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It’s early on a Saturday evening after a week of training and I await “Sue” to see me for advice on her yachting career. She is slightly older than the usual students seeking guidance and she’s done both a season on board and a previous training course.
She arrives and I offer a glass of wine. We chat for a while, but she does not relax. I ask her outright what is bothering her and she explains that her interior training was not that great and she wouldn’t mind repeating it. She then stutters and stammers over an explanation of her first season. A big gulp of wine doesn’t help and her eyes well up with tears.
“Sue, whatever’s the matter?” I ask. Her shoulders collapse and she bursts into shuddering tears. I get tissues and more wine but it’s a minute or two before she can sufficiently compose herself and go on with her story: She had had such a horrendous experience at the hands of her chief stew during her first season she is now not sure that she can continue in the industry.
Her chief stew had yelled at her, both privately and in front of the entire crew, calling her “stupid” and “incompetent”. And she did things like pull Sue’s folded linen out of the locker and onto the floor. She had also slapped Suel on more than one occasion.
When I asked why she had not gone to the captain, she thought it would have been pointless because the chief stew was having an affair with the captain.
This is not an isolated incident. Last year, parents of twin daughters working on the same boat called to ask if behavior similar to what happened to Sue was considered normal for yacht captains. In this case, the twins’ captain had sworn at the girls, also called them stupid and incompetent South Africans, and told them they could be replaced at the drop of a hat.
The chief stew under whom the girls had joined the vessel had left after unsuccessfully trying to bring the captain’s abuse and generally unpleasant and unprofessional behavior to the attention of the owner. His reaction had been to shrug it off. The new chief stew was too scared to confront him.
A week ago, I received a message from one of my more gentle students asking for help. Another manic chief stew has both junior stews going to bed in tears every night. She screams at them, swearing and throwing things at them.
In mid-August, I posted my concerns regarding this type of behavior on three major Facebook pages – Palma Yacht Crew, Antibes Yacht Crew and Fort Lauderdale Yacht Crew. Seeing the streams of posts in response — many containing stories of more of the same — it would appear that management abuse in the yacht industry is far more prevalent than we know.
While large, properly run yacht management companies such as Burgess and Fraser will not allow interior crew to be promoted to a position of seniority until they have been on the same boat for two years, I see captains appointing 22- and 23-year-olds to this role after a second season in the industry.
At that age, no matter how good you are at the job, you simply do not have the required level of maturity or life experience to cope with the complexity of life on board luxury yachts. The same is true for captains. Sea time alone doesn’t qualify someone for a position as a captain. In reality, it takes maturity and proper experience over time to qualify as a competent captain who can lead and take control.
I have also seen abuse occur in reverse: On two occasions, I witnessed both chief stews being displaced by rebellious juniors. They simply did not have the training to cope and keep them in line.
This industry continues to grow with larger vessels coming onto the market all the time. With these, prerequisite industry training and qualifications should also grow and be extended to all departments on board. As it grows, the industry needs to become properly regulated with management training for both interior and exterior crew, seen as part of the progression up the chain of command.
In the meantime, I see an enormous need for some sort of arbitration board to be formed to field concerns of this nature – particularly from scared juniors – and give all complaints the required attention and proper follow up they deserve. How else are we going to eradicate this type of behavior from the industry?
Alison Rese is owner of Supercrew Training in Gordon’s Bay, South Africa. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.