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The Girls who Found themselves at Sea

Posted by: Kathie Higginson

For most of us, the image that springs to mind when we picture an officer on an offshore pipelay or support vessel is not that of a 20-something woman. Well, the marine industry has traditionally been rather a male bastion, but there are many female officers too – and the numbers are getting larger every year. It turns out the old myths that a woman on board a ship is bad luck just simply aren’t true.

In an interview back in 2009, Sarah Finke of the International Transport Workers' Federation stated that there were 23,000 women seafarers worldwide - representing just 2% of the marine workforce, and with these women working disproportionately in the cruise and ferry sectors. The marine industry is one that’s constantly growing, and skills are becoming harder and harder to find, so it makes sense that companies are now reaching out to young women to become the leaders of the future...

We spoke to 5 women working different positions on a variety of vessels, and found that for the most part they were very happy with the career they chose. They are part of a small, but steadily rising, number of women working at sea on support vessels, cargo vessels and ferries. So why do so few girls pursue these sorts of careers?  Well, as Sophie, a 2nd Officer and Junior DPO from Dorset, puts it: “I think generally there is a lack of awareness about careers in the Merchant Navy; for a lot of guys and girls that don’t already have family in the profession it’s a bit of a mystery!

The benefits of working at sea are real and tangible – starting salaries from £20,000 and the potential to earn over £60,000 within a few years, up to 6 months’ paid holiday every year, the opportunity to travel all over the world through work, working alongside a huge variety of people from all corners of the globe: it sounds perfect, right?

Now we’re not saying that there aren’t downsides, and the women we interviewed all agreed that they did often miss family and friends when away for weeks or months – but surely this varied, profitable and realistic career is really something more young people should consider pursuing. These career women all agreed that the important qualities needed for their work were dedication, motivation and attitude – importantly, not physical strength.

So what does working at sea involve day to day?

Hazel, a 24 year old music lover from Grimsby, works as a Senior Dynamic Positioning Officer & 1st Officer on board a pipelay vessel for Subsea 7. She began her maritime career back in 2008. “We mainly work 12 hour shifts. We have a shift briefing in the morning where we find out what’s going on with the project, then we go on watch. It all depends on what the project is, so we could be in DP where we’re doing construction or pipelay work, or we could be sailing. At the moment the project we’re on is quite complicated so we do about an hour on the DP desk – monitoring the DP system to make sure the vessel keeps its station – and then we’re off keeping a navigational watch the next hour.

Of course, all of the roles available on board ships are different, but none of them are an easy ride: they all involve long hours, and you can’t go home to your own bed at night – but the benefits are real and tangible. Hazel says, “It’s a great challenge, especially when you get to be in control of driving the vessel, but some days it’s quite tough… 5 weeks away gets a little tiring!

What attracts a girl to a life at sea…?

Jessica is 22, she hails from Salford, and she likes to travel “as much as I can” – which would go some way to explaining her career choice. The 17 year old Jessica saw her friends applying to universities and realised she just didn’t want your everyday 9-5 job. Jessica has two older brothers who work at sea and she had been a Sea Cadet since age 12, so was originally thinking of joining the Royal Navy. In the end, Jessica decided she wanted to sail on a working ship – the chance to really test your mettle and to be given a huge amount of responsibility. Jessica was accepted onto a Cadetship at Subsea 7, and she’s been working since 2012.
Fena, a 24 year old 2nd Officer who works on board ferries, had a similar experience: her brother had worked at sea for many years, and the opportunities to travel the world and the paid training sold the idea to her.

For Hazel, it was a need to do something different, to escape from the ‘crap jobs’ she was working, that pushed her into the career she chose. Hazel, like Jessica and Fena, had family members who had worked on ships in the past – family connections to the maritime industry do seem to be a huge contributing factor in young girls choosing these careers.

What are the benefits?

