Is being sacked for drugs the end of your yachting career?

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Q: Anonymous, First Officer, 35:

“Last week, a secret I’ve been carrying for over 8 years finally came out when a crew agent discovered I had left an important job off my CV—one where I was fired after failing an impromptu drug test ordered for all the crew by the management company. It was my early partying days of yachting and I wasn’t the only one who failed at the time, not that this makes it any better, but I’ve come a long way since then and have had a great professional career in yachting. I definitely don’t go near drugs anymore and advise all young crew to avoid them as it could kill their career. Looking back, being fired for failing a drug test was an important turning point in my life, and one that set me on a better path, but that shadow still hangs over me. The crew agent says I should have been honest with her, but realistically wouldn’t that be career suicide? If I go round admitting this to crew agents and prospective captains won’t it damage my chances of getting good jobs? How do you suggest I proceed?”

A: The Crew Coach:

It’s never a nice feeling when past mistakes come back to haunt us. I’ve noticed in both my coaching and crew career that many yacht crew try and bury their secrets just like you did. They always seem to come out though, particularly in a tiny, inter-connected industry like yachting! I can understand your reservations in being upfront about this, as it’s hugely scary admitting to such a big mistake, especially when your career could be hurt by the result. Having said that, do you really think you can shove this freshly discovered skeleton back in the closet? This crew agent knows now, which means others probably will before long. And even if they don’t, do you really want to carry this continual fear of discovery around with you anymore—especially now that you’ve been rumbled once already?

I think this could be another life changing turning point for you. Your actions up until now have been on the ‘dodgy but relatively understandable’ side of the spectrum, trying to hide your ‘shameful’ past. (And I should say here that I doubt there are any crew out there, myself included, who don’t have one or two shameful stories about their past that they would prefer were not common knowledge!). But if you try to bury this again after being discovered your actions move from ‘dodgy’ to downright deceitful, and you’ll almost certainly begin to feel even more stressed and guilty about it from then on. I think this has happened for a reason: it’s time to take it on the chin, own your mistake, and accept the consequences.

And what might the consequences be? Of course you can’t know all of them for certain, but I think you’ll find a variety of different responses from different quarters. Let’s face it, drugs are not an unknown in this industry, and you will encounter different views on the severity of your mistake from different people. Assuming you’ve got stellar references since that fateful day 8 years ago and are very clear about how the event was a turning point for you, then I think some Captains might be really quite forgiving. I dare say that some will even respect you more for being able to look them in the eyes and take ownership of a mistake you made in your early days that you learnt from. From what you say, your stance now on drugs is bound to be firmer and stricter than someone else who didn’t have that past, which is actually a good thing. Other Captains may well write you off as a risk, and that’s something to be prepared for.

The real challenge, as you rightly suspect, will be the crew agents – basically they are putting their reputations on the line when they put you forward. They don’t like nasty surprises about their candidates – they would rather know everything, even if it’s bad, so they can put a positive spin on it if their client unearths something and questions it. Don’t forget how small a world yachting is – you might get put forward for a job on a yacht with someone who knows about your past, who then questions the crew agent about it and if they didn’t know, this could make them look rather stupid and incompetent. (And you won’t win many friends and influence people by running the risk of making them look stupid and incompetent, believe me!)

I suggest you sit down with one or two carefully selected agents—preferably those you have a past relationship with—and show them what a great candidate you are, despite your past mistake. Even better, you need to make a point of why you are a better candidate because of your mistake. You mention that you’re already counselling the younger crew against drug use, and I think you need to really make the most of this potential as you acting as a role model. Remember, some crew agents will be much more forgiving than others too, so it’s about finding the right one to represent you.

This is a great personal and professional challenge that you’re facing, and I’m sure you’ll come through it in the end with a great job and an immense feeling of relief that you’ve owned and now moved on from your past mistake. It will no longer have a hold on you! I think your story and experience can also serve as a valuable and positive reminder to young crew that there can be long lasting consequences for these kinds of mistakes – and I think there’s real potential here for you to act as a strong role model in future. As a senior crew member you could also consider this painful experience as a strength if it leads to you creating an onboard culture on your next boat of ‘always admit your mistakes, always come to me and I’ll do what I can to help resolve the issue.’ If you handle this all carefully, you’ll get a second chance in yachting, so I urge you to use it well.

Last but not least, thank you so much for asking this question as I bet a lot of crew are carrying around dark career secrets similar to this one, and not really knowing how to deal with them. I would be delighted if any crew agents or captains would like to weigh in on this topic in the comments below: would you give this guy a chance or is it ‘game over’ in yachting? I’d also love to hear from crew who either have these skeletons lurking in the closet (anonymity guaranteed), or who have come back from a bad career moment by being honest and admitting their mistake.

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Alison Rentoul

Alison Rentoul

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