A few captains took exception with our light-hearted surveys of late (water sports skills and summer cruising plans) and asked us to be more serious. So this month’s survey comes at the request of one of those captains, someone concerned about mood-altering drug use among crew.
For the purposes of this survey, we focused only on prescription medications, not illegal drugs or alcohol (obviously both mood-altering but really a whole survey unto their own). The drugs in question are those that crew might use to manage stress, depression, personality disorders, etc.
We invited both captains and crew to take this survey, delivered in two formats containing slightly different questions. We were curious to learn if the two groups saw things differently.
We must begin by noting how few captains and crew actually took the survey this month, and wonder if that doesn’t tell us something.
Only 44 captains responded, which is about a third of our normal response rate. And just 33 crew responded, which is less than half of the number that normally respond.
Do these respondent rates mean this topic doesn’t resonate with our audience? Or perhaps it means it hits too close to home. Or maybe they were just too busy getting the summer under way that they didn’t have time to answer our questions.
Whatever the case, we’re left with 77 captains and crew who took our survey, and we discovered the following.
In general, a majority of captains and crew say they have worked with someone onboard who has taken prescription drugs, but fewer than half say they have been around to witness or hear about a problem involving their use. They overwhelmingly say they do not use them nor have they ever in their career, and both groups agree that while any use is a concern, the misuse and abuse of prescription drugs is not a huge problem in yachting.
We began by asking captains In your career, have you ever had a crew member take mood-altering drugs?
About 60 percent of captains said they had.
“It is mainly the U.S. crew, I am sorry to say,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 25 years. “I have talked to some captains who tell me they just don’t take U.S. crew anymore because so many of them are on mood-enhancing drugs. They seem to loose the highs and lows of a personality. Living with them is like listening to muffled music.”
We asked crew this same, career-spanning question about the people around them by asking In your career, have any of your fellow crew mates or captain taken these medications?
Again, about 68 percent said yes, they had worked with either a captain (6 percent), a fellow crew member (34 percent) or both (28 percent) who had taken these medications.
“Too many crew abuse Adderall, often mixed with drinking,” said the chef of a yacht 100-120 feet about the psychostimulant prescribed to treat ADHD. “It’s so easy to get.”
Of course, many of our respondents added comments that pointed out that the effects of prescription medication are often the opposite of what they are intended when mixed with alcohol. And several pointed out the bigger impacts to yachting of illegal drugs.
“I very rarely hear of any crew who takes prescription drugs, but every other conversation at the crew mess table is about where so-and-so went and did coke or X,” a stew on a yacht 140-160 feet said of cocaine and ecstasy. “Punish the crew who have ‘issues’ and try to self medicate by recreational drugs, which are far more dangerous and harder to regulate. That is what has ruined the yachting industry.”
Yet our survey was about prescription medication, and just 6 percent said no, they had never worked with anyone who takes these drugs.
It’s important to note that the remaining 25 percent said they didn’t know if anyone around them took mood-altering drugs.
We were interested to bring this issue into the present so we asked captains Among your current (or most current) crew, how many take mood-altering drugs?
Nearly three quarters said none, and most of the rest said they didn’t know.
To ask that same present-tense question of crew, we had to get personal. Do you take any mood-altering drugs for things like stress, depression or ADHD?
About 88 percent said no. Nine percent said they take medication by prescription, and 3 percent of our crew respondents (1 among the 33 crew who took our survey) said they take these medications without a prescription.
Have you ever taken them in your yachting career?
More than 80 percent of crew said no. Most of those who have taken them had a prescription, leaving 6 percent who said they have taken them without a prescription.
We asked captains that same question: Have you ever taken medicine to manage things like stress or depression while working on yachts?
Likewise, most (86 percent) said no. Most of the rest have done so with a prescription. Just 2 percent (1 of the 44 captains who took our survey) noted they have taken these drugs without a prescription.
