Superyachts, night shifts, and nowhere to hide: 15 current and former yacht crew members describe rampant harassment in one of the world's most seemingly glamorous industries
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After a night out with fellow crew members in St. Thomas, one yacht staffer says she woke up to a deckhand trying to take her clothes off. The 33-year-old, who asked to go by the pseudonym Elaine for fear of being blacklisted from the industry, says he tried to pin her down on the floor of her crew cabin. "I was like, 'Stop, stop, stop,'" Elaine said, recalling the January 2016 incident. "And he wouldn't stop." She said she punched her assailant in the face before sprinting down the dock toward a marina security guard who drove her away in a golf cart. "I looked behind me and I could see [the deckhand] in a full sprint chasing after me," Elaine said. Earlier that night, she said, the deckhand had pulled her off a chair at a watering hole called the Dog House Pub. Cameron Bellia, a local bartender, witnessed the incident. "He tried to physically grab her and bring her back to the boat," he said. Bellia said he and his friends, who were concerned, escorted Elaine back to the yacht. Elaine claims this wasn't the only time the deckhand tormented her. He would also rip sheets off her while she slept and search for her on the yacht while she hid from him, she said. "She was definitely scared something was going to happen to her," Bellia said, adding that Elaine regularly confided in him and his friends about the incidents. Elaine said she didn't know what to do. "I felt like a lost puppy," she said. "I was fairly new to the industry and I wanted to keep a name for myself. I didn't want to be that stewardess that cries wolf." In April, three months after Elaine said she woke up to the deckhand trying to take her clothes off, she reported the series of incidents to the first mate, the head of the deck team, and the chief stew on board. The next day, she said, she was fired. Yachting's loudest secret At the core of the yachting industry, which portrays a glamorous lifestyle of working in paradise on multimillion-dollar vessels, may be a dark secret: a rampant sexual-harassment problem. About 65% of yacht crew members who responded to a 2018 survey by the Professional Yachting Association said they had witnessed or been aware of an incident of physical or verbal sexual harassment on board. Nearly 40% of the 870 respondents in the survey — whose findings were presented at the Monaco Yacht Show — said they had experienced unwanted physical contact, and half said they had received unwanted sexual or sexist comments. Only 22% of respondents who said they experienced sexual harassment also said they reported it.
Business Insider spoke with 15 current or former yacht crew members. Of those, 11 came forward with firsthand allegations of sexual harassment while on board. Many asked to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions within the industry. Another four former and current crew members told Business Insider that they experienced verbal abuse, bullying, and discrimination on board. Business Insider also spoke with 10 industry experts and veterans who work at management companies, yachting nonprofits, and law firms. They all spoke of an industry that they see as characterized by an endless cycle of abuse. At the core of the yachting industry's problem, they said, is a lack of infrastructure for reporting sexual harassment and a fear of retaliation if you do. "When I was in the industry, you were told in different ways that inner voice does not matter," said Roos Hut, a 34-year-old former stewardess based in France. "It's always about liability for the ship. It's about making money." "If you do speak up," Hut added, "you're out on the streets." Getting paid to travel Elaine got her start in the yachting industry after meeting a captain in a Fort Lauderdale, Florida, bar in March 2012. "He introduced me to this insanely beautiful life where I can travel and get paid to do it," she said. Many current and former crew members told Business Insider that, like Elaine, they stumbled upon the industry through a friend. Making money while seeing the world seemed like a dream job, they said. More than 15,000 yachts around the world require a crew. The size of a yacht crew generally ranges from six to 15 people for a midsize vessel. Deckhands clean and maintain the yacht's exterior, while stewardesses upkeep the yacht's interior. Some crew members, like Elaine, take on hybrid roles and are known as deck/stews. Crew can earn anywhere from $2,500 a month as a deckhand or stewardess on an 80-foot yacht to $28,000 a month as a captain on an 180-foot-plus yacht. Because they live, sleep, and eat on board, there are few overhead costs.
