Living on a yacht can contribute to mental health decline due to the pressure of maintaining high standards, added sleep deprivation and physical strain on your body. Melanie White discusses her experiences living and working on superyachts
It’s a common misconception that ‘mental health’ only applies when we are experiencing a condition such as anxiety, depression or addiction. But one of the most important points about mental health is that, like physical health, it’s something we all have and it will oscillate between good spells and poor spells for everyone. Have you considered what happens if you or your crew have a mental wellbeing dip while at sea?
By the age of 22, I felt I was ticking life’s boxes as if filling in a routine survey. Good grades at school? Check. Reliable university degree? Check. Steady graduate job? Check. My feet were planted firmly on solid ground; my life perfectly mirroring society’s expectations. But there was something in me that felt suffocated by the 9-5 and so I decided to take my career to sea and become a yacht chef. After taking a handful of courses I plunged into the superyacht industry, like an ice cube thrown into a crystal glass of the finest whisky, having stepped foot on a boat just three times before.
It’s only with a steady mind now that I can see how much of a hole I was in during the first 18 months of my seafaring career. My life changed dramatically in every way. It wasn’t just a new job; it was a new lifestyle as well. I had a new home, new colleagues, new employer, new routine. The local language would change every few weeks, and while that can be exciting, I had little mental capacity to immerse myself in it.
My brain was bursting with trying to understand sailing jargon while beginning my career as a sole chef with little instruction. My identity morphed in a way I couldn’t have prepared for, and instead of the adventure being life-affirming, it quietly unravelled me from the inside. I became a shadow of my former self.
This isn’t specific to working on superyachts, but being in confined, intense environments. Living (and, in my case, working) on a yacht can contribute to mental health decline due to the pressure of maintaining high standards, added sleep deprivation and physical strain on your body. This not only has an effect on the individual, but the safety of the yacht – while ultimately resting on the skipper – is dependent on trust and good team work. So what happens if that breaks down?
From the outside the superyacht industry is glamorous and elite, yet the dark underbelly of the industry is hidden out of sight, ready to swallow naive young crew whole. I quickly became addicted to the high of superyacht regatta racing and couldn’t wait for the thrill of getting the sails up to race. Seeing humpback whales at sunset, dolphins on the bow, the northern lights in the Arctic – this was surely what dreams are made of? But these highs peppered a catalogue of extreme lows, including bullying and harassment, lack of sleep and kidney infections (the most common minor illness among yacht crew caused by dehydration from hot days on deck and a lack of breaks). Unfortunately, the extreme lows gradually closed in to become a deep depression.
It is vital when planning for an extended passage, especially if taking on additional crew, that yacht owners and skippers consider the pressures of sailing, not just on the hardware of the boat but on the human crew too. Passage planning usually considers weather windows, provisions and gear on board. But beyond physical first aid and offshore medical care for extreme circumstances, how often do we consider how to manage our mental health at sea?
A great beauty of sailing is that we are often embarking on an adventure we have long dreamed of. But alongside this joy of bucket list ticking, there are additional stressors that can arise on passage. It might be an unexpected conflict arising between family members or crew. Or maybe the budget is being squeezed with yet another major breakage.
Underpinning all of this is a niggling expectation that we should be having the time of our lives. There’s the assumption from others (perhaps exacerbated by social media) that against a backdrop of azure blue skies it should all be perfect. Nobody posts a picture of the seal on the vacuum flush failing (for the third time…) or the days in the middle of the transat when the whole crew was seasick. And while cruising ‘in paradise’, you don’t feel you can share with your crew that you are worried about an ill relative back home. The realities of being human follow us. Maybe this trip was meant to rebuild the connection with your partner, only to put more pressure on it.
At its most acute, in my experience, the deterioration of mental wellbeing from depression to suicidal thoughts escalates much more quickly at sea than on land. Critically, while just 1% of deaths in the UK are recorded to be suicides, it is estimated that six times as many deaths at sea are attributable to suicide. When suspicious deaths and suspected suicides are included (eg people jumping overboard) the figure would be in excess of 15 times the UK land-based figure.
My experience of life at sea grew, as did my understanding of my own mental health. But in one scenario I could have acted on my intrusive thoughts and might not be here to share my story. This is exactly why I felt I must tell it (see far right), and after five years working on board and 40,000 miles sailed I left the superyacht industry and became a policy advisor to the UK Chamber of Shipping, lobbying the government and influencing regulations to protect those who work at sea. I also started training as a counsellor.
The biggest take home from my time in policy was to consider a mental health risk assessment. While this sounds arduous, depending on your size of vessel it can be very straightforward.
The key points to cover are: what are your longest passages and how long will you be out of range of internet/phone contact (and whether you have access to a satellite phone) to get support? Have you pinned up a helpline number visible for everyone on board?
Are there rest days scheduled? Have you vocalised the fact that you are there to listen if anyone feels they have a problem?
And, crucially, can you build in time which is specifically scheduled to boost the crew mood and connect with each other? For example, if you are on a long passage and running rotations, can you all commit to always having the evening meal together and learn something new about each other (even if you’ve been married 30 years!). Considering these things ahead of time will help you feel prepared but also help you notice if there are unexpected deteriorations in morale.
I highly recommend that alongside the usual sailing qualifications, skippers take a couple of days to educate themselves via Mental Health First Aid training. This will help you understand the signs of someone experiencing a deterioration in their mental health at sea.
If you are significantly offshore, open up the conversation – ask how they are (and then ask again! They will likely brush it off initially, not wishing to be a burden). Sailing is hard work, but there is space for empathy on the water, and I can testify that it is perhaps even more important in 50+ knots in the Irish Sea.
It’s important to note that you’re not a therapist or counsellor and so it is not your responsibility to ‘fix’ someone. If someone has expressed that they are struggling with their mental health, take it seriously and assess whether diverting to the nearest port is viable so that they can see a doctor. Try to accommodate ways in which you can tangibly help them until then: can you provide more rest hours or adjust their rotation? Crucially, have an open discussion about it and continue to check in with them.
Sailing, the rawest and at times most humbling form of experiencing nature, is what kept me in the superyacht industry. There is nothing like sunlight skipping off the wrinkles of the water as the wind fills the sails. But if you’re unable to experience the pleasure because feeling low is sucking the enjoyment out of life, the best time to share that is now, with someone you trust.
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