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Drugs in industry, but not on yachts

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The subject for this month’s Triton Survey came at us in several ways. We’ve resisted writing about drugs in yachting until now. Yacht crew know better than anyone about drugs in yachting, especially among guests. Writing about it always seemed a little like preaching to the choir.

 

But drug use among crew has been an issue for several captains and crew members we talked to in the past month, so much so that they urged us to talk about it, write about it.
So we asked Have you ever worked on a vessel where a crew member or the captain used drugs?

By drugs we refer to illegals such as marijuana and cocaine but also the abuse of prescription drugs or over-the-counter medications. For the purposes of this survey, we did not include alcohol; that’s a difference discussion.

One captain said he’d wish we hadn’t included marijuana in our definition of “drugs” since it’s use is so pervasive that it would likely skew the results. Our reasoning is that marijuana use would show up on a drug test, just like any other drug. And having it in one’s possession on a yacht could put one’s licence and career in jeopardy.

So for our survey, we have good news and bad news.

First, the bad news: Nearly three-quarters of the 181 captains and crew who took our survey this month said that yes, they have worked on a vessel in their career where the captain or someone on the crew used drugs.

Most of those — 40.7 percent — said the drug use was obvious, with 31.3 percent noting that the drug use did not interfere with the operation of the yacht.

Most of the rest admitted that, though they didn’t see drug use first hand, it was possible that drugs were used by their crew mates.

Just 9.3 percent said they never worked on a yacht where crew used drugs.

The good news, perhaps confusingly, came in when we asked Are drugs used by the captain/crew on your current vessel?

Despite most respondents having worked on yachts with drug use in the past, more than 80.9 percent of respondents said there is never drug use on their current vessel.

About 14 percent said sometimes drugs are used onboard their current vessels, and 5.1 percent said drugs are used often.

More important than the intangible fact of drug use, perhaps, comes in the results of this question: Have you ever seen drug use interfere with a yacht crew member’s job?

These responses were much more balanced, with the largest group of 39 percent noting that if a crew member was using drugs, they kept their impairment off the yacht.

But that left 61 percent admitting that yes, drugs interfered with the yacht, mostly (34.1 percent) because the effects of the previous night’s use was still evident.

About 26.9 percent said a member of the crew had been impaired during working hours.

Nearly everyone who took our survey answered this open-ended question: In your opinion, do you think drug use among captains/crew is a problem?

We left it open and vague on purpose, to let captains and crew interpret it how they chose and to respond how they chose. While we meant to ask if crew are using drugs, many respondents took it to mean “is drug use in yachting a bad thing.”

Slightly more than half said yes, drug use among crew is a problem, or would be a problem given the liability and safety issues involved; many of them emphatically so.

“Yes,” said the captain of a yacht 80-100 feet. “We are responsible for the safety of crew and vessel at all times.

As professional mariners, operating multimillion-dollar vessels, we are accountable for our actions on and off the vessel. Just because we work long hours and charter tirelessly, we still need to be at the top of our game. Those who want to let off a little steam once in awhile, well, that’s their prerogative. Once you bring it back to the vessel, that’s when everyone is in jeopardy. Cocaine is found anywhere, especially in the islands, and I’ve seen more and more crew using it as a pick-me-up in the last five years.”

“I think captains and the industry as a whole would be in for a big shock if we started drug testing,” said the chief stew on a yacht 100-120.

“I have only known crew to take drugs and not the captain,” said a stew in the industry less than three years. “If I did find out a captain was taking drugs, I would be looking around for another job on a different vessel.”

“Yes, it’s a problem, but the big problem is that they’re getting away with it; they are cheating on their urine tests,” said the captain on a yacht 80-100 feet. “There needs to be a witness present during the urine test.”

“Yes, absolutely,” said the captain of a yacht 140-160 feet in yachting more than 15 years. “You only have to go to St. Maarten and Antigua and open your eyes and it is everywhere. I am sure it is more prevalent in Lauderdale and Antibes though, but less obvious.”

“Yes, captains and management companies are very lenient about the subject,” said the captain of a yacht 140-160 feet.

About a third said it is not a problem, many of those noting specifically that it’s not a problem on their vessel.
“For some, yes, but it would not be accurate or fair to generalize industrywide on this question,” said the first officer of a yacht 120-140 feet. “There are a good many hard-working, effective crew who either do not use drugs at all or, if they do, do so on their own time and do not let it interfere with their job performance. This can, however, be a slippery slope for those who lack self-discipline (you know who you are).”

