Staying afloat, safe, and injury free is the minimum you can hope for from a life at sea. But a safe deck is perhaps easier said than done, especially at high season on a busy boat. Standards slip, procedures fall by the wayside, and best practices get neglected.
It’s important to keep all those safety balls in the air, no matter what’s going on above, below, or on deck. So how do crew juggle those balls? What does a daily deck task list look like? And where is there room for more care and attention?
Establishing Daily Operations
Sole Engineer Maximilian Wells of S/Y Cambria is an old hand at deck operations. Particularly during the winter months, deck maintenance — re-sanding, varnishing, and fixing all the little things that needed attention during the summer — rises to the top of the to-do list. Or, as he puts it, those “things we’ve thought could be better or could do with a refresh.” If some crew find some deck duties deathly dull, Wells is not one of them: He loves making the yacht look shiny and especially enjoys the leatherwork.
Capt. Alessandro Orrao of M/Y Polaris knows that sanding the teak or polishing the hull can be a chore for deck crew. For him, he especially does not relish explaining difficult weather conditions that muck up his owner’s plans or “when I have to deal with people who have just entered this business believing they already know everything without having the slightest idea,” he says. He also hates recruitment. Launching Jet Skis, warming the engines at anchor, or bridge operations all get thumbs up from deck crew.
“Each season, we receive reports of such incidents and accidents on other boats, so it’s important to remember it can happen to anyone at any time,” Orrao says.
Until recently, Will Lugg worked as chief officer on M/Y Unicorn before he left to complete his master’s modules. Deck operations are a constant rotation between maintenance and cleaning to be ready for guests. “Attention to detail is key to our job, so the level of maintenance is very high, not only for appearances, but equally for safety of crew and guests alike,” Lugg says. Washdowns take place at least once a week and then maintenance checks and drills are weekly events and vary. The mundanity and repetitiveness of some tasks apply to any job, suggests Lugg, but having the right attitude makes a massive difference. “This doesn’t just apply to washdowns but drills too. It can be hard to inspire crew, especially if they are tired, overdue for leave, etc.,” Lugg says. “As a result, if it isn’t that interesting, effort needs to be made to make it so. To resign yourself to the fact that some jobs are boring is taking the wrong mindset.”
Capt. Mark Saunders commands the Mangusta GranSport 45, M/Y RR. She’s a dual-season yacht so crew are constantly doing tender/toys launch and recovery, anchoring operations, stern-to the rocks and port berthing procedures. He reckons the most arduous tasks are probably mooring operations, especially stern-to maneuvers. He admits that putting away equipment after a drill is not the most thrilling of tasks for crew, but they perk up when invited to learn something new or a new scenario is added to an otherwise standard drill.
Capt. Richard Gall has been a sailor since his teens. He got involved in the industry delivering classic sailboats across the Atlantic then moved to the motors. “Cleaning and maintenance are a non-stop rolling task for deck crew, especially if the yacht is moored in an area with heavy traffic pollution or susceptible to adverse weather factors like rain containing sand,” Gall says. “When operational with guests, children, or an owner’s dog (or two), it becomes a very busy day, even before the usual unscheduled daily tasks.”
The most loved and loathed deck tasks obviously depend on the individual, but Gall reckons most folk break it down like this: washdowns are the most arduous, scrubbing teak the most boring, and on those days the most interesting part is choosing a playlist and packing up. The most interesting tasks are when the deck is involved in operations using equipment or cranes or when the guests are embarked with tender runs, watersports, and berthing operations. Bridge operations can be insightful and interesting for deck crew who are extended the opportunity (due to the size of the yacht) to spend time there, and if the individual is inquisitive, the potential for learning is boundless.
Antony Marzano is the sole deckhand on board M/Y Francesca. His duties involve taking care of the vessel’s exterior and assisting the captain in the engine room. “In the winter, I take care of the maintenance, cleaning, and polishing,” Marzano says. “In the summer, I also help with the interior service and make sure my guests have all they need.” Winters are boring and cold, and he much prefers having guests on board. “The most interesting for me personally is when docking and leaving the dock, dropping anchor, rushing to put all the toys in the water. I love rushing about and being busy!”
