I returned from leave to find a broad chested, heavily tattooed, wide grinning, carving machine working in the galley. Before I could fully process the image of the chef before me, the knife was laid to the side, the hand wiped clean on the apron, and after two farmer’s steps in my direction, the same hand was extended in greeting. All actions being as swift as the knife was until moments before.
“Hi Capt, I’m Cy, we have friends in common”
I was drawn in by the warmth of the smile and the twinkle in the eye. The only thing that caught me off-guard was the forearms, who was this guy? He was strong and when the knife rose and fell it did so to a cadence that would have made a Sergeant Major proud. I would later learn we were the same age, 50, bloody hell how was he so fit?
That first meeting was two years ago and in the intervening time I could never stop Cy calling me ‘Capt’, even though we shared many cups of tea where we spoke of our families, our hopes for the future, and our shared interest in locally grown food produce. Through Cy I learnt of the network of small businesses in Tasmania making great food locally and his plans to join this community. Listening to him and knowing his work-rate all I could think of was, maybe I should look to Tasmania for the next Australian holiday? In the workplace no request was too great. We asked, and Cy leapt forward to volunteer, always that cheeky grin in place.
Over the same time I was drawn to action when I realized we were losing wonderful crew members in our yachting community by their own hand. I began to link stories and I realized that isolated cases were not so isolated and there was little or no support for those at risk and less for those seeking to understand and help.
I was not wrong on the problem, but I was wrong in thinking there is no support available. The yacht Cy and I shared opened a subscription service to Medaire for their product, “Crew Emotional Support Helpline”. This service was often spoken about onboard and allowed a dialogue in each crew meeting to normalize mental health as a topic; it was spoken of alongside the perennial favourites of crew mess cleanliness and stains on the teak. It was a start, but a paid subscription was not enough. In combination with industry bodies and yachting businesses, ISWAN's mental health portal for yacht crew, Yacht Crew Help, is under final construction. When finished it will provide a mental wellness knowledge centre and a multi-lingual helpline.
Still seeking to learn more I spoke with Tony Nicholson of Medaire. Tony applauded ISWAN's important initiative but said a helpline is the last fence before the cliff; what we need to do is start the conversation many miles inland from that dangerous edge. Tony’s words are so true, the conversation begins in the crew mess, in the control room or in the pantry. To normalize asking, “Are you OK?” when a change in behaviour is observed.
If the answer is, “I’m not OK”, there are certified counsellors such as The Crew Coach and others who can be spoken with in confidence. There comes a time when professional support is needed beyond what is available on board and in the shore office.
If it has not become evident, all this is too late for my friend Cy, but not too late for the industry.
Yachts are not Instagram posts, they are homes for crew, they are demanding workplaces and they expose any emotional vulnerabilities. As a yachting community let’s reduce posting photos of yet another anchorage at sunset and start realizing our crew and their health is where our value is as an industry and as a community. My challenge to the yachting media is to start posting a new beauty; the laundry person, the galley in full flight, the emergency repair, the nightwatch scrubbing teak…these are wonderful images of hard-working yacht crew who only want the best for their guests. Their smiles speak more to the value of a charter guest or owner’s experience than yet another wake circle from a jet ski shot from above.
Captains: we too are vulnerable and do not have all the answers. Whilst we might feel the need to present some Patrick O’Brien inspired image of ourselves it is not in our interest, or the interest of those we lead. Seek and then demand professional support for yourself and for your team. If it is not forthcoming and you feel exposed, then remember your obligations for the safety of all crew onboard and respect mental health as much as you would a fire hazard.
Management: do not succumb to concern of commercial risk - inaction when there is a visible problem is against the obligations and spirit of the ISM code that we hold as the cornerstone of best practice. It is time to be on the right side of this problem.
For the sake of my friend’s memory, his crew mates and his family, please, let us leverage this loss to get to a better place.
If you'd like to make a donation towards the development of ISWAN's portal please visit the Just Giving page here.
ISWAN Report on the Welfare of Superyacht Crew
Yacht Crew Help - ISWAN Achieves Target to Build Crew Mental Health Portal
Let's Talk About Mental Health at Sea
Mental Health Handbook from The Crew Coach
Calls for Crew Wellbeing to be Enshrined in Law