By Dorie Cox
This time, the captain hoped rehab would stick. It was February, in the Bahamas, and his partner in both life and work had been drinking heavily for several days. She was intoxicated and belligerent in front of the owners and their guests.
The captain and owners sat her down for a talk, then put her on an airplane bound for a treatment facility in the U.S.
The captain had tried everything he knew to do to help her.
“I realized I can’t do this anymore for my own sanity, for my job,” Capt. Chris Boland said. “I tried to save face with my employer. I felt like I was the glue to keep our jobs, to hide what was happening from the owners, to babysit her, to babysit the guests. And to think now…”
It was the last time he would see her.
Many yacht captains have lost crew members one way or another to alcohol abuse. During the past several years, some crew have died from it and many more have been fired because of it. Yet few will peg alcohol as the reason. It is an ongoing problem in the yacht industry, said Capt. Jay Williams.
“I had so many I wanted to keep, so many,” Capt. Williams said of crew he’s had to fire over the years because of alcohol. “They became self-terminating. It was devastating to me and the crew when these people fall apart. We tried to help, we would friend-to-friend peer counsel, talk with them, offer rehab – but few took advantage of it. Ultimately, there would be an incident.”
Life begins to change
As he looked back, Capt. Boland recalled that his partner had started in yachting like many do.
“She came to Florida in 2012 determined to work on a yacht,” he said. Even though she grew up in the central United States, she always loved the ocean, he said. And although she had no yachting experience, she was hired her first week in Fort Lauderdale.
“Her beautiful smile, fierce eagerness to learn, and a constant willingness to help others won her the position, and she was a quick study,” he said.
She and Capt. Boland worked as a team for about five years, and they fell in love as they ran yachts of 85-105 feet together.
“Each year, she got better and better and was able to do all things that were involved in a stew position, as well as help on the deck, including handling lines and fenders, two-part teak and even drive a tender,” he said.
He doesn’t know exactly when her social drinking turned into something more. He could see she was sad or frustrated, but attributed some of her behavior to her worry about her sick mother. When she went to bed early and woke up early, he thought she was “getting a good start on the day.”
He eventually figured out she was tired at night from drinking and got up early to start again.
“I was blind, I was clueless,” he said.
Once the problem was apparent, the two talked about her drinking and she asked for help.
“She tried to be sober,” he said. “We took all the alcohol out of the house, but she bought more and hid it. She was in and out of detox. I attended AA [Alcoholics Anonymous] with her.”
They went to counseling, together and apart. She went into long-term rehabilitation centers several times. He stopped drinking to show his support. But she always went back to drinking, he said, and continued to have incidents and accidents – even landing in the hospital and in jail.
“It was mentally draining,” the captain said.
He remembered his hopefulness on the last day he saw her.
“When she got off the plane, she said she would go to treatment,” Capt. Boland said.
But she did not. She moved into an apartment with the help of some yacht crew friends and tried to start a business like she had in her hometown before she started in yachting. She continued to drink.
Capt. Boland kept working on the boat, and he paid her rent. By autumn, she flew back to her hometown and, soon, Capt. Boland got a call. She was in bad shape and sick from drinking, her sister said. She checked into another facility.
At 3 a.m. on the first night in the hospital, her organs failed and she stopped breathing. She died on Nov. 1. She was 41.
When is drinking a problem?
Identifying a drinking problem is not easy, said another captain who tried for years to help a former crew before she also died from complications related to alcohol abuse.
“Everyone has different capabilities and capacities,” he said. “Some have two glasses of wine and puke. Some can drink two bottles, then nothing for two months. Where do you draw the line? If there is one incident, they can have no career any more.”
See how Alcoholics Anonymous determines if your drinking is taking over your life.
Every crew should be made aware of the potential dangers of alcohol, and there needs to be a realization that there is not a norm, he said.
“Not everybody can drink like that or handle a beer,” he said. “Don’t push each other.”
The effects of alcohol are different for different people, said Capt. Stefan Czuplak.
“I try to watch the habits of my crew and keep myself open to them,” Capt. Czuplak wrote in an email. “Trying to keep their mental health in check can be a key factor to preventing them from falling down the rabbit hole.”
That keen captain’s eye is key, said Capt. Ed Collins of M/Y Nomadess.
