On the Job

Prioritizing Safety of Crew and Passengers under Pressure

10 July 2023 By Kate Lardy
Credit: THEPALMER/iStock

Kate 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, including stints as editor of Dockwalk and ShowBoats International.

M/Y My Way or the Highway was anchored out with the owner and his guests on board. It was a crowded anchorage filled with boats jostling for position and tenders zipping between them, although one thing was missing from the heavy water traffic: personal watercraft. Due to a series of incidents in the busy bay, they had been prohibited. Yet one of the owner’s guests, who had been drinking heavily, decided he wanted to take the jet ski out, and the owner asked the captain to launch it. The captain refused, of course, explaining why, but the owner wasn’t having it. They argued with the captain until the owner gave him an ultimatum: the jet ski or your job. The captain relented.

Unfortunately, the worst-case scenario ensued: the guest had a high-speed collision with a vessel. The crew recovered him unconscious, severely injured, and not breathing, and he died before emergency services arrived.

This is a lightly fictionalized retelling of an actual incident that was reported to CHIRP, a confidential reporting program for the maritime industry that shares such incidents in the spirit of safety, without revealing any identifying details of the parties involved. It was published in CHIRP’s inaugural newsletter focusing on the yachting industry, Superyacht FEEDBACK.

With some superyacht owners, no amount of reason and safety verbiage will sway them, and they resort to threats of dismissal
to get their way.

It’s also a cautionary tale of the worst kind. The result of the captain yielding to the owner’s threat was “one death, a traumatized crew and owner, and the captain losing his job. He remained out of work for the following two years while under investigation and threat of criminal prosecution,” reports CHIRP.

With some superyacht owners, no amount of reason and safety verbiage will sway them, and they resort to threats of dismissal to get their way. Obviously, as CHIRP points out, “A captain’s first duty is the safety of crew and passengers, and he should have refused, no matter the circumstances.” But it can be easier in theory to stick to your guns than in the heat of the moment when the pressure is real and intense.

CHIRP’s advice is to address the issue early and head on: “Captains are encouraged to confirm with the vessel’s owner that they are empowered to refuse requests that put people or the vessel at risk of harm — and, crucially, that they will be listened to. Ideally, this should be done as early in the professional relationship as possible, potentially even at the interview. Where such assurances are not forthcoming, this should be a ‘red flag’ to the captain that safety on board is at some point likely to be compromised.”

From a legal standpoint, “No employee, including captains, can ever be required to do something prohibited or illegal. It would be a wrongful discharge situation. But, can he prove it? And then he’s back working for the same employer,” says maritime attorney Michael Moore. “It is always important to consult the Seafarer’s Employment Agreement. If there are no specific clauses, or if there is no SEA, the parties are defaulting to the flag state entitlements.”

Capt. Herb Magney knows a captain of a 64-meter motor yacht who had a near-miss in a similar scenario when he first started on the job. “The owner wanted to take a jet ski out in the harbor at St. Barths, and the captain said, ‘Not without a life jacket you’re not.’ They argued and the brand-new first-trip owner goes out. His buddy finds him floating with the jacket he did not want to wear, unconscious. He would have died.” That happy ending was only because the captain, who still commands the yacht, won the argument.

Magney’s advice is, “Never take a job you can’t afford to lose. Once you do, your entire decision-making process is compromised and so is the safety of all involved.” But, he concedes, if you have to take the job, understand that your decision making is compromised, then employ some risk-mitigation measures. For instance, when it comes to the potentially lethal mix of inebriated guests and high-powered watercraft, he recommends circumventing the issue. “We have put the training keys in the PWCs before; we’ve pulled a plug wire or two; basically, disabling the ski and blaming it on operator error or maintenance. This is often easier to deal with than a hard no,” says the long-time charter captain.

He has also reported his own jet ski operators to the harbor authorities. “I contacted the captain of the port in Gustavia and reported a crazy PWC operator, (telling them that) someone should stop them and give them a ticket,” he says. “They thought it was interesting that the PWC came from our group. I told them that I did not recognize the operator when I reported it.”

Finally, Magney muses that a remote ignition kill switch, something like a car start/stop but with more range, would be a great solution. Put the dubious driver in the water, then kill the ski, pull them back, and get to work on it.

This article originally ran in the April 2023 issue of Dockwalk.


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