Engineer Wells’s safety tips are classic and simple, just like the yacht’s safety and maintenance routines. “You’ve got to think safely: When you are winching, for example, sit down with your bum on the deck, never stand up,” he says. “Concentrate properly on what you are doing, whether it’s hoisting sails or a tender over the side — anything with a bit of weight to it. Don’t underestimate the power of a winch, ever — it’s very important. People forget — you get so used to it, but you’re lifting a 1.5-ton boom, or hoisting a 400-square-meter sail [and] it’s heavy stuff! We have the tallest rig made out of one bit of wood in the world — she’s very powerful.”
Watch out for the windlass operations, warns Capt. Orrao. “Very fast mooring operations with a strong side wind or picking up anchor when the windlass fails or the anchor gets stuck in the seabed is, I think, one of the most dangerous tasks on board,” Orrao says. “I have read many accident and incident reports with very serious injuries and death.” Take care with launch or recovery of tenders and Jet Skis, especially on the gigayachts that have huge limos and lots of toys. “Each season, we receive reports of such incidents and accidents on other boats, so it’s important to remember it can happen to anyone at any time,” Orrao says. “It’s the same with routine jobs in the galley or laundry; with daily, routine jobs, we tend to forget how bad an accident can be, but when it happens, it is too late to pay attention.”
“Attention to detail is key to our job, so the level of maintenance is very high, not only for appearances, but equally for safety of crew and guests alike.”
Operations at height or over the side need particular attention, agrees Chief Mate Lugg. “Ensuring the deck team are safe when doing this is a priority, especially given accidents in the past that have made the news,” Lugg says. “It would be too easy to cut corners and for it to end in disaster. Permits and risk assessments, again like other ‘mundane’ tasks, may seem boring, but as long as they are well organized, they are easy to complete and ensure the guys doing the work are as safe as they can be. Drills are also important for me, getting the time to complete them all, however, is a challenge!”
Capt. Saunders of M/Y RR is reluctant to pinpoint an operation that needs particular attention to safety — they all do — and a good standard operating procedure (SOP) helps with this. For him, SOPs are key and as crucial as a standard monthly drill to practice and discuss regularly. “When conducting monthly drills, encompass standard onboard personal safety practices into your drills, make it more interesting, and figure out how you can improve the safety standards as to the vessel’s construction and constraints.”
His own deck safety drills are carried out every month and include a tabletop discussion on other items of safety equipment on board. “Something as simple as grabbing the medical kit or AED or looking at how to move a casualty and the risks to be aware of, such as power isolation, and having a chat about it can be extremely useful to your crew,” he says. “For example, ‘Why is the casualty there in a puddle of water next to electrical mains?’ Stop and think first.”
Crew are especially prone to cut corners or forget to ask officers’ advice, decide to jump in themselves, and get fatigued when the yacht is very busy or on charter. “The hazards are endless, with use of toxic products, confined spaces, heavy craning operations, risk of falling, slipping. When the yacht gets underway, the natural factors of being at sea come into play and the above risks in our environment will only intensify,” Gall says.
Everything has an element of danger if you take your eye off the ball. “Working in an enclosed space, especially in the engine room, can be very dangerous. Or docking,” Marzano points out. “You have to make sure to communicate the correct distance and be really careful when handling the lines. Putting the tender in the water needs a lot of attention and you need at least two people to do it.”
When it comes to drills, Capt. Orrao likes to choose a different location and scenario each time. He also switches crew drill duties. He adds, “I don’t like unexpected training drills (just warning chief engineer beforehand), but sometimes it is necessary to do this to keep the crew alert and attentive and see how they react when they think it is a real situation.”
Needless to say, accidents do happen. Capt. Saunders remembers when a ground line snapped and one of the crew was in the snapback zone. Luckily, he got away with just a heavily bruised leg. Saunders subsequently called a safety meeting, did a risk assessment, and organized crew training.
Marzano was involved in a fire that flared up on the next-door vessel at 1:30 a.m. “We were all asleep,” he says. “Suddenly I heard somebody screaming ‘Fire, fire, fire!’ I went out onto the aft deck and saw the flames right next to us, just a couple of meters away.”
Marzano ran back to the crew area and woke up everyone. “We immediately turned on the engine, unplugged the shore power, dropped the lines — we had a hard time dropping the lines as the wind was spreading flames onto our vessel but in this kind of moment, you don’t think twice — and in a matter of minutes we were gone. Unfortunately, we couldn’t help the vessel next door as it was already too late. The most important thing in this situation is to stay calm; do not panic. I can’t stress enough how important that is. Luckily, the crew on that vessel had to jump in the water from the bow, but thankfully no one was harmed.”
