In a normal working environment, there are many structures in place to ensure that when a woman becomes pregnant, her role and responsibilities are not impeded in any way. However, when working in the more unusual situation of a superyacht, what can female crew expect - and what do they need to know - about how best to navigate this situation?
The Maritime Coastguard Agency (MCA) issued an updated Marine Guidance Note - MGN 522 - in 2014 to outline its stance on ensuring women are supported in this situation. “Pregnancy should not be equated to ill health,” the notes reads. “It should be regarded as part of everyday life and its health and safety implications can be adequately addressed by normal health and safety management procedures. Many women work while they are pregnant, and many return to work while they are still breastfeeding.”
The MGN outlines, however, does consider how the nature of work aboard a ship or yacht can mean pregnant women are at a higher level of risk. The note puts forward a number of situations, for example, the lack of specially-trained doctors on board that may be required in an emergency “could not be duplicated, even on a ship with medical facilities”. Similarly, if a premature labour and/or birth was to occur, access to appropriate medical facilities would not be possible until the vessel had reached a port. It is for these reasons that the MCA recommends women should not work after the 28th week of pregnancy or return before six weeks after the child’s birth.
"If a premature labour and/or birth was to occur, access to appropriate medical facilities would not be possible until the vessel had reached a port."
The UK Government also outlines that a woman’s role and responsibilities may have to change if they are deemed risky to her and the baby’s health. These risks include heavy lifting or carrying, standing or sitting for long periods without adequate breaks, exposure to toxic substances and long working hours. All of these are commonly found in the role of a crewmember on board, and therefore the relevant management team must take them into consideration. However, each yacht applies to the laws of their flag state, or the country in which they are currently residing, therefore this can vary between each vessel.
Rebecca Thornley-Gibson, employment partner for Ince & Co., states that according to UK Law, if a safe environment cannot be provided for, the pregnant crewmember can be forced to go ashore, with full pay. “If a risk is found for the seafarer that cannot be removed then the new or expectant mother can be suspended on full pay providing they have either told their employer they are pregnant, given birth in the last six months or are breastfeeding.”
How commonplace is a pregnant crewmember? “I am aware of a couple of vessels that have contacted us to replace a pregnant crew member on board,” explains Helen Warren, director at Sovren Group. “A new build was happy for the crew members situation but disappointed due to the fact that they took months in choosing the crew and then they couldn’t leave the yard with her onboard, so had to begin their search again.” The transient nature of the industry does mean that many crew do not see remaining on board as an option. “One hopes that the captain and owners will be able to look after the crewmember well, find a good replacement, enjoy the fact that the crewmember is pregnant and assist should they be anxious in any way,” she adds.
An ex-stewardess, Annie*, spoke to SuperyachtNews, after she recently came ashore due to pregnancy after two years on rotation. “I left the yacht at the end of my first trimester, it personally wasn't an option for me to go back for a number of reasons. The first was that I needed to move home and 'nest', and get doctor and midwife appointments organised. Secondly, flying restrictions meant that I was on a time frame too. Had I had gone back to complete another two months, it would have put me over the 28-week cut off period for flying with most airlines. Work on board a yacht as chief stewardess can be stressful and labour intensive and I didn't want that pressure on my body for the baby.”
"Work on board a yacht as chief stewardess can be stressful and labour intensive and I didn't want that pressure on my body for the baby.”
The issue of maternity leave is also difficult in the industry, with it being very rare of mothers returning to work on board. However, Thornley-Gibson explains that pregnant women must be given the right to return to their original job: “The employee will have the right to return to the same job she had before maternity leave or, if that is not practical, the employer will need to provide another role that is suitable and appropriate,” she explains. “This can create practical difficulties with small employers who do not have a range of alternative roles or who may find it difficult to recruit someone for the maternity leave period.” Evidently, the limited number of roles on board a yacht can mean that this is a difficult situation to adhere to for both captain and owner.
Another chief stewardess recalled how it was common for a woman to resign if they found out they were pregnant, but this wasn’t driven from the top down. Admitting the circumstances would depend on their relationship with the owner and captain, she explained that the day-to-day experiences of working on board weren’t compatible with the side-effects of pregnancy, leading many women to head back ashore.
When I asked Annie about any possibilities of returning to work on board or the expectation of any maternity packages, she explained that was just assumed she would resign, and no maternity package was discussed. “I never felt the pressure from the captains or management, I guess you could say it was an assumption from both parties. I was prepared for this, after 12 years in the industry and at 36 years of age, I knew a job in yachting did not lend itself to a lifelong career once you had children.”
“I never felt the pressure from the captains or management, I guess you could say it was an assumption from both parties. I was prepared for this. I knew a job in yachting did not lend itself to a lifelong career once you had children.”
“On the whole, the yachting industry does not support women who fall pregnant and decide to have a family,” adds Annie. “There is very little, if any financial assistance and the option to return to work is made difficult due to the nature of the lifestyle of travelling and long periods at sea.” However, she does foresee this changing in the coming years, as yachts adjust to the needs of pregnant women and mothers. “On a positive note, there do seem to be steps in the right direction. A friend of mine recently worked on a vessel that offered three months paid maternity leave to crew members after the birth of the child. Additionally, full medical insurance was offered to any pregnant crew members and they offered paid parental leave too.”
This should be, after all, a happy and positive time for all parties. As Warren concludes, “There are some beautiful names for these worldly, well-travelled baby bumps.”
*name has been changed.
Update: this article previously stated the Marine Guidance Note as 460, rather than 522. MGN 460 was withdrawn in 2014.