A Sobering Reality

22 May 2019 By Lauren Beck

We have all heard it — work hard, play hard. It’s not exactly a secret that crew enjoy letting off steam once they’re off the boat, but there is a line between fun and foolish. While alcohol is an easy fix after a stressful charter, it affects brain chemistry and you may end up doing something you would never consider doing sober. In recent years, several incidences involving crew and alcohol have proven that the two can be a deadly combination. So how much is too much?

While there have been mixed messages about alcohol — i.e., wine in moderation can be good for heart health — it’s commonly understood that alcohol is addictive and can be toxic. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimated in 2018 that three million people die each year due to alcohol consumption. In addition, “The harmful use of alcohol is a causal factor in more than 200 disease and injury conditions.” While moderate consumption was touted as the way to go, there are reports that the “safe limit” when it comes to consumption had been overestimated. “In current drinkers of alcohol in high-income countries, the threshold for lowest risk of all-cause mortality was about 100 g/week,” wrote Lancet, a peer-reviewed general medical journal, in an April 2018 study. That’s the equivalent of seven standard glasses of wine or beer.

Drinking can present health risks, both short term and long term. According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), short-term dangers can include injury, risky behavior, or alcohol poisoning. The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reports that alcohol is a factor in about 60 percent of fatal drownings. Long term, prolonged alcohol use could cause health conditions like high blood pressure, heart and liver disease, cancer, learning or memory problems, or alcoholism. The CDC also reports that excessive drinking was responsible for one in 10 deaths among adults aged 20-64.

According to recent research published by Lancet, global alcohol consumption is increasing — and the trend is predicted to continue. In 2017, 20 percent of adults were “heavy episodic drinkers” and between 1990 and 2017, the adult per capita global alcohol consumption increased from 5.9 liters to 6.5 liters each.

“Anecdotally, we know alcohol is a factor in many of the cases where we assist involving both crew as well as the owner/guests,” says Dr. Robert Quigley of MedAire. “Alcohol can be a factor in incidents and accidents in yachting. However, we don’t have exact numbers, as our medical cases are cataloged by the presenting illness/injury.”

Binge drinking is also a concern. Defined by the NIAAA as a “pattern of drinking that brings a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 grams percent or above.” This translates to about five or more drinks for men and four or more drinks for women in about two hours. Crew are definitely not immune. “Crew have a tendency to work hard and play hard and sometimes this leads to excess,” says Capt. Dùghall macLachlainn.

Quigley notes some similarities with MedAire’s experiences. “When at a port-of-call, crew may be more inclined to consume alcohol. When at sea, and while supporting guests, crew are more than aware of the consequences of consuming alcohol while ‘on the job.’ There is too much at stake for most to even consider excessive alcohol consumption (i.e. injury to self or others while operating equipment and toys).” macLachlainn’s vessel has a written alcohol policy on board. While crew are provided with alcohol — beer and wine only — there are restrictions: no drinking during working hours, at sea, on watch, or when guests are aboard. But downtime is a different story.

Crew downtime, while essential, also provides the opportunity for crew to overindulge. “With the fact that their time off is limited, then they try to cram too much into a short space of time, especially drinking,” says macLachlainn. “This starts socially, but in some cases spills over into long-term alcoholism.” macLachlainn believes that boredom during downtime is the biggest issue when it comes to crew abusing alcohol.

“There is definitely a link between depression/anxiety and alcohol and drug abuse,” says Quigley. “No doubt time away from home/family/friends tax one’s emotional state (i.e. precipitate anxiety/depression) and even encourage risk taking. Providing crew emotional support services and encouraging healthy stress-management techniques are ways to reduce alcohol abuse and misuse.”  

If you’re concerned about your drinking habits, get help. You don’t have to do it alone, but you should check in with your doctor about your concerns. NIAAA recommends writing down your reasons for cutting back and setting limits on how much to drink — recommended guidelines are no more than one standard drink per day for men over 65 and all women, and no more than two standard drinks per day for men under 65. Track your consumption, and drink slowly. If you’re trying to taper down your drinking, you might also try to avoid alcohol on certain days (it also helps if there’s no alcohol around, but that’s not always something you can control as crew). Peer pressure can be a touchy issue, so watch who you surround yourself with and keep busy, which should not be difficult on a yacht. Perhaps redirect your downtime efforts from the bar to the beach and stay away from people and places that you associate with drinking. Also, keep trying — your first attempt at slowing down might not be successful, but don’t give up.