Next week, ISWAN will publish a new resource aiming to guide and support all crew to increase their awareness of the potential risks associated with job-hunting in the yachting industry. We worked with partners across the industry to produce this resource, including Chloe Russell, who set up the Facebook group Sailing Safely for Women after her own experience of assault on board a yacht. Chloe shares here why this resource is so important and how she is working to ensure yacht crew are equipped and empowered to make the right choices when seeking work at sea.
I was completely new to sailing when I decided to try volunteer crewing on a sailboat in 2020. Via an online crewing platform, I found a captain willing to host me in exchange of my work on his boat in Tahiti, French Polynesia.
After checking his professional profile, and agreeing on the framework of this ‘board for work’ collaboration, I flew there in January 2021 to embark on his boat. Unfortunately, on the first evening of my first night on board, anchored a few hundred meters away from a remote French Polynesian island, he sexually assaulted me. I was so distraught and shocked that I froze and went into dissociation, not knowing how to process what was happening to me. I was far away from home, in a vulnerable state of isolation and shame. To this day, I haven't healed from this experience, and I have lingering post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), insomnia, addiction, isolating behaviour, depression and avoidance mechanisms when it comes to my interactions with men, among others.
Alas, I quickly discovered, via a local French Polynesia sailing Facebook group, that I wasn't the only one having been ‘ambushed’ on a sailboat as a volunteer female crew in order to be assaulted, harassed or abused. I since virtually met many women and girls to whom this had also happened, and therefore decided to create myself (with the support of other mobilised sailing people, women victims and men who are aware of the phenomenon, and fed up with it) a Facebook group to raise awareness of these criminal acts and provide safety precautions advice to new female volunteer crew. This was in the spring on 2021.
Since then, the group has grown to being more than 7,000 members strong, and has reached out and helped more than a hundred victims process what had happened to them, and feel supported. I have also compiled a blacklist of the worst abusers, including convicted rapists who, unfortunately, can freely recruit on online crewing platforms which do not systematically verify ID (‘too costly’, they say), much less do criminal background checks. I have conducted extensive and bitter advocacy for these platforms to become safer (alas unsuccessfully so far, except one French platform which was immediately in support).
Because victims are so traumatized, ashamed, left stranded in remote parts of the world, and there is often no material evidence of their assault, 99% of the time they don't press charges, don't make noise, and the aggressions continue, as well as impunity.
I therefore decided this had to change and embarked, along with the Facebook group, in an advocacy effort which included reaching out to ISWAN for help on the matter. I have received nothing but incredible support from their staff and the Yacht Crew Help hotline. It was very healing for me.
I have also worked with some ministries, police authorities of several countries, other NGOs and charities, and the media. My goal is to push for a global protection framework for professional and voluntary crew to be enforced everywhere, including on online recruiting platforms, and encouraged for the many Facebook groups of several hundred thousand members where captains and crew e-meet.
Beyond that, my goal is also to show that impunity is over for crimes committed at sea where laws are harder to enforce, and that the sailing community needs to confront/shun the abusers and embrace clearly a ‘NO TO ANY FORM OF ABUSE’ mentality, which alas today clearly lacks, as more often than not, the victim is still the culprit.
ISWAN’s new resource, developed based on my own list of safety precautions which I compiled with the support of the Sailing Safely for Women (SSW) Facebook community is crucial in this effort, and I hope will help to equip and empower crew to make the right choices, and to be fully informed when it comes to their safety.
If I had seen these safety precautions prior to starting my own search for a boat to volunteer on, I can confidently say that I wouldn’t have been assaulted. I wasn’t aware, as I am now, that so many sexual predators were using their boats to isolate women and girls to assault them. The ‘surprise’ effect is what allowed my victimisation. Information is empowerment, and the beginning of the end for impunity, as abusers know that their ‘methodology’ is no longer kept secret by silence, and the shame of the victims.
Thank you ISWAN, and all the organisations/individuals who participated, for hearing my trauma and that of the other victims, for supporting me and this effort, and for participating in making the seas safer for all of us.
If you have been affected by any of the issues in this article, you can contact ISWAN’s free, 24-hour helpline Yacht Crew Help to speak to someone confidentially. All contact details including Live Chat can be found at www.yachtcrewhelp.org.