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Captains’ fatigue symptom of larger yachting problem

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By ISS Captains Committee

It is the unanimous view of the International Superyacht Society’s Captains Committee that the greatest challenge to today’s yacht captains is fatigue management, their own and that of the crews they lead.

There is a sense that we, the captains, are sitting on the greatest “dirty little secret” in the yachting industry. In this article, we will break out some of the reasons we feel this and that it is not constrained to any one size or segment within yachting.

A symptom, not a problem

As the captains began sharing anecdotes, one of the committee members spoke up and asked if we were all looking at this the wrong way: “Is fatigue not a problem in itself but just a symptom of the wider problems in modern yachting?” The penny dropped and the group took a pause. If fatigue – which is such a concern – is the symptom, what is (are) the cause(s)?”

When looking for causes, it becomes tricky as we have what could be called a “progress paradox”; everything is better, but captains and crew are feeling worse.

Breaking this quandary to its components:

  1. The yachts have never been built better, and this extends to operational capability, environmental considerations and, with MLC now well entrenched, better accommodation and facilities for crew.
  2. Crew are better trained, more professionally focused and their terms are better than in the past.
  3. Supporting companies are stronger, more comprehensive and staffed by more qualified personnel.

So, with all this, the industry’s performance must be “never better”, right? Why then, are captains feeling stretched like never before?

There is no single answer, of course. More layers of factors that, when combined, leave captains and their crews feeling physically and mentally exhausted trying to hold the tails of the ocean-going tigers they work with.

The culture

The stakeholders in the larger maritime world have had a decades-long campaign of a positive-error culture where all are empowered to speak out on safety. Parallels have been drawn with aviation and medical industries, which have successfully increased safety and reduced costs by empowering staff to report and document their mistakes so their industries can learn from them. Excellent further reading on this can be found in “Making Critical Decisions at Sea”, which was recently published by CHIRP and distributed by the Nautical Institute, amongst others.

Many yacht captains feel the opposite situation is entrenched within their yachts. Captains do not feel empowered to openly state “I am stretched to a breaking point, and fatigue is endangering myself and my crew.”

The shore support teams rely and demand the captain to have and execute the authority to operate the vessel safely. Does this extend to stopping the yacht when fatigue is placing crew at risk? If this is said, there are too many cases where the resolution is to replace the non-cooperating captain at the next opportunity that doesn’t impact the owner’s enjoyment with another captain that will accept the motto of yachting: Harden up, sleep later and deliver the guest experience.

Ironically, all the ISS captains have been guilty of this view as it is how they entered the industry and it is ingrained in their DNA. Now, the industry has outgrown this Neanderthal-esque view, and the question is: How can this cycle be broken? 

Is this critical problem even known by the most important members of our yacht community, yacht owners? The yachts that are being marketed are so capable that the crew cannot maintain them. Is there meaningful representation by the DPA to the highest levels of ownership of this concern as required by the ISM code?

The legislation has flexibility, and, in many cases, fatigue could be easily mitigated by sensible turnaround times or an industry-wide education campaign so guests understand the yachts are not resorts with shifts; there is only one crew. No harm, no foul is only going to work while the yachts ride their luck until some terrible tragedy shakes the industry out of our self-induced blindness where fees and commissions exceed a true commitment to safety.

There are more incidents in yachting than are reported. This is a whispered, though well-known fact. Yes, the responsibility for reporting returns to captains, but when fatigue is a contributory factor, there is no action. Or worse, the captain is held to improve the work rosters, something they have too little control over when the charter or private guest routines exceed what they can address with crew numbers available.

It ought to be so easy to explain to an UHNWI that the commitment to crew rest is in place for the safety of themselves, their families, their assets and their crews. They are also in place to protect all in the operation against liability issues.

It is beyond the capacity of the captain, with their single source of income, to speak out. Captains will buckle in deference to their job security. It takes an industry-wide commitment.

The yachts

The wonderful new yachts are a privilege to call a workplace, but they are so capable that the crew struggle to keep up. 

This begins from the day of the launch where challenges range from storage to cleaning to operation. The crew are brought on too late in construction to provide an operational perspective and then are instructed to “make it work”. A series of innocuous compromises in construction combine to make a workplace that is physically improbable to operate efficiently.

An ISS build captain was recently asked to sail a 90m yacht from the shipyard 24 hours after taking delivery. The shipyard stated the “normal” period post-delivery was 4-8 weeks. This time allows a completed yacht to be seaworthy with crew trained, stores loaded, and the vessel secured. The captain spoke out, but none in the process would accept the concerns. This included the owner, broker, shoreside support company and the DPA. With such a start, this yacht will struggle to truly “make it” as a sustainable operation. The stress and fatigue such a rushed delivery builds into the culture is hard to shake.