“Yes, I’m aware it is a problem in some yachts, but is not a general problem in the industry,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in the industry more than 10 years.

“I know of yachts were it is a problem, but I was fortunate enough not to ever have to work on such a yacht,” said a first officer in yachting more than 10 years.

“Crew use is minimal and restricted to the occasional joint,” said a stew in yachting more than 25 years. “Owner and guest use is much higher.”

“Call me naive, but I don’t think so for career crew as it could be the end their career,” said a captain in the industry more than 30 years.

“Not if it’s kept off the yacht,” another veteran captain said. “I would prefer crew smoked marijuana and not drink whiskey.”

“Not that I can see,” said a captain in yachting more than 10 years. “Now that I’m older I don’t ever see drugs on board or in a social scene.”

“Not on this boat,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet. “I am fortunate in that I have long tenure crew, all over the age of 35.”

The remaining 12 percent of respondents admitted they either hadn’t been in the industry long enough or worked on enough boats to have a fair opinion.

And that brought us to a more productive part of our survey. Have you ever confronted a co-worker about his/her drug use?

The largest group of respondents — 41.3 percent — confronted their co-worker to fire them.

“As I have worked very hard to obtain my credential, I will not tolerate a crew member, or when obvious, an owner or guest use of illegal substance,” said the captain of a yacht 140-160 feet in yachting more than 20 years. “The safety of lives and property are of utmost importance and [drugs] cannot have a place aboard a professionally run yacht.”

“Two last month after a drug test,” said the captain of a yacht 160-180 feet. “It was very evident that they were into drugs.”

“Absolutely no second chances,” said a captain in yachting more than 25 years who has never seen drug use on the yachts he’s worked.

“If I suspected drug use, the crew member would be sitting on the dock waiting for his bags,” said the purser on a yacht 140-160 feet.

But the next largest group said they never have confronted a crew mate because what they do on their personal time is their own business.

“What you do on your time off the boat is your business,” said a captain in yachting more than 25 years. “If that interferes with your duties or you bring drugs on board, you’re fired. Period.”

About a third of our respondents said they interfere to help.

“It was well received and they understood,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet.

“Yes, a former co-worker, to help him and make him aware how stupid and dangerous it is to do,” said the first officer of a yacht 140-160 feet.

We asked for other reasons and realized we forgotten the biggest one: it’s never come up, which was true for 5.5 percent of our respondents.

But there were other reasons not to confront a co-worker about their drug use.

“It causes too many problems, especially when the person using is in a higher position (i.e., captain, chief stew, captain’s wife/purser, etc.),” said the stew of a yacht 120-140 feet.

“It should go through the chain of command,” said the mate on a yacht 80-100 feet. “The captain should be the one to deal with it.”

“What’s the point?” said the chief stew on a yacht 160-180 feet. “They won’t listen.”

 

Despite the likelihood of either leaving a crew member alone with their drug use or firing them, when we asked Should a crew member intercede when one of their co-workers is thought to be using drugs? the answer was overwhelmingly “yes” (83.1 percent), and mostly because the safety of the crew and vessel are at risk.

“It can affect not only the performance and reputation of the crew, but also their safety,” said a captain of a yacht 180-200 feet. “They should notify their department head or the captain of their suspicions and observations.”

“We need to look out for each other,” said the captain of a yacht 80-100 feet. “We work on vessels that have ‘no-tolerance’ rules, yet random testing falls by the wayside. If a crew member starts showing signs of fatigue and can’t keep it together, we should at least approach that person and give him/her the option to get some help.”

“Sometimes just bringing it to their attention and letting them know that you know, and that you disapprove, may help them stop,” said the chief stew on a yacht 160-180 feet. “I worked on a yacht where a crew member was killed in an alcohol- and cocaine-related accident while off the boat. This person had just returned from company-paid rehab. We all discussed it openly and it was something that made the rest of the crew really think.

Most people who use drugs seem to think that the bad things — the overdoses. the accidents — won’t happen to them.”

“Every crew member’s livelihood is affected by the one or group using,” said the captain of a yacht 140-160 feet. “A responsible crew member will speak up.”

“Yes, because the drug user may not be aware their habit may be interfering with their work or attitude and affecting the dynamic within the crew,” said a stew on a yacht 100-120 feet. “They should be given a chance to fix their situation before they could be fired.”

