to note that non-sexual conduct may also be sexual harassment if you are harassed because you are female, rather than male, or because you are male, rather than female.

For example, it may be sexual harassment if you are a young woman working as a deckhand in an otherwise all-male deck crew and you are the only one whose tools and equipment are frequently hidden by your male co-workers, or similarly for a steward working in an all-female interior crew department. 

"Severe or Pervasive"

The conduct of the harasser must either be severe or it must be pervasive to be sexual harassment. A single incident is probably not sexual harassment unless it is severe. For example, a single incident of rape or attempted rape would be sexual harassment (and would also violate criminal laws).

Although a single unwanted request for a date or one sexually suggestive comment might offend you and/or be inappropriate, it may not be sexual harassment.

However, a number of relatively minor separate incidents may add up to sexual harassment if the incidents affect your work environment. Some questions you can ask yourself to determine whether the conduct is pervasive are: How many times did the incidents occur? How long has the harassment been going on? How many other people were also sexually harassed?

"Affects Working Conditions or Creates a Hostile Work Environment"

If you are fired, refused a promotion, demoted, given a poor performance evaluation, or reassigned to a less desirable position because you reject a sexual advance, that almost certainly is sexual harassment. Even if the conduct does not result in economic injury or change of status to your job, it may be sexual harassment if the conduct unreasonably interferes with your work performance or creates an “intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.”

For example, it may be illegal sexual harassment if repeated sexual comments make you so uncomfortable at work that your performance suffers or if you decline professional opportunities because it will put you in contact with the harasser.

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Remember that sexual harassment is against the law in accordance with the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  Laws against sexual harassment are designed to protect you from your boss, (yacht owner/captain), your co-workers or the guests who come aboard – and note – both men and women can be sexually harassed. Someone of the same or opposite sex can sexually harass you.

Retaliation is also against the Law

Not only is sexual harassment against the law, but so is retaliating against someone for complaining about sexual harassment or for participating in an investigation of sexual harassment. Examples of retaliation include the example whereby you complain about sexual harassment and you then lose your job, although the harasser continues to work; or your employer (owner or captain) retaliates against you for complaining about sexual harassment or for participating as a witness in an investigation of sexual harassment,

If you are experiencing sexual harassment and are not saying anything, then more fool you! You really don't have to put it up with it.  There are always people to whom you can speak, but do go through the proper channels, i.e. to your head of department, captain or your DPA (designated person ashore) in the yacht's management company, whichever is appropriate according to who is the harasser. 

There are few incidents where you should go directly to the owners with this problem, except perhaps, if you are working on a small yacht where there is no management company involved and where you have a good relationship with the owner of the boat.  

Advice from the Dockwalk forum suggests that in the event that you are experiencing harassment, but don't have a management company to turn to, and have decided to leave the yacht on which you are working, you can turn to the port captain of any port, stating that you need to leave because of harassment on board and they have the authority to board the yacht with the port police to force the captain to pay your wages up-to-date, plus the cost of an airfare home and to escort you to your cabin to retrieve your possessions.

It might also be useful to present the employer with whom you are dealing with a written complaint, outlining the incident(s) and when they occurred – and keep a copy for yourself in case you need it for future substantiation of the event(s).  Also, document when you made any complaints and keep all this information in a safe place.

You may be the first person to complain about a particular person, due to some sort of intimidation, threat of being fired, the fear of not being believed and so on – and perhaps the incident would initially be considered an isolated one. BUT, should you leave and the next person issues a similar complaint, alarm bells will begin to ring.  Two separate complaints of this nature about the same person is infinitely more powerful than one isolated Incident. 

Be courageous – you may well help to weed out a serial sexual predator who has been getting away with this behaviour for far too long.

It is reasonable to expect that employers (owners, management companies and/or captains) make themselves responsible for preventing and stopping sexual harassment of the crew and that they take reasonable care to promptly correct sexual harassment should it occur.  If employers don't swiftly handle their crew's comments or complaints about harassment, it’s very likely to create resentment, low morale, low productivity and increased turnover. 

So it's in everybody's interest to deal with the situation as quickly and appropriately as possible.

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There should be clear and concise clauses in crew contracts and in crew manuals outlining properly-enforced policies relating to the consequences for the perpetrator of sexual discrimination.  Also clauses informing crew what procedures must be followed in order to make a complaint should an incident of this nature happen to them. 

If you don't have these procedures or policies outlined in your own contracts and manuals, be pro-active and speak to your captain or management company about including them.  Do it for your own and others' protection.

Generally speaking, yachts have zero tolerance with regards to unwanted or unwelcome harassment which includes, but is not limited to, degrading remarks, jokes, tricks, insults or gestures, displaying or passing around offensive objects or pictures, and posting compromising pictures on the internet.

When a crew member’s conduct has the effect of substantially interfering with a person’s work performance or of creating an intimidating and hostile or offensive work environment, consequences will follow. 

How are you protected?

The ILO's Maritime Labour Convention 2006 (MLC) becomes UK law on 20 Aug 2013 and sets out the minimum working and living rights for seafarers.  See section 5 for information regarding Codes of Safe Working Practices.

The Convention provides comprehensive rights and protection at work for the world's more than 1.2 million seafarers. It aims to achieve both decent work for seafarers and secure economic interests in fair competition for quality ship owners. As an estimated 90 per cent of world trade is carried on ships, seafarers are essential to international trade and the international economic and trade system. The Convention consolidates and updates more than 68 international labour standards related to the Maritime sector adopted over the last 80 years. 

