When we think of safety on yachts, we think of fighting fires and man-overboard drills. We worry about running into things and sinking.
When I asked captains assembled for our monthly From the Bridge captains luncheon in August what their biggest safety concern was, none of those grave situations were first off their lips. Instead, these captains’ main safety issue was the health and well-being of everyone onboard.
“I’ve had some elderly people on the boat, people with diabetes, health issues, allergies, so for me, it’s just having the right equipment so you can stabilize the person,” one captain said.
“Mine would be a critical injury or health issue, and access to getting them out of there,” said another. “If someone has a heart attack, yeah, I can pop them out of it with the AED, but there’s a whole lot of stuff that needs to be done quickly to keep them alive.”
“You have to start with oxygen,” a third captain said. “Just straight oxygen is amazing stuff.”
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 this page.
These captains shared stories of injuries that either they or someone onboard suffered, remarking how dangerous boats can be.
“I’ve been so fortunate over the 35 years I’ve been in this business, the only injury I’ve had is a gal in socks who fell down the steps and shattered her ankle,” one captain said.
“People don’t think about injuries when they design boats,” said another captain who had a tall and large guest who had a grand mal seizure below deck. He was rigid and it was a struggle to get him up the steps to safety.
“The only boat I’ve ever seen that was OK for any kind of medical emergency was Sis W,” a captain said, referring to the 126-foot (38m) Burger that was built for an owner in a wheelchair.
“There are so many ways to get injured on a boat, my God,” another said.
One captain pointed out the seriousness of dealing with the mental illness of a crew member who neglected to inform him she was bi-polar. She became seasick and was unable to keep her medication down. Her resulting paranoia became a threat to herself and other crew.
“People don’t tell you,” he said. “How do you deal with it if they conceal it, when people are bipolar or diabetic and epileptic? That scares me, especially when you find out in the middle of the ocean.”
“And what about guests?” another captain said. “You never know what they’re bringing onboard, what conditions they have.”
Several captains noted that they mention as part of their safety briefing that any guests with health concerns must write them down in a letter that is then sealed in an envelope and placed in the yacht’s safe. It is only opened if there is an emergency, and will be returned at the end of the trip.
After a pause, one captain recalled his scariest safety story.
“Can I add fire to that list” of biggest safety concerns? this captain said. “I’ve never been more frightened in my life than when we had a fire. We were 30 miles offshore and had a fire. It took us several hours to put the fire out.”
The fire started in the galley as they were microwaving some soup. The microwave was over an electrical socket, and the soup spilled over in the microwave, running down the wall and into the socket.
“For me, it’s not guests that are the biggest safety concern, it’s knowing those 14 people who work on the yacht can get out of their cabins in an emergency,” one captain said. “I mean, we’re 60 days with the boss, 330 days with just the crew. That’s when sh*t goes wrong.”
This brought up stories of crew accidents, recent stories of crew falling off harnesses, crew drowning, crew hitting their heads.
“Everybody gets complacent,” one captain said about an incident that occurred after the ISM checklist wasn’t followed. “For me, I focus on crew. They live there, they have nowhere else to go.”
“All it takes is one person to cut corners,” another said, recounting his knowledge of a crew member who was working overboard, hanging from a fender hook, who fell and died. “Someone took a shortcut. There was no oversight. And now that captain is going to get it in the neck, and he wasn’t even there when it happened.”
Another captain pointed out that a deck crew member who had been issued boat shoes but didn’t wear them stretched over the side to hang a hose on a piling, slipped and fell overboard, hitting his head on the dock.
“I would venture to say that everyone here has had an injury on a boat,” one captain said. No one disagreed.
“Every once in a while, something has to happen to remind you had bad things can be,” another captain said. “We’re talking about occupational health and safety. Workplace safety.
“You get kids on board and they consider it home where they happen to do a bit of work,” this captain continued. “No. You are an employee, and this is your place of work where you also happen to live.”
He then told the story of how he averted a potential catastrophe when he stopped a deckhand preparing to microwave varnish. Another told the story of a deckhand who walked by the wing station soon after pulling up to a dock. The lid was up as the engines were still running. The deckhand pushed the throttles forward to put the cover down and put the yacht in gear. The yacht pulled a cleat out of the dock that hit a young girl in the head.
“Is it gung-ho or laziness or what?” another captain wondered.
“It’s a lack of a safety culture,” the first captain replied. “This boat is a place of work and you can get killed.”
With all the rules and regulations surrounding safety, I asked the captains – many of them veterans – if they felt yachting was safer now than it was 20 years ago.
“The first thing we have to teach is that this is your place of work,” another said. “I would rather hire not the stew who just spent $10,000 taking interior courses but the stew who worked at McDonalds. That stew understands about the workplace and bosses, their working hours and time off.”
Young people entering the industry, unlike kids 20 years ago, tend to have fewer boating skills, and that safety culture isn’t something that can be learned in a classroom, they said.
“They come into the industry and say ‘what do I have to do to work on a boat? I have to get my STCW’,” one captain said. “No. What you need is to learn how to work safely on a boat. But they get their STCW and they think they are ready.”
“Instead of trying to absorb information and experience, they just rush to get their tickets and be the captain,” another said.
One captain wrapped up the sermon by reiterating that age-old mantra when working on boats: One hand for yourself and one hand for the ship.
Originating from the days of tall ships and sailing rigs, crew had to hold on while they worked, or they might fall to their deaths.
The concept of safety needs to be as prevalent as it ever was, the captains said. And while most crew don’t have to hold on anymore, they can’t forget that half of their job is to be safe.
Lucy Chabot Reed is editor of The Triton. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org. Captains who make their living running someone else’s yacht are welcome to join in the conversation. E-mail us for an invitation to our monthly From the Bridge luncheon.