Is our industry pulling its weight?

Is the yachting industry diverse? A big question. What does being diverse mean and as an industry, on the yachts and on-shore, are we doing our part in making sure we develop a diverse and progressive industry as a whole? Surely the answer should be yes we are…..

Over in the corporate world, it’s been widely accepted that companies need to embrace diversity in their workforce in order to succeed. Diversity is becoming ingrained in our business culture as a way to increase productivity and actually achieve success.

So, if diversity is “a thing” out there, why are owners, management companies and captains not bringing this ethos across into the yachting industry?

Let’s take it back to the basics, what’s diversity all about? Well, diversity covers characteristics which differentiate people from each other. For example, ethnicity, sex, age, size, sexuality, economic background, disability, religious beliefs, etc. That sort of thing.

What’s the benefit of having a diverse work force? Well, we all know different people have different views, perspectives and also their approach to dealing with problems and facing challenges will also vary depending on where they’re from, what their background is, and perhaps the personal issues they’ve faced in their own lives and careers thus far. This melting pot of different views and opinions naturally leads to a more innovative and creative environment. That’s a fact.

Professor Roy YJ Chua from Harvard University stated, “The more your network includes individuals from different cultural backgrounds, the more you will be creatively stimulated by different ideas and perspectives. Importantly, these ideas do not necessarily come from the network members who are culturally different from you.”

Look at the corporate world and you’ll see companies having an actual “diversity quota”. People working in roles such as “Chief Diversity Officer” where they’re literally dedicated to finding different and diverse people to join their teams – so clearly there’s a huge need and a benefit to this whole aspect of the work force.

Google “diversity in superyachting” and you’ll be able to find several rather similar articles regurgitating the same info, dating back over the past few years, and yet still, nothing has changed. Absolutely nothing. Everything I’ve found bangs on about the lack of diversity in the industry (true story), yes, we know the industry is often accused of being racist, sexist, ageist, sizeist, etc… but nobody wants to talk about when diversity hires actually go right! And the tangible benefits they can bring to a crew.

Surely that’s what people need to hear to be convinced? So here I am, challenging the narrative. Again … !

I spoke to a stew, Katy Alting, who hasn’t had an easy time of joining the yacht industry due to (she feels), her size and the fact she’s a person of colour. She told me, “I love this topic and I feel everyone is too scared to talk about it. As a person of colour as well as being a size 14/16 (double whammy!) I feel I get passed on for a lot of jobs. [Captains] just looking at my CV photo and not even getting to know me!”

“I’m sharing a room at the moment with a bigger girl who has just walked off her boat last week. The first thing the chief stew said to her was ‘you’re too big for our uniform’ and that she was under the impression from her CV photo that she was thin and that was one of the factors in hiring her. The next two days were full of teasing and telling her to go on a diet etc etc.”

Can you imagine the impact that has on a girl of 20, her first impression of the yachting industry from someone she should be looking up to being an attack on her appearance? And worse, the chief stew herself who openly bullied her until she left – how indoctrinated has she become that she believes this sort of behaviour is ok? Is she ok? Probably not. I suspect she’s hungry. However, I said I wasn’t going to bang on about the negatives – so it’s fabulous this young lady has found herself sharing with Katy, whose positive outlook and “never give up” attitude is an inspiration to everyone. In fact, Katy’s approach this season has even drawn attention to the fact she’s not the average crew member, she finishes her cover letter intro telling you to hire her, with (and I LOVE this), “that pop of colour you never knew you needed ;)”.

Like it or not, yachting does have a “look”. Right now we’re in the midst of a crew shortage so can we as an industry afford to be so picky? When every job you see advertised at junior level demands “at least a season’s experience” and on top of that they have to look a certain way, no wonder there aren’t enough crew to go around.

Captain Scott Waterfield dropped me a line from somewhere in the Pacific to say, “I’ve had great success with diversity hires. It’s taken some work with changing owners’ viewpoints. But when you know you’ve got the perfect fit it’s worth the effort. Once owners start to get the ultimate experience they are seeking, they are way more willing to look beyond the standard blue-eyed blond- haired yachting profile.

