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From the Bridge: Captains balance compassion, duty when crew die

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From the Bridge: by Dorie Cox

The death of a yacht crew member is not a topic most people want to discuss over lunch, but recent obituaries spurred the question of how yacht captains handle such incidents. Every captain at this month’s Triton From the Bridge lunch had seen a death during their early commercial, military, dive and fishing boat experience, but none during their jobs in yachting.

Recollections from personal knowledge and hearsay quickly poured out.

“There was a young engineer on an old steel yacht with a 110-volt system,” one captain said. “It had a string of batteries. He did something and” — the captain clapped his hands — “dead. I remember hearing the crew fell completely apart. The captain was fired. And all that’s secondary to the young man’s experience himself of dying.”

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

Many of the captains spoke about the effect that having a crew member die has on remaining crew.

“There was a huge turnover; the crew didn’t want to be on board,” the captain continued. “Every time they saw each other, it reminded them of the loss, like a ghost.”

They talked about stories they heard including a crew member who drowned while free diving in Bermuda and an engineer electrocuted after a refit. Each story drew winces, gasps and exclamations.

Attendees of The Triton’s September From the Bridge luncheon were, from left back row, Capt. Kent Kohlberger of M/Y Safira, Capt. Colin Downey, freelance, Capt. Brian Conner, freelance, Capt. Patrick McLister, freelance, and Capt. Tim Hull of M/Y Four Wishes. Photo by Dorie Cox

One captain reckoned that these deaths catch most captains unprepared.

“I think you’ll find most people don’t have a plan because they don’t want to think about it,” he said. “It’s a great shock to everyone’s system. As is with human nature, we don’t like to confront these things very much. It brings home our own mortality.”

But everyone in this group of captains is prepared. Several even have a body bag on board, and one captain has two.

“Most ISM boats have a plan for what happens with a death at sea,” a captain said of the International Safety Management code, the standards set by the International Maritime Organization for safe ship management and operations. “We run with a mini-ISM, but even if you self manage, you should have a procedure.”

The conversation wove through a variety of scenarios. A defining parameter is whether the crew member dies on board the yacht. This is when crew procedures, reactions and long-term effects may be more serious.

“Say we found him in his bunk; he was unresponsive,” a captain said. “First thing you do is start medical treatment. How do you know he’s dead?”

“Always use the same procedures as an injury,” another captain said.

“A master can declare death, but should they?” the first captain said. “That’s part of the reason you call the doctor, no matter what. You say, ‘These are the symptoms: He’s not breathing, has no heartbeat, a little rigor mortis has set in.’ The doctor might ask if you have checked this or that, what is the temperature of the body, how long has it been, have you tried CPR?”

In the case of CPR, we asked who is called upon to administer the procedure.

“The captain,” several captains said at once.

“Whoever is best trained, but CPR is exhausting so you rotate through crew,” a captain said.

Although most crew members have an introductory level of medical training, working on a crewmate may be more challenging.

“Most important is the shock factor for crew,” another captain said. “A death can have a traumatic physical effect on the crew.”

Several captains pointed out that potential legal and insurance situations magnify the need for everything to be done properly.

“You isolate the space; isolate the body,” a captain said. “You have to know, or prove, cause of death.”

“Close off the area; allow no cleaning and no looking,” another captain said. “Even if the crew says, ‘My stuff is in there,’ they cannot go get it.”

Most safety management systems have a contingency plan of procedures for paperwork, records, evidence and what to write in the log book.

“You take photos, videos — especially now with the ease of recording,” a captain said. “You do anything and everything for the insurance.”

“It’s a crime scene until proven differently,” another captain said.

“Record anything to prove you did the right things,” a third captain said.

Although the captain is the final authority on board, one captain cautioned others not to take on more responsibility than required.

“The idea is to put the pertinent information to the right authorities, and even though the buck stops with you, pass on whatever you can,” he said.

After a death has been confirmed, the captains discussed next steps.

“The first call, after the doctor or medical service, is to the coast guard and port authority you are closest to,” a captain said.

“A management company is ideal — you tell them and they handle the appropriate calls and appropriate authorities,” another captain said.

