Industry » Features » Superyacht Bullies: When Crew Turn on Crew

Superyacht Bullies: When Crew Turn on Crew

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In a disturbing case recently given to OnboardOnline, a female crew member was allegedly repeatedly attacked by a senior male crew member over a period of months. 

On one occasion, another crew member also allegedly punched her.  The captain, despite being asked repeatedly to intervene, failed to act, and allegedly even joined in with verbal abuse when the situation got to crisis point and a serious head injury was sustained.  The yacht owner was informed that the situation had become violent, but also failed to act to ensure the woman’s safety.  She fled the yacht, entering a period of unemployment and mental trauma. 

While all things not proven in a court of law can only be alleged, there is an extensive email trail, a police report and photographic evidence of the injuries suffered while she was onboard.  This publication cannot and will not judge the veracity of this story, but if events transpired as described- even partially- then this case represents the total breakdown of the crew dynamic and the captain’s authority- not to mention his responsibility to provide a safe environment for his crew.

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*Yacht pictured not associated in any way with this case.

It is not my intention to sensationalize, or to imply that these kinds of incidents are common.  In fact, nobody I spoke to in my enquiries had heard of anything approaching as serious and, for most concerned, yachting is a good and safe career.  Yet ,while the details of this incident must remain private out of respect for the girl’s privacy, this case is instructive, in that it paints a worst-case scenario of what can happen when crew turn on other crew.

Some might be thinking, hang on - this happened over several months? Why didn’t she leave earlier?  At its heart, it’s none of our business why she didn’t leave; the bullying and violence described are abhorrent. But the reasons she gave for not leaving are worth examining, for many crew stay in situations that make them unhappy for similar reasons- they feel trapped.  In this case, there may be a lesson to others. 

The girl admitted to me, “I thought I was doing the responsible, sensible thing by staying- to the owner, to my career, and to my two mortgages…The captain threatened me and said that if I left the boat before my year was complete he would make my life in the industry difficult, and he knows a lot of people…He also told me he would fine me my agency fees- 4000 euros…I felt trapped. I was hoping the incidents would not occur again.  It’s strange as I think back now.” She added that she liked the owner and the itinerary, and feared the financial pressure of being unemployed while looking for another job.

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Yachting, at its core, has systemic factors which intensify conflict. Living together in close confines with different personalities, different cultures, different languages. Long hours, stress, sexual affairs and personality clashes.  Alcohol.  Immaturity and egos, people who have done the job too long and have no room for new opinions, and those who arrive on their first boat utterly convinced they know it all.  Adults living in bunk beds. The lack of a personal life, the inability to go home at the end of the day to people who love you.  A boat where you don’t fit with the crew is a lonely place indeed.

Bullies onboard

Because of all these factors, as well as the normal friction found in any group dynamic, bullying is quite common in yachting, and at all levels.  While researching this article, I found that it takes many forms- rarely violent, but damaging and dangerous nonetheless for the crew experiencing it. 

  • Sexual harassment.  This is bullying, plain and simple.  One girl I spoke to was allegedly being harassed by the captain for months. When he wouldn’t stop, she contacted the owner for help, as the boat wasn’t managed and she felt she had no-one else to turn to. The owner informed the captain of her complaint, the captain told the crew, and the crew closed ranks, completely ostracising her.  She quit yachting soon after, and sought counselling.

  • Captain and wife team bullying.  While making enquiries, this topic was brought up time and time again.  As Michael Wellington of Yachting Therapy explains, “Captain and wife situations come up a lot (with her clients), because in running the vessel together they have complete control of both the exterior and interior.  They can become overly attached to the power they can wield over the crew.”

    In one case described, it was ‘normal’ procedure for the captain’s wife to bully the new stewardesses for their first three months onboard as a type of initiation, until the stewardesses proved themselves.  The captain did not step in to stop this, and instead threatened to fine the crew their agency fees and joining airfares if they attempted to leave within the year.  The other crew told the stewardess in this case, “Don’t worry, she does it to all the girls- if you can last three months, she’ll be nice to you- she loves this boat and is just doing it to weed out people who aren’t keen.” Not what I’d call admirable leadership, from chief stew or captain.

