A male crew member of the 164-foot (50m) Feadship M/Y Iroquois appears to have taken his own life onboard while the yacht was docked in Boston in early June.
Even though little information about the incident has been reported, including the man’s identity, the yachting industry across the world were saddened by the news.
For Capt. Eric, who was in command of the 153-foot M/Y Cherosa in 2009 when deckhand Deb Flanagan killed herself onboard, he knows what the crew left behind must be feeling.
“The first emotion we all felt was a tremendous amount of guilt,” said Capt. Eric, who asked that his last name not be used. He’s now running a 50m private yacht. “Because you’re so close, you feel you know everything about them. We were shocked. What could we have done? Why didn’t we see the signs?”
But the more he read about suicide, the more he learned that it’s not his fault, that some people who really want to take their life tend to keep it inside.
“Aside from the devastation of losing someone, you put the blame on yourself,” he said. “And as captain, for me, I think it was worse. I’m charged with taking care of these people. They all become like family.”
Talking about it
Losing a member of the family – whether it’s a best-friend sister, a lover or an obnoxious little brother – is devastating.
Death brings up myriad and often unrelated emotions in a close-knit group, experts say. So depending how close fellow crew are, each will deal with the loss in their own way.
The most important thing to do is talk about it, agreed several crew who have been through similar situations.
“You really have to talk about it,” said Chief Stew Alene Keenan, who has lost three people in her life to suicide. “Get a grief counselor right away. There’s enough pressure on the job as it is; the captain can’t worry if he’s doing the right thing. You need an independent person to come in.”
Beyond professional help, crew can also talk to each other. The important part is to talk.
“In these situations, it’s a call for crew to tighten up and talk to each other more and make sure everyone is OK,” said Capt. Rob Gannon, who provides life coaching for yacht crew. “Meet with crew, talk about it. Make it clear, does anyone need help? They may not, but just to hear that helps.”
Having help available helped Capt. Eric and his crew. He brought a counselor in to speak with the crew as a group and to be available for individual sessions.
“None of the crew took it [the one-on-one sessions], but it was good to have that option,” he said. “The group thing was helpful. It educated us as to why this happens. Chances are, you can’t stop it. Someone on that path has been on that path a long time before it happens.”
For the crew left behind, the healthiest way through that guilt is by talking.
“You have to go through it, not around it,” Gannon said. “You can’t bury it because it’ll just come back up. These feelings don’t go away.
“By whatever method, face it, go through it, feel it and let it pass,” he said. “Ignoring it is the worse thing. Everyone may have to deal with it in their own way, but don’t leave that unsaid. A captain has to say that to the crew. Anything unsaid leaves crew stewing around in their own grief. That’s not the healthiest way to go about it.”
In addition to the guilt, Capt. Eric and his crew spent a lot of time trying to figure out why.
“Deb was a really upbeat person,” he said. “Every picture I have of her, she has a great big smile on her face. She fixed everybody else and didn’t take care of herself. It was absolutely shocking. Nobody saw it coming.”
And then comes the anger.
“After you work through the guilt and the grief, you say ‘how could you do that to us?’” Capt. Eric said. “I know it seems selfish, but you can’t help it. How could you do that to people who love you?”
Most people will never know what causes a friend or loved one to take their own life. These conjectures are not meant to imply anything about what happened aboard M/Y Iroquois or with Ms. Flanagan. But perhaps they can help prevent another tragedy, or help the crew left behind.
“There is isolation in this lifestyle,” Gannon said. “If a crew member is not close to family or doesn’t have a significant relationship in their life, that little world on the yacht could be closing in on them. They don’t seek help. I could see how depression could affect people in the business. And they hide it. They don’t want people to see something’s wrong.”
Keenan, who has worked as a stew and chief stew on small and large yachts for the past 25 years, said she’s worried about how often mariners turn to anti-depressants.
“If someone is on anti-depressants, you have to watch them,” she said. “If they’re not taking it properly or if they drink with it, terrible things can happen. If someone on the crew is on anti-depressants, I keep an eye on them, make sure they eat.
“If you think something’s wrong, go to the captain,” she said. “If you observe a significant change in behavior, it should be reported.”
Typically, a crew member with concerns would go to the captain, but the chief stew might also be appropriate.
“The chief stew tends to take over a lot of that personal stuff because they live with the crew; the captain doesn’t,” she said.
Some physical things to look for include insomnia, weight loss, no sex drive, no desire to socialize, poor personal hygiene, and crying.
One of the most important things Capt. Eric said he learned was to not only pay closer attention to the behavior of his crew, but to take the time to ask them how they are doing.
“You don’t want to be over reactive, but you should be aware that all might not be right with your co-workers,” he said. “No matter how busy you are, take 10 minutes to pull the person aside and talk to them.
“The night before, Deb was in a little funk,” he said. “We were really busy and I mentioned it to her, but she said she was working through it. Don’t think I haven’t beaten myself up about that 2,000 times.”
It can be hard to differentiate between someone who is exhausted and ready to be alone with someone coping with something alone. Living and working on yachts, sometimes being alone is the only break you get.
“In yachting, where we live so close to each other, people are guarded,” Keenan said. “It’s their only real chance at privacy.”
“People like to get away and have alone time,” Gannon said. “But there’s a difference between that and someone struggling, sad or having a hard time. Recognize that; don’t ignore it. Being aware is the most important thing.”
Capt. Eric and his crew also weren’t prepared for how they’d feel when they read about or heard other people talk about Ms. Flanagan’s death.
“What was very frustrating for us was hearing people who didn’t know speculate about it,” he said. “Everyone had an opinion. That was extremely frustrating, angering, hurtful. If I had any advice, it would be not to read any of that stuff. It just sullies the memory.”
One thing that helped the crew handle Ms. Flanagan’s death was to have her parents visit the yacht and spend some time with them, talking about their daughter, helping them understand her life in yachting.
And then it took time. Initially, the owner gave everyone about a week off.
“Nobody could work; everyone was just shattered,” Capt. Eric said. “After that, I felt like people needed to get back to work.”
Coming back to a smaller crew meant a job needed to be filled. But Capt. Eric found it hard to hire her replacement.
“We left the position open for a while,” he said, noting that it took about a month before he started looking. “I couldn’t bring myself to do it, and the crew didn’t want anybody there.”
The guy they finally hired was “just the right guy,” Capt. Eric said.
“He was like a ghost,” he said. “He didn’t come in wanting to talk about it. He kept his mouth shut and did his job. It was perfect for us. Crew doesn’t want to talk about it outside of the group.”
Yet his crew still talked about it, healing a little more each time.
“Sometimes, people don’t want to share because they don’t want to be seen as weak, but it’s important for people to feel they can still talk about it,” Keenan said. “It’s important to go ‘remember that funny time?’ and talk about something you all did together. You’re still paying respect, remembering the good things.
“If someone’s stuck in the sad part, listen to them,” she said. “Let the person say what they want to say, then turn the conversation around.”
For Capt. Eric and his crew left behind, the need to talk about it came in waves. At first, Ms. Flanagan’s death was all they could talk about.
“Then, for a while, we didn’t want to talk about it,” he said. “It just stirred up too much emotion.”
But eventually, they all talked about her again, remembered her, laughed about things she’d done or said, and lived with her memory.
Now, four years later, memories still come up, and so does the pain.
“To me, it’s still gut wrenching even though time has passed,” he said recently. “We were just out fishing in the Bahamas and a song came on, a song that was Deb’s song. Three of us were there and the tears started welling up. Wow, it was amazing, even after all this time. We all looked at each other. Nobody said a thing.”
Lucy Chabot Reed is editor of The Triton. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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