When the knives went still
Brendan O'Shannassy draws the industry's attention to the importance of mental health awareness and support…
I returned from leave to find a broad-chested, heavily tattooed, wide grinning, carving machine working in the galley. Before I could fully process the image of the chef before me, the knife was laid to the side, the hand wiped clean on the apron, and after two farmer’s steps in my direction, the same hand was extended in greeting. All actions being as swift as the knife was until moments before.
“Hi Capt, I’m Cy, we have friends in common”
I was drawn in by the warmth of the smile and the twinkle in the eye. The only thing that caught me off-guard was the forearms, who was this guy? He was strong and when the knife rose and fell it did so to a cadence that would have made a Sergeant Major proud. I would later learn we were the same age, 50, bloody hell how was he so fit?
That first meeting was two years ago and in the intervening time, I could never stop Cy calling me ‘Capt’, even though we shared many cups of tea where we spoke of our families, our hopes for the future, and our shared interest in locally grown food produce. Through Cy I learnt of the network of small businesses in Tasmania making great food locally and his plans to join this community. Listening to him and knowing his work-rate all I could think of was, maybe I should look to Tasmania for the next Australian holiday? In the workplace, no request was too great. We asked, and Cy leapt forward to volunteer, always that cheeky grin in place.
Over the same time, I was drawn to action when I realised we were losing wonderful crew members in our yachting community by their own hand. I began to link stories and I realised that isolated cases were not so isolated and there was little or no support for those at risk and less for those seeking to understand and help.
I was not wrong on the problem, but I was wrong in thinking there is no support available. The yacht Cy and I shared opened a subscription service to Medaire for their product, “Crew Emotional Support Helpline”. This service was spoken of often onboard and allowed a dialogue in each crew meeting to normalise mental health as a topic, it was spoken of alongside the perennial favourites of crew mess cleanliness and stains on the teak. It was a start, but a paid subscription was not enough. In combination with registered charities, industry bodies and yachting businesses the portal www.yachtcrewhelp.org is under final construction. When finished it will provide a mental wellness knowledge centre and a multi-lingual helpline.
Still seeking to learn more I spoke with Tony Nicholson of Medaire. Tony applauded the www.yachtcrewhelp.org project but mentioned a helpline was the last fence before the cliff and what we need to do is start the conversation many miles inland from that dangerous edge. Tony’s words are so true, the conversation begins in the crew mess, in the control room or in the pantry. To normalize asking, “Are you OK?” when a change in behaviour is observed and all knowing why this question is so important.
If the answer is, “I’m not OK”, there are certified counsellors such as the Crew Coach and more that can knowingly, professionally and confidentially be spoken with. There comes a time when professional support is needed beyond what is available onboard and in the shore office.
If it has not become evident, all this is too late for my friend Cy, but not too late for the industry.
Yachts are not Instagram posts, they are homes for crew, they are demanding workplaces and they expose any emotional vulnerabilities. As a yachting community let’s reduce posting photos of yet another anchorage at sunset and start realising our crew and their health is where our value is as an industry and as a community. My challenge to the yachting media is to start posting a new beauty; the laundry person, the galley in full flight, the emergency repair, the nightwatch scrubbing teak…these are wonderful images of hard-working yacht crew who only want the best for their guests. Their smiles speak more to the value of a Charter or Owner’s Experience than yet another wake circle from a jet ski shot from above.
Captains; we too are vulnerable and do not have all the answers. Whilst we might feel the need to present some Patrick O’Brien inspired image of ourselves, it is not in our interest and for those we lead. Seek and then demand the professional support for yourself and for your team. If it is not forthcoming and you feel exposed, then remember your obligations for the safety of all crew onboard and respect mental health as much as you would a fire hazard. Management; do not succumb to the concern of commercial risk, inaction when there is a visible problem is against the obligations and spirit of the ISM code that we hold as the cornerstone of best practice. It is time to be on the right side of this problem.
For the sake of my friend’s memory, his crew mates and his family please, let us leverage this loss to get to a better place.
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