An industry friend died last month and it got us thinking about death, especially how prepared we are to handle this fact of life. Being ashore, many of the details are taken care of: call emergency personnel and they will handle it.
But on a yacht, the captain and crew are the professionals. How ready are they to handle a death onboard? As it turns out, plenty.
We targeted this month’s survey to captains and were particularly interested in finding out if they have prepared their crew to handle their own death.
We started with a few formalities, asking simply Do you have a will?
About two-thirds of our nearly 100 respondents have a will: 41 percent have a current one, and 25 percent more have a will that needs a tune up.
If we add in the 23 percent of respondents who don’t yet actually have a will but who are working on it, that means about 88 percent of yacht captains who took our survey have at least thought about making plans for the end of their life.
“I would strongly suggest to have a will in place if you are married or have worldly possession and details of what one wants done with their remains,” said a captain in his late 50s who runs a yacht less than 80 feet.
Although a will is important in handling all our assets after we die, we wanted to focus our survey on the actual event of our passing, so we asked Do you have a living will? That’s the document that details our wishes regarding life-prolonging medical treatments, in the event we can’t speak for ourselves.
Here, captains are a little less in control.
About 46 percent of our respondents have a living will: 33 percent have a current one and 13 percent have one that needs a little work.
About 26 percent of our respondents don’t yet have one but are working on it.
That leaves 28 percent of our respondents who haven’t thought about this document, more than double the number who haven’t yet thought about creating a will.
But living wills are specific to medical treatments. They are more for doctors and the protection of our families. We wanted to know if yacht captains have thought about the details of their death so we asked Do you have a plan for what should happen to your body after death?
Most (56 percent) do. Whether it’s written down in a legal document (21 percent) or simply expressed to their loved ones (35 percent), more than half of yacht captains have a plan for what they want to happen to their body when they die.
“I have Neptune Society for myself: pre-paid pick up anywhere in the world, cremation, ashes sent where I want them, etc.,” said a captain in his late 60s who runs a yacht 80-100 feet. “I keep that card under my driver’s license, just in case. My will is current and someone knows where to find it. That is important.”
More than a quarter of our respondents, however, said it didn’t matter to them what happens after they die, that whatever their family chose to do with their remains would be fine with them.
That left about 17 percent who haven’t thought much about this part of death yet. It turns out that these are mostly the same captains who don’t have a will.
All these results tell us something about the captains who answered our survey this month, and that is that most of them have at least thought about the end of their life and have made some arrangement for it.
But what we really wanted to know was Do you have a plan for what the crew are to do should you die onboard?
The answer surprised us. In an industry where plans and drills are common, more than 80 percent of captains in our survey said they do not have a plan for what happens if they die onboard.
“I don’t care, I’ll be dead,” said a captain in his late 40s. (To be fair, this captain has a current will and living will, so he must care at least a little.)
“Well, at about that time I’m not really sure I give a damn,” said a captain in his late 60s who runs a yacht 80-100 feet. “I try to make sure that someone aboard has the skills to get the boat back to port, make radio calls, etc.”
“For myself, it’s probably the best way to go, doing something I love,” said a captain in yachting more than 25 years. “For anyone else, I pray that it does not happen on board my command, but I am ready for it.”
“If I die onboard you may render me unto the deep and I will commune with Neptune,” said a captain in his early 60s.
“No yacht would be properly equipped to deal with this at sea,” said a captain in his early 30s in yachting more than 10 years.
“Not pleasant to think about and I hope I never put my crew in a position of dealing with it,” said a captain in yachting more than 30 years.
About 15 percent of our captains said they’ve discussed the scenario with their crew, leaving about 2 percent who have included the scenario in a procedure and actually drilled on it.
“There’s no ‘official’ plan in place and I don’t feel that it’s something you ‘drill’ for but if I died aboard, I would hope the crew would enter the nearest port, have my body removed from the boat and shipped home for an autopsy,” said a captain in his early 50s who has discussed the scenario with his crew.
Even though most captains in our survey don’t have a plan, we were curious if they had a preference so we asked What would you like to happen next if you should unexpectedly die onboard?
It should come as no surprise that many of our respondents who chose to answer this optional question opted for a maritime approach.
“Quick burial at sea,” said a captain in his late 50s in yachting more than 25 years. “Adios.”
“Sew me into a hammock with a chunk of anchor cable around my feet, say a few words and heave me over the side,” said another captain in yachting more than 25 years.
“A Viking funeral,” said a captain in yachting more than 30 years.
Most, however, were a bit more practical and simply expected the yacht to return to shore safely, their loved ones notified, and their body shipped home.
