Covid Mental Health On Board
We all know that working at sea in “normal” conditions is already tough enough – long hours, high levels of stress, no personal space, not enough time to connect with loved ones… and the list goes on and on. Research from the International Seafarers Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN) has demonstrated that across the industry (both commercial and yachting) the number of crew suffering from mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, is worryingly high already. With the additional impacts of the pandemic, these numbers are growing.
So before we go on to look at how Covid has affected yacht crews across the globe, it’s important we draw attention to the free and confidential helpline ISWAN launched in the Autumn of 2020. You can find more information here: www.yachtcrewhelp.org. You can call, chat, or email them and someone will always be available 24/7, 365 days a year. The website includes info on self-help resources, mental wellbeing issues, and links on how to tackle these issues on board from reputable sources such as Nautilus, the PYA, and the International Chamber of Shipping. Strongly recommended reading for all seafarers, especially now! And let’s face it – if you’re somewhere you can’t go out you may as well use the time productively and do a little self-improvement.
Back to Covid issues now, we spoke to several people across the industry to see how morale has been, and how crew, captains, managers, and owners, have been coping with the changes to plans.
Chief Officer James* works onboard a 50m MY, usually busy charter for the summer season. Their entire crew were retained even though the start of the season looked extremely shaky, but all agreed to a 25% pay cut in order to avoid any crew being laid off. “At the end of the day we were all grateful to have a job when yachts all around us were being dropped down to skeleton crew due to the uncertainty of having a Med season. The senior crew discussed options and wanted to protect our juniors. That’s why we opted for a pay cut over losing team members.” As it turned out they still had a pretty good season, even though some charters were cancelled, they still cruised extensively and saw the owner more than usual as a result. They’ve entered winter all back on full pay and the positivity has remained. James explained “I feel that because in the early stages we demonstrated we wanted to keep the team together, and made everyone feel like an important part of the crew, this helped keep the morale high. As seniors we all led by example and as such, we’ve not had any crew leave either.”
Head Chef Chantal* didn’t have such a positive experience when she caught Covid due to mixing with other crew on a day off, “I understand it was my own fault for not socially distancing, but was pretty distraught to be marched off the boat and put into a French facility for two weeks.” The rest of the crew had to isolate on board which the boss was not happy about. The captain kept the crew informed when the owner told him he was going to fire anyone who got COVID-19. The Chief Stew on board, Sarah* said “I don’t really feel the captain acted in our best interests by sharing this information whilst we were on a knife edge, waiting for test results to see if any of the rest of us were going to test positive! I know I lost a lot of sleep over it. He told us to join Nautilus but that’s not the point, he should have tried to keep the mood on board positive rather than leaving us all to dread the next test.” Chantal was fired for “other reasons” apparently. “We all felt terrible for the remainder of the season, frightened for our jobs. The management company didn’t seem to care or want to get involved. I felt we should have been given guidelines and assistance but we were on our own.”
Captain Fred* is on a rotational contract. Usually they roll 8-10 weeks on and off depending on the vessel’s itinerary as they tend to go off the beaten track. Unfortunately due to their remote location, he had to stay on board for six months. This put a terrible strain on his marriage, “My wife was distraught that I was away for so long and not being able to see my children really took its toll on me. There could have been options to get myself and other crew members home but the owner would not help us and refused to see the fact that we were suffering. We were left at anchor for weeks and not permitted to relocate other than to pick up supplies. Morale was terrible. I couldn’t keep the spirits of the crew up when my life was falling apart. When I finally got home my wife was honestly a changed woman. I’m not really sure if there’s any going back for us. I’ve resigned, I didn’t feel I got any support from anyone, and now I’m trying to heal.” What happens when the owner or management team don’t give the crew the support they need? Where do we turn?
Another captain, John* found himself in a similar situation to Fred with regards to being stranded offshore but fortunately their owner was a lot more supportive. The rotational crew who had to stay on longer due to travel restrictions were compensated and those who were unable to fly in, did not lose any pay. John made sure to organise activities for the crew, using the onboard toys and diving gear with the boss’s blessing. “I tried to make sure then when the work was done for the day, we had good down time – not just retiring to cabins to watch netflix. We knew our boss had our backs throughout, there was no uncertainty over losing jobs or being paid late like I know other yacht crews have endured – he has always looked after us and I’m very proud to say I work for him. The crew have had their ups and downs but we’ve come through this season stronger than ever. These experiences bond people and I am sure in years to come we’ll still all be in touch and remember our crazy coronacoaster season, hopefully with fairly fond memories!”.
Joanna* Chef on a charter yacht found her summer wasn’t quite what she had expected. She joined the yacht on the promise of a “busy charter season” but of course, that didn’t really pan out… instead they ended up with not just private use but a liveaboard owner. Now that’s tough to deal with under normal circumstances, fortunately the boss did understand this and despite it being a hard season for the whole crew, they were pleased to be rewarded with a good bonus as they’d missed out on potential charter tips. “It’s not just about the money… but it certainly helps boost your spirits when you’re rewarded financially for your work!” she said.
It’s certainly been a very mixed season for experiences this year. For the lucky crew it’s been a relatively normal season and most management companies were quick to put support systems in place, but for many, it’s been a lot harder and presented a great deal of challenges. As such, it does feel like a number of crew are reassessing their long term goals. Perhaps a few have already left the industry, and a few more will follow. Perhaps less crew will join next year. The fear of being stuck far from home and loved ones is suddenly extremely real.
There are lots of resources available out there for dealing with mental health issues during Covid 19, a quick google search brought up various people and organisations who are busy addressing this, from all angles.
Karine Rayson, The Crew Coach, told me “there has been an increased number of crew reaching out for help, and I would say 50 percent are men too. I felt really trapped when working at anchor for a season and minimal access to land, so I can imagine this having a grave impact on their mental health as well putting strain on their relationships. We have had yachts engage in our wellbeing workshops and that has received a positive response where crew are starting to communicate to one another differently, they are more mindful of their body language and choice of words. Captains have also taken action in terms of ensuring to safeguard their crews wellbeing needs and have purchased a block of counselling sessions for the crew.”
It’s important the seniors lead by example and encourage a healthy atmosphere on board where junior crew or peers can speak up about what’s troubling them without fear of retribution. Educate your crew, identify any worrying behaviours, keep an eye on each other, and develop a crew strategy together.
Look after each other out there!
*Names changed for confidentiality