The Convention sets out seafarers' rights to decent conditions of work on a wide range of subjects, and aims to be globally applicable, easily understandable, readily updatable and uniformly enforced. It has been designed to become a global instrument known as the "fourth pillar" of the international regulatory regime for quality shipping, complementing the key Conventions of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO).

The decision by the ILO to move forward to create this major new Maritime Labour Convention was the result of a joint resolution in 2001 by the international seafarers’ and ship owners’ organizations, also supported by governments.  They pointed out that the shipping industry is “the world’s first genuinely global industry” which “requires an international regulatory response of an appropriate kind – global standards applicable to the entire industry”.

To find out more about Health and Safety on yachts, in particular the terms of SI2962 relating to codes of safe working practices, visit

So, to conclude, I believe everyone's first line of action is to accept personal responsibility for things that are happening in your life.  You are working on a particular yacht because you have chosen to be there.  If the working conditions don't suit you for whatever reason, it is up to you to change your situation, either by leaving or by being proactive in changing what you don't like in a positive and reasonable way, hopefully for the benefit of all.

Treat yourself and fellow crew members with respect. You don't have to take all the fun out of being part of a young crew, just cultivate some conscious awareness of other people's personalities and their reactions to certain situations.   Do you really know that someone who is hyper-sensitive to flirtatious remarks hasn't been sexually abused as a child?  Make an effort to ensure you avoid making overly-provocative remarks; give constant flirtatious looks; be seen scantily-clad and so on, particularly if you feel you may be prone or vulnerable to sexual harassment aboard.  Be aware of negative attitudes towards sexual conversations and endeavour to be instrumental in creating an atmosphere of respect and dignity toward everyone with whom you work.  Each crew member should be aware of their co-worker’s comfort zone and learn to interpret the body language given off by less-than-receptive crew members.

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In the words of Tucker Max: "People will treat you the way you let them. There is no such thing as 'deserving' respect; you get what you demand from people".  So, if you treat yourself and others with respect, it will come back to you.  If not, it certainly won't!

Also, if there are no specific rules regarding romances among crew, curb your enthusiasm to touch, fondle and caress your new partner especially during work hours. These actions may make others feel uncomfortable, lonely or irritated.  If the crew manual prohibits on board romances, be prepared to lose your job should you engage in an on board relationship.

There is a great deal of documented evidence in the general discussions section (Docktalk) in the Dockwalk Forum regarding the indignation and upset experienced by many young women following incidents of sexual harassment with varying degrees of severity. 

Don't be another victim.  If you are being harassed, REPORT IT, either to your HOD, Captain or Management company as appropriate and document the incident, keeping the evidence of it for possible future reference.

If employers in the yachting industry are actively working towards creating a harmonious, productive working environment on board by the careful selection of captains and crew and by enforcing proper punitive measures for misconduct of a sexual nature, then the industry would enjoy a foundation of higher integrity on which to build.  

As Damien of the Y.CO yacht management team rightly points out: "It comes down to how the yacht is run, both by the captain and by the management company".  

Captains who engage in sexual harassment of their crew are really setting themselves up for disaster on many levels, with disgruntled, unproductive crew and the very real possibility of the loss of their jobs, reputation – and maybe even, in some cases, their wives!

If, in extreme cases, you decide you must take legal action, be cognisant of the fact that this could be a long, arduous and costly process and without clearly documented evidence, may be difficult to prove.  However, if you need to speak to a lawyer, even just for advice, below are three who specialize in maritime law – the first in France, the second and third in the USA. 

1) Frank Benham specialises on giving advice and legal assistance to the yachting and shipping community including crew employment issues, purchase, sale or charter agreements, ship repair and refurbishment contracts, crew injury or casualties at sea and in port. Helpful with any French customs issues. Studied in France and in the UK and has a PhD in Maritime Law.

Tel: +33 (0)4 95 06 11 92; Mobile: +33 (0)6 16 96 28 49; Email:

2) The lawyers of Moore & Co. have more than 30 years of experience specializing in the areas of maritime law, art law, and aviation law. With this extensive knowledge, our law firm in Miami Florida (Coral Gables), services clients throughout the world in these three highly specialized industries. 

Tel: +1 786 221 0600 

3) David Irwin, Marine lawyer in Fort Lauderdale.

Tel: +1 954 775 2301 


Having first completed an HND in Hotel Catering and Institutional Management in Oxford, Lynne has since acquired more than thirty years of experience in the hospitality industry, ten of which were served aboard luxury motor yachts and a further twenty in other yacht-related and villa management sectors.  Lynne has extensive practical experience in all aspects of interior management in both the yachting and luxury villa sectors and has been a PYA accredited trainer for more than a decade.

In recent years Lynne’s skills were extended through various relevant training courses, including a Professional Training Certificate, the Levels 2 and 3 Awards in Food Safety in Catering and Energy Management in Business training. Lynne has recently become a PYA Council Member, to assist with the representation of the Interior Department and is a PYA GUEST approved Trainer.

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Lynne profile2About the author:

Having first completed an HND in Hotel Catering and Institutional Management in Oxford, Lynne has since acquired more than thirty years of experience in the hospitality industry, ten of which were served aboard luxury motor yachts and a further twenty in other yacht-related and villa management sectors.  Lynne has extensive practical experience in all aspects of interior management in both the yachting and luxury villa sectors and has been a PYA accredited trainer for more than a decade.

In recent years Lynne’s skills were extended through various relevant training courses, including a Professional Training Certificate, the Levels 2 and 3 Awards in Food Safety in Catering and Energy Management in Business training. Lynne has recently become a PYA Council Member, to assist with the representation of the Interior Department and is a PYA GUEST approved Trainer.

More articles from Lynne Edwards

*Image credits: Wikipedia & Shutterstock

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