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From the Bridge: Non-drinkers left out of crew-bonding activities

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From the Bridge: by Dorie Cox

A young crew member, new to the industry, was surprised to find many crew activities include cocktails. As a non-drinker, she said she often feels left out. To learn more, The Triton asked captains at this month’s From the Bridge lunch how drinking alcohol affects crew relationships.

“I have a captain friend who does not hire non-drinkers,” one captain said. “He said there is a perceived segregation of the crew, and it is not good for morale onboard.”

Individual comments are not attributed to any particular person in order to encourage frank and open discussion. The attending captains are identified in an accompanying photograph.

Attendees of The Triton’s May From the Bridge luncheon were, from left, Capt. William Coursen, freelance; Capt. Dale Smith, looking; Capt. Allan Wingate of S/F Hard Hat Reelistic; Capt. Natalie Hannon of M/Y Satisfaction; and Capt. Scott Redlhammer of M/Y Serque. Photo by Dorie Cox

All of the captains agreed that it is important for crew to get to know each other off-duty to strengthen work relationships. And they said that often happens during events that include alcohol.

“Look at all the friends that you have bonded with over drinks,” a captain said to the veteran captains in the group. Today’s crew continue to do the same. “They’ll look back and think, ‘This was the most important time, when we got away [from work] together.’ ”

In yachting, having a drink together is often treated as a reward for hard work, especially after a long charter or a challenging trip, one captain said. A beer after work or a night out with cocktails is an opportunity for crew to share complaints, concerns or laughs together.

“I like the guys to party,” a captain said. “I think it’s good for the morale. They need it.”

With the captains’ examples of bonding over alcohol consumption, where does the non-drinker fit in?

Throughout decades of combined work history, only two captains had any experience working with crew who did not drink. Non-drinkers were not something this group had specifically thought much about, until we asked.

Alcohol’s blurred lines

Yachting relationships are affected by alcohol, for better or for worse. One captain who does not drink does not allow drinking onboard.

“We are there for work,” this captain said. “My guys know I’m sober, and people know the crew is sober. It’s a rule for the crew, and everyone knows my policy.”

But this captain hires crew who drink. Alcohol consumption with crew is a complex topic and having strong crew relations is most important. This captain has even fostered their nights out together.

“Sometimes I get them to be peeved at me because it helps them bond with each other,” the captain said.

Another captain lets crew know it is OK for them to go drinking together and without him.

“It helps create a bond and show that I’m not a jerk,” the captain said.

And some captains will join in. One captain pointed out that some crew can be easier to get to know when they unwind with a drink, and the more open conversation fosters crew relationships.

“I occasionally go with them afterward to discuss a crossing or a big charter, as a special reward,” a captain said. “Sometimes I go to see how the crew is all getting along.”

Another captain often initiates a crew dinner or drinks for everyone to makes sure no one in the crew is left out.

“It is not really a party atmosphere but a way we can all be included,” the captain said.

Going out with crew does not mean all the captains drink with crew.

“At the end of a charter, I like to take the crew for a drink,” one captain said. “But I order iced tea. Sometimes I feel like a dad.”

“After the boss is off, I like to take the crew out to buy them a drink,” another captain said.

“But I maintain a professional distance.”

Captains are stuck in sometimes uncomfortable space when it comes to alcohol. They, too,m may like to unwind with a beer at the end of a day, but they not only set an example for the crew under their command, they must respect boundaries with their employer as well.

“When the boss offers a drink, I don’t want to offend them so I take the drink,” one captain said. “But then I toss it out.”

One of the captains wanted to caution owners not to encourage alcohol use for crew.

“One owner wanted the crew to sample the flavors of the yacht’s international travels and cultures,” this captain said. “But after seeing the crew drinking, he said to me, ‘I see what you mean,’ and the rules changed.”

On some yachts, owners use a nice dinner with cocktails or a casual trip to a tiki bar as an opportunity to bond with their crew, several captains said. But one captain said that yacht crew have standards to uphold that run counter to the effects of alcohol on some crew’s behavior.

“It is difficult when you consider the basics of yachting as professionalism, integrity and discretion,” the captain said.

Several captains allow crew to drink on the yacht when they are off duty.

“We have policies like the airline industry: no alcohol 12 hours before your shift,” one captain said. “But if it becomes clear there is a person who abuses the policy, then that gets handled immediately.”

We let the conversation take its course, but it veered to talk of crew misbehavior with regard to drinking. One captain brought up that he likes the crew to do things together as a crew but they cannot drink alcohol if they represent the yacht.

“You cannot wear our boat shirt while you’re drinking,” this captain said. “When you’re on vacation, I don’t care, everyone needs recreation.”

“I try to educate everyone that, as yacht crew, eyes are on us and we are representatives of ourselves and the boat,” one captain said.

“The boat is your resume and your representation,” another captain said.

Attitudes changing toward alcohol

This discussion seemed to bring the topic of non-drinkers and how alcohol affects crew relations more to mind. Toward the end of the conversation, several captains said that they have noticed an increased awareness on healthy alternatives to drinking.

“Crew off-the-boat activities, in recent years, have been less centered on the bar,” one captain said. “They seem to want to fill them with healthy, generally exercise-related things.”

“I see snorkeling and things more like the park and bike rides than the bar,” another captain said.

And although it is important to get away from the boat, captains said they don’t have a lot of sway in what the crew do.

“Psychologically, it’s important to have down time, but it’s important to have hobbies,” a captain said. “I can influence those ideas but it’s up to them what they choose.”

Captains hope the whole crew create strong bonds with each other when they are off the clock, whether with drinking or not. When hiring crew, all of the captains consider how candidates will fit in with existing crew.

“I ask about their drinking and I do ask if they exercise,” a captain said. “I find crew who admit to social drinking [ITAL]and[/ITAL] keeping fit are a good hire.”

Several captains said that boating historically has had an alcohol component, even back to early explorers and pirates offering rum rations.

“Back in the early days, we went straight to the bar or the VFW,” the captain said.

“We’re seeing it less, and the young guys are not drinking as much,” another said.

Overall, captains accept that alcohol is a part of yacht activities, but everyone at the table liked the idea of healthy substitutes. One of the captains who used to drink but imbibes less these days said he more clearly sees what crew are doing and feels that upcoming crew have less of a focus on drinking.

“I think that drinking is becoming more frowned upon,” this captain said and compared the societal changes to cigarette smoking.

“I had an engineer that didn’t drink,” another captain said. “He was always the designated driver and actually got a lot of respect from the crew.”

Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome below. Captains who make their living running someone else’s yacht are welcome to join in the conversation. Email us for an invitation to our monthly From the Bridge lunch.

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About Dorie Cox

Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton.

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