Sexual harassment and assault is a pervasive problem that many in the industry don’t want to acknowledge, yet nearly all female crew say they have had to grapple with it at some point in their career.
In the tight-knit, high-pressure, service-oriented environment of a yacht, a crew member’s job is to make the impossible possible and to always say yes. So what happens when the answer is no?
The International Labour Organization (ILO), Lloyds Register Foundation, and Gallup all report that more than one in five employees have experienced violence and harassment at work, whether physical, psychological, or sexual — and the superyacht industry is not immune.
Among the calls received in 2022 by the International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network’s Yacht Crew Helpline, “sexual abuse and harassment — many severe rape cases — accounted for 5.02% of total cases,” according to Georgia Allen, ISWAN projects and relationships manager. And in an anonymous poll posted on the Palma Yacht Crew Facebook group in January, more than 40% of survey respondents said they had been sexually harassed or assaulted by another crew member.
Sexual harassment is a broad term, including many types of unwelcome verbal and physical sexual attention. Sexual assault is defined as physical contact or behavior without the explicit consent of the victim. The claims are not based on whether the victim or perpetrator is male or female; they are based on whether the comments, actions, or contact — verbal or physical — is unwanted and offensive.
By its nature, the industry is highly hierarchical, and many senior roles tend to be occupied by men, often resulting in a male-dominated leadership structure. This gender imbalance in leadership can facilitate abuse and has the potential to let negative behaviors go unchecked.
Also, the reactive rather than proactive stance within an industry already known for its lack of universal regulation and oversight has meant certain procedures and policies intended to serve as safeguards for this issue have fallen by the wayside. With increasing professionalism, much of this questionable activity could be curbed. However, sexual harassment and assault run rife within the industry, and the yachting-specific #metoo movement continues.
But why? Is there a lack of proper leadership training, or a weak reporting and repercussion infrastructure? Is a negative onboard culture to blame? Triton’s intention with this story is not a finger-pointing exercise or an exposé on the lurid details of various cases that have been reported to us by crew. Instead, we consulted authorities on the topic and explored the various avenues that exist to better understand why this problem continues to pervade the industry — and what can be done to stop it.
The recruitment process
As a workplace, yachting is highly singular. Blurred lines between work and living create a unique conundrum for the crew — and for those assembling them.
In the no holds barred, “Wild West of the sea” environment of earlier eras, contracts were given out on bar napkins and good faith; today, there are more stringent recruitment processes. However, perpetrators continue to enter the industry and maintain their employment on board. Tim Clarke, director of Quay Crew, said, “We know that predators are working within yachting.”
The fact that these candidates are still getting on board is troubling. Liam Dobbin, director at crew agency Wilsonhaligan, explained that the recruitment process needs more honesty. “As a minimum standard, we always speak with references and check with people who aren’t even listed as a reference,” he said.
Clarke concurs. “Every candidate we put forward has a verbal reference taken,” he said. “The reason for this is that written references mean absolutely nothing. Weekly, we get told one horror story over the phone and countless more verbal references which don’t match the written reference.”
While some agencies do their due diligence, perpetrators still fall through the gaps and continue to work on board.
One root cause of harassment and abuse can be the lack of a psychologically safe working environment. Psychological safety means crew members can speak up about issues without losing their jobs or suffering some other punishment.
Charles Watkins, clinical psychologist and founder of Mental Health Support Solutions, said, “Creating an environment of psychological safety means people are resilient enough, trust their leaders enough to speak up, and that will result in action.”
If this is lacking and there is a toxic onboard culture, it suggests bad behavior can continue. Harassment and sexual assault continue in yachting because there is “an environment that turns a blind eye towards it, or at least doesn’t actively talk about these issues, and people refusing to act,” Watkins said.
While the boundaries of this bad behavior are clear to many, these lines can become hazy when under the influence. The use (and abuse) of alcohol is a part of yachting culture that is normalized through a fully stocked crew mess and the “work hard, play hard” mentality. This, of course, does not apply to all yachts and crew, nor is it the crux of the issue. But it can compound it. Angela Wallace, director of the welfare group at PYA, pointed out that “perpetrators can get away with it under the guise of too much alcohol.”
