The crew of a superyacht just off the coast of Fiji didn’t know it was happening. The distress call came on the radio at 8 p.m. Then a tender showed up with patients on it who were soaking wet. Some had concussions, others had open wounds, one had a fractured femur and all of them were cold and showing signs of hypothermia. It was up to the crew to rescue them, evaluate their injuries and take them to the nearest hospital.
The drill ended when they delivered those patients to the actual hospital in Fiji, said Grant Dawson, Disaster Assistance Relief Team (DART) leader and former Navy Seal who trains yacht crew on how to handle disasters and emergencies at sea.
This service of training crew for disaster relief is free and sponsored anonymously by Dawson’s employer, the owner of a fleet of vessels that has retained Dawson for maritime security training.
In a combined effort with YachtAid Global (YAG), a non-profit organization dedicated to delivering humanitarian, developmental and conservation aid onboard yachts to isolated communities worldwide, Dawson and YAG Founder Mark Drewelow are growing a list of superyachts willing to help out in the case of natural disaster or future emergencies at sea.
According to Drewelow, who owns C2C, a superyacht agent in San Diego, “We wanted to be corporately responsible. We wanted to make an impact,” he said about why he started YAG. “We figured out that these luxury yachts are essentially a pipeline to move cargo and aid around the world.”
The training program is “still in development,” Drewelow said. “We don’t expect dozens of boats to start calling us, but as soon as somebody makes contact with us, we start a Q and A with them. Where are they, how much time do they have, what are the capabilities of the crew, where their interest lies.
“Then we start defining their operation and then the training is essentially customized to what the boat wants to do.”
Drewelow said he has received expressed interest from six boats in the past two months. “These are all superyachts over 50m in length,” he said, “with crew typically no less than 10.”
Once he is notified by a vessel, Drewelow said he contacts Dawson immediately.
“The key element is we want boats to be ready,” he said. “People have an interest in doing humanitarian work or disaster relief, but why not get this training done that eliminates so many elements of risk? It’s a win-win for everybody.”
According to Drewelow, there may be situations where Dawson’s team can provide certified training, which he said benefits the crew as they navigate their careers.
“One of the things we learned in the last couple of years is that superyacht crew are really well suited to doing disaster relief,” Drewelow said. “It’s a career after you leave yachting. This kind of training on your resume falls straight into that really well.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in the U.S. offers free training online to U.S. citizens.
“You actually get a certificate from FEMA that says you’re trained in incident command system and various other things that are fundamental to disaster relief,” Drewelow said. “We’re working on getting approval from FEMA for foreign nationals to get certified.”
Dawson, who has been involved in maritime security in the superyacht sector since 2005, said not many groups have made disaster training a priority at this level with elaborate drills.
“There are very few groups that have done anything like this,” he said. His training crew is based on the U.S. west coast from Seattle to San Diego and works globally.
“Yachts are really great at being yachts, but when they start delving into these other activities, like disaster relief, these are areas unfamiliar to them and that’s where we hope to be value added,” Dawson said.
His ultimate goal: “To prep yachts to go into disasters and have them better able to handle what they may experience there and protect themselves, their crew, their own health and also to have them, as a consequence, better able to work as a staging platform for our crew.”
The training and practice YAG, DART and FEMA can provide give crew members a new set of skills and could make real emergencies easier to handle.
“We get to integrate with the crews, see what they’re capable of,” Dawson said about how his team can work with crew. “We let them see what we’re capable of, and sort of preset a lot of those relationships rather than let them develop on the fly.”
“We’re not trying to create an unbelievable scenario. These are things that have actually happened. We let the crew figure out all of the bits and pieces and moving parts so that when the real event occurs, they have experienced all of the stress of the event.”
If Dawson has his way, crew members will not be known as working in the hospitality industry, but as true mariners and floating emergency response personnel.
“I don’t care if a guy is a good deckhand and he can polish a hull or if there’s a good stewardess. When we have guests onboard, what I really need them to be is a great rescue squad,” he said. “As far as we’re concerned, their first job is to be good rescuers. Their second job is to be a good stewardess, deckhand or whatever.”
International Maritime Organization (IMO) states that humanitarian obligations, when it comes to rescue at sea, include three objectives ensuring that:
Dawson and his team have proven skills in successfully handling emergencies at sea and were recently recognized during the 2015 Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show for efforts involving the crews of the M/Y Dragonfly and M/Y Umbra.
That effort has officially been acknowledged by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) as water, food and medical supplies were airlifted to the most devastated islands in the remote islands of Vanuatu in the South Pacific.