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Too Woke for Your Boat?

Regardless of where you are in the world right now it’s hard to avoid the relentless invoking of ‘wokeness’ in the news. It’s at the heart of some of the biggest recent movements and controversies; a compliment to some, an insult to others.

‘Woke’ was officially added into the dictionary in 2017 as “a perceived awareness of issues that concern social justice and especially racial justice.” Hot buttons have also included: sexism, homophobia, transphobia, climate change, politics, class privilege, gender and identity politics. 

Yachting has always been a bit awkward when it comes to any of these topics; crew from all over the world, from different generations and cultures work in such close quarters, and we often come from VERY different value systems. Some conflict has always been inevitable, but keeping the peace seems to be getting harder. Why is it now trickier than ever to get through a working day without hearing someone’s views on one contentious issue or another?  And how do we work with one another when our places on the ‘wokeness’ scale can vary radically? 

The world in general is struggling with civilised disagreement. Netflix’s ‘The Social Dilemma’ neatly summarised how social media’s algorithms are provoking and polarising views more than ever before. “Where will it all end?” one contributor was asked. “Civil war,” he answered simply. BLM, Trump, Brexit and Covid have provoked strong online and offline reactions…a debate is now a toxic and dangerous thing. Online discussions lack nuance, stances are hysterical and oppositional. You can be branded as for or against an entire community based on your view on one topic, while 'cancel culture' erases the careers of public figures if they express one unpopular opinion.

Even families are struggling to tolerate each other’s viewpoints. We had to ban Brexit from the dinner table in mine. People within their social media bubbles are becoming angrier and more aggressive to the ‘other side’ –  insults are flying between ‘snowflakes’, ‘covidiots’, ‘TERFs’ and ‘gammons’. A typical yacht crew though can be made up of all these groups and we don’t get to retreat into our bubbles because we are all together, all the time - in the bubble of the yacht.

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Social media is provoking crew conversations that may never have happened before and we find ourselves on difficult terrain. Once we may have remained blissfully unaware of the chief stew’s right wing nationalism or the chef’s misogyny, but now we see their Instagram and Facebook posts even when we’re alone in our cabins. Covid has only made things worse, because now people’s viewpoints are driving their behaviours in terms of compliance with lockdowns and vaccine uptake, and crew are now having to deal with the colleague whose beliefs are putting everyone on board at risk. Opinions have never been more dangerous or had more real consequences. Big emotions are involved too – the crew mess chat quickly gets difficult when a covid denier is holding forth in front of someone whose family member is on a ventilator. We know a lot more about our colleagues’ views than we used to – and some of the time we would really rather not.   

We may also feel we are no longer comfortable saying nothing. Movements such as MeToo and Black Lives Matter have pointed out it’s not enough not to be a sexual aggressor or a racist; you need to be an active ally to those who suffer. You need to call it out when you see or hear it. Now that’s where it gets difficult in the yachty hierarchy. I have got through much of my career by biting my tongue in the face of some pretty shocking comments. I have intervened when confronted with actual incidents of abuse and spoken up in the face of the worst rhetoric, but there are always consequences and they’re not always fair. I wouldn’t have kept any job for long if I had called out every sexist or racist remark I heard – they’re rife. I have hated myself for it at times, but have honestly felt I had no choice. At work when the person expressing distasteful views, using racial slurs or being blatantly sexist is senior to you, what choice do you have? Is it part of ‘being a yachty’ knowing when to keep your head down and just get along? Or is that a massive cop-out? 

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Then there’s the hypocrisy problem. A lot of us think we’re pretty ‘woke’, but the irony of sharing a post about the plight of sex workers and then pouring champagne for the charterer and his ‘companions’ is not lost on me. Having socialist leanings and working for a billionaire, posting a black square for George Floyd but never mentioning the all-white crew policy…is it possible to avoid hypocrisy on yachts? So many crew post pious climate change articles before jetting off from fuel guzzling superyachts on six-flight holidays. Oblivious onboard bullies who have caused endless anguish share social media campaigns about mental illness. How solid is the woke-ground any of us is on?

Should we be judged on what we say or on what we remain silent about? Maybe we all just compartmentalise our morals because that’s life. Maybe we all have different wokeness levels depending on whether the situation is advantageous to us. Obviously I'm not going to lecture the owner on his racial prejudices, but when I accept a wage from him each month do I then get on my high horse with a racist crew mate? 

On another front, how woke is too woke? When is it right to speak up and when do you become a tiresome bore who can’t take a joke? It’s hard to gauge – especially when an industry has a dominating culture that is pretty old school – straight, white, male dominated - and a lot of young crew may have starkly different values. Sometimes a kind hearted but older captain may just not know the newly acceptable language for certain social groups. On the other hand, derogatory remarks have been dressed up as humour for such a long time that sometimes it can be hard figuring out what is a funny off-the-cuff remark and what is shitty behaviour dressed up as ‘banter’. God forbid anyone is accused of not being able to take banter – no-one wants to work with someone who can’t have a good laugh - laughter gets us through the toughest and longest days. Sometimes though, it’s really, really not funny.

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If there is a culture of decency and respect on board, the line is easier to draw. Some crew say and do some absolutely vile stuff in the presence of their peers. Sometimes they really do need to be called out and it helps if management is on your side. I know that my advice to green crew when it comes to crew mess debates though is usually ‘avoid, avoid, avoid’, which is a shame because, on occasion, a debate can open our minds in the face of someone else’s experience. The sheer range of people we encounter in yachting is one of its strengths and pleasures. But all too often both parties just dig their heels in deeper; one party pulls rank and everyone around them has a grim tea break that day. 

As the Bukowski quote goes: “The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence.”  Some people are utterly incapable of self-examination or change, and challenging them is pretty pointless. We need to call out abuses of power, push back against yachting’s ‘isms’ and keep each other safe in the face of unjust culture but, when it comes to the angry rants at the lunch table? Maybe we should focus inwards instead and figure out where our own boundaries are. None of us is a saint, and our time and effort might be better spent soul searching and educating ourselves.

When we are exhausted from work and someone starts banging on about transgender bathrooms or immigrants or some other hot topic, we can take a deep breath before we react. Are we really going to change their views if they are so pig-headed? Are we walking into a futile conflict which we’ll never win? Or shall we conserve our energy for the big fights? The job is tiring enough as it is, and it’s hard to be woke when you’re struggling to stay awake!

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