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Keeping banter in bounds

Lauren Stiles looks at the line between banter and bullying and the realities of its effect upon junior crew…

A superyacht crew of any size, working and living together in cramped conditions for long periods, has its benefits but also its drawbacks. I look back fondly on my time on board, especially working on deck, and relish the sense of companionship and cooperation that we all enjoyed. I was very lucky to join the superyacht industry as a green deckie; I found myself on a 40m motoryacht run by a family crew. I was thoroughly supported and nurtured by the captain-chief stewardess husband-and-wife team, and their two sons, the first mate and lead deckhand.

However, in my current position as a shore-based cadetship manager, a large number of entry-level superyacht crew pass through my hands every year, and I keep in touch with them, particularly in their first year after training. Often, they are the ones who turn to me for help and advice if they have problems, and examples of graduates not having such a smooth start to their careers due to other crewmembers making their lives difficult have come up a few too many times.

It’s common knowledge that deckhands, in particular, often have to take the rough with the smooth, and you have to be pretty tough. I recall one charter where the guests had, for some reason, given their young son a sink plunger. It then became my job to follow him around the yacht for two weeks with a rag, polishing the sucker marks he continuously made on the superstructure.

I have found that a problem faced by some crews is making the distinction between banter and bullying. How can anyone define that or lay down yardsticks to measure at what point having fun for one person becomes intolerable for another? We have all seen someone walking up the International Quay in Antibes with a radio, wrapped in tin foil, ‘calibrating the radar’, or have witnessed someone being asked to refill the fenders with ‘fresh air’. But when does an innocent practical joke go too far?

"Sadly, for some, when things do go too far, the only solution, regrettably, is to give in their notice to the captain and start looking for a new position."

The answer has to be that it all depends on the juniors on the receiving end. If it becomes unpleasant for them to be the butt of jokes or unreasonable orders, then it should stop. It has become apparent to me that if a crewmember feels that these jokes have gone a little too far, then it’s what happens next – or often what doesn’t happen – that is important.

Obviously, the junior should point out how they are being made to feel, and senior members of the crew should soften their attitude, but this is sometimes more easier said than done. If the behaviour continues, then it is very difficult for a junior crewmember to complain and not lose face.

Sadly, for some, when things do go too far, the only solution, regrettably, is to give in their notice to the captain and start looking for a new position – or, worse still, be put off the industry by their bad experience and leave yachting altogether.

It is also to be hoped that if a captain is losing crew on a regular basis, and there is more than a suspicion that the cause is unreasonable treatment of the juniors, then that captain would keep a closer eye on the situation to ensure relationships between crewmembers are improved. However, I can’t help but wonder how it is much quicker and easier to replace an entry-level deckhand than someone with more experience and a much higher level of qualifications. 

This type of situation, seen by some as a ‘rite of passage’, is common in many industries. It can perhaps be compared to the sporting sectors, where senior members of a coaching staff sometimes abuse their positions of authority and make life difficult for the juniors in their care. I think we should all be very watchful at every level in the yachting community to ensure this doesn’t become a problem serious enough to catch the headlines in future. Passive acceptance of unreasonable attitudes simply helps to encourage it.

As a mentor to junior crew, I ask that we all think twice before we get our green deckie to ask the engineer for a ‘long wait’. Just think whether you would have found this funny when you first started in the industry and were trying to adapt to life on board.

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Keeping banter in bounds

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