The glamour, the glistening ocean, and the sunset that glints on the horizon paints a perfect picture of life on board. But behind the gloss, danger lurks, ready to pounce at the blink of a sleep-deprived eye or a misjudged gesture. Incidents or accidents, minor or major, are knitted into normal life on board.
For 2020, the Maritime Authority of the Cayman Islands (MACI) recorded 100 incidents on boats larger than 24 meters. Two private yachts were lost to fire during 2020. One fire occurred while the yacht was left unattended overnight and the other resulted in the evacuation of 17 persons and the vessel’s eventual sinking. Other reported fires were less severe and included two engine room fires and four incidents relating to electrical fires. Injury to the head, leg, back, and hand were the most commonly reported.
Capt. Warren Garmany of the 33-meter Mangusta M/Y Dopamine says the busier the boat, the more opportunity there is for things to go wrong. Crew fatigues plays a factor. “If you have a lot of charters and guest trips in a row, you get so caught up in what you’re doing that you miss some of the basics,” he says. “It’s quite easy to injure yourself.”
“Safety is paramount on boats,” Garmany says. “As a master, you are responsible for the safety of the vessel, the crew, and the environment. I have seen boats where they just hire green crew because it’s quicker and you don’t have to pay a crew agent their fee, and you don’t really do reference checks, and is the STCW really valid?”
Watersport equipment is a big one for mishaps. Everyone wants to try flight boards and lift foils so Garmany recommends familiarization sessions — when to pull the trigger, when to start it, when not to stand on it, etc. Alcohol and Jets Skis are another bad mix and captains have to hope that guests adhere to their safety recommendations. “What scares me is when Jet Skis play too close together — trying to ramp in front of each other. Those kinds are the bigger accidents,” he says. “We’ve had accidents on Jet Skis; luckily it was the Jet Skis that got damaged and the riders [were] thrown into the water. Generally, we have a crewmember on a tender who will follow the Jet Skis.” With all the different systems, mechanics, hydraulic doors, etc., Garmany does a walk round when guests arrive and sets boundaries.
Capt. Robert Hickman of M/Y White Star also operates a yacht with standard operating procedures and a good safety culture. “We do our drills every month, we make sure all the boxes are ticked, and we are by the book,” he says, pointing out that they don’t want to be the bad example other boats point to. “You hear [fewer] reports of accidents on board than you used to,” Hickman says. “Maybe people have upped their game a bit.”
But despite care, accidents happen. Not long ago, Garmany remembers a crewmember kite surfing on a foil board. Next thing, he had a huge gash across his head. Stuck in a remote part in The Bahamas, there was no access to hospital care. “Luckily, all the captains and first officers are trained in medical care at sea, so we are very familiar with doing stitches, basic first aid,” he says. “We also have access to EMSOS, and medical companies that we can phone straight away, and they give us instructions on what to do.”
On his last vessel, the chef had boiling water all down his arm and hand. “The blistering was terrible and started to mould his fingers together a bit. So two/three times a day, we dressed his arm, administered antibiotics, changed the burn shield,” he says. “That’s very common. Chefs cut themselves too, slice the end of fingers off, and once again it comes down to fatigue and not really concentrating. That’s why hours of rest is very important to follow. It’s easy to push crew because you’ve got guests and you want to give the best service but at the same time, everyone has to be accountable for themselves. If you get injured, the first thing they are going to ask for is a record of your hours of rest.”
Joshua Arde, an engineer on board M/Y Sea Raider V, had an accident three years ago — he was electrocuted by 400 volts and almost lost his hand. He needed several skin grafts to save it. “There was an exposed cable that I was not aware of and I touched it,” he says. Arde blacked out for a good 30 seconds and when he came around, the volts were still shuddering through him. “I managed to shout for help, and they managed to shut down the ship.”
He remembers the captain and yacht acted as one would hope, keeping him on a retainer for the two months he was off work and paying for medical bills, etc. promptly. The accident happened off the coast of Oban in northern Scotland and Arde was taken by ambulance to the nearest skin specialist at Glasgow hospital. “The electrocution had been so bad that it had burned through some of the tendons in my finger and I had to get a full skin graft on my finger to make sure it didn’t burn the bone,” he says. Unfortunately, the Glasgow skin graft went septic and became badly infected so Arde visited a specialist in France, who managed to save the finger by re-attaching the tendon.
Chefs cut themselves too, slice the end of fingers off, and once again it comes down to fatigue and not really concentrating.
Capt. Duncan Robinson has partial paralysis in both legs and is doubly incontinent. He is classified as having a 71 percent permanent disability after he broke his back during a fall on S/Y Genevieve in 2016. He is currently fighting in the Maltese civil court to be compensated.
He had previously worked as a rotational captain on board two years previous to this relief stint. The accident occurred after arriving in French Polynesia during preparation for an owner’s trip. The chief stewardess used a bath towel to cover a varnished floor section at the top of a flight of stairs between the upper and lower salon. Robinson slipped on the towel, fell on the stairs, and broke his back.
“The main point of concern for me is the absolute powerlessness that I now feel,” he says. Robinson’s greatest concern is that management and owner did not report the accident. This meant he could not make a claim with his own private insurance. “And now I am struggling to claim as it is as if the accident never happened,” he says. “The proceedings have been going on in Malta already for four years now and I don’t know how much longer I can cope with the mental and financial strain.” Robinson continues to wait for a final judgment on his claim.
Retired Capt. Mark Davies worked for seven years on M/Y Cleopatra, five on M/Y Calixe, and five with M/Y Queen K before moving into fleet management and then retiring. He and Capt. Joe Russell voluntarily run the Professional Yachting Association (PYA) Member Assistance Service (MAS), a support wing set up five years ago, alongside Capt. Richard Le Quesne, who started the service. It’s for PYA members who are in need of advice and help. “We are not lawyers or experts,” stresses Davies, “but between us, we have over 120 years of command experience.”