“My meds were on a scrip due to a lot of shore-based stress caused by boss’s (now) ex-wife,” said the captain of a yacht 80-100 feet in yachting more than 20 years. “I decided to come off them after two months and was fine. We did not put to sea during that period. I was so mellow during this period I did not give a &^%$ what went wrong.”
Beyond these cursory, albeit blunt questions of current and career-wide use, we wanted to know if there had been problems onboard because of these drugs, so we asked captains Have you ever had an issue with a crew member taking mood-altering medications?
The answers were split, 50/50, yes and no.
Among those captains who answered yes, most (33 percent) said it was a serious problem, leaving 17 percent to say it wasn’t a big deal. We asked what happened and most told us. The biggest problems were erratic behavior and an inability for the crew member in question to complete their duties.
“They were taken out of service first onboard, then sent home on medical leave to sort things out,” said the captain of a yacht 160-180 feet in yachting more than 15 years.
“Three cases in 25 years on boats,” said the captain of a yacht 140-160 feet. “First instance: Crew member became irrationally violent. Second instance: Crew member became suicidal. Third instance: Crew member became completely irrational with uncontrollable mood swings. None of the above reported using medication until becoming unstable.”
“Not able to do their job to the standards of the captain and owner,” said the captain of a yacht less than 80 feet in yachting more than 25 years.
“This was a situation where a stew needed a pain medication for a chronic muscle ailment,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in yachting more than 30 years. “She became very spacey and forgetful, and actually had a bit of a personality change for the worse, lethargic and tired all of the time. I gave her a chance but when she could not perform correctly during a charter, I had to fire her. She actually took it quite well and understood my reasoning.”
“Watchkeeper asleep on watch,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in yachting more than 30 years. “Found to be self-medicating because he was ‘unhappy’. Sacked him and repatriated at next port of call.”
Beyond their individual experience, we were also curious to learn how far this issue reaches into yachting, so we asked Do you know of a fellow captain that has had a problem with a crew member on these medications?
Fifty-five percent did not, leaving 45 percent who did. Among those who did, 32 percent said they knew of these issues directly from the captain affected, 11 percent said their knowledge was indirect, and 2 percent admitted it may be just rumor.
We asked crew Have you ever been part of a crew where mood-altering drugs became an issue?
Similarly, 55 percent had not, again leaving 45 percent who had.
“When mixed with alcohol or drugs or when not taking the proper amount prescribed,” said the stew on a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 10 years. “Diet pills and sleep aids should also be in this category.”
“I worked with a chief stew who would take prescription pills as suited her,” said the engineer of a yacht 140-160 feet in yachting less than five years. “Her behavior and mood would change drastically. Her disposition would be much more tolerable when taking the pills but she became aloof and forgetful, which frustrated many crew members.”
“The chef took drugs to sleep and for back problems, but mixed it with a bottle of wine each night,” said a stew on a yacht 140-160 feet in yachting less than 10 years. “And when he ran out or couldn’t get back to his writer/doctor, he couldn’t sleep at all and became a jerk. Of course, that is going to become an issue.”
“Problems with crew being able to perform and complete tasks due to ADHD,” said the bosun on a yacht 140-160 feet in yachting less than a year. “I’ve seen a few stews constantly taking prescription meds, defiantly altered their abilities to work properly and became difficult for other crew on board to deal with their ups and downs.”
“A crew member went off antidepressants due to running out during charter, and had to be taken to a doctor to get evaluated and prescribed,” said the engineer of a yacht 120-140 feet in yachting more than 25 years. “Extreme mood swings and agitation made life tough on the rest of the crew for two days before it was figured out what happened.”
“Seriously noticeable mood swings and erratic behavior,” said the purser on a yacht 160-180 feet.
It seems like it should be standard practice that prescription drug use would have to be disclosed to the boss, so we asked captains Are crew required to inform you of their intake of medications?
Half said yes, that the information is requested on the personal data sheet they complete upon being hired.
Most of the rest, 34 percent, said the information isn’t specifically requested but that captains will ask.
And 16 percent said no, this information is not required.
