How To Combat Crew Bullying On-Board When It Takes A Toll On Your Mental Health

It’s not uncommon to encounter some form of tension with a crewmember (or few) while working in yachting. We are jam-packed into tight quarters, exhausted from long and constant hours, not to mention intermingling with a vast range of different personalities and cultures, which doesn’t always make it easy to find a strong resonance with each person we entangle with. But what happens when tension turns to bullying and the bully makes it their mission to “kick you to the dock”?

Bullying is defined as when one person hurts, harms or is mean to another person over and over again. It’s an act to make themselves feel better or more powerful than others. Bullies usually pick a bull’s-eye, someone who either seems like an easy target (shy, meek, vulnerable) or more of a challenge or threat (happy, confident, competent). They will choose to either act out verbally or physically, or sometimes both. And let it be known loud and clear: physical harm is illegal and must never be tolerated, especially within the workplace.

So let’s take a look at an actual case of bullying from one anonymous crewmember that recently joined a boat:

A new Chief Stewardess started her role on a 40-metre vessel where she was made to share a cabin with the Engineer who, for whatever reason, did not like her and made that quite obvious. She spent her days working incredibly hard, putting in daily overtime to be on track for each upcoming back-to-back charter trip over the Holidays. To regain some autonomy, she treated herself to the odd night off the boat after finishing work at 8 p.m., allowing herself to go for a walk or stop for no more than two drinks within one hour, since the local Bahamian covid-19 curfew in place required everyone to be indoors by 9 p.m. sharp. She was back on-board in time and not intoxicated in the least from the couple of drinks she managed down some nights. Yet her cabin mate took it upon them self to inform the Captain that she was “constantly drunk and that the cabin wreaked of alcohol” when she would “stumble” home.

Beyond this embellished tale, the Engineer managed to rally in an ally to be on their side while she slayed the Stew with verbal attacks. Another Chief-level crewmember joined this Engineer, and they both took pleasure in berating the Stew directly to her face and especially all the way up to the top. One night while on charter, the Stew sat at the crew table to wolf down her dinner before serving the guests their own (a common mannerism for yacht Stewardesses) and cringed her way through her meal as the two bullies sat across from her speaking aloud. They spoke outright about her, making fun of her for various reasons such as her personality and laying down claims that she is incompetent in her role, to each other as if the Stew was not even there to overhear them.

This type of behavior begs many questions, but the most important one is this: when is enough enough? No matter how much you stand up for yourself or walk away from someone bullying you, when do you reach that threshold of pain and take significant action toward your mental health instead of letting other crewmembers and childish ways take you down for fear of making waves?

Not everyone has the level of emotional intelligence to ignore the bully or know where a bully’s anger and purpose actually derive from. After all, as they say: “hurt people hurt people.” Sometimes when you are being bullied your own emotions can take over and you lose your cool – you snap! You might yell or cry, or perhaps you are hurting so badly that you wish to hurt them in return through forming your own alliance and bully them back. Rest assured, fighting a bully with his or her own medicine does not always lead you to victory, and it certainly does not get you far on the moral scale.

So what are some actions you can take if you feel that you have landed in a situation similar to the Chief Stewardess above?

  1. Stand Up – First and foremost, stand up for yourself against someone who is bullying you. The best action is found through non-violent communication. When we communicate our needs to another, it is hoped that they will listen intently and take in what you are saying. Not everyone chooses to deeply hear what someone tells them and many times people react to the message from a place where the information actually serves them (*queue child throwing a tantrum when they get told to go to bed and put away their toy). However, especially when in a professional setting it is important to cover your bases and take diligent, traceable steps while remaining self-sufficient and mature. If this scenario makes its way up to the Captain or beyond (aka Management company or Owner), you want to have on record that you attempted to professionally resolve the ongoing matter yourself before bringing in the bigger guns.
  2. Speak Up – If speaking directly to those causing the problem does not make any difference and the attacks continue, step up in the chain of command and take the issue up with your Superior. Speak up to others on-board if you were unable to tackle this on your own. If you are on the Interior, speak with your Chief Stewardess. If you are on Deck, speak with your First Mate or Officer. If you are in a situation where your Superior is the one bullying you, then you may have to take it all the way up to your Captain. If you feel comfortable with a crewmember from another department who has more authority on-board than you, you can start with speaking to them first before the Captain. They may feel it is their duty to help serve and protect the crew, and they can speak with the antagonist them self or directly to the Captain on your behalf. If the Captain does not step in then there is likely one more route to take with the yacht’s Management Company. This may be debatable, but I have personally never seen a positive outcome from a crewmember (who is not the Captain) going to speak directly with an Owner about what they experience onboard. So no matter how much you may want to, no matter how painful it gets, just know that a responsible vessel will have resources in place for crew to turn to should they experience or witness something that detrimentally affects the vessel itself and especially the crew. Reach out to the yacht’s Management Company to find out who the contact person of this anonymous hotline is where crew can report incidences beyond the on-board chain-of-command. Again, responsible vessels will have a telephone number listed on the crew bulletin board or at least in the crew contract.
  3. Step Off – This should not even have to be your option, but sadly if after you have stood up directly to those harming you, spoke up to your Superiors and spoke out to outside Managers if possible, all while your Captain is aware yet nothing was done to control crew behaviors, then perhaps it’s time to step off this boat and find a better home. Reach out to your Crew Agents; they are aware of how some vessels can be with crew dynamics and they know how toxic an environment on-board will be when a rotten apple attempts to rock the boat. Most Agents were former crew themselves and may’ve witnessed this same involvement. Don’t be afraid to maturely explain to them that the boat was not a good fit for you and that you would like to work on a professional boat with respectful crew, especially those in leadership. Get your CV out there with your fellow industry friends - word-of-mouth can be one of the best ways to find fast day work.
  4. Walk Tall – If you make your way out of an emotionally dangerous situation no matter how much you wanted it to work out, you must walk tall and keep your head up high. Not all boats and not all crew tolerate this kind of behavior. Know that you are strong and your mental health is more important than a paycheck or reputation. In this industry we tend to put such great importance on how we appear to others, what others think of us, how our CVs look, what Agents value us at, and so much more. It’s valiant to be so brave and try to endure before you quit, yet it’s more important to have a higher level of value within ourselves, and to know the dangers of enabling such emotionally scarring behavior.

It is never okay to tolerate harmful behavior in the workplace, no matter what your position is on-board. Remember to evaluate the situation before making your first step. If someone is simply making a joke at your expense to be funny – even if they are not – they may not necessarily be intending to hurt you or your feelings. But again, bullying is defined as repeated action to hurt or harm another. You will know if someone is intending to be hurtful for his or her own gain or whether it’s just that their sense of humor is not resonating with yours. You are not too sensitive, but some people can’t quite comprehend when they have gone too far and said too much. It is your job to speak up and let them know when they have.

And remember to always keep a pen and paper or your phone near by to document the infractions as they happen. Keep record of each detail: date, time, what was said or done. The most valuable way to reduce a bully from continuing harm is to have valid proof that it has even happened in the first place.

Note: the Chief Stewardess noted above is still on-board the yacht. After another crewmember witnessed what was happening, they took it upon them self to inform the Captain. The Engineer decided to quit and the Captain let the other crewmember go for various reasons as to why they were not a good fit for the vessel.

Written by: Sally Stew
January 18, 2021