“Signs of drug use are not often obvious for captains, who are not familiar with this phenomenon,” said the engineer on a yacht 180-200 feet. “If the drug use is severe (as it was on my boat), then crew members should try to help their captain to recognize it, and to help the person who is (perhaps) addicted to drugs.”

“Yes, because if they continue, they are likely to a) not do their job properly and b) get fired,” said the captain of a yacht 160-180 feet in yachting more than 20 years.

A few captains and crew noted that, beyond safety issues, drug use interfered with how a cohesive crew operates.

“The use of drugs by a crew member can make other crew feel uncomfortable and can seriously affect the dynamics of the team,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet.

“Drug use affects the entire crew and boat, even when the people using just go out on their own and do it,” said a stew on a yacht 120-140 feet. “It creates an unfair separation between users and non-users onboard, and there is also sometimes unfair pressure to conform if everyone else is doing it, but you don’t want to.”

And there was still 16.9 percent of respondents who said no, that fellow crew should not interfere.
“I think it will just start fights,” said a dayworker on a yacht larger than 220 feet. “When the drug user starts to steal or not perform his or her duties, then they should be fired.”

“It’s not my place, unless it is affecting my work,” said a stew onboard a yacht 120-140 feet.

“Chain of command,” said the mate on a yacht 80-100 feet. “It’s the captain’s place to intervene, not mine.”

“Only by the captain to fire them or punish them,” said a stew in yachting 1-3 years. “I personally wouldn’t get involved; it’s their life/career.”

Some noted that whether they intervene with a crew member using drugs isn’t as black and white as yes and no.

“It’s a difficult decision, depending on the circumstances,” said a stew on a yacht 160-180 feet.

“That greatly depends on the crew member’s position on the yacht and/or the relationship (professional/personal) between the offending crew member,” said the first officer on a yacht 140-160 feet.

“Yes, but unfortunately, in my situation, I am keeping quiet as nobody will listen to me that a crew member has a coke problem,” said the chief stew on a yacht 160-180 feet.

“Case by case,” said the first officer in yachting more than 10 years. “It depends too much on variables like the severity of the problem (is safety at issue?) or the culture on the boat. Safe operation should be where the baseline is set. Work up from there, based on what is acceptable under the program in question. If what is acceptable doesn’t work for you, or is not likely to change, don’t torture yourself. Consider a change in environment.”

There was some disagreement about whether crew members should intervene or tell the captain. Many respondents agreed that it was the captain’s responsibility to confront the crew member, but they didn’t agree if a crew member should alert their superior.

“We must have a clean boat,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet. “I count on other crew to report as I’m often the last to know.”

“Mind your own business,” said a captain on a yacht 80-100 feet in yachting more than 10 years. “The captain will intercede as he/she sees fit.”

“It’s management’s responsibility,” said the captain of a yacht larger than 220 feet in yachting more than 25 years.

“If they are in your department, yes,” said the engineer on a yacht 140-160 feet. “If not, a quiet word with the captain. After all, in an emergency, your life could depend on them.”

“If a fellow crew member wants to approach another regarding this issue, that is up to them,” said the captain of a yacht 140-160 feet. “I hope they are trained and understand the possible outcomes. The best thing to do is use systems in place to check. Tell the captain it is time for a random test of all crew. If he does not think there is reason, take it as a sign and leave.”

“It is the captain’s responsibility,” said a captain on a yacht 100-120 feet. “They should inform the captain immediately.”

 

Some of the responses from captains and crew who would not interfere were a little surprising.

“Not unless they are high while on duty,” said the captain of a yacht less than 80 feet in yachting more than 20 years.

“If a crew member can handle their drugs, then no interceding is required,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet. “If they can’t, then someone needs to intercede.”

“Anything other than the occasional joint off shift is a mandatory termination,” said a stew in yachting more than 25 years.

 

One thing that might curb drug use is the random drug test, so we asked In your yachting career, have you ever had a random drug test?

Most have, but not by much. About 58.6 percent have had a random drug test; 41.4 percent have not.

Among those who have, we asked When was the last time?

The largest group — 38.3 percent — has had a random test within the past year.

The number of captains and crew who have had random tests steadily declines as time passes. Fewer than a quarter of our respondents have had one in the past couple of years. For about 22.4 percent, it’s been 3-5 years.