In the past I’ve been very fortunate to have worked with some very talented people including: an Israeli couple – deck/engo + cook/stew who was lightly tattooed and an ex-smoker on a boat that had nicotine testing because they were vehemently anti-smoking. An American/Aussie couple who were both heavily tattooed for a very ‘sensitive’ owner. I’ve had a black gay Antiguan male chef who was outrageous but amazing at his job because of the love you could feel he put into his cooking! I’ve taken on ‘hitch-hiker’ crew as unpaid delivery crew that have then stayed for 2 years and become permanent paid crew past my tenure on the boat. And, various crews from random countries such as Lithuania, North Macedonia and Brazil. All of these people have been amazing crew and in post-work life have become good friends.”

I asked Scott how he’s gone about talking his employers into thinking outside of the traditional yachting box, and hiring different people. He said, “Ultimately I’ve found that it’s all about really understanding the owners’ true expectations and making the effort to work around any perceived prejudice in order get the perfect fit.”

He makes it sound easy – and really it should be. If someone can do the job, then that’s enough right? Hmm, you would think so, but does this really happen?

In recent years we have at least seen more females in traditionally male deck roles, although I’d love to see more in the engine room. Regardless, it’s good to see more and more women breaking that glass ceiling,and also the group’s set up to help each other achieve more.

What about people from different cultural backgrounds? I had a great chat with Captain Christopher Bruce who had lots of interesting thoughts to share. He pointed out that “yachting takes you to all these amazing places and cultures, yet there are probably only five prominent nationalities within the crew world; British, South African, Australian, NZ and US.”

Chris also raised a very valid point, and that’s accessibility. He explained, “Diversity in the industry is restricted, whether due to cost or to the lack of access to learn the basic skills. Trying to learn any aspect of boat handling and seamanship or even how to sail is expensive and still something which isn’t an everyday activity for young people or people looking to re-train. I was fortunate enough to have a keelboat in the family and learnt how to sail on the Norfolk Broads. Unless you live on the south coast of the UK for example, your exposure to boating activities is very much limited, and, realistically, something only wealthier families get involved in.”

What happens if you grow up in a working class or lower-class environment? Not everyone’s parents have a yacht darling. And many people don’t even know about the yachting industry, I didn’t until I literally fell into it when I was overseas working as a dive instructor. For pennies. But that’s another story.

A quick google, and you’ll find a ton of organisations who are set up to promote diversity in yachting. Unfortunately, there are a number I’ve never even heard of, and as someone who’s somewhat prolific on social media this surprises me. Where are they promoting their services, and to whom? If yacht crew are their target audiences, why are we not seeing them on Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok? How are they connecting with the people they’re meant to be helping?

If we want to attract a more diverse set of people to work in our industry, then we need to consider mentorships. We’ve talked about internships and unless you have a fleet of yachts (sadly I don’t), or work in the commercial sector this currently seems unachievable. So how about we start with mentor schemes? It’s been done in the past but it just always seems to fizzle out.

Perhaps if the MCA or similar got involved and made it an official scheme it may get off the ground. Or the RYA – who were reported in Sky News in 2021 to be setting a new diversity strategy when it emerged 97% of their staff were white. Although they set out with a new and exciting plan for inclusivity, I can’t find any info on whether or not they achieved their objectives.

It does seem a lot of organisations in yachting have a policy in place and consider that enough. And to be fair, it’s a good start – and moving forward isn’t exactly straightforward.

So, until the yachts start hiring people outside the norm, diversity won’t be addressed. The number of people of colour or of a larger size for example, are so minimal there’s no representation.

Katy said, “Seeing someone who looks like me would have given me such a boost in confidence when I first started out. I actually almost never joined the yachting industry last year because of it. Representation, representation and more representation that is what is needed. There is a boat out there for everyone. I do believe this but some of us have to have more patience then others.”

As a leading international crew agent, I have proudly worked with and placed many diverse crew members. People of colour, LGBTQIA+, women in traditionally male roles (and vice versa!), tattooed and pierced crew, and (not many but still), disabled crew members to name a few, and will continue to put the best person forward for the position.

Like Katy, I also believe there’s a job for everyone out there in this industry, and one size simply does not fit all. We all know every yacht is different and has different requirements, and we see the beauty in this
– so let’s embrace that ethos by employing more diverse people to represent that.