It's Good to Talk - Trauma on Superyachts
Right now, the world is buzzing with mental health awareness and encouraging everyone to talk about it. Working in superyachts is already a high stress environment, adding a traumatic event to our day to day operations could, possibly, tip us over the edge especially if it’s not dealt with properly.
Gone are the days when we demonstrate that “stiff upper lip” mentality, or “grin and bear it”… or are they? It seems each year we are hearing about more tragic events, such as accidental deaths, serious injuries, or even suicide. How are crew and management companies addressing these events? Are they still being swept under the rug? Why does it take a devastating accident for management companies or owners to put some sort of process in place for coping with the aftermath?
Let’s start with defining the word “trauma”. The dictionary defines it as “a deeply distressing or disturbing experience”. This could be psychological, i.e. a personal trauma like witnessing a terrible accident, or physical, such as suffering a serious injury or attack. Trauma affects people in different ways and responses can be extremely individual.
As ex crew member and now, Senior Dual Diagnosis Clinician and Social Worker Tarryn Burrows explains, “During traumatic events, our brain responds with fight/flight/freeze: an automatic response from our brain and body…we confront it, run away or can’t move. Traumatic events also typically bypass the memory storage part of the brain (hippocampus) so that’s why sometimes people only remember bits of how things happen, e.g. smells, noises…that’s the brain trying to protect us from what’s happened as well.”
Case in point, deckhand Adam* saw his friend break his shoulder in a sailing accident during a manoeuvre onboard whilst they were taking part in a regatta. “Looking back now, I still have a blank patch I can’t figure out – I saw the cause, I saw the injury happen, then I guess auto pilot kicked in as the next thing I remember is him being tended to by the senior crew and me sat at his head telling him he’s going to be ok! I was told I apparently ran straight over to him and started talking to him and comforting him. Can’t remember it though.” Sometimes the memories return, other times they don’t. The important thing to remember is that it’s normal.
As Crew Coach Director Karine Rayson says, “How an individual responds to trauma will be different for each person. For example, person A may have a different response to a natural disaster or betrayal of an intimate partner over person B. It’s therefore imperative that when living and working with colleagues on board that you are compassionate and empathetic towards each other, rather than casting judgement on how you think the person should be responding to a traumatic event.”
Karine believes we, as crew and industry professionals, should be learning the soft skills necessary to provide the right sort of support to each other. Be it at peer level, or from seniors. This is essential for yacht crew, especially when we’re at sea and mental health care might not be easily accessible.
Trauma can manifest in many ways; this is something we can all keep an eye out for (both in ourselves or in others). Tarryn says, “Trauma will often affect a person’s ability to build relationships, ability to self-regulate their emotions (so they are quick to anger, moods change frequently, tend to feel depressed/low) and may result in difficulty sleeping, nightmares, flashbacks, hypervigilance, over or under exaggerated startle response (“jumpy”), difficultly assessing risk. People can also experience fear and chronic anxiety, hyper arousal/reactivity, avoidance and numbing (helllooooo alcohol!) and disassociation….easily triggered, incite behaviours (stir things up), have superficial relationships (isn’t that the superyacht industry?), test boundaries, lying, deceptive behaviour, demand attention, no impulse control, feel the need to be in control…”
Karine recommends, “if you are experiencing the symptoms of trauma you should immediately seek support; if the symptoms go untreated one runs the risks of experiencing comorbid mental health issues including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders, or alcohol and drug problems which can potentially threaten a person physical and psychological well-being. It is important to highlight that when being exposed to a traumatic event it doesn't automatically mean you will experience the onset of trauma related symptoms.”
At the moment, the biggest issue in the industry is how much it’s failing us in this area. Although some yacht owners and management companies have embraced how important keeping crew healthy and looked after in every sense (physically and mentally) and have proven this by offering counselling, medical support, compassionate leave, and psychological assistance as well as financial support, sadly these yachts and companies seem to be in the minority.
Let’s take what happened to Engineer Fred* into account. He joined a motoryacht, working with a lovely captain who collapsed on board (fortunately in port) and was later discovered to have a brain tumour. At the time, Fred went into “fight” mode – he called the ambulance, he allocated tasks for the junior crew onboard whilst he and the chief stew dealt with the situation. Sadly, the ambulance crew had to be convinced the captain was unwell as when they arrived he’d risen to his feet and was trying to walk around – albeit he was incoherent and stumbling. Fred was asked by the owner to take control of the yacht and to continue getting it ready for an upcoming show. For the first few days, Fred said the owner would check in to ask after their wellbeing but that soon stopped and the focus was all about the yacht show. The most support he had during this situation was from the Port Authorities who, Fred says, “offered all the help they could.” There was no counselling or time off offered, Fred says now he had no idea to even ask for it, and it was only when he booked himself into a doctor’s after nearly collapsing himself, that he discovered he was in the early stages of chronic fatigue and needed to take some time off. The doctor told him he had not allowed himself any time to process the shock of what happened. Sadly this lead to panic attacks for Fred, but after finally stopping, taking time out and seeing a doctor at home, he’s now back in the industry and more aware of himself, his limits, and those of others.
