- Opinion - A sobering reality

By Conor Feasey

A sobering reality

As the industry looks to become more professionalised, Captain Kelly Gordon explains how dry boats can help solve the industry's drinking problem…

For many guests and owners, there is a synonymity with champagne and the aft deck of a superyacht – the affirming sound of flutes clinking together whilst watching a Cote d’Azur sunset is what it is all about. But, for whatever reason, this has seemingly seeped into the fabric of the working culture on board in a damaging manner. Images of drunken sailors on board yachts, living a nautical drug, sex and rock and roll lifestyle have been perpetuated to the world via social media and Below Deck. Since the latter hit the airwaves, we have heard countless times that it is not a reflection of what happens on board, but the sobering reality is completely to the contrary.

The caveat here is that both social media and Below Deck (arguably) show the most outrageous and dramatic moments that occur on board for maximum viewership, relying on the public’s love of sensationalism. Moreover, drug and alcohol abuse is a societal problem, not necessarily isolated to the superyacht industry, although the figures for addiction are alarmingly high even when compared to other industries. Regardless of this, conversations I have had with former and current senior crew have alluded to an inevitable cycle of drink, drugs and subsequent destructive behaviour.

So, when taking an earnest look at the culture on board, the ultimate question is, does the crew sector have a drinking problem? And if it does, what options are available to those who choose not to partake?

Captain Kelly Gordon, speaking with SuperyachtNews, did not mince her words. “Yes, we do have a drinking problem in the industry. People often say that this side of the industry is not like Below Deck, but it is. I hear all the time about drug and alcohol abuse, which often leads to harassment and bullying. Don’t get me wrong, there are good boats out there, but as an industry we could learn a lot from the commercial sector in that respect and have dry boats.”

The sentiment that Below Deck does in fact cast an honest, albeit dramatised, lens on crew on board varies throughout the industry, but from numerous conversations I’ve had in with some captains, crew and recruitment companies, it is one that has overwhelmingly been upheld. This is not to say that there aren’t plenty of tight yachts out there where this isn’t an issue, but ignoring such a prevalent and visible issue can’t float, especially in an industry already under such scrutiny.

“Far too often we’ve heard about someone found floating in the marina because they were drunk, alone and had trouble getting onto the boat. As captains, it’s our worst fear.”

Ultimately, reputational risk should be at the tail end of priorities and instead, we should have greater concern for the safety of the crew, guests and yacht itself. More often than not, it takes something drastically tragic to happen before there is a dramatic change in onboard policy, and there are fears that the industry is on the cusp of a disaster if these issues are not resolved.

“So let’s say you're signed onto a ship and then you go ashore, get drunk for the night and then come back in a bad state. What happens if the boat starts sinking or catches on fire? You’ve become a liability,” says Gordon. “It’s not only the fact you can’t help but it the rest of the crew now has one more person that they have to try to get off the boat, as well as helping the guests. And not only that, you are a danger to yourself. Far too often we’ve heard about someone found floating in the marina because they were drunk, alone and had trouble getting onto the boat. As captains, it’s our worst fear.”

Beyond safety concerns, there's a pressing need to reshape the industry's culture, and presenting yachting as a viable career path rather than just a temporary stint is imperative to changing this. For Gordon, the industry needs to create an environment where new and young crew members understand that they are going to work. “I just talked to one crew member there that day, and she's like, ‘Oh, I'm thinking about using it as a gap year’. Instead, she should be of the mindset that this could be a really prosperous career if she gets her hands dirty and puts in the hours,” she says.

External factors play a key role here too, as Gordon questions whether crew tend to overindulge because they see owners and the guests drinking and partying, and perhaps feel ‘left out’ from the fun. This could be understandable in some respects, but in a plight to achieve greater professionalism on yachts, crew need to separate this from work. The guests may be partying, but you are not one of them.

“In the same breath, some of my young crew in past have received a $4,000 or $5,000 tip in their hand. Then one of the girls will run to the nearest designer store and come back with this $4,000 handbag. And then the same thing happens with alcohol too - just because they drink thousand-dollar bottles of wine doesn’t mean you need to drink $1,000 a bottle of wine,” adds Gordon. “This is why I try to guide my crew as best they can, encourage them to save and ultimately, spend their money wisely.”

But this drinking culture does not simply rely on what is seen from guests, but also the established culture onboard, namely from the top down from senior crew and captains. Gordon recalls a time when she arrived on a dock in the Bahamas at 09:00 for a handover of a large yacht, only to be met by a captain who was significantly inebriated. It was groundhog day when she arrived again the following morning to complete the handover, to which Gordon thought it would be best to take control of the situation and complete the handover herself.

