Lost on the outlaw seas: the dangerous treatment of staff on superyachts

Why is manning a superyacht such a risky job? We wade through the murky waters of exploitation beneath the sailing status symbols.

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“My baby where are you x x please get in touch angel.” Hours after sending this Facebook message to her son, Fiona Hanlon received a phone call telling her that his body had been found.

Michael Hanlon, 22, from Cumbria, was working as a superyacht deckhand when he drowned, after falling off the £65m vessel barely a fortnight into his job. He died in the French resort of Antibes, where the yacht was moored for the night, in April 2013. That year two other young crewmen died on superyachts in Australia and Alaska.

The inquest, which closed at the end of May last year, reached a verdict of “accidental death”. The yacht’s captain at the time told the inquest that the boat followed safety procedures. But the coroner recommended a review of procedures and working conditions for crew across the industry. Hanlon’s family believes Michael was a victim of negligence, and claims he was exhausted after working a full day on top of two night shifts.


The last photo taken of Michael Hanlon.

Superyachts – luxury vessels that stretch to 78ft and over – are owned mostly by very rich individuals who charter them out or sail them privately. All require a conscientious and discreet crew, who – counter to the affluent gap-year stereotype – are often experienced sailors, or ordinary school-leavers attracted by adventure and a chance to earn some money before university. Many employ Filipino crews, who send their pay home to their families.

Hanlon was a professional yacht cadet with a love of sailing who thought he had found his ideal job. His yacht, called Faith, was reportedly en route to collect Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas for the Cannes film festival.


Michael Hanlon and fellow sailors receiving their professional superyacht cadet qualification.

His mother Fiona remains shocked at the exhausting schedule to which her son was subjected. “From day one, what we couldn't understand was why Michael seemed to be working all these hours, and the week before [his death] he’d been saying in his messages to me ‘I’m just so tired, I’m really struggling to sleep, I’m struggling with the night watches’.”

Mark Thompson, a 28-year-old from Middlesbrough who joined Faith as a second officer six weeks after Hanlon died, gave evidence at the inquest about conditions on the yacht. He never met Hanlon, but was astonished at the yacht’s low-key attitude towards his death.

“In terms of rest and stuff, it became very obvious when you were on the boat that things hadn’t changed whatsoever,” he says. “It was like it hadn’t happened. It was brushed under the carpet, really . . . If they wanted you to work excessive hours, you just would do.”

Thompson lost a finger while working on the yacht, when lifting a tender (a smaller boat) out of the water. “It’s just one of those things, you never really know what the causes are – but it just always felt like there was an accident waiting to happen.”


Michael Hanlon.

In seeking justice for her son, Hanlon’s mother discovered that there is “no independent support for families” of superyacht crewmembers, and was instead at the whim of the “vested interests” of the boat and the insurers.

“Michael thought this was a dream boat and it turned out to be a boat that killed him,” she tells me. “Michael's death was an inconvenience to the ship.”

***

Partly because of the wealthy owners and high-profile passengers, there is little appetite for transparency when it comes to the treatment of crew.

One veteran deck hand, Ben Proctor, from Cornwall, says, “You’re selling your soul to the boat . . . you have to man it round the clock, sometimes 16 hour days.”

Another crewmember, speaking anonymously (many sign confidentiality clauses), adds: “They fudge the regulations on working hours all the time . . . you always have to be available to make guests a piña colada at three in the morning.”

Alison Rentoul, who has worked on superyachts and in the sector for 16 years, says “there is an unspoken rule, really, that you kind of have to give up your life in exchange for your job. It’s a little bit like selling your soul to the devil,” she laughs. “We call it the golden handcuffs, because you get paid very well, and you do live this quite incredible lifestyle – but although it looks like that from the outside, you have to remember it is really hard work.

“When the guests are on, it’s literally show time. The crew have no life once they get on board; they don't have any time off from the boat.”

The psychological impact of such work, in such constant close proximity with colleagues, means there “can be problems” for the wellbeing of crewmembers, she adds.

“You’re selling your soul to the boat”

As soon as any superyacht reaches international waters, a legal fog descends. It is almost impossible to hold owners to account in cases of exploitation, bullying, or injury.

“The law is a nightmare,” says Andrew Linington of the main seafarers’ union, Nautilus. “The problem is that shipping is this globalised industry, and the superyachts are just the same. You have multiple jurisdictions, all of which can overlap. The owners and a lot of operators are obviously seeking the jurisdiction with the lightest touch, and the ones that will cause them the least grief.”

Technically, the laws of a yacht’s flag state take precedence, but Linington says many register with what are known as “flags of convenience” in countries, such as the Cayman Islands, with more lenience regarding tax, and “a lot of it is about evading employment law”.

“The flag state is the one that tends to take precedence” in legal matters, says Linington. “But there are other factors that influence that depending on if it’s on a port, in coastal waters, territorial waters, international waters, and so on.