“Not many people are going to tell the captain if they are taking any medication, especially mood-altering types,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 25 years. “For charter guests, I have taken to telling them to write down what meds and other info I should know if we find them unconscious. Then, if they get ill, I will open the letter. Otherwise, they can just take the letter home at the end of the trip. So far, so good. Crew will just not tell me, and I am stuck with that.”
We looked more closely at the captains who don’t require this information, thinking perhaps they were younger or on smaller vessels, but they weren’t. They have all been in yachting more than 20 years (half more than 30 years) and on vessels from less than 80 feet to as big as 200 feet.
When we asked crew this same question Are you required to inform your captain or supervisor of any drugs you take?, just 25 percent said they are, half of the amount that captains say require it.
Of the 75 percent not required to provide this information, 69 percent said they would be truthful if asked. Six percent said they wouldn’t divulge the information, even if asked.
A prescription medication is a personal matter, but on yachts — where a group of people not only work together but live together — few personal matters remain that way. So we asked crew Do you think your captain or supervisor has a right to know if you take medication?
Surprisingly, 88 percent said yes.
“I strongly believe having a mental condition or behavioral condition such as the all-too-common ADHD should be disclosed to the captain as soon as possible after accepting a position,” said the bosun of a yacht 140-160 feet.
“Though it should not be held against you, the captain should be informed of any of these medications,” said the engineer of a yacht 120-140 feet. “Traveling on hard schedules and to remote places, it’s easy to run out of the prescription. Going off these medications cold turkey can be dangerous, and if the captain is aware of the use, he/she can hopefully recognize the issue before it becomes out of hand. We issue a medical questionnaire to crew, to be sealed in an envelope and kept in the ship’s safe. The envelope is only opened in an emergency, or is returned unopened at the end of employment. We encourage honest answers, and try to ensure confidentiality.”
Just 12 percent said no.
“The prescription I take I do not abuse,” said a stew on a yacht 140-160 feet. “I have a prescription for a drug to lessen the effects of anxiety. I do not take this drug and mix it with alcohol or other drugs. I only take it when I am anxious (like the day of pick up if I am nervous about a charter) or to help me sleep at night. Sleep is so important to crew and there is nothing worse than when you are wired from a busy night and you get to knock off, finally, and get into your bunk, only to lay awake for hours because you can’t switch your mind off. As long as there is no abuse of the drug or as long as by taking it, you are still able to do your job to the best of your ability, there is no reason for anyone to know.”
We asked captains this same question: Do you want to know?
Most — 88 percent — said yes.
“It is critical for their safety and the safety of the other crew and guests,” said the captain of a yacht 160-180 feet in yachting more than 30 years. “We work in an inherently dangerous environment that puts physical and mental stress on us every day. Even more when the weather is poor or we have mechanical issues that we have to deal with. Someone who needs medication just to handle normal daily life ashore has no business on board a vessel. A crew under medication is a liability.”
“Crew should trust the captain they are sailing with enough to be honest, but I know it is not really like that,” said the captain of a yacht 200-220 feet in yachting more than 20 years.
“Same as with owners and guests; it is best to know what drugs people are taking if there are any health issues,” said the captain of a yacht less than 80 feet in yachting more than 25 years.
“Any medication you take could potentially affect your work ability,” said the captain of a yacht less than 80 feet in yachting less than 10 years. “And not to mention, if there is an accident and you are not conscious, someone on the vessel needs to know what you are taking in case it has any adverse effects with anything paramedics or a doctor might give you.”
“If the person I hired may or may not be the same person with/without the meds, then I sure want to know who is turning up for work that day,” said the captain of a yacht 80-100 feet in yachting more than 20 years.
Still, 7 percent said no.
“It’s between the crew member and their doctor,” said the captain of a yacht 160-180 feet in yachting more than 20 years. “If it’s legal, there’s no impairment and no behavioral issues, then it’s none of my business.”
And we had to ask the tough question: Would you hire someone who takes medication for a condition such as stress or depression?
A slim minority (9 percent) said yes.
That leaves the rest evenly split (45 percent each) between an outright no and “it depends on the position”.
“I firmly believe that some of the crew that I know should be on medication,” said the captain of a yacht larger than 220 feet in yachting more than 35 years. “With it they can work well. Without it there are instances of behavior that inevitably get them fired. Much is known about mental disease currently that it may not be a hindrance to work in stressful situations provided that adequate and properly administered medication is prescribed by doctors.”
“The drug/medication may be legal but if it poses a hazard to the crew or others (by virtue of its effect on alertness, mental acuity, reflexes, etc.) then ‘not on my boat, not in this life’,“ said the captain of a yacht 80-100 feet in yachting more than 35 years.
“The medicated crew starts to show signs of paranoia,” said the captain of a yacht 160-180 feet in yachting more than 30 years. “They start to think that they are being oppressed or that they are not being treated fairly. They create issues in the crew and try to persuade crew to see things their way. In general, they are poor crew members.”
“Yachts are too small to carry a crew member struggling with these sorts of problems,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in yachting more than 30 years.
It can be argued that the safety issues related to medication use onboard apply mostly to licensed crew. At least on larger vessels, interior crew aren’t asked to stand watches, handle lines or be the medical person in charge. So should the rules about use of medications be different for them?
We asked both captains and crew Should unlicensed crew be held to the same standard as license holders regarding the use of prescription drugs?
On this question, captains and crew agreed. Both were strongly in favor of the rules being the same for both licensed and unlicensed crew. Among captains, 84 percent; among crew, 85 percent.
“Since when does being licensed or unlicensed mitigate the negative effects and resulting hazards of these drugs, prescribed or not?” said the captain of a yacht 80-100 feet in yachting more than 35 years. “If the drug would place the crew member or others at risk by virtue of its effect on the crew member, then he or she needs to find another line of work.”
“In times of stress and emergency, every person needs to be able bodied,” said the captain of a yacht 160-180 feet. “Again, having someone who needs to be medicated just to deal with everyday life will be a liability on board a vessel.”
“Operating a vessel offshore on a delivery or anywhere, you need to know the people aboard are thinking properly and working as a team for the safety of all,” said the captain of a yacht less than 80 feet in yachting less than 20 years.
“Mental and medical safety on board is shared equally among all crew,” said the captain of a yacht larger than 200 feet.
“It’s still a crew member taking medication,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in yachting more than 10 years. “The license and medication doesn’t care about the level on the hierarchical chain.”
“What good is a few officers, sane, calm, sober, with a drunk or altered crew?” said the captain of a yacht 100-125 feet.
Still, about 15 percent of both groups said they thought the rules should be different.
“I think a laundry stewardess has a slight less responsibility load than a captain or first officer,” said a stew on a yacht 140-160 feet.
Finally, we asked Do you think prescription drug use among crew is an issue in yachting?
Captains were a little more concerned than crew, but both agreed it was not a major issue.
Among captains, slightly more than half (52 percent) thought that any use of a mood-altering substances can present a dangerous situation. The next largest group, however, at 43 percent said no, it’s not an issue.
Just 5 percent said the use of mood-altering drugs is rampant in yachting and a major concern.
Among crew, the largest group said no, that use of prescription drugs was not an issue in yachting. About 41 percent said that any use was a concern, and 9 percent — almost twice as many as among captains — said prescription drug use is rampant in yachting.
“If mood altering drugs are prescribed by a doctor and taken properly, they are mostly a good thing,” said the captain of a yacht 80-100 feet in yachting more than 10 years. “I have found that things get weird when the person who is prescribed these drugs decides that they don’t need them anymore and stops taking them on their own. I left one boat because the captain did this and became a horrible person to work for.”
Lucy Chabot Reed is editor of The Triton. Comments on this survey are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org. We conduct our monthly surveys online. All captains and crew members are welcome to participate. If you haven’t been invited to take our surveys and would like to be, e-mail email@example.com to be added.