By Dorie Cox
Several yachting-related accidents were in the news right before The Triton’s latest From the Bridge lunch. A diver cleaning a yacht bottom was killed when a bow thruster was engaged, and an engineer died after sustaining brain damage from a fall while working over the side two years earlier. We asked the captains at this month’s discussion how they prevent these and other accidents in yachting.
“We have a morning briefing every day,” a captain said, and most agreed that they do also.
Individual comments are not attributed to the speaker in order to encourage candid discussion. The attending captains are identified in the accompanying photograph.
One captain who regularly holds briefings said new crew, new boat and new operating procedures can be a problem. In the past, the captain worked a freelance job and did not know the crew well. The yacht had scheduled a diver to clean the bottom, as well as a technician to work on the engines.
“I didn’t know the diver was there,” the captain said.
The mate who greeted the diver showed him where to start work, but did not put any caution signs out. And then someone was brought onboard to work on the engines. Fortunately, there was no incident and no one was injured.
“These accidents do happen, even with the most experienced captains, because you don’t have good communication,” the captain said.
“Communication is the most important key. It was my mistake because at the morning briefing I didn’t confirm the yacht’s procedures,” the captain said.
On other boats the captain has worked on, there have been laminated placards to prevent activation of engines and generators.
A captain brought up another recent incident, the trial against the manager of the S/Y Cheeki Rafiki. Four people died when the boat lost its keel returning home from a race three years ago.
“The situation of the Cheeki Rafiki needs to be broadcast,” the captain said.
Information and education about accidents can help prevent future ones. And to that goal, the captains shared a few things they do to help keep their yachts free of incidents.
Everyone at the discussion said preventing injuries is a priority.
“I say to all the crew, ‘I don’t care what happens to the boat, I care about you,’” one captain said. “If you question it, let it go, break, smash. We can fix the teak, the hull, whatever. Guys, let it happen.”
“Yes, step back, don’t worry,” another captain said.
Back to the books
The first line of defense is proper training. But the definition of accident includes words such as unforeseen, unplanned and lack of intention, which are hard to combat, as well as carelessness or ignorance.
Most all crew have International Convention on Standards of Training certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW) training before joining a yacht. The training covers basic requirements including firefighting, personal survival techniques, personal safety and first aid.
“STCW is the best thing. They know stuff I didn’t know when I started,” a captain said.
And captains build on that knowledge for each yacht.
“When crew are first on we go from bow to stern and down to the bilge,” the captain said. “We touch all the safety equipment, everything. It takes four days to train, with no work.”
Another captain said that is an excellent way to introduce crew, but even with such training, people forget things.
“After crew have been gone for vacation or whatever, we have a refresher,” he said. “You can see them start to forget the handbook.”
Another captain said it is also important to introduce guests to safety procedures, much like an airline flight briefing.
“We play a safety video for guests to watch with a glass of wine,” he said. “And we do fire drills with the guests. Afterward, our owner said, ‘I feel better.’”
The captain said they also do drills with local fire departments when the yacht is in a new port.
But every possible scenario and safety device is not that easy to learn thoroughly. Several captains said there is no way to cover all the possibilities on a new job or on a short-term delivery.
“How do you go through all of the training with people you don’t know?” a captain said. “A problem is crew change yachts, especially young crew.”
There are procedures in place adopted by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) including the International Safety Management (ISM) Code. Certain flag states and certain size vessels are required to adopt it for safe management and operations.
“I believe in ISM, it prevents an accident,” a captain said. “It makes them [crew] think, ‘Hey, this is dangerous.’ When they have to fill out the paper, it makes them realize this is really serious. It should be on every boat — charter or private.”
“I make it standard operating procedures,” another captain said.
Adhering to this level of compliance comes at a price.
“We’re in an industry where accidents have happened in the commercial world,” a captain said. “We need some of these rules. But yachting is resisting on private yachts, because if we are to do it, we have to be given time and money to do it.”
“The problem with paperwork is that it takes the fun out of it,” another captain said.
Several captains who have worked on yachts not required to use ISM have created their own version.
“It’s taken years to develop our book and procedures,” one of the captains said. “We’re doing ISM without ISM.”
It is one way a captain adheres to early advice he received from a colleague: “The guy said, ‘Protect yourself.’”
Did you hear this one?
For gaps that training doesn’t cover, captains have a few tactics they employ. One method to help prevent accidents is to share accounts of previous injuries and damage with crew.
“Fear is good,” a captain said. “When you don’t have fear you do stupid things. Like the guys in the movie, ‘Jackass.’”
“I try to scare the s— out of my crew. Like the windlass,” another captain said. “There’s only one guy operating, you get everyone off the deck. If you operate this wrong and grab the chain, you could lose a finger.”
He said it helps to paint a vivid picture.
“Now I have to go in the locker room and find your finger and put your bloody finger and hand on ice,” he said. “And then we have to helicopter you out of here. I’ve seen people lose fingers. We don’t want that.”
The captain said it is one way to share years of experience with inexperienced crew.
“I want them to know what can happen because I know and they don’t, they haven’t seen it,” he said. “Every time I go to sea, there’s a little fear.”
“I had a guy that broke his back on the dock. He broke the rules,” a captain said.
Another captain had a crew standing on the dock to clean the yacht and he was injured when he slipped off the edge.
“Not following the rules, that’s when accidents happen,” a captain said.
“We had an incident with a power cord in the water. There was a gash in the cord,” another captain said. “The yacht is responsible for stuff in the water.”
Refits are another area where there can be accidents, since there are many new scenarios with workers and tools.
“You need a watch person,” a captain said of the myriad incidents that can happen. “Things like, I didn’t know the importance of oxygen in the fuel tank until I had a class.”
“And enclosed spaces — if someone gets hurt, how are you going to get them out?” another captain said. “We say, why not build a hatch, but they don’t.”
“One of the most dangerous phrases is, ‘That’s the way we’ve always done it,’” a captain said.
Much of accident prevention is on a small, daily scale. Several captains learned to add etchings and hang streamers after someone ran into a glass door or hit a descending media screen.
Don’t make me tell you again
Along with training and tales of incidents, some captains add threats to the battle against accidents.
“Imagine your mate will do something and you are calling his parents,” said a captain who encourages crew to look out for each other. “I’ll make you call.”
Most crew have lost a tool over the side or damaged a part, and sometimes those can be expensive, but a captain puts those incidents into perspective: “I know how I feel if I make a mistake that costs $20,000,” the captain said. “But for someone to lose a limb?”
“They need the frame of mind that this can be a dangerous place,” another captain said. “There has to be a balance between that and a functional ship.”
Although captains said they will use anything at their disposal to keep their yachts safe, training will always top the list of tools.
“Training, training, training,” a captain said. “I don’t want someone killed because training is not done.”
“The worst would be your conscience,” another captain said.
“Fortunately, today’s new crew are better trained,” a third captain said. “But every time I hear of an incident, I add that to my list for more training.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org for an invitation to our monthly From the Bridge lunch.