On the Job

The Risks of Social Media for Seafarers

3 August 2023 By Kate Lardy
photographers with camera flashes
iStock/Robert Daly

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.

“Oh my god, that’s Jay-Z!” the deckhand exclaimed. “And Beyoncé!” He was scrubbing the top deck of the 60-meter yacht he worked on when he glanced over at the yacht tied up next to them in St. Barths. The ultimate power couple had just appeared on the foredeck, out of sight of anyone on the quay, but he had an excellent view of them.

His yacht had just arrived the night before and the buzz in the port was almost palpable as New Year’s Eve approached. It was his first season working on yachts, and he could hardly believe he would be in the middle of what was to be the biggest party in the Caribbean. “If my mates could see me now,” he thought, as he pulled out his phone and snapped a quick pic of himself with the superstars in the background. In his haste, he didn’t realize the yacht’s name was visible too. A few seconds later it was posted to his Instagram story.

Later, unbeknown to the deckie, one of his friends reposted a screenshot to Twitter with the yacht’s name and the celebrities tagged.
By that evening, the yacht’s passerelle was mobbed with throngs of people, shouting for the superstars to make an appearance. The captain was furious as he scrolled through the Twitter feed. After everything they had gone through to secure a berth for this charter, the experience was now ruined for his high-profile clients. “There goes our tip,” he thought.

Despite NDAs and standard clauses in Seafarer Employment Agreements (SEA), social media can be an irresistible siren. “Even though a crewmember is scrubbing decks and cleaning toilets, they still want everybody to think they have a glamorous life,” says Carl Sputh, a long-time charter yacht captain who’s hosted Hollywood A-listers on board, now a charter broker with Northrop & Johnson. This hypothetical scenario never happened to him, but would be his worst case, he says.

“I think it’s hard to take it away from people,” Sputh says, pointing out that social media is more of an issue now than ever before, even though rules about posting are more explicitly addressed nowadays. “Everybody has a cell phone, and they want everybody to think that [they have] the best job ever,” he says. “They’re taking glamour shots.”

Northrop & Johnson’s standard SEA for the yachts the brokerage manages includes a clause that’s likely similar to most management companies, prohibiting the posting or disclosing online of “private information, schedules, situations, photographs, videos, relating to the business, prospective business, internal affairs, or perspective affairs of the ‘Protected Parties’…”

“I always had a big talk with [new crew] about it,” Sputh continues. His rules were: no pictures of the inside of the boat for security reasons; never speak about the owner; minimize the yacht’s presence overall online; and never list the name of the yacht in a post.

At the same time, he acknowledges that social media is also a powerful promotional tool for a charter yacht. As a captain he would manage the yacht’s Instagram account, posting pictures that showed off the lifestyle without posing security issues. But this was something he maintained control over and wouldn’t allow crew to do.

The issues surrounding social media and vessels go well beyond compromising owner and guest privacy. Marine underwriter Norwegian Hull Club uses social media as one intelligence source in an emergency response for added situational awareness. As such, it has found some questionable posts from captains and crew. In one instance, after a captain had been informed of a hijacking of another vessel in the company, he gave detailed information about the hijacked crewmembers to a colleague on Facebook, not realizing his profile wasn’t private.

“We know that pirates are using social media actively in their communication and information gathering,” says the club in an open letter to seafarers about the risks of social media. “If Norwegian Hull Club can find your post, it is possible that people with evil purposes could find it.”

The issues surrounding social media and vessels go well beyond compromising owner and guest privacy.

In another instance, a vessel was in distress and a crewmember, awaiting helicopter evacuation, posted about the incident, ending with “home sweet home!”

“Who are the journalists today, who is the audience to your online postings, what is the difference between a professional journalist and an on-scene reporter like you?” the club asks. “In our social media searches, we quite often find on-scene reporters that probably are unaware of the reach of their pictures and status updates.”

Crew posting online can have safety/security, economical, and reputational repercussions to the ship, says the underwriter. As part of a social media checklist for crew to consider before posting online, it says to ask yourself: “Will I be okay with my superior/the ship owner/a client/a journalist seeing this?” And, of course, “Is my post in compliance with the company media policy?”

Any “nos” to the above questions should prompt an immediate post deletion.

This article was originally published in the May 2023 issue of Dockwalk.


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