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Not all plain sailing for superyacht seafarers

31 December 2018

Superyacht crews have often been seen as a breed apart from their commercial shipping counterparts, enjoying glamorous lifestyles where the sun always shines. However, as ANDREW LININGTON heard, some familiar problems emerge when you ask the right questions…

Nautilus has backed a new research report which recommends wide-ranging action to improve the standards of welfare support for seafarers serving in the superyacht sector.

International organiser Danny McGowan was part of an expert industry panel at the December 2018 launch of the report, which has been published by the International Seafarers’ Welfare & Assistance Network (ISWAN).

The study draws on survey responses from more than 400 superyacht masters, officers and crew. Key findings in the 44-page report include:

  • 45% of respondents said they had suffered from social isolation sometimes, often or always
  • 80% of females and 54% of males reported suffering from one or more episodes of work-related stress
  • 53% of females and 30% of males had experienced bullying, harassment or discrimination sometimes, often or always
  • 82% had experienced low crew morale sometimes, often or always
  • almost half said they had religious or spiritual needs which are not always met at sea or in port
  • 55% of respondents were aware of illegal drug use among crew

The report recommends a range of measures to improve support for superyacht crews, including raising awareness of the help that organisations such as ISWAN and Nautilus can offer, looking at the potential to create shore-based social and recreational centres for crew, enhancing onboard space and facilities, improving rotation patterns and increasing opportunities for rest and relaxation.

It also points to the need to provide new recruits with better knowledge about what to expect in the job and calls for a review of grievance procedures 'to offer an alternative model not dependent on chain of command'. The report also suggests that there is scope for owners and management companies to contribute to the funding of organisations providing welfare support.

For many people, work on superyachts is a dream job and everything they could hope for. We are not here to dispute that, but there is a murkier side to the industry that needs to be looked at

ISWAN executive director Roger Harris said the research had been commissioned in response to concerns about the welfare of crew. 'We have been getting an increasing number of calls from superyacht seafarers,' he added. 'Although the numbers are not big, the trend is upwards, and we wanted to better understand the needs of crews.'

MHG Insurance Brokers CEO Andrew Dudzinski said his company had worked with ISWAN on the research after noticing an increase in traumatic accidents and suicides involving crew. 'The industry is rooted in the stone age and it is quite difficult to get it to buy into the concept of spending money on the crew,' he added. 'However, the welfare of crew is much more of an issue now and people are paying more attention to the crew as an asset, rather than just something you have to have onboard.'

Report author Dr Olivia Swift told the launch event: 'For many people, work on superyachts is a dream job and everything they could hope for. We are not here to dispute that, but there is a murkier side to the industry that needs to be looked at.'

Dr Swift said the report aims to fill a gap in knowledge about the needs of superyacht seafarers and identify the most effective measures to support them. Compared with other maritime professionals, the welfare of superyacht seafarers has received scant attention, she noted, but many crew experience similar issues to the commercial sector – such as long hours, stress, social isolation, and job insecurity.

Tackling some of the challenges identified by the report would help with recruitment and retention, as well as improving mental and physical health, morale and wellbeing, she added.

Mr McGowan welcomed the research results and said the Union will seek to ensure that there is action on the recommendations. Nautilus wants to see a successful and sustainable superyacht industry, he added, and it works closely with sector partners to address issues such as safety, welfare and professionalism – but the sector needs to devote some of its substantial resources to supporting the welfare needs of crew.

'The industry will struggle as long as some unscrupulous owners and managers see crew as expendable and a readily replaceable source of labour for their vessels,' he pointed out.

Nicola Morgan, from wilsonhalligan, said recent research from the Professional Yachting Association had shown the scale of sexual harassment problems, and there is a need to have someone onboard who is available to discuss problems with on a confidential basis. 'This is a wonderful industry, but like any other one there is room to improve,' she added. 'There are issues to deal with, but I think we are on the right track.'

Peter Dudzinski, from MHG Insurance Brokers, said insurance claims show evidence of mental health problems among crew, and he suggested there should be mechanisms in place to help seafarers before conditions deteriorate. 'A lot of female crew in particular are being signed off with no real prospect of coming back,' he added. 'Sometimes, crew are fearful at the end of their career in the sector and they don't know where to go next.'

Impact Crew founder Karen Passman said research had shown the importance of onboard culture and leadership development – with 64% of junior crew moving on as a direct result of their experiences of leadership. 'All too often, they will end up leaving the industry prematurely due to the working environment they find themselves in,' she added.

Mission to Seafarers secretary general Revd Andrew Wright said his charity is keen to get involved in the superyacht sector. He has personal connections with the industry, as his daughter has served as a stewardess for more than a decade – but he admitted that superyachts have ‘slipped under the radar’ of traditional maritime welfare agencies.

Mr Wright said he was concerned that some crew considered that they had to keep their religious beliefs a secret, and said it was disturbing that many are presently unable to access shore-based seafarer centres that could offer a quiet space for reflection or provide spiritual support.

He said the Mission has a number of ideas for supporting superyacht crews – including the potential for providing facilities in major yachting ports and undertaking vessel visits.


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