  • Bully captains.  Many of us have worked for one of these- the ones that think yelling, criticising and undermining their crew’s confidence is a sign of power, rather than an abuse of it.  As Alison Rentoul, The Crew Coach says, “Bullies think they have power but this is an egotistical illusion- power is not power when it is taken by force.  True power is given- through the consent and the loyalty of the people you manage.  The little-known secret of power is to actually empower the people who report to you. The more you mentor, develop and encourage, the more they will respect you, and with that respect comes a different type of power- a secure, confident power that is founded on integrity and wisdom and not based in the ego, but in the support of those around you.”

    One captain commented that he was a terrible leader when he started out, yelling and trying to assert power over his crew, because that was the pattern he had learnt from his old captains. It took time, and good mentorship from a retired captain, for him to build good relationships with his crew.  After all, very few are born leaders; we could all use a little help along the way. 

  • Chief steward/ess vs interior team.  One of the most common.  As Lynne Edwards, Interior Training Manager at Abacus & March says, “The pressure on a chief stewardess is enormous- but you don’t need to bully people.  In the quiet moments,  that doesn’t make anyone feel good- those chief stews have ruined the working relationship-and inherently, they know it. And it takes guts to say that you are wrong.  And many people will just continue bullying rather than admit they were wrong in the first place.” Of course, this doesn’t apply only to chief stewardesses, but to any heads of department.

  • When we are the bullies.  It is hard living and working with people that you don’t feel an affinity for.  The frustration you feel as someone launches into another interminable monologue, the bad table manners or that annoying laugh.  Sometimes the crew around us drive us directly up the wall.  But that’s yachting.  It is part of the deal: you take the job; you take the crew with it.  Warts and all.

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But it’s tough, isn’t it.  To be civil and go for drinks with someone that is rude, lazy at work, selfish, or just plain annoying.  It’s tempting to ignore them, or run away to the bar without inviting them, and ignore the hurt look when you return to the boat with the rest of the  crew,  who you ‘happened’ to meet there. Legally that does count as bullying, by the way, as ‘ignoring or excluding an individual, for example from social events’ is described as a type of bullying, according to the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC). It doesn’t make you feel good, if you’re honest- even if you enjoyed the guilty pleasure at the time.  Yachting is a pressure cooker, and sometimes the steam that escapes doesn’t exactly show us in our best light.  It is easy to be nice 9-5, much more difficult 24/7. 

I’m not saying that yachting needs to be camp togetherness all the time.  It’s life; we like some people more than others, and there is no shame in that.  The danger starts when we start doing it systemically, sneakily, with the clear knowledge that we are hurting someone.  I’ve seen crews take it upon themselves to force a person out, by making them unhappy.  I’ve seen deck crew close ranks on a deckhand they didn’t like, chefs forcing out their cabin-mate, gay crew being bullied off the yacht by the captain, and stewardesses breaking and running off in tears.   One senior industry figure thinks that in cases like this, where crew turn on crew, “The senior crew must use their position to protect the weaker ones.”  She has seen it done, and it works.

It isnt big to make

Time to toughen up?

Doubtless some will read this article and respond with the opinion that ‘If you aren’t tough enough for the industry, you should quit, or at least find another boat.’ Yachting certainly does require a thicker skin than many other careers, but the idea that yacht crew who are being bullied should just toughen up or disappear, is lacking in compassion.  After all, when children are being bullied at school, do we just tell them to quit that school or, if it happens again, to quit school altogether?  No.  We go to the school and demand they do something about it. We try to teach children to stand up for themselves. But in yachting, we somehow expect the bullies to get away with it, we shrug and say, “It’s the way of the industry, nothing can be done.”

Having said all this, several people I spoke to cautioned that in some bullying cases, there is also a measure of personal responsibility required.  If you feel you are being bullied, then before taking action, it is worth having a long hard look at yourself and your own behaviours.  Before pointing the finger, it is worth engaging in a bit of self-analysis. If the other crew are avoiding you like the plague, then it is worth thinking about why that might be.  (This is not an excuse for bullies, or an attempt to blame the victim, merely the first step in deciding whether to take further action.) 

Are you being a team player?  Is your opinion always right?  Are you considerate to your cabin-mate, and helpful to other departments?  As one industry expert commented to me, “The duty of a crew member is to work as a team…If you are an individualist, then you are in the wrong business.”  It is hard to accept that you might be contributing to your own isolation, but rewarding when you make positive changes.

