Each month, we are sharing a discussion piece written by a member of the maritime industry who can offer a unique or interesting perspective on an aspect of seafarers’ welfare. You can join the conversation on our social media channels – Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.
This month, SEAS THE MIND Co-Founder and Director and superyacht chef Emma Ross discusses the challenges of working in the superyacht industry and how food can play a powerful role in crew wellbeing.
After completing her Bachelor's degree in Psychology, Emma pursued a 15-year career in super-yachting. Starting in 2005 on a variety of motor yachts both private and charter, Emma has also run sailing yachts, including many seasons of racing in superyacht regattas. Seeing and experiencing a vacuum in the industry around mental health awareness and unchallenged bullying and harassment, Emma sought to find an industry-accessible solution and resource. Having completed a two-day Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) course, Emma found what she believes to be the most progressive resource available for anyone in the yachting/maritime industry – the opportunity to educate and empower crew on personal and collective wellbeing. Upskilling during COVID-19 to become an MHFA Instructor and adapting the MHFA course for the yachting industry, she co-founded SEAS THE MIND, a global resource and training program for seafarers to tackle, recognise and fortify individuals to understand their own and others’ mental health onboard. Emma is also currently working as a chef on board superyachts.
The challenges of working on board a superyacht are complex. Say you’ve had a hard day at work…the colleague you least like has been annoying you all day with pointless emails or tasks, your boss (who is nursing a hangover) is making unreasonable requests, then you get trapped in the elevator for 10 floors with a handsy/sexist/racist younger member of your team. Worst day ever. However, as the door of your car/tube closes and you head away from the unchosen colleagues that you share your 8-hour working day with, calmness ensues as you head towards the tribe of supportive friends or family you have curated, balance returns to your destabilised world and you can breathe again. Over conversations at dinners, friends will tell you to stand up for yourself to your boss or to speak to HR, and they may help and encourage you to a better set of circumstances. Partners and loved ones will remind you of your worth and urge you to remember the same, so you will.
Nothing like that is available on superyachts. The creepy chef lives one cabin away from you, and there are no locks on your doors. The drinking and drugs are part of the culture and if you don’t do them then you are boring, or even worse, outcasted. You never get to walk away from ‘the job’ and resonate and recalibrate with your tribe because you live, work, play, holiday, and eat breakfast, lunch and dinner with your crew. They see you when you're at the top of your game and they see you on those days when you'd rather be hiding under the covers.
This is the yachting norm. It offers an amazing lifestyle that most Instagram influencers would live and die for. All whilst being paid! It’s the golden handcuffs that tighten incrementally with every year you remain in yachting. You are financially reimbursed handsomely for working away from home, but the reality is that in-season this is often in exchange for 16-18 hours a day, for weeks on end on charter, without having agency or escape. That is the price you pay for a bunk in a yacht.
To many it seems worth it; they can compartmentalise both the pleasure and the stress that the job brings. They can use yachting to give them a leg up in the next chapter of their lives and a decent amount of paid travel experiences, and to leave the industry with a mortgaged free home they could not have afforded without yachting. Some rise as alphas and enjoy the trappings money and titles bring. However, many join the industry unaware of the challenges they may face and unprepared for how to deal with them – like the uncomfortable, inappropriate sexual innuendos made in the crew mess or the mental stress caused by the incessant standards and demands of the oligarchs who own the vessels.
Talking about mental health in the superyacht industry is critical because we are not currently doing it. When SEAS THE MIND started 18 months ago, it felt like nobody in yachting was talking about it and that needed to change. There is an important relationship between physical, mental and social health and we, in our multi-billion-pound industry, have done nothing to fortify the growing and universal understanding that there is no health without mental health. Mental health training, for example, equips you with an understanding of mental health issues, the signs and symptoms associated with them and how to signpost yourself or others towards help, and is both crucial and something I believe should be mandatory in the industry.
It is also important to recognise what factors on board impact crew wellbeing and how they can be harnessed to make a positive difference. For example, in my own experience as a chef, I’ve seen the importance of food for health and wellbeing both for nurturing overall health, but also the act of bringing people together around a table. A well-balanced, good-looking and nutritious meal does more than provide fuel; it keeps people at the table, talking, connecting, sharing. Often, we are on our feet 16 hours a day, minimum, and the only time you have to sit down is at mealtimes. This is a rare occasion during the day when the crew can feel looked after and nurtured. When done well, it can top up the depleted happy tanks that have been drained through continual service to others.
We have heard the mantra ‘you are what you eat’ and I know this to be true. Crew need long, sustained energy to work on yachts. They need hydrating salads and lunches when it’s mid Mediterranean summer and they are out in the sun all day. They need warm comforting soups and stews when we head back from the Caribbean in April and the weather cools down as we inch slowly east. I try to read the room and give them the food they will need to do the job, but also make them happy. I find it is also a great opportunity for me to find out pre-season – what is everyone’s favourite childhood food? The best three-course meal they’ve ever had? Or the naughtiest and yummiest dessert? I make sure to get that in during a charter and let them know that today it’s THEIR favourite meal. The crew member in question is thrilled and so too are the crew for them, and for themselves when inevitably it is their turn to have their best Spag Bol (it’s usually the way their Mom made it).
Small deposits of care into others’ mental health and wellbeing is not only beneficial to the crew member and the team dynamic; it’s also a great serotonin boost for me when I get positive feedback. Positive connections with others are great for our mental wellbeing, and a combination of peer-to-peer support and mandatory mental health training will help to create a better environment on board. As I’ve seen over many years of working in this industry, ‘A rising tide lifts all boats’.
Find out more about SEAS THE MIND and their work at www.seasthemind.co.uk.