Once in operation, the yachts limp through guest periods. Crew openly talk of “just making it” through several weeks with guests. To an outsider this may seem strange. “How hard can it be fetching drinks, making beds, driving people to the beach or wakeboarding?” Hardly work at all, right? 

The yachting industry promotes an unparalleled guest experience with everything on call and no limitations to the guests. This is not possible for those tasked to deliver this model. Too many times, limited crew numbers have seafarers navigating and maintaining engine watches through the nights after full days of guest service. 

The crew

Career-focused and trained crew are amazing but impatient. The “hop onboard for adventure” that yachting once represented has been replaced by a more mercenary approach. Crew are well-informed on what remuneration, leave and entitlements they seek. This should be held up as a positive, though with an expectation of black-and-white employment terms, yachting’s long-held refrain of working together for a single goal of guest benefit is waning.

Tenure on yachts is now measured in months and not years. This is a great cost to the industry in administration, training, accidental damage and, of course, the ultimate measure being the team performance to the guests. This alone should bring to question the way crew employment is being handled. Too often, a crew member leaves as they are just tired and want a break. They then repeat the cycle again in their next employment.

The ISS captains understand this, and all are aware of their guilt in not having the time in their own days to speak to crew and guide them through their work routines and indeed their career decisions. “If only the time” seemed to be a common response to the conversation between captains on how much time they really dedicate to speaking and listening to crew.

The shore-support community

There has never been better support. This extends through forward-leaning management companies, recruitment firms, medical providers, trainers, IT firms and suppliers. So many professionals, all knowledgeable and all passionate, wishing to assist.

The shortfall being all these companies want a piece of the captain’s and senior crew’s time. There is an irony that everyone offering to make a captain’s life easier actually takes just a little more of their time. Training is the one area all captains say is lacking; however, it is not through lack of providers. Too many of the captains speak of booking, re-booking and eventually cancelling valuable training due to lack of time or variations in the schedule, making a booking improbable. 

Overlaid with the amount of support firms needing time (particularly on larger yachts), there are layers upon layers to gain basic operational decisions and captains now struggle under the weight of communicating to all. 

Lastly, in day-to-day operations, the dance floor is full. However, what is also apparent when there is an incident of significance, the captain is alone. All the captains are aware that it is the captain that will be legally accountable when there is an incident involving serious casualty, discharge to the marine environment or damage to the vessel or a third party. 

The solution

We, the ISS captains, as authors and concerned representatives of the yachting community, would like to offer a simple solution, but if it were that simple, it would already be in place. It is a multi-faceted problem that needs multiple paths to find a solution.

Hidden within this article is a plea. A plea to those involved in selling (charter and private), design and construction to seek operational input and then use your respective voices to educate and manage client expectations. 

Even the largest of yachts are restricted in the resources that are available when in operation. Unlike shore residences, there is no second shift or the chance to parachute in five more staff to help out at peak times, in times of sickness or fatigue. 

This article speaks to the daily operations where fatigue becomes a symptom. There is another layer that is compounding this. There is a privilege afforded to yacht owners to determine the program at their whim. This is certainly their right due to the investment made. However, for crew, this results in a situation where they are unable to have a clear picture of when and where they may take their earned leave. Again, it is beholden to those in the higher levels of the yachting community that have direct access to yacht owners to make this stressor known to their clients.

For the love of yachting, the ISS captains ask that we all become stakeholders in supporting our captains and crew in this most critical aspect of their safety and performance.

The International Superyacht Society (ISS) is the representative organization of the large yacht industry with a mission to “promote excellence and ensure sustainability in the global yachting industry”. This is the first report from the ISS Captains Committee, a worldwide committee of eight yacht captains. Comments are welcome at editor@the-triton.com. To reach the committee, email info@superyachtsociety.org.

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2 thoughts on “Captains’ fatigue symptom of larger yachting problem

  1. David Krokoski

    I have had the pleasure of being mentored by one of the industries very best Captains! He instilled in me the following: Never do anything you could not explain to a board of inquiries!
    Together we managed to run an 80m+ commercial yacht 100% by the book.
    He had a backbone of steal and was not afraid to stand strong on his decades of experience.
    NO JOB is worth possibly endangering crew, guests, or the vessel. NO JOB

  2. Linda Revill

    A refreshing article written, and contributed to, by industry professionals who show their love of the industry through the desire to improve it.

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