“I would prefer that the first officer takes over, as trained, and keeps passengers and crew safe,” said the captain of a yacht 80-100 feet.
“If more than 12 hours from dock, clear space in the freezer and place body in there,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet. “If outside the U.S., return the vessel to the U.S. and report to customs.”
“Next of kin notified as quickly as possible and arrangements made for them to meet the vessel,” said another captain of a yacht 100-120 feet. “Calls to authorities, after consultation with next of kin.”
“If we’re out to sea, the crew get safely somewhere and then get my body shipped home,” said a captain in yachting more than 30 years.
“Put me in the freezer and head back to the U.S., if geographically feasible,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet.
“To have the second-in-command contact local officials if in port or the USCG at sea for instructions and coordinates to meet authorities,” said the captain of a yacht 80-100 feet.
“Preserve the scene and body for disposition ashore, if in the U.S.,” said a captain in his late 60s who runs a yacht 100-120 feet. “Use judgement of relief if abroad.”
“If possible, donate all of my useful parts to someone who needs them, the rest send to the body ranch for science,” said a captain in his early 30s. “The gift of life is the best gift of all.”
“Have the coast guard or navy collect my body and have a replacement captain continue the cruise with as little fuss as possible,” said a captain in his late 20s.
“Crew take over the safety of the vessel,” said a captain in yachting more than 30 years. “Call authorities and be advised of what to do with the remains. Of course, it would depend on the vessel’s location at the time of the issue. Maybe everyone say what the really thought of me and laugh a long while. We are all going to pass. Nothing to fear if you have led a proper life.”
Some of our respondents left it up to the people who come after.
“Call my wife,” said a captain in yachting more than 20 years.
“Ship me home for my family and they will then deal with it,” said the captain of a yacht 140-160 feet in yachting more than 20 years.
And there were a few who didn’t think it important to think about this type of scenario.
“Does it really matter? I am dead,” said a captain in his early 50s who cruises globally.
“I know that death is in the life, but no thoughts about it,” said a captain in his late 50s on a yacht 120-140 feet.
Part of the reality of a captain dying while employed on a yacht is that the vessel must be manned, so we asked If something happened to you unexpectedly onboard, is someone else onboard able to take over?
The largest group — two-thirds of our respondents — said their crew could handle operations for a short time until a relief captain arrived.
“Vessel would have to return to the dock,” said the captain of a yacht less than 80 feet. “The owner and mate can operate it but with me down, crew goes to one. We’re a captain/mate operation. On deliveries, it’s only the two of us. All my crew is trained in basic vessel ops but a delivery crew may not be able to make the decisions necessary to safely seek safe harbor. I need to work on this. With the owner aboard, that’s a different story. He’s a U.S. Merchant Marine Academy grad and can handle all vessel ops and decisions.”
Most of the rest indicated that the vessel would operate without a hitch.
“Depends on which boat I’m on,” said a captain in yachting more than 25 years. “Typically, I have at least one other person trained well enough to operate the boat and take over.”
Just 8 percent said there was no one on board who could take over. We thought for sure that those were small vessels that perhaps only ran with one or two crew, but we were surprised to learn that all of the captains who said no one could take over were on yachts larger than 80 feet, and that half were on yachts larger than 120 feet.
In addition to the captain dying onboard, we were curious to learn Do you have a plan for what to do if someone else on your crew should unexpectedly die?
Although captains admitted to not having much of a plan in the event that they themselves should die onboard, they were more prepared should it happen to someone else.
While it’s still unlikely to be a procedure that the crew has drilled on (5 percent), more than half of our respondents said they have discussed this scenario with the crew.
“My plan in the event someone dies onboard is to head for the nearest U.S. port,” said a captain in his early 60s on a yacht 120-140 feet. “Do not put into a foreign port if at all feasible.”
Compared to planning for their own death, half as many (40 percent) said they had no plan in the event another crew member died.
The amount of planning improves again when we asked What about a guest?
Once again, more than half said they have discussed this scenario with the crew, and about 8 percent have a procedure that they’ve drilled on.
“In running a dive boat, we had a program in place for death aboard,” said a captain in his late 50s. “I know that helped me in planning in the event someone was to die on board.”
“I have had two guest deaths on board,” said a captain in yachting more than 25 years. “It’s brutal to deal with.”
“We had a guest die onboard once,” said a captain in yachting more than 25 years. “The coast guard told us to bring her into port in the morning. We did and they took her off. The family chose to depart with her, the grandma. A sad trip to be sure.”