“Fatigue kills: careers, clients, crew.” The MCA’s guide to human behavior for the shipping industry (MGN 505) doesn’t mince its words. There have always been concerns about fatigue in the commercial maritime sector and it’s one area that gave rise to the Maritime Labour Convention, 2006 (MLC) with its mandate to improve seafarers’ working conditions. In contrast, the yachting sector has never really enjoyed the recognition as a stand-alone industry in the eyes of the world’s legislators in the same way that the sector’s commercial elements, like the fishing or cruise industry, for example. No surprise then that some of the legislation yachts are subject to doesn’t always feel pertinent to our modus operandi.
The problem is that the effort required on board a yacht is simply not always consistent. However, the MLC’s regulated hours of work and rest, the first line of defense in the battle against fatigue, are aimed at large, commercially operated vessels with very consistent operations. The default and standard operation of commercial vessels is to be at sea, operating commercially, continually. The vast majority of yachts are properly equipped to operate continually in standby mode, making passages, maintaining machinery, and of course, cleaning. But when guests are on board and a yacht is engaged in its mission-specific task of carrying passengers in splendid luxury, many crew are often working hours that are simply not continually sustainable. With our “boom and bust” workloads, many yachts simply don’t have the manpower to operate at the consistent hours of our commercial brethren and so applying the commercially derived rules to yachting is a little like borrowing a sumo wrestler’s raincoat — all enveloping and plenty of protection, but definitely not a good fit.
A Gray Area?
Asked why there is not a set of rules designed for the yachting sector, Rod Hatch, the PYA’s director of deck and engineering, explains that, “The PYA is engaged and working with many actors in the yachting industry in order to find practical solutions and advice on ‘best practice’ to enable yacht crew to comply with the regulations in a manner which allows them to continue offering the high standards of service demanded by the yacht owners.” He continues, “It simply would not be viable to seek a change to the rules governing hours of work and rest.” The PYA is one of yachting’s key bodies that liaise between the yacht crew and our regulatory overlords, so they should know.
Given that we all realize that yachts operate in a manner unique to most maritime sectors and seem, to some degree, to struggle to comply with rules aimed at reducing fatigue, you might assume that we have carved out a gray area that allows us to do our own thing and get those charters done. Right? Wrong! We know that the flag states recognize the value of yachting and appreciate us as a professional industry. We are, of course, some of their best customers. However, their view on crew exceeding mandated hours of work and rest is quite straightforward. The Marshall Islands flag (RMI) is clear: “The master is responsible for maintaining the hours of work and rest on board and accurately recording it in accordance with international regulations (both MLC, 2006 and the STCW). If an RMI commercial yacht is not maintaining the requisite hours of rest or work, they are in violation of international regulations and they will eventually be caught.” This is unequivocal and clearly suggests that someone is on the look-out for offenders.
Some of the most experienced captains were involved and unanimously agreed — “The greatest challenge to today’s yacht captains is fatigue management.”
It’s clear that some of the MLC’s fatigue-reducing hours of work and rest legislation is difficult to comply with for a busy, commercially operated yacht. But it’s also clear that we’re stuck with it. It seems that the captain is saddled with what seems like all of the responsibility should crew exceed their hours and get fatigued — even though the captain is not always the one determining the workload. Peter Southgate, regional director of the Cayman Islands Registry, clarifies the limited scope for exceeding the hours of rest and work, even in an emergency. “The Conventions do allow for occasional breaches in the case of emergencies, but compensatory rest must be provided as soon as practicable after the exceedance,” he says. “As far as the regulations and flag state requirements go, there is no gray area. The only gray area is on the onboard application.”
The difficult role for the captain is achieving what is required of his/her vessel and crew while remaining within the confines of the law and keeping the crew rested. It’s what prompted the International Superyacht Society (ISS) Captains’ Committee to circulate “An Update from The Bridge” in March 2020. Some of the most experienced captains were involved and unanimously agreed — “The greatest challenge to today’s yacht captains is fatigue management.” So, despite the MLC being in force, fatigue is still a fact of life for yacht crew and a challenge to captains — perhaps the greatest challenge. The ISS Captains’ Committee describes the prevalence of fatigue as the industry’s “Dirty Little Secret.”
