Drug use among yacht crew is a complex subject. It begins with safety and liability issues and stretches to include personal freedom and crew dynamics.
Preventing drugs from becoming an issue on board is doable, agreed the captains invited to have this conversation at The Triton’s monthly captains lunch, but it’s not a given. Even masterfully announcing the zero-tolerance approach won’t prevent drug use among crew. While it will facilitate their dismissal from one yacht, it doesn’t wipe it out of an industry in which lives are at stake.
So how prevalent is it, and how do yacht captains deal with it?
“Anyone who thinks they [crew] aren’t doing drugs is deluding themselves,” one captain said. “It’s prevalent in our society and it’s prevalent with crew who have disposable income.”
“That’s the root of all evil in yachting: the cash to do what they want to do,” said another.
As always, individual comments are not attributed to any one person in particular so as to encourage frank and open discussion. The attending captains are identified in a photograph on page A16.
“Crew come back to the boat with $800 shoes, $1,200 boots,” a captain said. “Every time they go out, they’re confronted with ‘do I do this or don’t I?’”
“I hope the majority of crew are saying no,” said another captain. His colleagues didn’t think so.
And every place crew gather — especially any place with an after-hours club scene such as Miami’s South Beach — drugs show up and crew get tempted.
“It’s anywhere like-minded crew congregate,” a captain said. “It just takes one bad apple. They can’t say no. Sooner or later, they get caught up in it.”
“It’s just rampant,” another said. “It’s going to implode in yachting very soon.”
OK, hold it. Seriously? All around us, we see these magnificent vessels being managed and run by professionals, people who have invested thousands of dollars and years of their lives to build careers. All that’s going to implode?
“It’s mostly kids in their 20 and early 30s,” one captain noted.
And like “kids” in any walk of life, they are more want to experiment with their freedom and society’s risky behavior. The difference, they agreed, is that yacht crew have a lot of cash and frequent places where access to drugs is easy.
“I have no problem with it at all,” one captain said. “I believe it’s who I hire. I don’t hire those people.”
Another captain also noted that his crew tend to be older, most often in their 30s, and so hasn’t had much of a problem onboard.
When asked if even his deckhands are in their 30s, he acknowledged that some of his crew are younger, but that drugs aren’t permitted onboard.
There’s that easy, zero-tolerance line, one which most captains will say they employ. And yet there is drug use among crew. How does it happen?
“We’re all strict captains, but we’ve all had to fire someone over this,” one captain said, to agreement from his peers.
“On a crew with 10-15 crew, you’re not going to control what they do on their personal time,” the first captain admitted. “But I’ve had very little problem. Every captain develops a culture on their yacht and with their crew. You have to pay attention to the culture you develop or it becomes something you don’t like.”
The crew and the yacht will develop a culture whether the captain likes it or not, he said. It could be one of secrets kept from the captain and crew covering for each other or one in which the crew won’t put up with behavior that could cost them their jobs or their life.
“It’s happened twice in my career,” this captain said about dealing with a crew member who was using drugs. “In both instances, other crew flushed it out. They tell the first mate who comes to me.
“We talk a lot about guilt by association on my boat,” he said. “I tell them, in St. Maarten and Lauderdale, there’s an environment you’ll encounter and here’s what it is. We talk about it in reference to the reputation of the boat.”
Crew, perhaps better than anyone, can spot signs of drug use, the captains said. They see it all the time, on the yacht docked next to them that doesn’t get on deck until 10 o’clock, on the yacht with the sloppy arrival procedures and on the crew who don’t take pride in their yachts.
“They see it all the time, and we’re not afraid to talk about it,” this captain said. “Their personal time is a reflection on me. This is why I have a right to be concerned.”
His existing crew tend to filter out the bad apples, he said. So it starts with the culture on the yacht of not wanting that sort of behavior onboard.
And it continues with hiring like-minded crew, another captain said.
“In the interview, I spend most of the time talking about what they do on their personal time, their interests and hobbies,” this captain said. “That tells me a lot about what kind of a crew member they’ll be and how they’ll fit in.”
After the interview, though, how does the topic of drugs come up? Do you even talk about it? Do you have meetings about it?
“Yes, we’ll have a meeting and talk about it, especially when it’s happened and the crew are talking about it,” one captain said.
“When we move the boat, I’ll tell them about where we’re going and remind them what to be on the lookout for.”
“Any excuse to disseminate information is an excuse to have a meeting and an excuse to have this conversation,” another captain said.
“We’ll be in a new location and the crew are all getting ready to go out; I can feel the vibe,” said a third. “I’ll get them together for a little sit down. This is a small town. It’s not unusual for someone to come up and start asking you what you do, and for you to start talking about the boat. After that, everything you do reflects back on this boat and on me.”
Some captains will do the occasional cabin search if suspicions warrant it.
“We have cleaning inspections,” one captain said with a smile. “We’re polite and ask, can you open that? Or we can have a look without asking. We know there’s a valve under there that needs to be checked.”
One captain told of a colleague who had the crew switch cabins every few weeks.
“In doing so, everybody finds out what everyone else has got,” he said.
“You’ve got to create a culture that polices itself,” another captain said. “They can’t hide it from their crew mates.”
“Crew need to know we’re looking at it,” said a third. “And newbies need to know to leave it ashore.”
There was some discussion on random drug tests and if captains used them. Some have, some don’t. In one instance, a crew member went to the mate and said there was a problem. They tested the whole crew and the results were negative.
“They bring urine in bags to the test,” one captain said. “They get it from a friend and keep it in a little plastic bag. They tuck it [next to their groin] so it gets warm. That’s how they get around it.”
“They can hide their drug use from you [the captain] but they can’t hide it from their crew mates,” another captain said. “And those crew don’t want to risk what they’ve worked so hard to build.”
Another captain noted that when requesting drug tests, captains have to add on the form that the results go back to the captain or the boat manager.
Drug tests, however, are powerful in their simple presence. In one case when a captain told one of his crew he would have to take a drug test, the crew member declined and voluntarily left the yacht.
Crew drug use is more recreational than addiction, these captains agreed, but it still affects job performance and reflects on the yacht.
“I think [alcohol] is much bigger problem,” another captain said. “Excessive drinking is a bigger problem to police than drug use.”
But doesn’t the same conversation about reputations and reflection on the yacht work with alcohol abuse as well?
“It’s tough because it’s so much more socially acceptable,” one captain said.
“And they can still be functional because they are so young,” said another. “That’s the biggest problem I’ve had.”
“Drinking is a social thing,” said a third. “You can tell them about your liability until you’re blue in the face, they don’t care.”
When it comes to drug use, however, there’s not a lot of middle ground. Where things get murky is when it comes time to hire. How do crew with drug use issues land jobs on yachts? Can you give them a bad reference?
“I say I would not rehire them,” one captain said. “I tell anyone that calls about them that they are not eligible for rehire. I don’t have to say why.”
“But how many calls do we get?” another captain asked, making a circle with his forefinger and thumb. “Zero.”
“I get maybe five a year, for the dozens of crew I’ve hired over the years,” said a third. “Most captains don’t bother to call.”
One captain in the room acknowledged that he was one of those captains that didn’t call on the crew member he should have, one of the crew using drugs that he recently fired.
“I didn’t call references because I needed someone right away,” he said.
“We can’t expect crew agencies to do our due diligence,” another said.
And who polices the police? What about management companies and the owners? Do they ever drug test you?
“I’ve never been drug tested by a management company,” one captain said. Just two of the captains in attendance had.
“I don’t understand how professional yacht companies don’t make it part of their responsibilities to enforce drug testing on all the boats in their fleet,” this captain said.
The US captains noted that they are entered into a random drug testing pool. But it doesn’t come up often. Once in his career, one captain said. Another was in the islands when his name came up, and postponed it. It never came up again.
Lucy Chabot Reed is editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome at email@example.com. If you make your living working as a yacht captain, e-mail us for an invitation to our monthly Bridge luncheon.