YACHT CREW MENTAL HEALTH: AN INSIGHT INTO CREW WELLBEING ON BOARD
Written by Nathan Bees
Last updated: 28/11/2019
In the last decade, there has been a noticeable shift in attitude towards mental health. Thanks to the emergence of social media and the growing coverage in the mainstream media, the once taboo subject no longer has such a prominent stigma attached to it.
The concept of mental health is now deeply embedded within our collective consciousness, an important consideration as we go about our daily lives.
Mental health issues can become a reality for any one of us at any given time – research from the World Health Organization (WHO) suggests that one in four people will suffer from a mental disorder at some point in their lives – so it’s important to remember: It’s okay not to be okay.
There’s a vast network of support available to anyone who requires help, with family, friends and trained professionals just a phone call, message or website click away. Nobody need ever suffer in silence.
However, accessibility to these support networks is heavily restricted when you are working aboard a superyacht. As a crewmember, you’re at sea, thousands of miles away from home and without reliable internet access. You can’t guarantee being able to contact loved ones when you want to and there isn’t an abundance of free time to get away from work and de-stress.
In such an extreme situation, what can you do to safeguard your mental health and wellbeing? Who can you turn to for support?
With the help of a current crewmember (who, for the purpose of anonymity, we will refer to as MR), we have put together a guide that offers an insight into the varying challenges you are likely to encounter on board, the best ways to approach emotionally testing situations and some helpful advice on what to do if you’re ever in need of help.
Insight from current superyacht crew
Working ‘15 hour-days’ for months on end remunerates crewmembers handsomely, but it isn’t all plain sailing. Life on board leads to extended periods of time away from the comforts of home and the company of loved ones, with internet access often denied by both work hours and poor connectivity. In some cases, it’s not unusual for crew to go several days without the stimulation of social media and contact with family and friends.
Despite the benefits, yacht crew have to be mentally prepared for the stresses and challenges the job poses - the long days and lack of interaction with those left at home. Prospective yacht crew may find it useful to read our guide on the things you need to consider before pursuing a career at sea.
If you don’t properly assess your compatibility with the lifestyle before taking a crew job, you leave yourself vulnerable to mental health difficulties further down the line.
“Working on boats is very different from land jobs,” MR explained. “Generally, in the four years that I’ve been in the industry, I’ve found some crewmembers with mental health problems. It’s the people who come into it with the attitude that it will be all fun, without understanding that being on a boat means being alone away from family and friends. They have the wrong idea about the job.
“For example, I saw potential mental health problems a couple of months ago. One chief stewardess was caught up in her own imagination and tried to copy the owner’s lifestyle – the way they walk, their food preferences, buying the same mobile phone.
“Behind closed doors I found her to be quite unhappy. Life on board wasn’t what she was making it out to be. She was an unhappy person and that affected other people, as she treated her department in a really rude way.”
Realism is essential. MR believes that if the chief stewardess had been realistic about the nature of yacht crew life, she would have had a much more enjoyable experience.
Her message is simple: research the challenges of the job, consider whether you are mentally prepared for such an intense lifestyle and, if you decide you are, work out how you are going to overcome the difficulties that lie ahead.
She concedes that the glamour often associated with life aboard a superyacht does exist to a degree – visiting beautiful locations and enjoying once in a lifetime experiences – but that the daily reality is far less luxurious.
“The job is very well paid. The salary and the pleasure of travelling and seeing many beautiful places is great. But, before you apply for a job, you must be clear about the reality of the role.
“Yes, there’s money to be earned, but you have to be ready to work more than 15 hours [per day] if necessary. Having fun and posting happy, crazy pictures on social media… you will probably have the opportunity to do that, but it’s not in any contract. You have to accept that you need to work hard for it. So for those who come just to have fun or to see the world, maybe they need to think twice.”
While that message may seem harsh to those considering a crew career, it’s in the best interests of their mental wellbeing long term – regardless of whether they ultimately decide to pursue a crew job or not.
“When I started my first season I was in shock about the superyacht world. I had so many questions but I didn’t have a good chief stew at the time – they had only just started and they weren’t prepared to teach me more than I already knew. It was tough.
“I learnt from that and my next job on another boat was different. There were three times as many crewmembers and a very professional chief stew, which helped me settle. I learnt a lot and was very happy. Every boat is different and on every boat you learn something new.”
Helpful advice for existing and future yacht crew
What exactly has MR learnt that has helped her adapt to life at sea and maintain a healthy mental state? In her experience, having ‘strong relationships’ and ‘busy downtime’ keeps you occupied and doesn’t give you the opportunity to miss home.
“The secret to happiness and good mental health on board revolves around respecting and helping all crewmembers, and spending your free time doing what makes you smile. People can spend time playing music, reading, cleaning their cabin… whatever they want. If you don’t you can become depressive.
“I miss my family and friends, I even miss time to myself from time to time, but that’s natural. I’m happy and enjoy what I do.
“I can’t complain about anything because I have a chef that cooks great food every day; my laundry is clean and ironed; my bed is comfy and clean. We get toiletries and other things that we ask for. I have great crewmates and an amazing captain. I’ve been working on the same yacht for the past two years and I am very thankful and happy to be part of the crew. It’s like a family.”
Depression on board?
Severe depression isn’t something that MR has witnessed during her crew career so far, and she feels it’s unlikely she ever will; if people are aware of what they are getting involved in when taking a crew job, they are likely to be mentally prepared for the emotional stresses the hard-working and sometimes brutal lifestyle can throw up.
“Generally, yachts are not the place for drama or depression – in many ways you can’t afford to be a drama queen. You have to know that you need to work or you should never become a crewmember.”
MR is quick to point out that her experiences have been largely positive and she hasn’t been subjected to any particularly traumatic events that have led her into a downward spiral. However, she does have some advice for anyone who feels as though they are struggling psychologically with crew life: Let the senior crew know as soon as you begin to have doubts about your mental state.
She says crewmembers can always speak to their chief of departments, captain or DPA (Designated Person Ashore), who can ensure you receive the necessary care and attention. Access to doctors is obviously limited aboard a yacht, but provisions can be made to arrange for you to visit one at the next available opportunity should that be the most appropriate course of action.
In that situation, even when you’re thousands of miles away from home in the middle of the ocean, the most important thing is treating the problem and doing everything possible to help you.