What started as a personal journal slowly grew into a book of one crewmember’s time in yachting, which she hopes will shed a spotlight on mental health in the industry. After six years, Melanie White’s story will be released in her debut memoir Behind Ocean Lines: The Invisible Price of Accommodating Luxury on October 10, World Mental Health Day.
The former yacht chef journaled often when she started in yachting because she didn’t want to forget anything. But when she experienced a dip in her mental health, White found it to be a largely cathartic process and she started writing about what happened to her as a narrative. When she reached 34,000 words, it struck her that she had the foundation for a book.
“I started writing it for myself and, before I knew it, I was actually writing it for every person that felt they couldn’t get out of bed in the morning,” White says. “I’d been there, and I wanted to share that.”
Over the course of four years working full time on board yachts, she wrote on her precious and infrequent days off. Then she took a couple months off between boats to get a majority of the book written.
As she navigated through her first 18 months at sea from the Caribbean and Atlantic to the Mediterranean to the Arctic, the book followed her journey from being a green stewardess to a budding chef as she dealt with mental health challenges. However, she notes, it’s not all doom and gloom — there are a handful of recipes sprinkled in with anecdotes of dolphin sightings and even avalanches.
“In all honesty, editing and finding a publisher was the hardest bit! All in all, it’s been a six-year process,” White says. “I’m really proud of turning my vision and labor of love into a physical book.”
Since leaving the industry, she’s committed to devoting time to make the working lives better for those in yachting by co-founding Seas the Mind, a mental health first-aid training organization for seafarers, and has become a policy adviser at the UK Chamber of Shipping. In this position, she’s been able to implement mental health guidelines for shipping companies and lobby the British government to provide more support and funding for seafarers. “Additionally, I’ve been able [to] interact internationally to discuss amendments to the Maritime Labour Convention,” White says. “Gradually, the industry is waking up, but I think it will be a number of years before we see the effect.”
As for what crew can do now, having an open mental health policy on board can be incredibly beneficial, especially if someone is mental-health first-aid trained. It can be challenging if the existing culture on board tolerates bullying or harassment, but being a supportive individual can make a difference, like if the chef cooks a different crewmember’s favorite food from home each week. Making people feel seen, and social bonding over food, is a great way to open up if you’re feeling isolated, White says.
As for your own mental health, aside from seeking professional help, she suggests carving out some time in your day for you, even if it’s just two minutes, and taking deep breaths. If you’re riled up with a head full of thoughts, write them down and consider it taken care of so you can continue your day without carrying it all in your head.
“Whether on land or at sea, one suicide is one too many. I hope this book will open people’s eyes to those that are hidden at sea and give hope to those who feel they are mentally treading water,” White says. “We can combat mental health stigma simply by speaking up and sharing our stories.”
Follow her on Instagram @cookinanook and check out the book’s Spotify playlist by searching Behind Ocean Lines.