There are so many benefits to a career at sea – the chance to travel the world on a wide range of ships, gain insight into a huge variety of cultures by working with multinational crews, leave of up to 6 months each year and the pay is quite a bit higher than your average entry-level job. Sailing for a living is about as far as you can get from the average 9-5 job. As Maria, who’s 28 and currently working as a DPO on a Construction vessel in Mexico, puts it, “I was looking for something a bit different; something with excitement and adventure.” She says her friends are all jealous when they hear of her travels.

Whereas most students who go off to university will burden themselves with student debts they’re unlikely to have paid back within the next 10 to 15 years, those who gain sponsorship from a marine firm to study at one of the UK’s 14 maritime colleges, academies and universities will be paid throughout their studies. This is something that’s a real benefit - the girls we spoke to all agreed that the pay was much better than what you could reasonably expect to earn working a land-based job, too. Sophie said, “The Merchant Navy is a great way of saving money; I had a deposit for a mortgage in a year (who knows if I would have one in ten years if I hadn’t gone to sea!” Alongside a high salary, outgoings can be minimal as all of your food is prepared by qualified chefs, your laundry is taken care of and you only really spend money at port. Even your travel home is often covered.

For Hazel, the amount of responsibility given to her is the best thing about her job: “it’s a great challenge, especially when you get to be in control of driving the vessel…” Jessica agrees, “It’s a practical working environment with different challenges thrown at you from all directions, every day…

I wouldn’t change my job for the world; the amount of responsibility I’ve been given and knowing how hard I’ve worked to be in this position at my age is a great achievement.”
She goes on, If you work hard, you can reap the benefits of great promotion opportunities within a technical industry, and it can only develop in the years to come.

The leave is usually excellent for offshore workers; if you’re expected to be away for 5 or 6 weeks at a time, you’ll typically get the same in time off; as Hazel puts it, the lifestyle I’ve got would be very difficult to maintain [if I was in a ‘normal’ job]; I couldn’t get this amount of time off with pay.

But surely there are downsides too…

Of course every career has its ups and downs, and all of the women we spoke to agreed the worst aspect is the amount of time spent away from home. Working for only 6 months of the year might look like a highly attractive option, but it’s important to remember that for those 6 months you’re working 7 days a week (usually on 4-6 week rotations) and for half of the year you won’t see your family, friends or partners.

Sophie tells us, I miss so much! People often think working 4 weeks on/off sounds amazing and can’t believe I have half a year off – I have to try and explain that I don’t get statutory holidays, weekends or public holidays and that unlike them I don’t get to go home and relax at the end of the day! I would absolutely love to sleep in my own bed!

Fena, at the age of just 24, is now looking for a role shoreside. The lifestyle you have at sea is not what I want any more; I want a steady life, with good friends and a home… I have sacrificed all of my friends and a normal life; it’s not easy to pursue a hobby if you’re working away every 2 weeks. My friends work 9-5, my partner works away so I rarely see him and it can be very lonely… you miss birthdays and Christmases too, which can be hard on your family.

For Hazel, it’s not too much of a problem at the moment – but she recognises that this may well change if she decides to have children in the future – we already know that the women who do work at sea are typically younger than the men, and she backs this up,
there are very few women who stick it out and keep going; it’s a choice you have to make between family and having a really responsible position. I wouldn’t like to play on a stereotype but it does seem that the women who are left, pursuing their career to the end, they don’t get the chance to get married. It just seems to be traditionally a lot easier for a guy to go away for a month and come back and pick up where they left off – they still love their families and they still have that bond.”

Maria and her husband work on the same ship, on the same rotation –it’s almost impossible to maintain a relationship with someone not in the industry; they find it hard when you’re away for months with a ship full of males… if a promotion or a better opportunity came up I would ultimately turn it down if it meant a different rotation or ship.” So it does seem that she’s managed to find the perfect balance between a relationship and a career, but not every female sea-goer can rely on marrying an Engineer!

