'You can't escape a bad day': The mental impact of living and working on a yacht
‘I averaged 273 days off the dock, and I had about five weekends off in the whole year. And then I had 30 days holiday in a block. So everything else is work,’ says Melanie white, a former yacht chef, who has worked for five years in the luxury yacht industry.
‘It’s a really exciting industry to be in in terms of travel – you get to go a lot of places, I see a lot of things experience, different cultures.
‘But realistically, there’s long working hours, a lot of time on board, lots of time at sea – and so, isolation.’
The mental health implications of this can’t be underestimated, and so Melanie has now written a book, Behind Ocean Lines, which speaks in part to this side of the job.
Featuring on this week’s Metro.co.uk Mentally Yours podcast episode, she wants to lift the lid on the realities of the industry, which is often depicted as glamorous and aspirational.
With show’s like Below Deck Sailing Yacht gaining a cult following, it’s certainly a timely release.
‘In your normal workplace, if you’re having a tough day, you go home, and you leave those people at work,’ she says.
‘If you’re having a tough time on a boat, you take those people home with you, because you’re literally either sharing a cabin or next door to them at all times.’
Calling the job great for people who want to experience ‘a new way of life’, she says it’s also for ‘people that are really ready to work hard’.
‘When people see the pictures on Instagram, they’re only seeing the odd afternoon off of your crew and so it looks very glamorous,’ she says.
‘But the reality is a lot of hard work and determination behind that.’
Melanie found herself in this line of work after an ex-boyfriend started working for luxury boatbuilders. She was a graduate and wanted to get out of her office job, so joining him seemed like a good opportunity.
Though she feels grateful for the benefits yacht life has brought her, it’s not come without costs – namely, a battle with depression.
A study by the International Transport Workers’ Federation Seafarers Trust and Yale University found depression in seafarers is ‘significantly higher’ than in the general population – and as many as 20% had suicidal thoughts.
‘I hadn’t experienced depression before,’ Melanie shares. ‘The telltale signs were actually quite obvious. But at the time, when you’re kind of slipping into depression.
‘You can’t see it – or at least I couldn’t see it. It was a big life change working on board. I was a long way away from friends and family. I was working a lot of hours.
‘My sleep was getting very disjointed, doing long overnight passages. You’re definitely not getting more than six hours sleep at time.
‘I was also getting quite seriously sick and dehydrated regularly, so I lost quite a bit of weight.
‘And mixed in with all of that was working with some people on board that were bullying me.
‘It’s not uncommon for abusive behaviors to be kept out of sight, out of mind at sea. And this isn’t just in the yachting industry.
‘So the kind of harassment alongside those other factors were basically a perfect storm for depression. And so after 18 months, maybe it resulted in a significant breakdown.’
Speaking on how it became difficult to get up in the mornings through to suicidal ideation, in her experience there wasn’t support on board – not to mention the restricted internet access.
She also felt there’s an issue even in ‘people visibly noticing you’ and individuals having ‘a lack of autonomy’.
One option for support is the charity ISWAN, which can help crew staff in different languages, but it’s ideally not for crisis level.
Melanie has since left the industry and worked in various health, safety, and wellbeing contexts, eager to raise awareness.
So what needs to change? In Melanie’s view, wider policy changes and mental health awareness are a must.
She adds: ‘I think checking in regularly is important. It’s not uncommon, of course, if if you’re at sea to not have internet for two weeks, and then all of a sudden, you’re coming back online.
‘But consistent kind of checking in and understanding, that’s really important.
‘When people are taking their leave and you’re finally seeing your family, really ask them, “How are you really?”‘
But Melanie is hopeful this book will be a source of comfort to others who may resonate with her experiences.
‘The reader stepping into my world will hopefully find some comfort in what I’m saying, and the way in which I moved past the depression past the suicidal ideation,’ she says.
You can listen to this week’s episode in full here.
If you’ve been affected by the issues raised in this article, you can call the Samaritans for free 24/7 on 116 123.
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