What do we do with drunken sailor?

Is it a problem in our industry? Well, I’d say yes, but for sure it is also a problem in many other walks of life. However, when the safety of the crew guests and yourself come in to play, then yes, it does become a problem.
We need to understand when we can and can not let loose…
Words: Erica Lay

Well we’ve all done it. Ok, most of us have done it. Gone out, had an epically fabulously carnage ridden booze fuelled
evening full of questionable decisions and shenanigans… on a school night. Maybe it was the first night back in port after a long season and the guests have finally gone! Maybe the yacht has finally hit land in the Caribbean after a rather choppy and unpleasant trans-Atlantic crossing and the espresso martinis are calling. Are we working tomorrow? Oh, we are?

Ah who cares, YOLO!!! Shots anyone? It’s time to party!

And then that horrible moment comes, your alarm goes off about thirty seconds after you’ve passed out fully clothed in the wrong bunk, and The Fear hits you. Your tongue is coated in what feels like a sticky slathering of shame, and you immediately begin to regret pretty much every decision you’ve ever made in your entire life, whilst simultaneously trying to focus on one point on the wall, begging it to stop moving and wondering if you’re going to die from the splitting headache or the absolute nausea. After throwing up what tastes and smells like battery acid saturated kebab riddled jager bombs (did we do jager bombs? I don’t remember doing jager bombs….) in the shower, brushing your teeth and in the case of those who wear it, trying to reapply some make up to cover up the excess baggage under your eyes because wearing sunglasses in the crew mess is not acceptable apparently, and possibly pausing momentarily to have a little weep (it’s ok let it out hun), it’s on with the work day and time to just focus on getting through it without dying…

It’s kind of funny when you’re with your crew mates and you’re all equally hanging out of your backsides; taking bets on who feels worse, and laughing at the fact that one person is incapable of getting out of their bunk and will most likely get a warning from the captain. Unless it’s him (or her) of course. Laughing at the chef who’s trying not to vom on the hot plate whilst frying up emergency bacon sarnies for everyone (even the vegan stew is all over that one and wants a runny yolk on her egg too). Comparing UBIs (Unidentified Beer Injuries), reporting lost credit cards and phones… and stewardesses actually, where’s the junior? Dammit Chief, you had ONE job…oh hang on look at the pasarelle camera! Here she comes – WALK OF SHAAAAAME! Awesome. And hang on is that the engineer puking off the starboard aft? Let’s face it, we’re pretty much all still hammered from last night. Yes, we’ve all been there. And oh look, the captain’s laughing and telling everyone to get the necessary done and we can all take the rest of the day off to recover. Harmless fun right? This is just yachting! We work hard, we play hard! Lighten up it’s just a laugh… right?

Sure! Until these occurrences become less once or twice a season and more frequent. Weekly. Now with guests on. Daily. Yeh just a laugh, until you realise the ringleaders in these events are the ones who are, directly or indirectly, responsible for the health and safety of everyone on board. Not so much fun now is it? A recent post on a Facebook forum asking for advice on this subject showed just how divisive drinking and drug use in the yachting industry truly is. Anonymous posted her question. They’d joined a yacht in a relatively small crew (Captain, Engineer, Mate, Stew) with themselves as the chef. Shortly after joining, they discovered that the Captain and Engineer were not just drinking buddies out of hours. They were bringing hard liquor on board and drinking throughout the working day, plus dipping into the boss’s alcohol supplies when it suited them. So, Anonymous asked, what do I do?

Somewhat unsurprisingly, the response was pretty negative. But, somewhat surprisingly, it was targeted at Anonymous, not at the captain and chief engineer. “lighten up” “you must be fun at parties” “get over it, this is yachting” to quote just a few of the keyboard cowboys who were out to troll that day. Others asked Anonymous “do you have proof?” or said “Two sides to every story” and accused them of lying or making the story up. Incredible to see this was the attitude and response to a genuine cry for advice in what was once regarded as a safe space for yacht crew to avoid judgement.

How is working with drunk people acceptable “because yachting”?! Would you get in a car with a drunk driver? Nah. Would you put your family and friends in a car with a drunk driver? Your nan? Again, hard nah from me so why is it ok to be on a big powerful boat and absolutely carparked on the boss’s best whisky then? Oh and someone else then started banging on about the fact that smoking weed is far better than drinking on board and off they went on a tangent about working stoned instead. Because dulling your senses and lowering your reaction time is always good when you’re working in a dangerous environment isn’t it? Honestly, I despair. And this, this is the impression we’re giving to brand new crew, crew who are looking for people to look up to, and potential crew who’ve not entered the industry yet. No wonder we don’t have enough greenies. And no wonder people keep leaving!

Anonymous approached me, so after consoling them that no, in fact, this behaviour is neither normal nor tolerated on professionally run superyachts, I decided to do a little social (media) experiment. Three minutes and a tiktok later (hey I’m not here to put socks on caterpillars, time is money), I uploaded a reel to various platforms asking for feedback from my network. I was banking on them being more professional and thankfully, they did not let me down! We’ll come to that in a minute. But first let’s talk a bit about the facts.

