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Cocaine in the Yachting Industry


If you wanna hang out you've got to take her out. Cocaine.

If you wanna get down, down on the ground. Cocaine.

Eric Clapton’s cover of JJ Cale’s 1976 song “Cocaine” in 1977 is a catchy one. It’s pretty sad when you hear young people singing along to it in bars thinking they’re cool. Mostly due to the fact Clapton describes it as “quite cleverly anti cocaine”*. Over the years he’s changed the lyrics in live performances to “that dirty cocaine” to emphasise he’s not actually a fan.

Yet cocaine seems to be the “in” drug. The drug of choice for anyone with cash. Which is probably why it seems to be so rife in the yachting industry.

Young people earning big salaries and being able to spend it on whatever they choose.  Ok, so lots of crew just use their money to buy treats. But for a fair amount, a night off usually involves getting off their faces on a bag of coke.

You only need to google “cocaine and yachting” to dig up countless articles relating to the smuggling side. In August last year you might remember 750kg of cocaine bound for Australia was seized on a yacht sat in Vanuatu port, estimated to be worth close to Eur260 million. It was sealed in a compartment under a layer of concrete.

Before that, in January of 2013, two crewmembers from the sail yacht Baila were sentenced for attempting to smuggle 452kg of 90% pure cocaine into the UK. This was one of the largest seizures in the UK; the drug was hidden behind false walls and stuffed into compartments.

Mid 2013 saw 200kg of cocaine with an estimated street value of Eur25 million being discovered on a sail yacht which had got into trouble and had to be towed into the Scilly Isles; the Dutch captain panicked when customs came on board, climbed the rigging and fell (or jumped?) 12m to his death on the quayside.  

Later that year, Captain Jonathon Costenbader, a 34 year old captain of the charter yacht MY Secret Spot admitted to smuggling 500kg of cocaine into South Florida on board. He was sentenced alongside his girlfriend and another crew member. His contact was also picked up and told the courts that Costenbader had been paid over a million dollars for previous drops. 

In August of this year the Spanish Naval training ship Juan Sebastian de Elcano was docked in Cadiz, southern Spain, when police boarded and found 127kg of cocaine. Three sailors were arrested for hiding them in the ship’s reserve sail. Good job it wasn’t used or it may have been snowing on deck.

So it’s quite a lucrative industry if you’re willing to take the risk isn’t it? Death, life imprisonment, or at best, several years in the slammer.

On the flip side, the yacht industry’s consumption of cocaine is not really recorded. Yet. It’s like the dark side of crewing. Everyone knows about it but they don’t talk about it. Various publications over the years have attempted to dig deeper into the issue and the general consensus is always the same: that it’s rife in the yachting industry. There is the argument of what one does in their own time is their business, and that’s true to a point but what about the morning after when the crew member is back on board? As Johnny Depp’s character George puts so beautifully in the movie Blow; “It was the greatest feeling I ever had. Followed abruptly by the worst feeling I ever had.” We all know the facts so there’s no point in going into details but we have to acknowledge, coming down off a big session on coke is as bad if not worse than being hungover. Most hangovers don’t include anxiety, paranoia and that feeling known as The Fear. 

Safety on board is a constant concern and it’s hard enough to avoid accidents when you’re tired from a busy season, let alone when you’re recovering from a session and let’s face it, probably a couple hours sleep at most.

People tend to forget how addictive cocaine is. Courtney Love said “Cocaine is like really evil coffee” and she’s got a point. Some people can’t get through the day without a cheeky line.

There are a huge number of addicts in yachting who don’t even realise they have a problem. These are the crew who can’t have a night out without it; they’re the ones who end up staying out with complete weirdoes until the next morning because they’re the only others who aren’t burnt out and in need of a bed. It’s sad to watch them deteriorate through a season. This is a luxury industry and we all know that looks are important; it’s horrific seeing the damage done to skin, teeth and hair after a few months of “partying”, plus the constant sniffles and fear of blowing out your septum with the next sneeze. If those are the outward signs, what are the inward?  Long term use can screw up your heart, lead to depression, and the chemical imbalances it causes in the brain can be irreversible.

It’s a vicious cycle unfortunately and there are now yachts out there with bad reputations because the senior crew are known to be users.  Some yachts are referred to as “coke boats”. They might not use on board but every night off, they’re using, and it’s obvious to anyone with half a brain. The arrogance tends to roll off users of coke in waves, and often they’re very open about it, bragging about the fact in busy bars where anyone could be listening. A crew agent told us “I was in a popular cocktail bar in a yachting hot spot and was waiting for the toilet.  Three girls I had interviewed for junior stew roles earlier that season fell out of a toilet cubicle giggling and wiping their noses; it’s embarrassing behaviour and I cringed for them.  Sooner or later they’ll get caught, or something worse.  I know it goes on, but I don’t need to see that irresponsible behaviour. There’s no way on earth I’d consider them for any jobs in future and the fact I was there with senior crew and captains that night who saw them carrying on just ruins their reputations and that of the yacht on which they were working.” You never know who’s watching. One night of “fun” could destroy your career.

A great number of yachts are drug testing with more frequency these days too, so it is really up to crew if they want to take the risk or not.    Unfortunately it does seem to come down to the money; it’s perceived as a rich person’s drug and crew earn a good wage which they can’t spend for months at a time so why not go wild when you can? Maybe because of the long term damage? Hmm.

And let’s close it with a quote from Robin Williams, (RIP): “Cocaine is God’s way of saying you make too much money.”

*(The Best of Everything Show, with Dan Leer)

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