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Where can yacht crew turn?

  1. Professional advice/therapy There are people to turn to who are uniquely placed to understand the pressures yacht crew are facing.  Michaela Wellington of Yachting Therapy says, “Therapists help the individual find a way to add clarity to the situation by having an external source of support and understanding of the industry. The levels of stress and pressure on yacht crew are compounded by the unnatural working and living environment.”  Rose Jolis of Transition by Design, based in the US, also offers personal and career coaching, while Alison Rentoul, The Crew Coach offers similar services in the South of France. All of these practitioners offer services by Skype, meaning that no matter where your yacht is, there is someone there to talk to. 

  2. Your onboard complaints procedure.  The Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) requires that all commercial yacht crew have a clear, documented complaints process, set out in their Seafarer’s Employment Agreement (SEA).

Such an agreement will generally counsel the following steps for crew members suffering bullying or harassment on board:

  • Make an informal complaint to the head of department.

  • If the problem is not resolved, make a formal complaint to the captain.

  • If not satisfied with the outcome, make a formal complaint to the yacht manager. (This is your Designated Person Ashore (DPA); you should be able to find contact details posted in various locations around the boat.)

  • Finally, if the problem persists, make a formal complaint to the Ship Registry/Flag State of the yacht (details found in employment contract or on Flag State website.)

Crucially, this complaints procedure allows crew to skip steps if they do not feel they will get fair treatment and want to go to a higher authority.

Other sources of support

  1. The crew agent who placed you.  They will be able to offer advice and, if you want to leave, start looking for a new job for you to make your transition easier.  By informing them of problems on board, it also allows the crew agent to look closely at the culture of certain boats, and make an informed decision on whether to continue placing crew on that particular vessel .  As Edwards points out, “Crew agents need to make a stand: We will not place girls on a yacht where the captain is a known sexual predator, or the engineer is a bully.  After all, what are we waiting for, a stewardess to be seriously injured before we make a stand to protect young, vulnerable crew members?”  In a comment by the crew agency bluewater, Training Director John Wyborn says, “All crew agencies have a duty of care for crew members that they place. Anyone who receives this sort of treatment should contact their crew agency urgently so that they can take steps to protect other crew.”

  2. The PYA (Professional Yachting Association) is also there to help yacht crew having problems on board.  When approached for comment, the PYA explained, "Whilst the PYA cannot comment on any individual case, we confirm that we do receive, and act on, requests for help from members who feel they are being treated unfairly.   We handle a fair number of such requests, mostly concerning unpaid wages, but very few of them, fortunately, involve bullying or physical abuse of crew. We hope that the complaints procedures mandated by MLC 2006 make it easier for crew to bring such problems out into the open. “

  3. Maritime UnionsNautilus International offers advice and legal aid to its members, and has set up a hotline in Antibes as part of its growing support for seafarers serving in the large yacht sector. “Nautilus offers advice and support with work related problems and regulatory authorities, and can provide a worldwide network of lawyers who can provide free and immediate legal advice.”

  4. Lawyers. If you choose this path after other avenues are exhausted, seek maritime lawyers where possible, particularly ones with experience in the superyacht industry.

shutterstock 3As Edwards points out, “There are strong driving forces at work towards change, such as the new employment policies initiated by the MLC but, what it takes for real and lasting change is for people to adopt a culture of responsibility towards others and for themselves. Making good choices and acting responsibly will inspire others around you to do the same thing.”  Wellington, meanwhile, counsels  to “Do your research before you join a yacht- look for the signs well in advance.  Ask questions during the interview, ask the crew questions, ask around in the industry…We understand the pressure to find your first break in the industry, but trust yourself.  If it doesn’t feel right then maybe it’s not.” 

Ultimately, life is too short to spend a year of it crying in your cabin. And certainly too short to suffer what this woman apparently did at the hands of her crew. There are plenty more boats in the sea, and we all have choices.  In that, Lynne Edwards is spot on. Hopefully, as the industry regulates further and people talk more openly about bullying, yacht crew will become more aware of those choices, and more empowered to act upon them. 

Image credits:  Thumbnail: Shutterstock/Funny Solution Studio
Shutterstock/BPTU  ,Pixabay.comShuttterstock/Milena Vuckovic, Shutterstock/Duncan Anderson, Shutterstock/Marcus Mesa Sam Wordley

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