Health

Managing Mental Health in Yachting

3 June 2021By Kate Lardy
iStock/AscentXmedia

Written by

Kate Lardy

Based in Fort Lauderdale, freelance writer Kate Lardy got her start in the yachting industry working as crew. She spent five years cruising the Bahamas, Caribbean, New England, and Central America, then segued that experience into a career in marine journalism, which has included stints as editor of Dockwalk and ShowBoats International.

The junior deckhand on board 50-meter M/Y Best Life felt like she was falling apart. The fatigue was overwhelming, like it was physically pulling her down, and more often than not lately, she found herself on the brink of tears for no reason. It was incredibly difficult to get out of bed, and when she did manage to drag herself on deck, there was an undercurrent of friction between her and the rest of the deck team. The only feedback she ever got was in the form of criticism; she couldn’t remember the last time she heard a “thank you” or “good job.” And talking about it with her bosun was no good; she tried that once and was swiftly shut down: “Don’t expect anyone to be your cheerleader. It’s a job.”

Her only friend had just left the boat, and she felt a real disconnect with the rest of the crew. They had all been out the night before, but she couldn’t be bothered. Instead she polished off a bottle of wine in her cabin while checking her Instagram. Her stylishly staged photos from her worldly travels had garnered her more than a thousand followers, yet her reality couldn’t be further from the rosy picture they painted. If only she could get off this stupid boat, she thought, but it had taken her so long to find a position, and she had only just started to make a dent in the massive debt she accrued from her training courses and living off her credit cards when she job searched. What else could she do but just suck it up? Oh, she was just so tired…

Despite the yachting environment being a breeding ground for mental health issues, the picture persists of it being nothing but glamorous fun. Sure, it’s a bit of hard work, but you’re traveling the world on a floating palace, part of an exclusive club of yachtie insiders — what’s there to be down about? But in reality, about half of all yacht crew feel isolated at times, found a 2018 study conducted by the International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN), partnering with MHG Insurance Brokers. In its survey of 402 superyacht crew, “57 percent of women and 39 percent of men suffered from social isolation or loneliness ‘sometimes,’ ‘often,’ or ‘always’ while working on board.” And in extreme cases, this has led to crewmembers taking their own lives.

The International Superyacht Society’s (ISS) Captain’s Committee tackled the issue in its article, “Mental Health in the Yachting Community,” published online at superyachtsociety.org. Acknowledging that yachting can be a lonely life — one that is exacerbated by technology that reduces face-to-face interactions and by social media that pressures one to “present a life that is carefully curated and full of joy” — the captains point to the importance of good leadership.

“It is only through our education and lived experience that we develop into the leaders that can psychologically help a crewmember in need, whether it is a professional or personal issue. We are all without our loved ones at sea, and crew rely on the captain and department heads to have developed emotional skillsets to support them,” says one ISS captain.

But in reality, about half of all yacht crew feel isolated at times.

Since leadership comes from experience, the committee suggests mentoring or coaching for captains, as is prevalent in the corporate and military worlds. They also concluded that it may be necessary in circumstances when the captain is not suited to lead a team, for crew to speak up to the DPA or owner’s rep. “It is a very serious step but one that at times is essential,” states the article.

In addition, the captains recommend reviewing the yacht’s structure of operations to see if a flaw there is the underlying problem behind the stress, whether it’s an issue with the yacht’s schedule or a person with power in the organization who lacks leadership skills or is only interested in self-preservation. Support for crew in need is available in various ways. Boat medical plans generally include mental health coverage, says Mark Bononi, director of MHG’s yacht division. All of MHG’s plans do, albeit some have a 12-month waiting period.

MedAire launched an Emotional Support Service two years ago as an extension of its 24/7 medical and travel safety services subscription. It offers up to five structured counseling sessions per individual, per year, in 60 languages. “The program is pre-packaged so that crewmembers get the help they need, when they need it,” explains MedAire’s Erin Mitchell, as opposed to having to go through the captain.

During this time, when crews may be sheltering on board in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, MedAire points out that counseling can support crew struggling with feelings of isolation, uncertainty, and worry about family and friends back home.

Karine Rayson of The Crew Coach adds, “It is normal for crew to experience feelings of anxiousness or depression during this time, and for individuals/crew who have pre-existing mental health conditions, their symptoms can be aggravated further.” She is currently offering a 50 percent discount on counseling sessions for any crew self-isolating.

In addition, ISWAN has a free, confidential 24/7 helpline at seafarerhelp.org. The organization has developed a similar service specifically for yacht crew at yachtcrewhelp.org.

This article originally ran in the May 2020 issue of Dockwalk.

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