Are Crew Different?
If we’re aware of the concept of fatigue, of what it is, and how it affects us, why are we still struggling to deal with this? If things have gotten worse, it surely follows that things must have changed. After all, days still have 24 hours, yachts travel to the same sort of places, at the same sort of speeds, with the same numbers of guests, and do the same sort of things as they’ve always done. Is it more tiring or harder for the crew in the current era compared to their forbearers?
There’s a school of thought that “back in the day” crew were made of sterner stuff. There were no smartphones or Internet, they went barefoot, and never complained. Of course, in every industry there’s always the chorus of experienced vintage types, wearing rose-tinted Maui Jims and singing songs about the good old days. In reality, we can’t really measure if things were actually better “back then,” despite the anecdotes. Yes, there were certainly fewer tattoos and less paperwork, but those days before inflatable slides, Zero Speed Stabilizers, or Lycra-infiltrated crew uniforms are largely confined to history now. Apparently, hardly anyone kept statistics or recorded things like hours of rest or work until relatively recently, and so anecdotes are most of what we know.
If we’re aware of the concept of fatigue, of what it is, and how it affects us, why are we still struggling to deal with this?
So, is there a bigger problem now, or is it that we have simply started to identify, quantify, and verify a problem that has always been there? The industry has moved onwards and upwards over past decades and yachts have gotten bigger; so too have the ambitions and expectations of guests and owners in line with their incredible hardware investments. Modern yachts push the boundaries of art, engineering, and, sometimes, good taste to new limits. You only have to look at a modern beach setup, for example. Gone are the days of a few chairs, a beach towel or two, and some red, sticky sunset cocktails in a plastic cup with the boat’s logo on them. These days, beach setups can be a little like relocating a small circus.
One experienced, commercially qualified master mariner with 15 years of operating yachts from 75 to more than 100 meters suggests there are indeed some greater challenges for today’s yacht crew. “Modern crewmembers are often expected to serve in a dual role these days,” he says. “A deckhand/fitness instructor or stew/masseuse is a very normal position and is a clear sign that during charters or guest trips, in addition to one’s daily duties, there is an expectation for additional skills or services to be used.” So perhaps there are more demands placed on yacht crew than in years past.
“On a smaller boat with only three or four girls, if guests decide to request a massage, it completely changes the whole daily work rotation. Breaks get lost, systems fall apart,” one former stew/masseuse with several years of experience on vessels of 40 to 55 meters explains. “It’s not always the workload, but the fact that we can’t plan anything as guests change their minds so often, the interior simply doesn’t get organized. In my experience, this was a major contributor to fatigue.”
It’s clear that it is the crew who are most directly affected by fatigue. However, it’s also worth noting that far from modern crewmembers being whining millennials — often characterized so by the “old school” fraternity — today’s crew do not apparently complain about fatigue very often.
Duncan Whitehead of Yacht Compliance Management has a theory: “In an ideal world, a charter broker can work around the limitation on hours of work and rest when planning a charter; however, where this isn’t possible, the crew will often happily strive to work the extra hours demanded because they are working for tips!”
One deck crewmember with more than three years’ experience pointed out that on two of his previous boats, the Hours of Rest reports (HORs) were completed for him by the mate and he was only required to sign them.
A number of crew had other suggestions why complaints are not received often. One deck crewmember with more than three years’ experience pointed out that on two of his previous boats, the Hours of Rest reports (HORs) were completed for him by the mate and he was only required to sign them. “The HOR forms that I signed never gave any indication of our work schedules not being compliant, ever! They were a work of fiction,” he says. When asked why he didn’t complain, he echoed the sentiments of several different crew — “I wouldn’t have lasted long if I had made a complaint. The hours we had to work weren’t anybody on board’s fault and I was pretty happy to get lots of sea time, which I needed.”