Positions of power
The leadership cultivates the culture; if there is toxicity on board, a crew member in a position of power is allowing it. As in other industries, abuse of power is not a new issue, and it clearly plays into scenarios of sexual harassment and abuse.
“As probably in many other situations, it [sexual harassment] is an abuse of power,” said Wallace. And Watkins echoed that statement. “We see a lot that it [sexual harassment] is often because of an abuse of power” he said.
Capt. Kelly Gordon explained: “It seems as if some captains and HODs [heads of department] think that their position provides them with a sense of power that they often abuse. I have seen higher ranks use their position to make unwelcome sexual advances, and sadly, the crew member rarely speaks up for fear of being fired. I have witnessed HODs be downright mean to those they are in charge of.”
Capt. Gordon is challenging industry trends. She of the Sea, an organization advocating for gender equality and diversity, found that only one in four women in yachting occupy a senior position. This gender inequality plays an important role in the problem. For example, it isn’t uncommon for job roles to be advertised as gender-specific, with the subordinate roles generally being “female only.” While more women in leadership roles won’t eliminate the problem, it would help to create more significant gender equity, altering male domination within the industry.
These ingrained issues of power and gender imbalance may be the cause of the current low crew retention rates. Last month’s conference in Nice on “improving crew retention” is one sign of this industry-wide problem. While some may put it down to the “younger, more entitled generation” entering the industry, could it be instead that people are no longer willing to suffer silently within these toxic environments?
He said, she said
Creating an environment whereby the crew can feel safe to speak up is crucial, but what infrastructure is in place to do so?
Vessel compliance is an issue that is failing parts of the industry. Under the International Safety Management (ISM) code, commercially registered vessels over 500 GT must implement a mandatory safety management system (SMS) that identifies and safeguards against various issues, including bullying and harassment.
This code also requires vessels to have a designated person ashore (DPA) implemented by yacht management. These vessels must also be Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) compliant, stipulating contractual terms of the seafarer’s rights at work.
But the majority of contracts within the industry also come with an NDA, and some crew may feel gagged by these nondisclosure agreements. “NDAs are often frequently used for dubious reasons,” said Clarke. “While this culture of brushing incidents under the carpet exists, yachting will always have this issue.”
Although it is recommended that vessels under 500 GT follow MLC guidelines and comply with national employment laws and respective flag states, there is no requirement for them to do so.
Many vessels have documentation related to bullying and harassment, and typically it refers the crew member to the captain or HOD. But to whom can the crew member turn if one of them is the perpetrator? And without mandatory implementation, what happens on all the vessels under 500 GT that are slipping through these nets?
Yachts are part of a global, transient industry that crosses various jurisdictions, and this can be an additional hurdle when it comes to legally reporting sexual assault cases.
While the problems are evident, what is being done to mitigate them is less so. A first, vital step would be getting the right people on board to foster a positive and safe environment.
“Agencies should be doing all they can to protect candidates rather than think only about the fee,” Clarke said. One way his company, Quay Crew, does this is through CrewPass.
CrewPass is a crew vetting system created by Conrad Empson, an ex-crew member and star of the Bravo “Below Deck” reality TV series. The system aims to tighten security and safety within the yacht recruitment process by providing a central place for recruiters to run a full, global criminal background check on crew and to verify their certification.
“Once every two weeks, we get a crew member reaching out to report someone that was violent,” Empson said. “We store that name and that information when we do a criminal search to investigate further.”
“CrewPass is an excellent tool to reduce the risk of hiring that predator, and it protects the owner, guests, and crew from being in close proximity to that person,” Clarke said.
If everyone were to use the CrewPass service, would this reduce the number of perpetrators getting on board? Perhaps. “Clean recruiting” is an excellent method in theory, but what about those perpetrators without records?
Capt. Luke Hammond offers another solution through his recently launched “recruitment by referral” platform, Refrr. “I am getting someone on board that is already referred, so there is my social proof — and on the flip side, that person knows that because they were referred [by a friend], they aren’t stepping into a crazy workplace,” Capt. Hammond said.
Among recruiters, there are diverse opinions on psychological testing to ensure the right crew is put together. While there can be benefits, such tests are certainly not a perfect indicator of an individual’s personality.