Gall has not personally been involved in a serious accident, but he’s witnessed and dealt with many: chemicals in eyes, broken toes, severed fingers, burns, falls, and what he calls the laborious UDIs — Unidentified Drinking Injuries. “The most memorable was a green deckhand who decided to quickly go back up the mast unannounced during lunch break to fetch his forgotten music speaker,” he says. “He went up without any PPE (as this was removed for lunch) or supervision and fell several meters onto a teak table. He was found immobilized on his back with a suspected spinal injury. Luckily, we were berthed in a marina and were able to stabilize him while the local emergency services were called.”
Danger lurks with routine and over confidence — when crew can’t be bothered to walk down a few steps to grab a harness, or failing to close doors or watertight doors, not turning off lights, or unplugging battery chargers when not in use. “All crew have many devices,” says Capt. Orrao. “It doesn’t really matter, but the day a fire starts, people realize a door closed would have made a difference for earlier detection or slowing down the spread of the fire.”
According to Lugg, renewing/getting permits and risk assessments are overlooked because of the time and effort it takes to do them. True, assessments are initially time-consuming, but once set up, they are easy to work with. Lugg believes as many drills and familiarizations as possible create a confident and safety-focused crew who know not only what to do to look out for themselves, but also to look out for the crew next to them.
Some busy yachts struggle to maintain safety standards due to liveaboard owners or back-to-back charters. Capt. Gall sees a recurring theme of busy yachts with high crew turnover, and in turn the captain and officers chasing their tails with vital ISM matters. “It is essential yachts are provided with enough time to perform safety-related responsibilities and maintain correct Hours of Work and Rest as this is a very basic platform for safe operation,” he says.
Time and time again, people fail to use a Permit to Work system effectively as they see it as “just another” laborious and unnecessary administrative task, thus creating a box-ticking, slap-dash attitude when forms are completed. As Gall says, “It is also essential for a crewmember to know their limitations and for officers to encourage individuals to think on how to improve their safety environment, while in parallel have the knowledge when and where to say, ‘STOP, I am out of my depth, I need advice with this.’”
Marzano understandably adds fire and evacuation drills as practices that are often overlooked, and he thinks should be done at least twice a month. “It’s so important for crew to be prepared in this situation,” he says. “We should also have training on how to use a defibrillator.” Capt. Orrao specifically trains for an outbreak of fire on a next-door boat — “Because crew tend to always train for what can happen on board, but never on how the other boat can harm you and your vessel,” he says.
Lugg believes as many drills and familiarizations as possible create a confident and safety-focused crew who know not only what to do to look out for themselves, but also to look out for the crew next to them.
Gall wants to see a better understanding of the actual contents of the Code of Safe Working Practice (COSWP) and see crew continually risk assess during every task they perform. “I think we need to mentally get away from the blame culture and for crew to be taught how to become responsible for their OWN safety aboard and consequently the safety of fellow crewmembers,” he says. “While it is ultimately the responsibility of the captain or chief officer to ensure each crewmember [is] trained and working to an acceptable standard, it is only when you personally learn how to effectively risk assess will you think for yourself and apply the correct measures to your delegated task ready for the procedure of signing off a permit to work.”
Common sense stills plays a vital role in adopting a safety culture aboard. Instead of trying to spoon-feed crew with boring, eye-rolling literature, Gall recommends encouraging the crew to try and think for themselves. “I believe many consider the contents of COSWP manual does not apply to them as it is written for the commercial shipping environment,” Gall says. “It is evident many junior officers are not aware of the contents and the last time they looked at it was when they revised for their MCA oral exam and [they] came up the ladder way too quickly to safely oversee a team of more junior deck crew.”
Gall recommends crew familiarize themselves with the safety management practices used on their yacht. Private vessels, for example, are exempt from performing annual audits or flag state surveys to ensure a minimum level of safety. “There are still many large yachts operating under ‘private’ registration with very poor (and what some may perceive as dangerous) safety management practices in place,” Gall says. “Be aware upon what operational policies your yacht and owner adhere to, and ensure you are receiving correct training and support along your career.”
An effective safety culture aboard is a combination of good operational standards and experience, both of which take time to develop and absorb. Wells believes introductory yacht courses do a good job of preparing newbies for work on board, especially Power Boat Level 2. “There are some good teachers out there and once kids have done the courses, you can let them watch at first, then bit by bit get into it themselves,” he says. And hopefully tread safely into that yachting life….
This feature originally ran in the March 2022 issue of Dockwalk.