“The deckhand explained how he once had to park the yacht himself because the captain was so intoxicated. That can’t be right – this young man with no experience having to steer a boat worth millions of dollars.”

“I spoke to one of the junior deckhands, who was no older than 21, on board and asked him ‘Was he like this all the time?’ and he replied ‘Yes. All the time’. Not even that, but the deckhand explained how he once had to park the yacht himself because the captain was so intoxicated. That can’t be right – this young man with no experience having to steer a boat worth millions of dollars,” says Gordon.

“The industry has been pictured as this ‘work hard, play hard, live like a pirate’ kind of thing and it's dangerous. We are so far behind the commercial industry in that respect. The things they talk about fixing in commercial would be luxuries for us, whilst we're still over here with captains driving the damn boat drunk.”

In the face of these challenges, Gordon believes there are several ways to combat the current situation, one namely being a call for more stringent attitudes towards drinking while signed on to a vessel. While the prospect of greater regulation might make some captains wince, especially considering the ever-evolving lists of codes yachts follow, having an imposed alcohol limit, or even a total ban, might not be such a bad idea. Especially as the industry moves to be more professional.

For Gordon, imposing a ban on drugs and alcohol while signed on board is something she holds as a triumph to her success as a captain. “Having a dry boat has been far better than any other boat I have served on or run as a captain. People work better together, they are healthier, happier and there's a lot less drama,” laughs Gordon. “And for those who say ‘But does it stop the crew having fun?’ or ‘Isn’t it boring?’, most of my crew have been with me for years. They wouldn’t stay if they didn’t enjoy the environment; there are plenty of other boats out there that would snap them up in a heartbeat.”

Instead of drinking on board, Gordon and her crew play games, go out to dinner and have movie nights, but considering the close proximity they all work in constantly, attendance is never mandatory. This has given the crew a sense of calm on board as well as having the freedom to do as they please, within reason. “Of course, when we are out to dinner I won’t stop people from having a beer or a glass of wine. My crew know the rules and they can do what they want within that,” says Gordon. “There have also been times where I have given them permission for shore leave and they have gone to the casino or something like that and I’ve never had a problem with them coming back drunk and being a danger to themselves or everyone else. Although it doesn't stop me from caring and worrying about them.”

Young crew will often feel pressured into joining in with senior crew for fear of being ostracised and subsequently fall into the same bad habits shown by their team leaders.

With the success of her dry boats, Gordon has said she has started to see more people requesting advice on how to get on yachts with similar attitudes, especially amongst the younger crew members who are new to the industry. With those joining a yacht for the first time the cycle of drink and drugs often perpetuates itself simply by becoming ingrained in an already established toxic culture. Young crew will often feel pressured into joining in with senior crew for fear of being ostracised and subsequently fall into the same bad habits shown by their team leaders.

This is not to say that crew must live a life of sobriety in order to be successful. For some, like Gordon and her crew, this works, and they are able to operate in a far more professional environment than a boat where the leaders are constantly drinking, or more. Having dry boats might just be the answer, and as the industry desperately tries to upskill and professionalise, perhaps it is an option that should be explored more broadly.

“To progress, we really need to become more professional and present yachting as something you can do as a career, not a gap year you can party your way through or with the attitude of ‘I'm going to work there for five years and stash a lot of money and then be done’. Even in the Interior Department, you can go all the way up to become chief stew to then onto head of interior,” says Gordon.

“I don't ever discourage anyone from entering the industry. It's been life-changing for me. It’s amazing and I love what I do, but I think a couple of things need to be changed in terms of the culture, the landscape. And a big part of that is the way we view the use of alcohol onboard. Having a dry boat is one of the best decisions I've made for me and my crew, and it might be the answer for a lot of other boats out there too.”

This article precedes What to do with a drunken sailor'’ in the upcoming edition of  The Superyacht Report: Captains Focus. Here, we will dissect the data of how drink and drugs are affecting life on board, and what we as an industry can do about it.

If you have any comments or experience with this topic, get in touch with us confidentially here at

Join the discussion

A sobering reality


To post comments please Sign in or Register

When commenting please follow our house rules

Click here to become part of The Superyacht Group community, and join us in our mission to make this industry accessible to all, and prosperous for the long-term. We are offering access to the superyacht industry’s most comprehensive and longstanding archive of business-critical information, as well as a comprehensive, real-time superyacht fleet database, for just £10 per month, because we are One Industry with One Mission. Sign up here.

Sign up to the SuperyachtNews Bulletin

Receive unrivalled market intelligence, weekly headlines and the most relevant and insightful journalism directly to your inbox.

The SuperyachtNews App

Follow us on