Sometimes they’re simply asked to check an agreement; at other times, the issue is more serious like physical injury or sexual harassment. “The thing that persuaded me to help out the PYA with MAS is that I get so frustrated at the number of yacht crew who find themselves cheated, bullied, or manipulated out of whatever it is to which they are entitled and wanted to help in some small way towards getting them a fair deal,” says Davies. “I started in yachting in 1980 when we had no contracts and I can’t believe that this sort of thing is still happening despite the increase in rules and regulations and the growing professionalism in the industry.”
“As a master, you are responsible for the safety of the vessel, the crew, and the environment."
Capt. Davies believes the biggest culprits to be private, unregulated yachts. “I am dealing with a case now where a guy is in dispute with his employer who offered to send him a car instead of a pay rise that he could then pay him back monthly,” he says. “They’ve fallen out, the owner has taken the car back, although the guy had been paying the installments.”
The gulf between theory and practice of law is problematic, says Davies. “A classic example is the crewmember who is dismissed and isn’t paid his notice period or his repatriation and he comes to us. We tell him quite categorically that the boat is subject to MLC, it is a commercial yacht and therefore … that’s the theory. And we can say things like ‘You can have the boat arrested and you will have to engage a local lawyer who will talk to the magistrate and they will seize the boat’ — again, all very good in theory, but the kid probably hasn’t got any money, or the idea of embarking on that course of action scares him witless and he ends up getting shafted. I guess you can say money talks and management companies and super rich owners have money behind them and throw money at lawyers.”
The responsibility for reporting accidents or incidents falls to the yacht and the management company, who then report it to the flag state. Tom Sugden has worked as chief officer on M/Y 11:11 for 18 months and has been in the industry for eight years. He’s experienced minor incidents like sliced fingers or falls while underway and the yacht always reports near misses and incidents via its management company Y.CO. “I think a lot of management companies are hamstrung by owner’s requests. We have all heard stories about crew that get injured, return home to seek treatment, and end up being let go rather than costing money,” he says. “Thankfully, this seems to be happening less as contracts are pretty solid these days and organizations like Nautilus act as a great deterrent.”
He notes in his experience when a junior crewmember, injured crew were well looked after, “but this usually is tied in with an owner’s ability or willingness to spend money and how much they value their crew,” he says. “If one of those groups is not pushing for the crews’ welfare, then you can end up in some sticky positions.”
Capt. Garmany knows a crewmember who broke his back on a Jet Ski: The yacht paid out 16 weeks of care as part of his contract. “We’re very lucky with our boat,” Garmany says. “We have a platinum cover with IMG. … And as an ISM boat, we have risk assessments for launching tenders, dropping anchor, going aloft, going aside, for hot works. We have a risk assessment and a toolbox talk that explains the risks for a particular job — exposed wires over there, water over here; this is a height, etc. ... these things help to mitigate injuries.”
There’s a hierarchy of flag states, says Capt. Davies. “Your flag is important,” he says. He believes Cayman Islands is the “gold standard,” then Marshall Islands. “From there you start going down to different flags where that compliance and legalities around it are a lot looser and you can get away with more,” he says. “It’s an advantage to have a Cayman Islands flag — you have inspections all the time, surveys. We have to prove ... due diligence as well. Safety equipment has to be up to standard and SOLAS-approved and serviced accordingly and the lower down the ranks you go with your flag, the less stringent they are.”
“Remember,” says Davies, “countries can make money out of registering yachts and small countries think they can make a lot of money if they make the rules nice and easy. Some new, smaller registries are still quite diligent about what they do and some more established are dodgy.”
So what is the correct procedure for protecting or compensating crew following an incident? Ilja Kondratjuks, a Principal Surveyor with the Isle of Man Ship Registry, explains that shipowners are required to have systems of financial security in place (most commonly insurance) that protect and compensate seafarers in a wide range of scenarios such as abandonment, medical disability/death, or the loss of the vessel.
“One of our roles as a regulator is to ensure that all seafarers are adequately protected in accordance with the Convention, prior to any accident taking place,” he says. “We ensure all yachts flagged with us operate to the high set of standards Isle of Man-flagged vessels are known for. The second part of their roles is to review the circumstances of the accident/incident and decide whether an investigation is necessary. If deemed necessary, a casualty investigator will attend the scene and produce a report which may be published on our website and/or submitted to relevant parties.”
The responsibility for reporting accidents or incidents falls to the yacht and the management company, who then report it to the flag state.
Like Capt. Davies, Kondratjuks points out that commercial yachts must operate under the MLC umbrella and private boats don’t have to. So crew have to be covered and “cared for” on commercial boats, not necessarily on private boats. Regulations relating to private yachts will differ by flag state but will often be less complete, and they are often not subject to any inspection and certification regime. He recommends crew check their Seafarer Employment Agreement carefully. If you do not agree with any of the provisions within, then do not agree to work on board without first discussing it with your potential employer and/or seeking legal advice.
He adds, “Anyone who is hired for the probation period should ask for the contract of employment for the duration of the period — even if it’s just one-week long. This will ensure the person is covered by the medical insurance in the unlikely event of the medical emergency. This would also protect the vessel from any claims of illegal employment from the local authorities.”
As we hit peak season in the Med, now is a good time to play it safe with the work and rest register so that when the Caribbean season calls, as an Able Bodied Seaman (or woman), you can choose if you want to answer.
This feature originally ran in the August 2022 issue of Dockwalk.