But there are trade-offs. The work can be grueling, involving workdays as long as 17 hours and fulfilling every guest or owner's request, which can be notoriously demanding — like whipping up a small-plate buffet at 3 a.m. Crew members sleep on bunks in shared, cramped cabins that are about a quarter of the size of guest cabins. In Elaine's case, the tight, shared crew quarters may have fostered an abusive environment. She said everyone on her boat was a couple except for her and the deckhand, which meant that, by default, the two of them were assigned as roommates. She said he would often try to cajole her into sleeping with him. Elaine would hide from the deckhand elsewhere on the boat, she said, and wait for him to fall asleep so she could sneak back to her cabin without being harassed. A friend of Elaine's told Business Insider that Elaine would often text and call her about the situation on board, saying that the deckhand was harassing her and that it was making her uncomfortable. One night he ripped the sheets off her while she was sleeping, she said. Elaine said she then locked herself in another crew member's cabin and hid in the shower. The deckhand picked the lock, she said, and pulled her out of the shower and onto the bed. "You're a slut," she said he told her. "You're a f---ing c---." Elaine was terminated one day after reporting the deckhand, she said. At the time, she said, the first mate told her she was terminated because she was late to one of her duties. "I was just completely devastated that they fired me and kept him," she said. Claims of poorly defined reporting systems and a power imbalance that appears to benefit the captain In theory, there are multiple ways for crew members to report harassment and abuse. Before joining their first yacht, all aspiring crew members are required to take a safety course called Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping. According to STCW guidelines, crews are supposed to report problems by going up the chain of command on board. In most cases, this entails talking to the head of their department or to the captain. A 2019 addendum to the Maritime Labour Convention — a bill of rights for seafarers — requires yachts to have a harassment-complaint procedure. MLC-compliant yachts are commercial yachts for charter or any yacht over 500 tons. Crew members also have the option of reporting harassment and abuse to the management company that oversees the yacht. Both of the leading management companies, Fraser and Burgess, each of which manages fleets of hundreds of yachts, told Business Insider that every yacht under their purview has procedures for complaints of on-board sexual harassment and bullying. While this structure is intended to protect workers, there are some scenarios that could render it ineffective — if, for example, the captain is the perpetrator. In addition, if the management company is seen as having the captain's or owner's best interests at heart, crew members may be afraid to report incidents. On top of that, not all yachts have management companies, which eliminates an entire communication outlet for crew members. Some crew members told Business Insider that they didn't have or weren't aware of clearly outlined procedures for reporting harassment. They're not alone in the procedural confusion: Sixty-five percent of the people surveyed by the PYA in 2018 said either that their yacht didn't have a written policy about sexual harassment or that they were unsure about its existence. "The MLC talks about sexual harassment being a violation of basic human rights, but as far as I am aware, there are no mandatory procedures for reporting harassment," said Michael Moore, a maritime attorney at Moore & Co. Twelve sources told Business Insider that one of the biggest challenges they saw in preventing crew members from coming forward with reports of sexual and verbal harassment is a lack of clear channels or standard operating procedures that protect the victim and the accused. Five sources said they didn't feel comfortable reporting issues to the captain, either because they didn't trust the captain as a neutral party or because he was the source of the problem. One of those people, a deck/stew named Diana R., said her captain was the harasser. She asked that her last name be withheld, citing fear of professional repercussions. In 2016, Diana, then 18 years old, was sailing through the US and British Virgin Islands alongside the 49-year-old captain and a 39-year-old first mate. She said her captain consistently subjected her to verbal abuse, calling her a "beluga whale" and "a Fenian" — an ethnic slur for the Irish. "The captain is supposed to be the one with the moral compass," Diana said. "But what do you do when it's the captain that is subjecting you to psychological torture?" "What do you do when it's the captain that is subjecting you to psychological torture?" Diana said she felt she couldn't report up the chain of command because the person at the top was the accused. She said she resigned after four months but downplayed her reasons at the time for the sake of keeping the captain as a reference.