Chef Charlotte* was working on a large motoryacht when a crew member suffered a terrible accident and passed away. In the days that followed, the crew were let down completely by the captain, owner, and management company. They asked for support and medical help and this was denied. They asked for those crew who’d been directly involved in the accident to be sent on compassionate leave, again, denied. Faced with an “if you want to go on leave, you quit and pay yourselves” attitude, a captain too fearful of being accused of negligence to support anyone, and an owner and guests who demanded dinner service and turndowns carry on as normal or being fired (they were onboard at the time), it’s a wonder the entire crew didn’t fall apart. At anchor, the internet was cut off to prevent any leakage to the media, but this left the crew alone and isolated, unable to talk to friends and family when they needed to the most. Following the trip, the management company continued to fail the crew – finally they were permitted shore leave to seek help, but even after their approved psychologist had signed them all off to return to work, they all received word that their contracts had been terminated – long story short, the crew were effectively forced into signing away any rights they had. At time of writing, Nautilus had taken the case on to fight on the crew’s behalf for compensation. Financial compensation is one thing (if they receive any) but the lasting effects of a trauma like this which is dealt with so horrifically will no doubt be felt by that crew for years to come.
Shereen Soliman, a young woman working in the industry for some years, suffered a brutal attack in St Maarten some years ago when she was between jobs; a man attempted to rape and murder her. It left her with acute Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Shereen is an inspiration, quite frankly, she’s taken her experience and has used it to help others – as well as having returned to the yachting industry on a freelance basis. Shereen openly talks about her journey on her blog website, traumaontour.com which she describes as “one woman’s mission to explore wellbeing and recover from trauma”. Her aim is to continue learning and to share the lessons with the reader, whilst also teaching and coaching about emotional intelligence, trauma recovery and self-care. One of her side projects, Shereen has recently been involved with the launching of a new Facebook page called “Yacht Crew – That’s Not Okay” along with Nathan Skinner, and Matteo Ichino. This online forum exists to raise awareness of unsafe and destructive practices in the yachting industry, with the aim to improve working conditions for all. Crew are encouraged to send PMs to the group admins where they can remain anonymous and ergo be protected. Their aim is to point them in the right direction to get the appropriate support, be it a safety, or personal matter.
Speaking of support, what resources are available to us?
In the first incidence, we can consider what we can do to protect ourselves following a traumatic event. Karine recommends these protective strategies:
Refrain from making any major decisions or life changes
Give yourself time to process the emotional response to the event and acknowledge what you have just been through
Avoid self medication/ overuse of alcohol or other drugs to cope
Reach out for support from the people who care about you and you feel comfortable talking to.
Try to maintain a normal routine. Keep busy and structure your day.
Make time to practise mindfulness. Engage in relaxation activities whether it is a walk on the beach, deep breathing exercises, meditation or yoga.
Be aware of the feelings that come up and find a healthy way to express them, whether it is writing it down in a journal or talking to a close friend.
Seek professional help - make contact with a counsellor or psychologist.
Shereen’s website offers great resources on different therapies and how to find what’s right for you, from one on one therapy with a trained counsellor, to holistic alternatives. If you’re not ready to talk to a person in real life yet, there are apps out there you could use – and lots of counsellors will offer online chat, video, or phone counselling. Betterhelp, Talkspace, Breakthrough, these services will match you with a suitable counsellor who can best fit your needs. It’s important to remember that what works for one person may not work for the next, so if you don’t find the right resource, keep looking. With mental health awareness on the increase, let’s hope we see more and more resources popping up, and perhaps more importantly for us in yachting, more emphasis on training, learning and development in managing the aftermath of an onboard trauma from owners, captains and management companies.
Please refer to the side panel for a list of resources.
If you’re reading this and any of this is resonating with you, please don’t feel that you’re alone. Reach out to any of the sources listed in this article, a friend, a loved one, or your doctor. Keep well.
The Crew Coach offer a counselling service, details of which can be found on their website. https://thecrewcoach.com/
There’s a new Facebook page based in Mallorca: Life is for Living, whose objective is “to raise awareness of mental health issues amongst yacht crew by connecting those in need to a network of people who can help and support them”. On their page you can find a helpful list of further resources.
The International Seafarers Welfare and Assistance Network offer free, confidential, multilingual helplines for seafarers and their families:
Shereen Solimon’s websites: www.traumaontour.com
The Professional Yachting Association (PYA)
British Counselling Services – Sarah Heyler
Phone: +34 663 890 287