“In terms of the contractual arrangement, again those can be really complex because a lot of yacht owners outsource employment, so they'll [crew members] often be employed through a third party agency, which then means that in some cases it gets people out of tax liabilities or social security regimes. So that can further complicate things.”

This leads to unsolved disappearances of crew members at sea. In 2011, the day after the Monaco boat show, Rosanna Black’s parents received a phonecall saying there had been a boat crash the previous evening. Her younger brother William, a 28-year-old from Surrey and a trained bosun working on a superyacht, was missing presumed dead.


William Black with his family.

She describes how her family rang the captain of the boat to say they would get on the first plane out the next day – but the yacht had already sailed off. “He just said they’d actually left the dock an hour ago, ‘but don’t worry we threw some flowers overboard’. I was just blown away, it’s just horrendous. I thought they can’t do this. I was truly horrified by the lack of care of someone's life from the owner's point-of-view. It really scared me.”

She believes the yacht was treating his death as an “inconvenience” by sailing away so soon: “It was like, ‘right, this is a complete pain, get the boat out, don't wait for the family, in case there's anything we can be blamed for’.”

William had been in a tender that then crashed, which most likely happened because he fell off the boat. He wasn’t wearing a kill cord, so the tender didn’t stop; he wasn’t wearing a life jacket, so he couldn’t be saved. This is against safety regulations, but as the superyacht was part of the flagship state of St Vincent and the Grenadines, European law wouldn’t stick.

“So you’re kind of a bit stuck,” Black says, of her family finding justice for William. Why has it been so hard? “The wealth of the people who own these boats,” Rosanna replies. “The ones who I think choose very carefully which flagship state to dock their boat into or register their boat with. That’s wrong, they do it for their own reasons.”

William’s body was never found.


William Black.

***

Another British family is now navigating the legal minefield of superyachting. In May 2015, Jacob Nicol, 22, from Cornwall, an engineer on a superyacht in Majorca, fell off the 265-foot vessel and was permanently brain-damaged; his family says he was hit on the head by a 20-kilogram hook.

The case is in the Spanish courts.


Jacob Nicol before his accident.

His sister, Jenade, tells me, “Jacob has had his life taken away from him, he won't be able to have children of his own, travel, play his guitars or laugh with his family and friends. Our lives have been ripped to shreds . . . It’s 2015 and this should not be happening.”

She claims that health and safety on the yacht was not up to scratch – something denied by Nicol’s employers. “There needs to be something in place where upper management are under the watch of an independent health and safety officer,” she says. “It seems captains and upper management get too big for their boots and disregard the rules and regulations for the safety of crewmembers.

“Crew members should be able to voice their concerns about the running of a yacht without losing their jobs. How can you have a safe industry if people are too scared to highlight what needs changing? It’s time more action took place to rid the industry of those who are a danger to themselves and others.”


Jacob Nicol in a coma in hospital.

There is little data on superyacht deaths – “record-keeping is dire; it’s a case of out of sight, out of mind”, Linington notes – but the occupational accident death and injury rates are between 50 and 100 times higher than in shore-based jobs.

And more and more people are being employed in the industry. In Britain alone, superyachting brought in 7 per cent more revenue in 2013/14 on the previous year. According to the trade body Superyacht UK, industry revenue in Britain has grown by +10.2 per cent year-on-year, to £542m by 2015. The sector now contributes £304m to UK GDP.

This growth has led to increasing demand for crewmembers. Regulations have been brought in relatively recently to tackle the casualised – and sometimes exploited – superyacht workforce. The Maritime Labour Convention was established in 2006, outlining the appropriate employment conditions and accommodation for seafarers.

Although Linington notes that this has shifted superyacht crews from the “backpacker” stereotype to a more “professionalised” workforce, it is still difficult to make the Convention stick on such isolated and private vessels.

“Whilst a lot of people have seen a difference in the ways contracts are drawn up, the actual base level and what it’s meant in day-to-day work hasn’t impacted that much,” he observes.

“The concern is, and one of the reasons we [the union] have been organising more and more in this sector, is that there can be some pretty brutal employment practices going on. Excessive working hours, a lot of the safety issues, bullying and harassment are very big problems, and concerns with the fragility of employment in the sector.

“Research suggests 94 per cent [of superyacht crew] complained of stress, and 75 per cent talk of experiencing job insecurity.”


William Black on a yacht.

Although pay is good (on average, basic deckhands can start out taking home £2,500 a month, tax-free), tough working hours can affect superyacht workers’ safety, as came to light in the story of Michael Hanlon’s death.

According to his union’s research, Linington has found that it is not just a case of long hours, but a lack of regular hours because of watch patterns. “The watch patterns themselves are often in conflict with the bodies’ own rhythms, and you've then got the noise and movement on board the ship, noisy, confined accommodation, which makes it difficult to get quality of rest. So long hours and fatigue are a real major concern – probably the overriding concern.”