An American stewardess named Amanda Stickles raised a similar accusation, which she said was tied to a 2017 incident. While aboard a yacht docked in the Caribbean, Stickles said, she was having drinks on deck with her crew when the temporary captain, who was married, tried to kiss her. "When he went to give me a hug, I got his tongue down my throat and was pushed up against the side of the boat," Stickles said. A fellow stewardess told Business Insider she witnessed Stickles pushing the captain away as he attempted to make out with her. "He was trying to get her to come to his cabin with her," the fellow stewardess said. Stickles told Business Insider she was wary of reporting the incident. "I was afraid of getting a bad reputation in the industry for calling out a captain," she said. With no known protocol for reporting sexual harassment on board, Stickles said she reported it to another captain on the boat. Stickles said he, in turn, told the yacht owners about the accusation. But that's where it ended. "They just brushed it off," she said. "It was like: 'Who are we going to believe, a captain that they've employed for 15 years … or this girl that has been here for a year?'" The international loophole The international nature of the industry further complicates matters. Every yacht has an ownership and liability structure. Authorities involved include the flag state, or the country the yacht is registered in; the actual yacht owners; and the management company, which oversees a fleet of yachts and provides maintenance and administrative support to the captain and the owner. While every yacht has a flag state, if an incident occurs in international waters, the jurisdiction isn't necessarily clear-cut, said Moore, the maritime lawyer. Among those factors are the flag state, the state base of operations (the primary area where the yacht conducts business), and the location where the act occurred. One chief stewardess Business Insider spoke with dealt with this gray area firsthand. She said she experienced verbal abuse by a first officer (who was not her boss) while she was working on a yacht in the Cayman Islands in 2019. The 35-year-old, who asked to remain anonymous because the captain of the boat remained a professional reference for her, detailed various instances in which the first officer yelled at her in front of other crew members. She said he repeatedly posted derogatory messages about her on the crew Facebook group, where he described her as "inconsiderate" and "selfish." Business Insider viewed two emails detailing the chief stewardess' formal complaints to the captain, as well as an additional email from a fellow crew member detailing his own bullying allegations against the same first officer. The issue went unresolved after the captain talked to the first officer and didn't find an issue, she said, so she took it to the Cayman Islands flag state as a last resort.
But they were unhelpful. "I may be quite limited in what I can do here," said one email from a Cayman Registry senior maritime policy advisor and shipping master, which Business Insider viewed. In a follow-up email, the same policy advisor deflected the flag state's responsibility in the situation, writing, "Most if not all of this is a personnel issue for the vessel and management rather than the flag State." The policy advisor also appeared to warn her against bringing the issue up with management. "There is little or no concept of unfair dismissal in maritime," the email continued. "I would not be surprised that if this is presented to [management] they will simply terminate your contract with notice with a different or even no reason." The senior maritime policy advisor declined to comment, citing confidentiality issues, but he told Business Insider that the Cayman Registry took bullying and harassment very seriously. He said he provided confidential advice to seafarers on measures the flag state could take, which can include passing evidence to the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service if the allegation constitutes a criminal offense and if the crew member consents. "We, of course, as the Flag are not the police," he said. Fear of retaliation and a bad reputation Of the 11 former and current crew members Business Insider spoke with who said they experienced sexual harassment, seven said they didn't report it. Several of those who opted to stay quiet said they felt too humiliated and ashamed to report the incidents. But the majority said they feared retaliation or reputational damage. Such was the case for an American first mate who did report sexual harassment to her captain. She said a chef sexually harassed her as they were sailing through the Caribbean in 2018. One night, she said, she found herself alone in the yacht's salon — a sitting area — when the chef walked in drunk. The first mate said the chef grabbed her hips and began thrusting into her. "He said something along the lines of: 'Let's do it. Let's go find some people to f---,'" said the first mate, who requested anonymity for privacy reasons. The first mate confided in two friends about the incident at the time, both of whom confirmed the story to Business Insider. She left the salon and messaged the captain on WhatsApp. In the message, which was viewed by Business Insider, the captain acknowledged the chef's drinking problem and promised to solve the issue. At the end of the weeklong charter, the chef was fired, and a new chef was hired for the next charter.
