It happens sometimes at these roundtable discussions that we start to talk about one thing and end up talking about something else entirely. What was intended to be a conversation about mini-ISM turned into a lesson (for me) about the way the largest yachts manage hours of rest. Or rather, how they don’t.
It was a challenge for me to keep up.
“The whole idea of mini-ISM is that for small boats, it’s going to come and it’s a way for the guys to learn the ropes,” one captain said. “It’s going to happen. For crew who are going to move up, it’s a tool.”
“It’s on-the-job training for advancement for everybody, to start to engage them in the culture of risk management,” said another.
“It’s a big deal, but we’ve gotten used to it,” said a third.
As always, individual comments are not attributed to any one person in particular so as to encourage frank and open discussion. The attending captains are identified in the accompanying photograph.
What I really wanted to know was how mini-ISM impacts the crew and the operation of the yacht. When I asked that question, there was silence.
“You really have to focus that question, because this is a huge topic,” one captain said.
I tried again.
“It’s a huge impact on crew to maintain hours of rest,” another captain said after a moment. “Fatigue is a major safety issue.”
“How are they going to police and enforce it?” a third captain asked.
“They’re not,” another replied. “When it is going to be enforced is when the deckhand drops the tender on a guest and the lawyer takes him aside and says ‘Look, you’re in some trouble here. How did this happen?’ That’s when the s*** hits the fan. They can’t catch it otherwise, only when someone gets hurt.”
So we got into a conversation about hours of work and rest, which has always been part of ISM but has become more of an issue thanks to MLC 2006. And while that is ultimately a safety issue, safety was not the concern.
“The impact is on the mate,” one captain said. “He’s the one with the most lost hours in the day, filling out paperwork that never gets read.”
On full ISM yachts, which more than half the captains at the table regularly run, there is a report for each movement of the boat and a checklist for each procedure.
“Everybody agrees that the laws were written for the commercial boat fleet,” a captain said. “We live with unrealistic expectations.”
“For example,” another captain began, “take anchoring. Commercial vessels might anchor once in six weeks. … Private yachts can anchor five or six times a day. They don’t put the tender in the water like we do, …”
“Or clean the mast, …” said a third.
“Or put divers in the water to clean the waterline,” continued the other.
“The whole system of ISM is great, but it’s set up for a lot less frenetic boats than ours,” another captain said.
OK, I think I understand. But aren’t all these safety-minded procedures things that good and safe captains do anyway?
“Yes, but we’re not writing it all down all the time,” one captain said.
“I think, in a way, it’s helped captains, but it’s made a lot more work,” another said. “We supposedly run safer.”
“But there weren’t more accidents then than now,” a third captain said.
“The potential liability then wasn’t as great,” replied another captain. “If you ran your Broward up on the rocks, you hauled it off and repaired it. Can you imagine what would happen today if that happened?”
When I brought the conversation back to ISM’s impact on crew, the captains brought it right back to hours of rest.
“What it means to crew? It exhausts them,” one captain said.
“We’re kind of set up for a big fall,” said another.
“The safety culture is great to have, but can we have it like this on yachts?” asked a third.
To explain what he meant, one captain said he gets his crew ready for the season by starting six-day workweeks before the season even begins. On their crossing to the Med, they will work seven days.
“There will be 48-hour turnarounds between charters until Sept. 2,” this captain said, and several others noted that the schedule sounds familiar. “I don’t know now — already — when I can give crew days off.”
It starts to become a juggling act — implementing this safety management program — of doing drills as required on a particular day or using that day, instead, to give crew time off.
“We always have to make these decisions,” a captain said. “I guess that’s why we get paid what we get paid, to figure out how to make it all work.”
“It’s just killing crew in yachting,” said another.
“If you want to comply, you must have a rotational, fixed plan,” said a third.
“The only way is to hire more crew, or have relief crew at the dock everywhere you go,” another said.
“Otherwise, either service breaks down for the owner and guests, or you don’t do it,” the third captain said.
These captains began talking about solutions. One captain praised his management company and the designated person ashore who helps with a lot of these issues. Another captain was critical of the owner for the schedule the yacht keeps.
“I get six weeks holiday a year, but I fight to get it,” one captain said. “The commercial side is clear with their schedule and culture. In yachting, we needed rotations for chief engineers 12 years ago. They demanded it.”
At the captain’s level, though, they squeeze in a temporary relief guy to get time off.
One captain suggested it would be worth it to the owner in the end to pay for a support boat with extra crew to follow around the busy boat and provide relief throughout the vessel as needed.
“We have to find a way to make it work because our neck is on the line,” he said.
“The owner, they don’t get ISM,” another captain said. “They see their boat as their pride and joy. They don’t see it as a commercial operation. You can have 17 crew on a 74m yacht and even if it’s just the owner, it’s still not enough. You try to run it with less crew and the maintenance falls behind and the work backs up. Everyone’s stressed and that throws the crew dynamic off.”
Another captain noted that the stews on one yacht created a rotational schedule and farmed out some of their duties. For example, when in port, they have the laundry picked up.
“It’s becoming easier on bigger boats to set up with the owner from the get-go that this is how the boat has to be run, with rotations,” a captain said. “But on boats 200 feet and below, quick turnarounds make it hard. You have to learn how to structure crew better.”
Technology is helping, they said. They talked about management software that includes these safety checklists. Then crew can approach a task with an iPad and complete the required “paperwork” without having to sit at a desk sometime later.
There was an intense conversation about inspections by both flag state and port state control.
“If we can come up with yachting solutions to commercial problems, they’ll support us,” a captain said.
They discussed the nuances between substantial compliance and complete compliance.
“Substantial compliance gets you through the door,” one captain said.
“If your crew embraces safety management systems, that will get you through,” said another.
One captain went so far as to write himself up for not fully complying with the plan.
“I wrote it up as a nonconformity so it’s out there,” this captain said. “It gets to the manager and gets to flag state. That way, you can go to the owner and say we’re having this issue.”
How did the owner react?
“There’s only one way that they can react, with help,” he said. “I’m doing wrong. I need help. Please.”
“I think that’s almost revolutionary what he’s done,” another captain noted.
“I’ve identified the problem, the root cause: We don’t have enough crew,” the first captain said. “If it happens again …”
That sort of thing ought to happen more, this captain said. While the regulations aren’t going away and are unlikely to change for yachts, at least owners and managers will know that they have to radically change the schedule or be caught in noncompliance.
“And maybe on the owner’s side, they will know they need more crew,” a captain said.
“My struggle is we still need to bring the owners around to the reality of the seriousness of the matter,” another captain said. “With ISM, I have issues. I need management. … This is not a place to save money. I need them involved and accountable.”
Other captains mentioned the Manage My Vessel software that a manager created to help individual vessels and fleets better manage everything from job lists and maintenance programs to ISM checklists.
“There’s no changing flag state or the culture of ISM,” one captain noted. “Somehow or other, though, they’re going to have to tweak it for yachts. We are overwhelmed with it.”
Lucy Chabot Reed is editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you make your living working as a yacht captain, e-mail us for an invitation to our monthly Bridge luncheon.