So, we have a problem, it’s being discussed openly, and yet there are also quite real pressures that make reporting it and managing it difficult. After all, we are in the business of meeting or exceeding expectations and no crewmember wants to disappoint a guest or owner, or risk losing a tip. For some crew, it seems that there is no option to report excessive hours of work. Interestingly, several crew who commented spoke in defense of their captains and recognized that they were not able to provide the time off to the crew that they should have received.
If crew are willing to do what is demanded of them, where exactly do these demands come from, and are they based on ignorance or greed? Michael Reardon of Reardon Yacht Consulting says he sees some boats with multiple owners on a timeshare basis that “push fatigue to its limits.” However, he’s also seen some owners who “expect crew to work hard with guests on board, but also provide ample time between guest trips in order to allow for recovery.” This indicates that the demands are a function of an owner’s knowledge and experience.
One veteran captain of a brand-new 50-meter yacht was called upon to explain to a first-time owner why, after 180 days of continuous operation, the crew seemed to be turning over regularly. “The owner was surprised that I was suggesting the crew were tired,” he says. “He pointed out that my job was little more than looking out of the windows and the rest of the crew didn’t have much hard work to do in reality. He suggested that the interior crew didn’t empty the bins every day or offer cold towels to guests returning on board after short trips. This he felt would reduce the workload. He also said that crew should be allowed to drink and party on board so as to improve their spirits.” Maybe not surprising, but “I didn’t last long after that,” the captain said.
From a captain’s perspective, being the guy delivering the bad news about rules and regulations can sometimes get you fired.
This raises an important point — why there are actually very few reports of fatigue. From a captain’s perspective, being the guy delivering the bad news about rules and regulations can sometimes get you fired. This was a sentiment expressed by every captain and crewmember we spoke to. None of them felt it wise to be named — such is the stigma of speaking up about fatigue.
Fatigue: Is it Inevitable?
One of the points raised by many people and highlighted by the ISS Captains’ Committee is the fact that fatigue is actually not the problem in the yachting sector, but a symptom. The causes are many and complex; opinions of various industry actors identified causes that ranged from boats that are harder to operate because they are designed for fewer crew but with more guest space. Or, those that rely on towing a large tender to save deck space, which adds work. Others cited owners with unrealistic expectations arising from a lack of understanding of what crew actually do. Several crew suggested that charter agents sometimes push too hard with reduced turnaround times between charters when they should be aware of the laws. Another concern for several captains and crewmembers was that, where HOR reports are submitted accurately and indicate compliance failures, no action is taken. One overriding sentiment exhibited by virtually everyone who commented: crew seemed to regard fatigue as an impediment to doing their work to the level they wanted to and most felt that it came from demands placed on them from ashore — not on board.
One overriding sentiment exhibited by virtually everyone who commented: crew seemed to regard fatigue as an impediment to doing their work to the level they wanted to and most felt that it came from demands placed on them from ashore — not on board.
There’s no doubt that fatigue is a killer. Long before it kills, it maims, wounds, and sometimes scars. Many crew have limped away from a hectic season or returned home on leave to simply recover. Some simply go down as another statistic of high crew turnover or get fired for being difficult and unable to hack it, but let’s face it, it’s hard to be a model crewmember operating on three or four hours of sleep for weeks on end. Some yachts are better able to deal with it than others, with more crew per GRT or an unambitious schedule. But some yachts are prone to fatigue; they run hectic schedules, are saddled with unrealistic demands, and operate without the crew necessary to spread the workload within tolerable limits for extended periods.
It would seem that fatigue in the yachting sector is as inevitable as bad weather — it might be a short-term passing squall, but it can also take the form of a relentless tempest that keeps pounding on and on, churning and agitating until something finally gives. Sadly, what gives might be a someone.
The column originally ran in the June 2020 issue of Dockwalk.