“That would be the ideal situation,” a third captain agreed. “You have enough to do.”

“Call everybody, call the owner, everybody is on the list,” a fourth captain said.

And the group was unanimous that the captain is responsible for the most difficult call of all — to the family.

“It happened on your watch,” a captain said.

There can be lingering effects for the remaining crew after a death takes place on board. One captain said that crewmates will instinctively avoid the location of the death, even if it has been cleaned with a firehose.

“You have to harp on them,” the captain said of the crew. “That’s where the death happened, but they have to work where that happened.”

If a crew death occurs off the yacht or not related to the yacht, usually local authorities handle the medical and legal aspects. But no matter where a death occurs, captains said, the remaining crew will likely have issues that should be addressed. The loss can result in crew unable or unwilling to work.

“It depends what they were to the crew,” a captain said. “Were they the soul of the group or a day worker? Depends on that person’s longevity, or if they were like family.”

Several captains said they would recommend offering professional help if the yacht has medical insurance coverage.

“Crew will have a form of PTSD, especially if they’ve never experienced a traumatic thing like this,” a captain said. “You should offer counseling if it is available.”

“I would hope the crew seek help,” another captain said. “I’ve seen people go into a massive depression with something like this.”

“I would encourage they talk with someone — if not a professional, then a friend, their mother, someone,” a third captain said. “As a friend and captain, offer compassionate leave time.”

We asked the captains how they would handle a memorial, a celebration of life or an online tribute.

“It is important to let the crew grieve,” a captain said. “But the captain does not need to organize or promote it.”

“You can’t play daddy to the crew,” another said. “You have to watch the legal aspects. You touch it, you own it.”

“I would not get involved personally, you could have a level of liability,” a third captain said. “It’s like a couple on board that begin to have marital problems — you don’t get in the middle of that.”

This steered the conversation to an overriding aspect of a captain’s job — the fact that yacht work must continue.

“Not to be callous, but we have to get back on the horse,” a captain said. “We have to get the boat to Palma, or the guests are coming for charter, or the owner is coming.”

“You don’t have a lot of time,” another captain said. “You’ve got to pull the crew together and determine who’ll survive.” And plan to deal with possible attrition, he added.

“I have an open-door policy,” a captain said. “If you say you can’t handle this, I will help you. But if you need to leave for any reason, you can go tomorrow. I don’t want you to go, but I will replace you. We all have a job to do.”

And getting back to work means filling a vacancy on board, usually quickly.

“We have to hire new crew and tell him he is filling ‘dead man’s shoes,’ ” a captain said. “You have to prep the new guy. You prep your crew that a new guy’s coming into a difficult situation and everybody’s got to help him.”

The captains have thought through the potential of a crew member’s death, but what about their own? This group had thought about the possibility, and they did have plans.

“The first thing I do is train someone to drive the boat, to bring it in safely,” a captain said.

Another captain said he briefs his next-in-command with details of the captain’s job.

“You choose your best support person,” this captain said. “I’ve trained him up for it … in case I am incapacitated, dead, injured or have lost my mind. He’ll take over for whatever reason. He has access to the safe and the passports.”

Several of the captains have their personal and yacht information organized in case of an emergency. One captain keeps that information in an envelope on the bridge.

“The envelope is sealed and dated,” he said. “If it’s open, something has happened.”

Another captain puts his important information on a computer flash drive.

“The just-in-case flash drive has pass codes to the computer, the safe and my estate information,” he said. “It’s taped up in the bridge.”

A third captain writes his information in the log book.

“I have a small version of the just-in-case details there,” he said.

Several captains file voyage plans for sharing contacts, locations and details and update the yacht’s automatic identification system (AIS). One captain uses a registered personal locator beacon, especially during deliveries. Instead of the standard next of kin, he has contact information for another yacht captain who is more equipped to help with yacht issues than his family would be.

The topic of death is both emotional and professional, and several captains said it is a delicate situation to handle both the needs of remaining crew and the requirements of the job.

“The hardest part is you’re going to lose your crew one way or another,” a captain said. “People are often relieved of duty, but the boat is not relieved of its task.”

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 dorie@the-triton.com 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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