He adds: “Obviously that [tiredness] plays havoc with your cognitive reasoning, with judgement . . . when you factor in everything else too, quantity and quality of sleep suffer massively, and the knock-on effects of that physically and mentally are quite disturbing.”

***

Even if you’ve never dipped a toe in the sea before, the only requirement to work on a superyacht is the five-day STCW 95 course. It stands for Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers, and it’s been around since the Seventies, though not as a mandatory qualification. The current, compulsory course was designed in 1995. It covers survival techniques, elementary first aid, fire safety and personal safety and social responsibility.

In Britain, many of these courses are held on the Isle of Wight, where mainly school leavers or recent graduates pay around £1,000 to do the basic course. They then usually head straight out to Antibes or Palma – and other such European destinations popular with yachters – where they sign up with agencies, or “dock walk” (going up to individual superyachts with their CVs), to find work.

I witnessed day two of the sea survival section of the course held by a company called Flying Fish – one of many based in West Cowes, Isle of Wight.

It was a crisp, bright day on the island. Hundreds of idyllic little fishing boats and burnished sailboats bob up and down as one on the harbour’s sparkling water. But a group of 20 eighteen to twenty-somethings are stuck inside a classroom with the curtains drawn, watching a video about launching lifeboats.

“There can be dodgy people who could employ you for the wrong reason”

Hanging out in the sunshine in a break between classes, they tell me why they want to work on superyachts. There is an approximately equal gender split, and most of these youngsters look quite similar – hoodies and flipflops, tousled hair, healthy and bright-eyed. But from asking around, they are from a range of different backgrounds.

None have significant experience of the sea. Michael, in his late twenties, has been working in IT and decided he wants a change and an adventure. He has been sailing once before on a family holiday. Eliza is 18 and has just left sixth-form college. She has never travelled or been abroad. Abby, 22, has just graduated and has never been at sea before. “I’m new to it,” she says. “I’m terrified but excited. Once you set off, there’s no going back.”

In spite of their lack of experience, they are aware of the job’s drawbacks. “I know there’s lots of graft involved,” says one. “Long stints of work, which are pretty shitty – it can be no fun at all.” “I’m expecting the worst,” nods Abby. “It is worrying,” says a third girl. “There can be dodgy people who could employ you for the wrong reason. You have to keep your wits about you and look after yourself.”

In the afternoon, Flying Fish’s head of marketing, Chris – who used to be a watersports instructor in the Caribbean – drives me to a pool to watch the class take their practical sea safety lesson. “We strongly advise they do more courses,” he tells me on the way. “This is the very bare minimum – so it’s what you need, but it’s not enough.

“Some will go straight from this to superyachts. Lots of these guys are students and know the minimum they need is this. Most of them have never been on a yacht or a ship – all are looking to go into the superyacht industry; that’s where the money is.”

“You’re butlers in boardshorts”

Although the class has a highly experienced instructor in Rich, a burly fireman who used to be in the Navy, the course is strikingly rudimentary. A couple of the class members fail to swim two lengths of the pool without treading water or clinging to the side. But they will nevertheless pass. “It’s like a first aid course,” Chris says. “No one fails.”

Yet it’s the other, less formal, job requirements that are perhaps more sinister. These are an illustration of how little transparency there is. A lot of emphasis is based on appearance in an industry known for its shallow nature. “If you are young and attractive, you’ll find a job; if not, you need a hell of a lot of qualifications,” one industry insider tells me. “You’re butlers in boardshorts.”

Paul Rutterford, a recruiter of superyacht staff at Viking Recruitment, reveals, “we find that some yachts will even go and look at people's personal profile, lets say on Facebook, or social media, and try and get a deeper understanding [of them] . . . Appearance is of course important. We’ve had people that go down to the south of France, and unfortunately, they have not been as successful as others.”

“It really depends on your character,” Andy Hunt, the operations director at Flying Fish says. “If you had to live with your colleagues, eat with your colleagues, go out to drink with your colleagues, you have to have that different kind of character. If you add into the mix that you’ve got a billionaire on board, you’ll be right in that billionaire’s life, you've got to say please and thank you, be polite, tidy up, present yourself properly, clean haircut, clean shave.”

Hunt also says the industry is “unfortunately quite sexist”, explaining how it is usually men who are hired as deckhands, and women who are given roles as stewardesses, based in the superyacht’s interior.

One female superyacht worker speaking to me anonymously says, “as awful as it sounds, the yachting industry does place a lot of emphasis on looks, so as you’re getting older as a woman you kind of need to move into the galley or move into an administrative role”.

Although safety standards on most superyachts are adequate, the casual and capricious employment conditions show an industry easily dodging scrutiny of its treatment of its staff. And as the business booms, the picture beyond the paparazzi lenses may yet turn darker.

AUTHOR'S NOTE 19/6/17

I have just heard from Jacob Nicol's family that he has passed away. Another life claimed by a murky and unregulated industry that takes its workers for granted.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

This article appears in the 17 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn's Civil War