Truth: whether you like it or not, alcohol does hamper your ability to do your job (as does weed but let’s stick to one subject at a time or this will take three days to read). It’s one thing if your duties for the day happen to be a bit of paperwork or cleaning, but if it’s driving the yacht, or being responsible for others safety (as well as your own) then it’s not actually all that funny is it?

Booze affects our judgement (look at who you woke up with after that big night out for proof), reaction time, our coordination and also our vision, which is why drink limits are based on Blood Alcohol Concentration.

This can be measured by breathalysers or blood samples. We all know that drinking seriously hampers our ability to react quickly to hazards, and that the more we drink the slower we become and the worse our coordination becomes. Need an example? Let’s watch a drunken sailor fall over on a perfectly level floor in the bar after a few too many when the boat’s hit land post crossing, and then let’s compare that to never seeing them lose their footing even once on a 30m sail yacht heeling in high seas for the past few weeks. Which leads me to ask, what can’t you do with a drunken sailor? But no, I digress….

Lots of different factors can affect your BAC (or how you personally react to booze), not just how much you chuck down your neck. It can vary depending on your size and weight, if you’re male or female, if you’re drinking quickly or pacing yourself, if you’ve eaten (and even what you’ve eaten – carb load if you’re boozing please! You’ll thank me later and yes, I speak from experience I’ll admit that), if you’re tired, what you’re drinking (e.g. spirits in Spanish measures – uh oh, versus a half pint of shandy), your hormones (ladies – due on? You’ll get more drunk than usual, and no I don’t know why), how hydrated you are… and so on.

MCA’s MGN 448 states the alcohol blood limits under STCW regulation VIII/1 for “professional staff on duty”. Now, that’s not just the captain of the vessel, it includes “a professional seaman in a ship while on duty” which would be the whole crew… not only that, it also applies to “professional staff off duty”. Who’s that? Well probably you: “If in the event of an emergency he would or might be required by the nature or terms of his engagement to take action to protect the safety of passengers”. So if you have guests on board, you can’t be drinking.

The document sets the blood limit at 50mg in 100ml of blood. That’s 0.5 BAC which is LOWER than the drink driving limit in the UK. Depending on all of the above factors (and a few others not listed), even after one drink you could be over the limit. Point to note is this only applies to red ensign vessels or if you’re cruising in UK Waters. If you’re neither, then best consult your own flag states rules but they’re usually pretty similar. And not forgetting, some yachts operate as completely dry yachts. So no booze on board. Ever. Whether it’s in your hand or in your belly.

Ok so we all know we shouldn’t be boozing and working simultaneously. But let’s throw a bit more info into the mix. Check out MGN 193 by the MCA, which deals with the effects of drugs/alcohol on survival at sea. Did you know that alcohol speeds up the rate of body cooling? This means you’re at increased risk of hypothermia. So if you fall overboard and it’s not the Med in July, you could be in deep trouble in a matter of moments. According to the MCA, there is “clear scientific evidence that even quite moderate alcohol consumption (not sure any yacht crew (or in my case crew agents) are guilty of moderate alcohol consumption but still) normally leads to a reduction in blood sugar” which can seriously affect the way your body reacts to the cold. And would you believe it, shivering lowers your sugar further. If you’ve got guests on board boozing it up then keep an eagle eye on them too – if you’re under the influence from the night before and someone goes over, well it’s on you to react and your reaction time could be the difference between saving a soul, or not.

If you’re really interested in learning more, then feel free to check out the MCA’s website under www.gov.uk, search for MGNs, or Code of Safe Working Practices for Merchant Seafarers, also you can find a great deal on the International Maritime Organization’s pages www.imo.org. Alcohol is a big topic, you can find sources under every country’s Maritime Authority legislation too, detailing the fines and penalties for being drunk and in charge of a vessel.

So there’s the facts, what about Anonymous’s situation? What should they do? My community banded together to give them proper advice: the best thing to do firstly is preserve your safety. That might mean quitting and getting off the yacht. The official route is to report this – now if it weren’t the captain involved then they would be your first point of contact here, but obviously in this case that’s not going to work.

So if you can, report it to the owner. If there’s a management company, report it to them or your DPA. You could report it to the flag state too. One person suggested carrying out an inventory and taking photos of the stock which is being pilfered so you have proof. A chief officer pointed out that when the problems start at the top, the captain is effectively nurturing a certain culture on board. She recommended addressing the issue with other crew members before you leave, to make sure they’re aware of how wrong this is. I pointed out in my video that we as seniors of the industry have a duty of care to look after those who are more junior or inexperienced, so in that regard we should report this behaviour even when it’s very hard to do so.

And if you’re not sure you should, speak to someone about it first. They don’t have to be in the industry, I’d say even better if they’re not so you’ll get a completely unbiased view and opinion. If only we could be a bit more responsible for ourselves, our fellow crew, and the property we’re working on things might be a bit better for everyone. Or else we’ll all have to be breathalysed before work.

That’s given us all a bit to think about. We’re not saying all drinking is bad, obviously it’s not – it’s just important that we know when we can let loose and when we can’t. So this is Erica Lay, of the Fun Police, signing off, for a glass of wine (because it’s not a school night, I’m not in charge of any superyachts, and I can).