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Let's Talk About Mental Health at Sea

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World Mental Health Day is celebrated every year on October 10th to raise awareness of mental health issues across the globe and promote good health for people worldwide. The campaign also encourages open conversations about mental health conditions which is extremely important because let’s face it, even though working at sea onboard a superyacht and travelling to some of the world’s most glamorous destinations might sound like the dream job to many, the mental and physical strain that comes with it often goes unseen.

Surrounded by those with an old school mentality, you’re often told to just toughen up or quit. Can’t keep up with the big dogs? Then just stay on land. Working on a yacht can be extremely demanding – you’re required to work long hours and sleep is often short, so fatigue and burnout are not uncommon. Add to that the feeling of isolation from friends and family and it’s no surprise that anxiety and depression are so rife.

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A recent study by the World Health Organisation (WHO) found that over a quarter of seafarers display signs of depression. Of these 33% turned to family and friends and 21% spoke to colleagues at sea, but  many are too embarrassed to speak out or don’t know where to turn for help

“I have a wife and two children at home,” says one deckhand. “My job is not rotational so I work for nine months and then get three months off. Although in theory it sounds nice to have three whole months off, I am missing my children grow up. When I first started, the youngest was only six months and when I came back she was walking and had changed so much. What hit really hard is that she didn’t know who I was. People tell me to just get a job that allows me to see my family, but the money on here is really good and I won’t get anywhere near this ashore and I am the breadwinner.

“My wife is always on edge when I talk to her, I think she thinks I am out here partying hard and she sees the photos of the girls and gets paranoid and we often row when I call home, so I don’t call as often as I should. I try to explain that I am doing this job to support our family and that if there was another way that I could support them without being away then I would do that instead.”

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Another explained: “I am the most junior person onboard and I am the newest so I feel under pressure to prove myself. This is something that I would like to make a career out of so I need to impress and I do find myself tired at the end of a working day. I have never been good without plenty of sleep and this job definitely doesn’t allow me to get as much sleep as I would like. When I’m tired I find it much harder to cope with time pressures and I get really snappy, this has led to me being given the nickname “Narky Nick”. I don’t like it and now I think that everyone sees me as a pain and I think that they are talking about me when I am not there.”

So what do you do when you feel like it’s all getting a little too much? In collaboration with Red Square Medical, experts in providing medical services for vessels of all types, we spoke to crew working on some of the industry’s largest superyachts to get their tips on the little changes they make to calm the mind and keep their mental health in check.

Chief Officer: “The crew were working really hard on back-to-back charters and I could see that tempers were somewhat frayed, so I managed to find an evening between charters and I cooked for them all and we had a games night. Hair was let down, tensions melted and we strengthened our bond as a crew.”

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Stewardess: “I often feel like I’m missing out on what is going on at home. I chose this life and I love it, but I see what my friends and family are doing and it makes me feel homesick. At first I didn’t tell anyone at home because I felt it would make me sound whingy, but my mum knew something was up. She spoke to my friends and they organised a Facetime party and I was the guest of honour! It was hilarious: we all had Prosecco, got dressed up and played music and laughed, we laughed A LOT about how ridiculous we must’ve looked to an outsider, but I felt better, like my friends still wanted to do fun things with me.”

Captain: “My crew work really hard and I know that I ask a lot from them. I always try and take them away when we have a few days off to unwind. It could be hiking, it could be horseback riding - they choose and I make it happen!”

Deckhand: “I swear by lavender essential oils! And a good relationship with the chef is a must, especially when he has ice-cream left over in the freezer between charters!”

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Stewardess: “Meditate as soon and as often as possible. Just close your eyes alone in your cabin or quiet place, do some breathing exercises and be sure to take ten minutes for yourself. If possible, I find biking wherever you go to be extremely helpful. We have four bikes for the crew that we can transport from port to port – it’s free transport while you also get your exercise and discover the area.”

Pursor: "Having spent ten years on back-to-back charter boats, I learned to really make the most of days off and I always tried to organise things to do for the crew. For example we had an afternoon off in Iceland so we went and snorkelled Silfre which was epic! When we were back we printed out pics and put them up on the crew board which reminded us we all actually liked each other when the going got very tough on charter! That and taking a moment to breathe and check. It seems silly, but when you are rushing around in the pantry, a stop and deep breath before heading into guest areas does wonders. We used to call it ‘Going Onstage’!" 

Onboard yoga teacher at Balance and Core: "I like to have some routines in my life but on a busy charter, this can be pretty challenging to keep up as our timetable is up to our guests - we eat and rest every day at a different times, and our space is limited, as well. I find breathing exercises are my number one routines on board - they don't require space other than my own body. Depending on the circadian rhythm and my purpose, I choose a set of breathing practices to energize my body or calm my mind. If there is the possibility, I also practice yoga on board. I would rather sleep a half an hour less and spare up some time for a few rounds of sun salutations. And running is my active type of meditation. Beyond the physical aspect of the movement, a good hour of running in the early morning or the evening helps me sort out my thoughts while enjoying incredible views along the seaside."

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“None of these stories are unusual in my line of work,” says Liz Baugh, lead medical consultant at Red Square Medical. “The key to looking after your mental health and wellbeing onboard is to know yourself and what situations are likely to trigger a stress reaction.

“Communication is also very important. If you’re struggling with some of the elements of life on board then I can guarantee others are as well – people have different ways of coping with their problems on board and it is worth finding out what works for them. Lots enjoy exercise - that could be simply going for a walk, doing a Pilates session, going for a jog or it could be team sports. Some people practice mindfulness and there are many apps that can assist with that. Others keep a diary, some call home. A positive workplace is determined by the leadership on board and the support that they receive from their management companies. Good mental health is everyone’s responsibility and is as equally important as good physical health.”

Images: Pixabay, Pexels, Unsplash

Related Articles and Tips for Managing Mental Health:

ISWAN Report on the Welfare of Superyacht Crew

Mental Health Handbook from The Crew Coach

Calls for Crew Wellbeing to be Enshrined in Law

Stew Tips: Wellbeing ahead of the Charter Season 


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