“Aboard or ashore, it all comes down to identifying the issue and confronting it before it’s out of control and lives are in danger,” Capt. Collins wrote in an email. “You need to know your crew as people first, then watch for warning signs and offer help and suggestions.”
Perhaps the best first step is for crew to pay attention to their own behavior.
“It is important for crew to take a look at their own drinking habits,” Chef Stuart Kennedy said. “As far as drinking, some can get away with it and do their job. Other people can’t successfully drink and do their work. You have to admit a problem to yourself. There’s no shame – go see someone. That could be the best $200 you ever spent. Maybe you could understand yourself better. People know if something is not quite right. Be honest with yourself. Am I screwing up?”
No captain or crew want to weather a crew member intoxicated on board or in front of the yacht owners, but more at issue are safety concerns, Capt. Williams said. To foster a safe environment on a recent boat, he had random alcohol and drug testing with a consortium, and added test kits to the trauma kit. After any incident, everybody was required to submit a sample with results locked in a case with a padlock. He reminds crew they are still at work if they want to drink while on board the yacht.
“The owner could pop in at any moment,” he said. “You are a risk to everyone. If you are intoxicated on the boat, that should be a policy violation. … Sorry, you can’t be here. Not in your cabin, hell no – you might walk out with your pants off.”
It always comes back to safety, he said. Each crew has a job and is part of a team. If that part is impaired by a hangover or being under the influence, they have diminished the ability of the entire crew.
With the potential of such safety risks, some people wonder how crew with alcohol issues continue to work in the industry. It is not clear cut, said Terry Haas. She saw a lot of alcohol use by yacht crew during her 10 years as a chief stew. Now, she looks and listens for problems as she places captains, mates, bosuns, officers and engineers in her job as a senior crew agent with Bluewater Crew in Fort Lauderdale.
“We don’t ask them [crew] if they have a drinking problem,” she said. “If we find out, it’s because of a previous reference. If captains don’t tell us, we don’t know.”
Occasionally, if there has been an incident, a captain who does not want the same thing to happen to someone else will take the time to call.
Haas said Bluewater agents ask references why the crew left the job and how they performed. They also ask: “At any time during his/her employment, did you notice any problems with drugs or alcohol?” The answers are then assessed.
“We have to tell the captain about these, but we realize it could be a bad boat or the crew had a family issue,” she said. “It could be a situation where the captain perceives them as drunk where others don’t. It could be that the other four references said there was no problem. References are so personal.”
Check crew coverage for help or incidents
When an alcohol issue starts to surface, captains and fellow crew have options. It is important to clarify the yacht’s alcohol policies and associated consequences, and to identify what help is available to the crew member dealing with an arising issue, such as treatment programs, detoxification facilities, therapy, counseling and time-off.
Health insurance can cover these, but it’s not common, said Maria Karlsson, president of Superyacht Insurance Group. She cautions captains to be prepared, and check yacht and crew policies before something happens.
“Mental benefits are also important, as I believe there’s a direct link between over-indulging and having some mental/social issues, low self-esteem, etc.,” Karlsson wrote in an email. “Policies in general appear to offer better mental [health] coverage than alcohol/drug rehab benefits. Some policies include inpatient and outpatient benefits and phone consultations with a licensed professional, etc.”
However, most crew medical plans exclude alcohol-related claims from coverage. Karlsson shared a list of such exclusions from crew medical policies that include treatment for injuries and/or illnesses resulting or arising from alcohol addiction, dependency, problem, use, or abuse, as well as injury and/or illnesses while under the influence of alcohol. Many policies exclude coverage for convalescent facilities, private or special nursing, or physician services for drug addiction and alcoholism.
Capt. Boland did what he knew how to do to help his partner. But her addiction was more than he could manage. He thinks about how the yacht industry handles alcohol, and despite his sorrow, he wants to talk about what happened to her. He wants to help the large, informal yacht family that he and other crew are part of.
“Her friend asked me why I’m doing this [talking about her alcohol problem], what is my goal?” Capt. Boland said. “There’s no real definite goal, but it’s therapeutic, and my hope is this will help someone.
“If one person has a take-away from this, or if you know someone and recognize the signs, you can help yourself or help someone else.”
Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton. Comments are welcome below.