Sexual Harassment in Yachting: Advice and Change Needed

10 January 2019 By Aileen Mack

The Professional Yacht Association (PYA) survey results and the pervasion of sexual harassment has surprised and saddened people in the industry. After attending a seminar on the results of the PYA survey, Capt. Carol Benbrook began discussing the subject with her crew, which includes First Mate Jenny Matthews, the creator of She of the Sea. Together, they have started working toward developing resources with questions, activities, and information for crew to facilitate these types of discussions, including awareness of certain behaviors and their effects. As Matthews says, it’s a very tricky topic to address in an effective way and most people don’t know how to begin.

Nearly 70 percent of people who reported their incidents spoke to their captain/head of department. An extremely low percentage reported to their flag state, most likely because people were unaware of how to do so. The PYA’s Carey Secrett says this is something the PYA is working to address — clear reporting structures and guidance from the major flag states so crew can have more information at their disposal.

In the unfortunate event that you find yourself being sexually harassed, The Crew Coach’s Karine Rayson advises that, if possible, to tell the offender that their behavior is offensive and unacceptable and that you want it to stop immediately. If that isn’t possible, discuss it with a fellow crewmember who is of higher rank and keep a written record of everything that happened, when, and who witnessed what occurred.

Follow the chain of command like you would for complaints, Matthew advises, but she cautions that when complaints involve an authority figure, people start being concerned about their jobs. If you feel scared to make a complaint, it’s important to know that it’s against the law for someone to treat you unfairly or harm you because you lodged a complaint against them.

While every situation is unique and has many variables, having independent people or organizations to turn to is invaluable to help navigate the situation and provide support. Organizations like She of the Sea, the Professional Yachting Association, the Crew Coach, and Nautilus International can assist in working out what to do in the situation and will try to ensure that you’re treated fairly.

ISWAN’s SeafarerHelp is a free, confidential, multilingual helpline that operates 24 hours a day, every day. The helpline is for any seafarer of any nationality, religion, gender, or sexuality no matter where they are located and can be accessed through many channels from email, text, and telephone to Facebook and WhatsApp. “We act as a ‘one stop shop’ for seafarers and will try to help any seafarer with any type of problem,” Ray Barker, head of operations for International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN), says. Counseling services can help with coping and dealing with issues related to sexual harassment or mental health. The Crew Coach, ISWAN, and Medaire provide these types of services and support for crew.

Sadly, a majority of people said that nothing happened when they reported the incident, or they were told it wasn’t a big deal. However, these outcomes indicate to the perpetrator that their actions are acceptable, so they are left to continue treating other crew in that same way and nothing changes. Although there were some incidents that had a positive outcome (some respondents reported that the perpetrator was fired or removed from the boat), these were the minority.

To tackle the issue, one thing that needs to change is to have clear boundaries on board and have clear harassment and bullying procedures displayed in the crew mess and a clear explanation as to where any incidents should be reported. “The action to be taken would have to fit each type of incident, but in the most serious cases, police involvement and termination of employment should be clearly stated,” Barker says.

Protective measures that can be implemented, Rayson says, are to create a safe space where crew can feel comfortable expressing their feelings and opening up about their mental health. Have a go-to person who crew are comfortable speaking with who is not necessarily a HOD and invest in professional development training for crew in interpersonal skills. The Crew Coach, N2 People Skills, and Crew Glue all offer this type of training.

Because much of the harassment seems to come from your fellow crew — which greatly affects the onboard environment — changes in the recruitment processes could help create that safe space. Educating HODs on how to hire crew with a focus on soft skills can help them find a competent crewmember. Also, educating them on how to handle a situation involving sexual harassment can help ensure it’s done so in the proper manner.

Creating and sticking to that culture on board is the responsibility of all, but it must also come from the top and department heads. Being able to call out unacceptable behavior also plays a role, but there are ways to make the process less onerous. The important takeaway is that the crew becomes aware of the behavior that can make others uncomfortable. For example, Matthews’ crew has a swear jar with the photo of someone they all love as a group and tend to be more PG around. “Every time someone makes a pretty borderline comment, they’ve got to put a donation into the swear jar,” she says. “So it’s making it fun as well as making it a part of the culture.”