Downtime

Last Laugh: Simmering Drama

15 November 2020By Gavin Rothenburger
Illustration by John Devolle

The chief stew on my boat hates the first mate. This is understandable because he’s as pleasant to sit beside as the exhaust fan of a fart factory. But, while he may smell like a bag of donkey butts, he’s actually a pretty nice guy if held at about twice the CDC-recommended social distance. For his part, he can’t stand the chief stew either. Not because of any particular odor she emits (she actually smells quite nice if you think a beautiful rose blossom smells nice after it’s smoked a couple of cigarettes and been dipped in scotch), but because she has actively and not so subtly waged a quiet war to get him fired.

While everybody likes them both (though nobody will sit next to either) it has caused a needless drama to simmer through the crew mess that threatens to overturn a dynamic that’s as peaceful as can be expected when 12 stressed-out strangers are asked to live together in a space most high-security inmates would find inhumanely small.

I’ve heard captains say that there’s nothing they want less on their boat than drama. While drama, certainly, is undesirable, I feel captains over-exaggerate because there are a lot of things I’d enjoy less on board like, for example, finding a kilo of uncut heroin in the engineer’s cabin or maybe a hungry mountain lion. Or, worse, a mountain lion who’s just run out of heroin. I can only imagine the damage to the carpet. All that said, drama of the sort the chief stew and mate were causing is something that nobody, including felines in rehab, should want anything to do with. Nonetheless, it’s an issue that seems to be prevalent in the business.

Drama isn’t unique to yachting. Show me an office, restaurant, sports team, or ladies bridge club with more than four people in it and I’ll show you a set of hidden knives ready to be plunged to the hilt the moment Margaret has a slip of the tongue about Hazel’s rose garden looking a little weary. But in the real world, Hazel gets to go home to her tired roses, Margaret retreats to her 26 cats, and people generally do whatever it is normal people do at night. I actually have no idea what this is.

Drama isn’t unique to yachting. Show me an office, restaurant, sports team, or ladies bridge club with more than four people in it and I’ll show you a set of hidden knives ready to be plunged to the hilt the moment Margaret has a slip of the tongue about Hazel’s rose garden looking a little weary. 

On a yacht, however, we don’t get that reprieve that keeps, I imagine, most normal people sane. What we get is to watch the chief stew chase the mate with a can of Febreze and a bucket of undiluted bleach while the mate, at any time he gets to come up for air, uses the cigarette the stew is smoking on the dock as target practice for the fire hose. And that’s just in the morning. We then have to put up with it over a socially distanced lunch, an uncomfortable dinner, and, on the rare occasions we don’t go out and drink ourselves to death just to numb out the noise of the madness, we get to watch it all night long.

So, what do we do? The right answer, of course, is to fire everybody, enjoy the silence for 10 minutes, and hire fresh faces. But then, more than likely, you know the drama will resurface just like you know that smack addict mountain lion isn’t going to make it through rehab. And we’re right back to where we started.

The hiring process is a good beginning, but if you weeded out all the crazies in this business you wouldn’t have any crew at all and, in the end, it’s a crapshoot anyway. Few intentionally create drama; it, like that broker’s wandering hands, just sort of feels inevitable. There’s no way of policing hurt feelings over a slight, imagined or otherwise. There’s no way to prohibit jealousy when a crewmember chooses the other guy over you even though you’re better in every measurable facet except all of them. There’s no way to prevent a chef from wanting to kill the service team at every meal. There really isn’t. They did studies. Chefs just like threatening violence. It’s who they are.

I could babble on about creating open cultures where people can talk about their issues and get them out in the open before situations descend into a complicated, crew-wide battle of changing alliances over vague rumors that somebody, or maybe somebody else, was going about starting vague rumors about somebody. You can try, but I really don’t think there’s an answer.

People, I’m told, have emotions and stress. These amplify over long days, tight quarters, and competing odors. It’s just the way it is. And that’s all I got. It might seem a little bleak, but I just can’t make myself give you a happy ending this time. Even if you pay extra. Check with the mountain lion though. It’s looking for some cash.

This column is taken from the November 2020 issue of Dockwalk.

More from Dockwalk