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From the Bridge: Even with alcohol policy, captains’ judgment required

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From the Bridge: by Dorie Cox

“What shall we do with a drunken sailor?” Captains have dealt with this issue for centuries. Lyrics from the old sea shanty detail punishments that yacht captains can’t do today, such as “put him in the scuppers with a hosepipe on him.” But what can they can do, “when they have a drunken crew?”

Some captains at this month’s From the Bridge discussion said they have a formal written alcohol policy, and others use verbal instructions to spell out the rules. Some allow drinking on board, and some forbid it. But all the captains have one thing common: Regardless of the rules, each has been forced to make a judgment call.

“I have personally taken a drunk crew on board on a Caribbean island,” said a captain whose policy is to not let drunken crew on board. Because the yacht was in a foreign port, the captain made the decision to bring the crew member back to the boat.

“I know I am liable for this, but I still did it,” he said.

Attendees of The Triton’s From the Bridge discussion for this issue are, back row from left, Capt. Jason Halvorsen of M/Y Marcato, Capt. Matt Hedrick, Capt. Mike Wiener of M/Y Cache’e, Capt. Kent Kohlberger of M/Y Safira and Capt. Kelly Esser of M/Y Cheers 46. Photo by Dorie Cox

“I did the same thing,” another captain said. “If you had not put him on board and he had gotten shot, it’d be worse.”

“Lots of times, I’ve been in those situations,” another captain said. “If he’s incapacitated, you’re still responsible.”

“Jail may be a better option, but I can’t just leave him on the street,” the first captain said. “At least on board, I know what’s happening.”

This issue was the topic of discussion following a recent lawsuit in which a stew was awarded more than $70 million after she was raped by a intoxicated deckhand onboard. Her lawyers had argued that he should have been prevented him from coming aboard in that condition.

Even with clear alcohol policies in place, each captain has been surprised by a crew member’s action.

“I had a crew come back at 3 in the morning and verbally curse out another crew,” a captain said. “Of course, he lost his job.”

All the captains had worried about an intoxicated crew member, and one said captains often find themselves feeling like parents of crew. One captain said he fired and repatriated a drunken crew member after she became hysterical and damaged the yacht while they were in a foreign port.

“I made log entries and I went to the port authority to explain that I would be putting this crew on a plane to leave the country,” he said. “I wrote it all up. I had the port authority check my log because when you sign a crew member off in a foreign country, there’s a lot of paperwork. I did that to cover myself.”

“That is something to stress, it is important to cover everything in the logbook,” another captain said. “Anytime there is a situation, put entries in.”

Although the captain felt confident with his actions, he was still concerned.

“It worried me what would happen after she landed,” he said.

“I had a situation where I actually had to carry a drunk crew,” another captain said. He said he worried about her all night as she slept it off.

Another captain dealt with a chef that did not return to the boat in the Bahamas.

“He disappeared,” the captain said. “I contacted the police, the hospital; I had charter guests arriving. I didn’t know what to do.”

The captain bought a ticket in the chef’s name, had several crew watch as he packed the chef’s bags and he left the everything with money and a paper for the chef to sign, at the marina office. Staff at the office thought the crew might be “in a crack house,” but the captain did not know what happened, only that the chef picked up his things and signed the paper.
“It’s a hard thing to do. Do you have to stay in port, cancel the charter? What is your due diligence?” he said. “That situation was new to me.”

“Sounds like you did really well,” another captain said.

The captains talked about where their responsibility for crew ends.

“When you have done everything to safeguard their well-being,” a captain said. “Dereliction is covered in every crew contract.”

It is not always new or unknown crew that are the source of problems, a captain said.

“I had a crew for years and she seemed normal,” he said. But after drinking, she verbally abused another crew and had to be let go.

Problems with alcohol affect many aspects of business and society, not just yachting. So even with rules, intermittent problems arise. One captain said that although the yacht is “dry,” meaning crew are not allowed to drink on board, crew can drink when they are off the boat. Another captain said that alcohol is not specifically mentioned in their standing operating procedures, but there are words that cover crew who have had drinks and then return to the boat.

“The way ours is written is, if you are unable or fatigued – something more professional, but like that – you are to call the watch keeper for assistance to get back on board,” he said. “Let them know so someone can wake up and make sure you get across the passerelle safely.”