As Capt. Hammond put it, “Once you stack the work hours, long days, lack of sleep, everyone cracks. It’s not if, it’s when.” Reinforcing his reasoning on referrals, he added, “How someone reacts at that moment is down to who knows them and has worked with them before.”
Training is key
The industry recruits and gives power to individuals based on experience rather than leadership capacity. The crew may be trained for all first-aid, firefighting, and sea survival eventualities, but with no human resource staff on board, there is a gap in training to ensure a psychologically safe environment. Watkins notes that the crew is trained in performance, not people management.
The Personal Safety and Social Responsibilities (PSSR) module within the STCW briefly touches on the issue, but it is woefully inadequate. Some maritime schools opt for more in-depth training, such as the HELM Operational and Management courses — but more must be done. “In psychology, just like medicine, the earlier you catch things, the easier it is to treat,” Watkins said.
Lucy Mess, head of crew at Burgess, said, “Education and training are key. The aim is to deal with the issue before it becomes an issue.”
Former purser Emma Brealey, now head of operations at the Crew Academy, said, “Training around communication, leadership, and conflict resolution can empower crew with knowledge and the confidence to stand up.”
Shelley Viljoen, head of recruitment at The Crew Hunter, said, “Training can definitely mitigate issues of power and control. We provide a safeguarding course which is about training crew to prevent abusive behaviors and to act on them.”
Implementing mandatory training and education will also help change attitudes. “We must wipe out ‘old school’ attitudes on board yachts,” said Mess.
Emma Kate Ross, founder of Seasthemind, said, “It is important to listen and communicate nonjudgmentally and to have better-nuanced conversations.”
Some crew commented in the anonymous Facebook poll that while they had not been subject to sexual harassment or abuse themseves, they had witnessed it or known of others within the industry who experienced it. Training is also a critical element in actualizing change through the role of bystanders.
Increased awareness promotes zero-tolerance attitudes. Perpetrators must know they will not get away with sexual harassment and assault without recourse. However, at the moment, there is no way to blacklist a crew member who has sexual harassment or abuse history — whether reported or not. The MLC provisions detailed in Article 1.4 state that “recruitment companies will not maintain a blacklist to prevent individual seafarers from gaining employment.”
Upon Triton’s questioning, it was explained that the unions insisted on adding this clause as a response to blacklists of seafarers who were union members, or who had made complaints or raised health and safety concerns. Regardless, it still means slipping through the net is possible if you have a chequered past or an unchecked criminal record.
Some management companies are working hard to ensure that action is taken.
“We must manage the discipline of the sexual harasser correctly. Any complaints will be managed within the yacht disciplinary and grievance procedures,” said Mess.
Agnes Nilendere, yacht operations manager for Bluewater, said, “Our managed vessels have harassment and bullying procedures on board as part of the safety system.”
While such proactive steps sound good in theory, challenges remain when it comes to junior crew members needing to report a more senior crew member. For the crew to feel safe in reporting, there needs to be a neutral and independent resource unconnected to the yacht. Karine Rayson, founder of The Crew Coach, said, “We need an objective, independent party to manage and address these issues.”
Change is in the air
Despite the appearance of a never-ending uphill battle, policies can and are being changed. Many organizations, such as Safer Waves and Human Rights At Sea, didn’t exist 10 years ago. Today, they are helping move the correct agenda forward.
CHIRP (the Confidential Human Factors Incident Reporting Programme) advocates for an onboard culture of safety on the presumption that a collaborative approach has the most impact. Earlier this year, CHIRP brought together similar organizations — Safer Waves, Mission to Seafarers, ISWAN, and The Seafarers Charity — to tackle the issue. This month, they plan another meeting to discuss a power-in-numbers approach, with the hope of driving tangible change.
COPE (the Center for Ocean Policy and Economics) is also making extremely positive progress after submitting proposals to the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Eva Lianne Veldkamp, who leads the working group on psychological safety, bullying, sexual abuse, and harassment, said, “The future will see mandatory training requirements, specifically for sexual harassment and bullying, and they are being developed and finalized with priority as part of the comprehensive review of the STCW, and it will be considered for amendments in the ISM code and a point of discussion at ILO concerning human rights.”
Resource list for crew: