Employment, risks and the necessary training

As a profession, is it time the superyacht industry took charge and increased the levels of training to protect both crew and guests?
Words: Capt A. Croft MBA, AFNI (The PYA)

Employment concerns
There is a large regulatory difference between commercial and privately operated yachts. Budgets vary considerably even between similar sized yachts, which not only impacts salaries but also the safety emphasis on equipment and crew training. Employment across a fleet is rare, which tends to lead to limited promotion prospects. Low job security/high crew turnover is more typical than not, and in these cases operational knowledge is often lost.

Crew hiring decisions are generally made by the Captain, with the owner/management involved only for more senior positions. While there are a number of specialised yacht crew placement agencies, a large number of yacht positions are now advertised on the Internet, potentially by-passing crew agencies and competition for places is fierce.

Hours of rest and cruising patterns
Yachts may operate in several regions in a single year, or be based in one area with long periods in port. Where yachts have a home port, crew may live ashore or onboard in port for a large part of the year.

There is almost inevitably a high ratio of crew to passengers, necessary in an industry which requires an exemplary experience for guests. Despite this, constraints arise with Hours of Rest regulations, especially when the vessel is running at full guest/ passenger capacity. It is not uncommon for Hours of Rest to be less than the minimum legally required, or for crew to falsify records during these periods.

Other dangers can include yachts making short passages close to the coast. These are often near navigational dangers, and in areas experiencing large volumes of traffic especially in high season. Itineraries are often subject to last minute changes despite detailed planning, or may not be planned at all.

There is a considerable risk of criminalisation for Masters, especially on yachts that operate or even anchor in sensitive areas. There is a certain amount of pressure to provide the ‘ultimate guest cruising experience’ by operating in such areas. While relationships with the owner and the family can vary from the close to the distant, it is very hard for the master to say no to such requests. This can, and has, led to groundings and large fines.

Casualty rates
Although groundings and similar accidents are relatively rare in the superyacht sector, they are not unknown. The 134m Serene, for example, went aground at speed in daylight somewhere south of the Tiran Straits/approaches to the Gulf of Aqaba, despite being manned by deck officers holding unlimited CoCs – and this is not the first yacht over 100m to have suffered a grounding incident.

Clearly this is not the image that the sector wishes to project, and owners/ management will want to limit the public fallout from such events. Very few accident reports from the large luxury yacht sector are released in the public domain or are reported to organisations such as CHIRP or MARS. This is in marked contrast to the commercial sector where detailed analysis and the availability of navigational/ operational safety accidents reports, are far more regularly and promptly provided. Take for example the public release of accident reports for the Costa Concordia, Rena, and the USS Fitzgerald.

Another area in which accidents seem to occur with depressing regularity on yachts is working aloft/over the side. Recently, there have been a number of serious and even fatal injuries from crew falling whilst working. Yachts do require crew to access masts, raised flats, and to work over the side for cleaning and maintenance. MGN 578 (Over the side working on vessels) requires the employer to ensure that crew are competent in the use of the equipment needed for this type of work, but no independent level of training/qualification has been mandated.

Perhaps there is a requirement for this to change in our industry sooner rather than later.