 That sounds like a man’s work…

Well yes, traditionally working on ships has been a man’s domain, but there has been female involvement back from day 1, and attitudes are definitely changing towards women taking on technical roles. Maria has been working at sea for 10 years, and in that time she’s noticed a shift in attitude;

10 years ago there was a very strong feeling that women should not be at sea… in that short time I’ve seen people coming around and realising that us ladies can do just as good a job - if not better.

She puts this down in part to universities and colleges promoting more male-dominated roles to girls – which was how she first learnt about the Merchant Navy herself. Jessica says she has seen an increase in female cadets even within the last 2 or 3 years, and she sees the attitude adjustment to others in the industry as a natural progression from this; “the fact that we are becoming more present in the industry is very encouraging for me… Don’t try to flutter your eyelashes to gain respect; respect is earned by being good at your job, not by being the minority on ship.

Hazel feels it is still a male-dominated environment, and describes that it can be quite difficult for women to establish themselves, particularly in more senior roles. Some captains may have an old-fashioned attitude; others embrace the presence of more women on board - but again, the same holds true for many industries.

Sophie, a 28 year old 2nd Officer and Junior DPO who comes from Dorset, now feels she is treated exactly the same as her male counterparts – but that was not always the case. One thing that all of the women we interviewed agreed on was the absence of positive discrimination - or preferential treatment - within the marine industry. The girls all agreed that once you’ve proved yourself if you put the work in, what matters is how able you are – the problem lies in proving yourself in the first place!

Fena has encountered her fair share of sexism in the workplace… she says women are becoming more and more common at sea, but thinks “there is still a stigma attached; men feel they can’t have as much fun in case the women are offended, or don’t know what they’re doing… there are a lot of people who think that women are not strong enough to complete the jobs at sea. This may be true at times, but I can guarantee that any woman worth her weight would give it a good go so it would be nice to see men giving women the same chances.” Fena even told us that she has been prevented from learning skills by one Captain who assumed she would be leaving soon to have children so he would be wasting his time training her!

Fena feels she has often been the focus of the officers on board, which has meant she hasn’t had room to make the mistakes which might go unnoticed if made by a male. She’s also found that the age difference between her and many of her colleagues (sometimes up to 20 years or more) has meant that she’s found it difficult to gain their respect when managing them – “I have had to grow up very fast to deal with it!

So… any advice?

A career in the Merchant Navy is not something to be taken lightly; all of the girls we chatted to agreed that they probably would have benefited from having more information before they started studying. Jessica feels she’s been really well treated over at Subsea 7, and Hazel – who trained Jessica – is happy that she is now sailing with the company, preferring working on-board support vessels than cargo and container ships.

  • For Jessica, her best advice is: “be fully aware that you are entering a male-dominated environment… you cannot expect preferential treatment in any area of the industry,” and Marie backs this up, “you’ll have to be thick-skinned and strong minded. Be prepared to laugh off sexual innuendos, but stand your ground – sexual harassment is a completely different matter. Use your brains when brawn is needed, to prove that you have a place in this world – if you are a hard worker, you will gain respect.
  • Hazel stresses the importance of keeping your professional life strictly professional, “there are a lot of boys; you have to be careful to work hard and don’t get lost."
  • Fena advises women thinking about a career change to, “Be careful of your actions as you’ll be more likely to be remembered and carefully watched, never give anyone a reason to doubt your abilities, believe in yourself and your training, and most importantly – don’t slate other women. We get a hard time enough at sea without turning on each other. It’s not acceptable when men slate us so it shouldn’t be for us to do it to each other either!” When Fena’s having a hard time, she calls her mum, who tells her to, “dust myself off and go out bigger and stronger.
  • And finally, Sophie’s advice is to think long and hard before you go into a career; “give long thought to how long you want to be at sea; this career isn’t particularly family-friendly. Do your research, go to open days and colleges and make sure you get a good training company – I didn’t do my research and wish I had now!
We are all one crew, working towards the same goals and with the same drive to return home to our friends and families… discrimination and obstacles are faced by everyone; it’s the way you choose to handle the situation that determines the outcome.”
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