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Culinary Waves: Recognizing, managing stress crucial skill for yacht crew

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Culinary Waves: by Chef Mary Beth Lawton Johnson

Stress. Chefs feel it with the ticking of the clock, when the timing of food prep is not precise, or an ingredient is not available for the owner’s meal. Stews encounter it when things don’t go perfectly smooth with service, and engineers most certainly feel it when there is a problem with the engine. Captains probably have the most stressful job of all in yachting. In fact, just about all crew will at some time or another deal with some form of stress – or extreme stress – on board. 

When one crew member becomes sick, the rest must pick up that person’s job, adding even more stress. And what if you work with people who you don’t get along with? Now we’re talking extreme stress.

For a chef, the day in, day out job of providing perfect food precisely cooked for complete strangers, as well as being constantly on-game to the best of your ability without a day off, is extremely stressful. Top that with an irate boss or captain or fellow crew who you don’t see eye to eye with, and it can be unbearable. That’s the reason there is so much turnover in yachting. 

There are several kinds of stress, and if left unchecked, all can have detrimental effects on the body. For this column, I have decided to focus on emotional stress and stress in general.

Emotional stress happens more often than we care to admit, and it can stem from a variety of scenarios, such as  breaking up with a partner on board, being told by the chief stew that you don’t measure up, or a worrisome family issue at home. Anger, irritability, lack of motivation, depression, trouble sleeping, trouble eating, withdrawal and lack of interest can all be signs of emotional stress.

How does it affect the body? The hypothalamus reacts to stress by telling the adrenal glands to release the hormones adrenaline and cortisol, which in chronic conditions can result in an inability to become pregnant, excess weight, hair loss, heart palpitations and a stress rash.

Stress manifests in several ways and affects everyone differently. Some physical signs of stress are the inability to sleep or sleep pattern interruption; either lack of appetite or overeating, such as binge eating; and abuse of alcohol or drugs. 

Here are some ways to combat stress on board:

  • When having a hard time with a co-worker, see if it is possible to talk to that person and try to iron out your differences amicably.
  • If work is simply too much to handle, perhaps a job coach might be the answer, or scaling back on duties to take care of yourself first. If you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of the passengers on board. 
  • Yoga or meditation can alleviate stress.
  • Find a quiet place on board if at all possible when not close to shore. This could be in your cabin, on the bow, or any place where you can find even 5 minutes of calm. I go into the walk-in cooler and just chill when stress becomes too much to handle.  
  • Find a chat room devoted to stress awareness and alleviation, join a group online or seek help remotely with a trained therapist from an online service. 
  • If you have a hobby or some free time for writing or reading, do it. Getting out of your head and into a good book might help calm matters for you. I have found that writing about what’s happening takes a load off.  
  • Listen to calming music. 
  • Drink tea that offers calming qualities. 
  • Get a workout in, if the time is available. I have found that running is a huge stress reliever for me. 

If you find that you are about to blow up at fellow crew member, please do everyone a favor and walk away. If you still feel the same way the next day or a few days later, then say something – but only if it will help the situation, not as an explosive, self-destructive pattern. If you are on a self-destructive path, please seek help with a trained professional to help you figure out what can be done to alleviate your stress. 

It’s not easy, I can tell you, as someone who has been in yachting for more than 26 years. But learning how to manage stress so that it doesn’t affect you physically and mentally – or your job – is the best coping mechanism.

Mary Beth Lawton Johnson is a certified executive pastry chef and Chef de Cuisine, and has worked on yachts for more than 25 years. Comments are welcome below.

About Chef Mary Beth LawtonJohnson

Mary Beth Lawton Johnson is a certified executive pastry chef and Chef de Cuisine and has worked on yachts for more than 25 years.

View all posts by Chef Mary Beth LawtonJohnson →

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