How to fess up when you mess up onboard!

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Q: Ella, Stew, 22:

“I’m one month in on my first boat, and a couple of days ago I knocked over and cracked a really expensive vase while I was dusting. It’s only a hairline crack at the back, so you can barely see it—but my Chief Stew is quite an angry person so I’m dreading telling her. It’s really tempting to just pretend it fell over at sea, even though I know I have to admit it. It’s weird, normally I put my hand up straight away when I’ve messed up, but our Chief Stew gets angry so easily, I’ve already made loads of mistakes, and I’m so new I’m really worried this might get me fired. How do you suggest I tell her? My stomach turns every time she walks in the salon in case she sees it!”

A: The Crew Coach:

Oh Ella! Welcome to the club! Ask any long-standing yacht crew whether they’ve ever damaged anything on board, and you’ll see immediately that you’re very far from alone in having ruined something expensive. In fact, I think pretty much everybody has at some point in their career, from little things like dripping red wine on a white carpet, to big things like crashing the tender, food poisoning the guests, or even running the yacht aground. Some mistakes in yachting cost hundreds of dollars, most cost thousands, some even cost millions! The truth is, everybody makes mistakes, and the learning curve on yachts about being careful with priceless things is pretty darn steep. Don’t beat yourself up about it— it was an accident, after all.

And you’re also certainly not alone in wondering whether you’d be better off hiding your mistake, particularly when you’ve got a difficult Chief Stew and you’re feeling insecure about your job. I once put a load of new crew uniform through the wash with a red paper napkin in a shorts pocket and turned everything a lovely shade of pink! I got a massive bollocking for that from the evil Chef (Captain’s wife), even though technically it was the deckhand’s fault for not emptying his pockets – of course it was still my responsibility to check before they went in the machine.

In a situation like this, the instinct to avoid confessing is really high, and I wouldn’t feel too bad about that. My coaching experience has taught me that hiding mistakes is a particularly common behaviour in people who were raised in families where they were shouted at or punished for making mistakes. I don’t know if that applies to your upbringing, but I’ve noticed that yachting tends to bring out negative behaviours and avoidance mechanisms that might have not cropped up on land, maybe because life onboard is so intense. In fact it’s highly likely your Chief Stew was brought up in a family like this. If she gets really angry about people making mistakes it shows this is really a great fear of hers, so she’s actually displaying her own deepest insecurity with her behaviour around this.

The problem is (as I think you know), even if you get away with your mistake for now, it will haunt you every single time she walks into the salon. Your guilty feelings will almost certainly affect your behaviour around her, and that’s a really damaging situation when you’re new—particularly if she is a bit crotchety and you’ve already made some errors. In fact this fear and worry are extremely likely to cause you to make another (possibly even worse) mistake, which could cause a snowball effect and make it even harder for you to admit the first one.

The unpleasant reality is the horrible churning in your stomach will not go away, as long as you don’t admit to your mistake. Not to mention lying about this is a really, really bad habit to be getting into as it can easily begin to spiral out of control. Learning to handle this kind of situation is a real ‘grow-itunity’ and a good lesson that will stand you in good stead as you progress up the ranks and on in life. It’s really much better to start as you mean to continue, which means, unfortunately, you really do have to confess, ASAP. (But I think deep down you knew that already, right?)

Before you get too nervous about this, think about the positives of what is going to happen as a result of owning up to your mistake. The very fact you are confessing is actually going to help build your Chief Stew’s trust in you, which should actually see an improvement in your relationship with her, especially as she herself clearly has a problem with fear of making mistakes. If she does get angry, after her initial anger subsides she will respect you more for owning up, and will begin to trust that you do understand the importance of doing things right and prioritising care of the owner’s property.

So, how do you admit to breaking the vase?

Pick a good moment, when she’s not distracted with guest service or busy with something else.
Bring the vase down from the shelf to show her while you tell her, so she can see exactly what needs to be done to fix it and doesn’t imagine it’s worse than it is.
Tell her you’re extremely sorry, and that you will be far more careful in future.
Admit you have been extremely nervous about telling her, as you love your job onboard and would hate to jeopardise it.
Tell her you’re not the type to hide your mistakes, and that you will always be honest with her when you’ve done something wrong.
The truth is, your Chief Stew probably remembers ruining or breaking something at some stage in her own career, whether it was spilling bleach on guest clothing in the laundry, or using the wrong product on gold-plate or marble. If you approach her in the right way, don’t make excuses and make it very clear that you are an honest person who simply had an accident that you’ve learnt from, you should both move on from this quite smoothly. And just remember, if you don’t tell her and she discovers it on her own, things could quickly become much, much worse for you.

Everyone makes mistakes, but it’s how you deal with them that shows the kind of person you truly are. Good luck. And remember, we’ve all been there!

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