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Captains discuss mental health, raise money for online support network

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By Lucy Chabot Reed

More than 80 yacht captains and industry professionals gathered in a webinar during “An Hour with Colin Squire” on Wednesday to discuss mental health issues among yacht crew and ended up raising enough money to create a yacht-specific portal to provide online access to free mental health information and support, www.yachtcrewhelp.org.

That portal will offer 24/7 live support in multiple languages through various modes including computer and phone to help yacht crew navigating the stresses and pressures of yachting, to help families of crew dealing with issues, to help captains deal with emergencies or handle mental health issues, and provide wellness tools for all crew.

The site mirrors another that ISWAN (International Seafarers Welfare Assistance Network) has created for commercial seafarers. 

“We exist to promote the welfare of seafarers worldwide,” said Caitlin Vaughan of ISWAN. “MHG came to us a couple years ago and asked us to do research to see how we might provide this same help to yacht crew. … One of the biggest surprises was learning that crew didn’t know where to go when they needed support. So what can we do first? Provide access to support.” 

But after conducting a survey, it was clear yacht crew would not use the commercial site, which set ISWAN and several industry players to task raising the money needed to create a yachting-specific site. 

“For better or worse, we are a unique culture in yachting,” said Capt. Brendan O’Shannassy, moderator and host of the webinar.

Capt. Mike Mclean of S/Y Andromeda has gone through a few “critical incidents” during his time in yachting, and noted that the lack of training in how to handle mental health issues and in support when they happen made the situations (everything from substance use and abuse to suicide) harder than they had to be.

“Where do you go for support when you are the rock people lean against?” he said. “The lesson I’ve learned is we create the environment in which we live and work for the crew. It’s quite frustrating when something happens and you don’t have a clear avenue for support. We need to navigate the sense of loss, the depression, the whole scale of issues. The size of the [audience today] for this conversation shows it’s a real issue people are dealing with.”

He noted that he’s got a strong network of professional colleagues to call upon, but said that doesn’t usually exist for junior crew.

“Another thing to navigate in a critical situation is how various players play their role and how to communicate that to junior crew,” he said, especially flag state, the DPA, and the owner. “It’s hard to understand everyone’s perspectives at times. Everyone is dealing in their own way at their own pace. We’ve got to communicate that to crew.

“How you do it is by making it an everyday topic,” he said, quoting Rumi: “Yesterday, I was clever so I wanted to change the world. Today, I am wise so I am changing myself.” “We create that in how we communicate with each other, how we interact with each other, and how we resolve conflict.”

So yachting is trying to implement the same sort of Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) that the corporate world has offered its employees for decades.

“Whatever more than 50% of an industry would have done becomes the norm, and that develops over time,” said Tony Nicholson of MedAire. “It’s unusual now for corporations not to have an EAP, particularly if they have employees traveling overseas. It leads to a happier workforce, less absenteeism, and more productivity.”

“We are far behind most corporations that run businesses to the caliber we are doing,” said Capt. Rafael Cervantes Mataix, noting that hiring practices should include things such as psychometric testing. “It’s relatively easy to instigate, low cost, and has a high yield. The more you hire people, the more savvy you get, but you have limited tools.”

He also noted that in the past few years, he’s used drug testing to isolate behavioral issues before they turned into “critical incidents”.

“For many years, I never did unless I had reason to,” he said of drug testing. “In the last few years, I had abuse that I never in a million years would have seen coming. That might point to problems in mental health. Something is pushing crew to self medicate. There’s a line here. Maybe this person shouldn’t be in this environment [on yachts]. It will be detrimental to him/her.”

Capt. O’Shannassy agreed.

“That investment in the start to help crew understand the environment is valuable,” he said. “Substance abuse is not the cause; it’s the result, hence the need for access to support. It’s an investment in crew.”

Fort Lauderdale-based MHG Insurance company was “on ground zero on this”, Capt. O’Shanassy said, noting the company has been working to get crew health policies to include mental health support.

“When crew are able to reach support, it prevents what potentially can be a worse medical scenario,” said Mark Bononi of MHG. “By providing this benefit, insurers can improve the success of coverage overall.”

The webinar was organized by the Captain’s Committee of the International Superyacht Society. A question-and-answer session extended the discussion another hour after the five panelists spoke. (To read more about the Captains Committee’s take on crew mental health, see this report released recently.)

The next day, Squire released this statement: “It is with pride and pleasure that I am able to announce that following the live donations during the call and pledges made, the www.yachtcrewhelp.org site has funding to be established and pathways for continuing funding are also known. The ability to donate remains open via the JustGiving page that can be reached via www.yachtcrewhelp.org.” 

The portal is expected to be live and promoted by mid summer.

“The vision is to have a sticker with a QR code to the portal on the back of every cabin door in every yacht,” ISS stated in a press release about the webinar. “It is completely independent of managers and employers, and training providers could also hand the stickers to STCW graduates. It is non-commercial / non-branded and for all crew.”

Lucy Chabot Reed is publisher of The Triton. Comments are welcome below.

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About Lucy Chabot Reed

Lucy Chabot Reed is publisher and founding editor of The Triton.

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