The captain considers this a way to cover his responsibility if there is an incident.

“That crew is supposed to be responsible enough to call?” another captain asked.

To which the first captain admitted that crew rarely call for assistance. Instead, he said, about once a year a crew member sleeps on the back deck because they don’t want to call when they can’t find the key.

“They’re not going to knock on the side of the boat because they don’t want to wake the captain,” he said.

One yacht’s policy recommends crew not return after drinking.

“If you go out and get tanked, don’t come home,” the captain said.

“Then you, as the captain, have to supply them a place to spend the night,” another captain said. “You have to pay for them.”

“No, because they are on their time-off, you’re not obligated to pay for that,” a third captain said.

“Someone comes back drunk and you’re kicking them off the boat?” a fourth captain asked.

“You’re not kicking them off, they went out and you’re telling them not to come back,” the first captain said. “The way mine is written is you’re encouraged to not come back, instead to get a room for the night.”

If they do return, they are to go straight to their cabin and go to sleep, he said. “Don’t bring the party with you, don’t make any noise, and in the morning you are to report back to work with the crew.”

All the captains recommend intoxicated crew not be on the yacht, but they do allow them back, even the captain whose written policy suggests crew not return. Several captains said there were other factors in the rape case – such as security, background checks and communication –  that should have been addressed even more than the deckhand’s intoxication.

Although many crew drink when off the boat, all the captains said, crew know that they are not allowed to work while impaired.

“It is a fireable offense. You can take them off immediately,” a captain said.

It is a law that no crew are allowed to consume alcohol while on watch, when underway or on duty on a commercial vessel, another captain said.

“And that applies to some of us under charter, the commercial aspect – from the time the charter starts to the time the charter ends,” a third captain said.

“The written part of mine says no drinking underway or when guests are on board,” a captain said. “What I don’t have is a written policy about drinking otherwise.”

All the captains have altered their alcohol policies through the years. One used to have a beer with another crew on the aft deck after work. That opened it up for other crew to enjoy a drink after work.

“But it changed when I had different crew,” he said. “We had a crew who couldn’t just have one beer after a shift. We couldn’t allow that to happen, so we stopped having a beer and all of the crew stopped.”

Another captain used to allow some wine or beer for crew. “But somebody abused it and now that is gone,” he said.

“When I have a crew that can handle it, we may allow a glass of wine on the back deck again,” the first captain said.

While it’s clearly against the rules during work, other parts of alcohol policies are not black and white. One yacht owner provides alcohol for the crew on board, and some owners occasionally take the crew out for drinks. With so many examples from the captains at the discussion, everyone agreed that the issue of alcohol abuse is serious, but there are no foolproof solutions.

A captain who has joined Triton discussions before plans to look at how his yacht is run.

“There have been several of these lunches where I realize I can get better,” a captain said. “I will go to my boss and say, ‘What can we do to protect you better, and me? And how can we better protect our crew? We will create a written policy. Maybe this is a learning experience for me.”

Another captain said each experience with drinking crew adds more information for the next encounter.

“I always learn something new about people,” he said. “We get it from experience, from ourselves and from others. There was no class that said, ‘This is what you have to do.’”

Another captain said the yacht’s current policy is sufficient, but he will reiterate details with the crew. As important as contracts and rules are, he said, more important are the crew and the culture onboard.

“I don’t do drama or drunken nights out, or crew that do,” he said. “The culture is set by the captain. I like a cold beer after work, a glass of wine with dinner or a shot of nice whiskey every once in a while. But not on a boat. It starts with me. I describe my job as captain as trying to anticipate every possible thing that can go wrong and then trying my damnedest to stop it. As long as you do your best and do your due diligence, that’s all you can do.”

Despite trying to manage crew with policies, rules and laws, incidents can happen, one captain said.

“You just cover yourself in as many places as you possibly can,” he said. “I think the industry will always have a problem, it’s just how we minimize it.”

Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome below.

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About Dorie Cox

Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton.

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One thought on “From the Bridge: Even with alcohol policy, captains’ judgment required

  1. Duncan

    Interesting comments, all valid. I have a zero tolerance policy on board when the boat is underway or at anchor. As one captain mentioned above it starts with the culture set by the captain. There are too many things that can go wrong on any given without having impaired judgement.

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