But at the end of the second charter, the first mate and the new chef were called in to meet with the captain. Both were let go. The captain, the first mate said, told her the owners wanted the former chef back and therefore she had to leave the ship. One British deck/stew told Business Insider that she woke up in her cabin aboard a yacht once in 2016 with the chef's hands down her pants. The deck/stew said she "got the hell off the boat" and hid in the tender, a smaller boat that takes passengers to shore. Less than a month later, she woke up to the chef in her room again. This time, she said, he was raping her. She said she didn't report it because she was ashamed and afraid. "If you aren't believed, you might be fired for causing an issue. If you are believed, probably the worst thing would be that they didn't do anything about it at all." The deck/stew resigned from her role on the boat three weeks later. The only person she confided in was her mother, who told Business Insider that she could tell something was off. "When she went to sea, she was a very confident lady, but I knew something was wrong," the mother said. "She put on a brave face for me, but I could just feel she was holding something back." Her mother suggested she try counseling, and it wasn't until then that the deck/stew told her mother she had been assaulted. "If you aren't believed, you might be fired for causing an issue," the deck/stew said. "If you are believed, probably the worst thing would be that they didn't do anything about it at all. You're in a very vulnerable position." The deck/stew's therapist told Business Insider that the deck/stew was a client of hers and that the case involved rape. Despite her experience and a brief break from the industry, the deck/stew said she'd be working on a new yacht in a few weeks. The secret is spilling itself Multiple sources said reports of harassment originating on yachts have increased in recent years. Caitlin Vaughan, a project manager at ISWAN, a nonprofit charity promoting the welfare of seafarers in the shipping and yachting industries, said the number of calls the charity typically received from women had risen by 4% and that roughly 10% of those calls involved harassment or bullying. Similarly, Lucy Medd, a representative for Burgess, one of the leading yacht-management companies, said the number of harassment complaints had grown over the past five years. Medd estimated that Burgess used to deal with a case every two to three months. Now, the company is handling one to two cases a month. Medd and other industry experts say the growth isn't attributable to an increased number of incidents. Rather, more people are opening up about sexual harassment, and they see it as a positive sign for the future. "It is more likely that crew are better educated about their rights … and crew feel more empowered year on year to bring matters to the attention of their captains or their safety management companies," Medd said. In 2018, a stewardess who was raped by a deckhand on board Endless Summer, the 130-foot-long superyacht, was awarded nearly $70.6 million in damages to be paid by the company that owned the yacht. The lawsuit alleged the company didn't provide proper security — the victim didn't have a walkie-talkie to call for help. In conversation with industry workers, this lawsuit emerged as the exception that proves the rule: It's rare for crew members to report an incident and have actions taken against abusers be successful. But various industry veterans are working to change that, having launched businesses with the goal of making it easier for crew members to discuss and report harassment. In June, Roos Hut, the former stewardess who said that speaking up could often result in termination, founded the Facebook group Women for Women, where female crew members can share their harassment and bullying stories. Another industry veteran, Jenny Matthews, founded She of the Sea in 2018 with the goal of promoting diversity in the industry and of getting more women into more deck and engineering roles. And as social-justice movements have erupted across the world in 2020, crew are more motivated to call for change in their industry. For many, that means speaking up about stories they once kept secret. "I tell my story as much as I can," Elaine said. "There's a culture of silence in the yachting industry that needs to be broken," Diana R. added. "And that's why I'm talking to you today — because I think the first step is to start screaming it from the hilltops."SEE ALSO: 8 superyacht crew members share the most extreme requests they've had to deal with on the job DON'T MISS: 9 superyacht crew members share what it's really like working for a billionaire on board Join the conversation about this story » NOW WATCH: How the suicide hotline saved my life
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