Fifteen percent said it’s been longer than five years since they’ve had a random drug test.

 

We were curious if owners, brokers or managers address this issue so we asked Have you had a conversation with the owner/captain about drugs?

The largest group — 39 percent — said it came up during the interview. The next largest group — 32.2 percent — said it came up but only to point out that illegal drugs are not permitted onboard.

For 28.2 percent of respondents, however, the conversation arose after there was an Just 13 percent said they have never discussed drugs with the owner or the captain.

There were other situations in which the topic came up, including casual conversation between the captain and the owner, and during orientation or crew policy review between the crew and the captain.

“Our yacht was in Amsterdam and there was a meeting to discuss the fact that drug use was not permitted,” said a stew in the industry less than three years. “Also, on many occasions before big parties, we were reminded to inform the captain immediately if drug use is suspected.”

A few captains noted that they initiated the conversation with the owner to ask for approval to have the crew tested or to insist on testing before a new crew member is hired.

“As a captain of 40 years and from the merchant marine, I insist that all crew are drug tested and I make this firm with the owner/ management team,” said the captain of a yacht 140-160 feet.

A few crew noted that some captains say one thing and do another.

“I brought it to a captain’s attention that a crew member was using and what did the captain do? Fired me as I was being controversial and stirring things up on the boat,” said a purser in the industry more than 20 years.

Is there any time in which drug use among captains and/or crew becomes more of a problem? (For example, on charter, in the shipyard, while sitting at the dock.)

The largest group by far — 63 percent of the respondents who answered this question — said drug use increased during down time between trips or charters and while sitting at the dock.

“The more time a boat sits idle amongst other boats, shipyard or marina, the more opportunity there is for the crew to succumb to temptations,” said the captain of a yacht 180-200 feet. “A busy boat is a happy boat.”

“Ships and crew rot in port,” said the captain of a yacht 80-100 feet.

“Most of the problem we had onboard was during shipyard period, but sometimes it happened even on charter,” said the engineer of a yacht 180-200 feet. “Normally about half of the crew members used drugs often but in moderation, and a few crew members had serious problems.”

“Anytime the crew are bored, the risk of misbehavior increases,” said the captain of a yacht 80-100 feet.
About 20 percent of respondents said it didn’t matter where the yacht was or what it was doing, that crew who do drugs were likely to do them at any time.

And about 15 percent of respondents said drug use was worst when the yacht was too busy.
“More so on charter,” said a captain in yachting more than 15 years. “The hours are crazy and a little cocaine can go a long way when doing back-to-back charters. I’ve seen, first hand, captains and crew getting out of hand doing this.”

“The most common drug abuse I hear about is cocaine use by crew who feel they need it in order to cope with the long hours,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet.

“I suppose it would depend on the drug itself,” said the first officer of a yacht 120-140 feet. “I have seen cocaine get used more during or between busy charter seasons while you may see others such as marijuana used more freely at the dock or in shipyard.”

 

Is there any place in which drug use among captains and/or becomes more of a problem?

Most respondents noted that it’s not the place; someone who uses drugs can find them anywhere they go.

Accepting that as a given, the single place most noted was St. Maarten.

“In St. Maarten, it is easier to order cocaine than to order a pizza,” said the captain of a yacht 140-160 feet.
But almost as many respondents said drug use is prevalent in all major yachting hubs, especially in the Caribbean.

“Everywhere with a large yachtie contingent and urban environments with well-established nightlife,” said the captain of a yacht 140-160 feet.

“Drugs are readily available anywhere but obviously in the Bahamas or Caribbean it’s easier and you’re approached much more often,” said the captain of a yacht 80-100 feet.

“Down island,” said another captain of a yacht 80-100 feet. “It’s always around and the locals know yachties are prime targets.”

“Down island as they are so easy to obtain and crew think that because of the relaxed atmosphere there is less chance of getting caught,” said yet another captain of a yacht 80-100 feet.

“Anywhere crew are sitting around idly with time on their side and some money burning a hole in their pocket,” said the chief stew on a yacht 100-120 feet.


Read crew comments on drugs and yachting.

Lucy Chabot Reed is editor of The Triton. Comments on this survey are welcome at lucy@the-triton.com. We conduct our monthly surveys online. All captains and crew members are welcome to participate. If you haven’t been invited to take our surveys and would like to be, e-mail lucy@the-triton.com to be added.

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