“Girls Don’t Belong at Sea”
The examiner stared at his papers, silently rearranging them, avoiding my eyes. I forced a slow, deep breath, determined not to let him see how tense I was. The clock behind me ticked, meting out the seconds. A car horn sounded outside. I stared calmly across the table, my face neutral, and resisted the urge to fidget with the toy ship in front of me.
“You’re not an officer. You’ll never be an officer.”
It had taken me twenty-three years to get to this point. Twenty-three years since I first stepped onto a ship as a trainee. As I stared calmly across the table, my mind raced, running through all the people who’d told me I’d never make it, that I didn’t have what it takes.
- The bosun who told me, “Girls don’t belong at sea.”
- The woman who told me, “Idiots, criminals and social incompetents go to sea. Which are you?”
- The AB who looked me up and down and spat, “You? You won’t even last a voyage.”
- The captain who warned me not to fuck his crew, even though that’s all that girls are good for.
- The captain who groped me in his cabin, claiming I owed him sex for allowing a female on his ship.
- The chief officer who told me, “You’re not an officer. You’ll never be an officer.”
- The stevedores who refused to discuss the cargo plan with a girl.
- The dockyard manager who pinned me against a hatch coaming and assaulted me because, “… if [I] didn’t want it, [I] wouldn’t be on a ship.”
- The bank manager who demanded proof of my qualifications, because, “…[I] don’t look like a seaman to him.”
- The examiner who warned me to sit my next exam at a different centre because, “…the other examiner at this centre doesn’t pass female candidates.”
- The random drunk who told me, “You’re a liar. They don’t let girls work on ships. That’s a man’s job.”
“You’re a liar. They don’t let girls work on ships. That’s a man’s job.”
As I waited, I considered my options if I didn’t pass. I could always try again. It wouldn’t be the end of the world, but it would prove them all right. Maybe I could just stay at my current rank, or maybe I could consider a career change…
The examiner looked up, assessing, measuring. I met his eyes, wondering what he saw when he looked at me? After an hour and a half of answering his questions, he knew my strengths and weaknesses.
The system for maritime qualifications is thorough: for each rank we have written exams, practical assessments, and years of sea time before we’re finally eligible to sit the oral exam.
The examiner broke into a smile and reached across the table. “Congratulations!”
I released the breath I hadn’t realised I’d been holding, and reached over to shake his hand. While he stamped and signed my Notice of Eligibility, confirming that I’d qualified as captain, I sagged into the chair, lightheaded with relief. Twenty-three years, maybe longer, and this journey was finally over. Or was it just starting? It’s hard to tell.
Did the journey start when I first walked onto a ship as a trainee in 1996? Or did it start before that, when my Scout troop arranged for me to spend my weekends volunteering as a deckhand on the local ferry? Did it start when the local Brownies turned me away (people of my ethnic background weren’t welcome), so I was free to join Cubs instead? Or maybe it started earlier when the Piper Alpha blew up and my family moved overseas?
Maybe it was later, when I got fed up of getting pushed around by certain officers, of having them risk my life because they didn’t know their jobs. Or when I realised that I could do their jobs, and started my maritime studies by correspondence. Did the clock start when I started studying for local maritime qualifications while I was still at high school, or when I started studying for international qualifications while stranded in Europe at age twenty-one with no simple way to get home?
However I count it, it’s been quite a journey. I’ve visited thirty-seven countries, lived in five, sailed on twenty-six ships under nine flags. And now, finally, I can study whatever I choose. My thoughts flicked back to the people who had encouraged me, often without knowing it.
“Would you rather quit and prove the bosun right, or stay and prove him wrong?”
- To the officer on my first ship, who asked me, “Would you rather quit and prove the bosun right, or stay and prove him wrong?”
- To the seaman who didn’t realise I was could hear him when he told a new captain, “She’s anti-smoking, anti-drinking, anti-every-f*#king-thing, but she’s good at her job.”
- To the captain who told the chief officer, “I don’t care if she’s a trained chimpanzee, as long as she’s competent!”
One officer spent a lot of time answering my neverending questions, explaining astronomy, stability and law. He was the one who suggested I start formal maritime studies. When I tried to thank him for his patience, he told me to pay it forward, to help the next generation instead.
I often tell cadets that there are two ways to learn by watching:
- How to do something; and
- How not to do something
As long as the lesson doesn’t kill or maim you, both lessons are equally valuable.
The same is true of motivation. Life at sea can be challenging in ways rarely encountered ashore. When I was cold, exhausted, injured, scared, lonely, and there was no end in sight, the desire to prove my haters wrong was as strong or stronger than the desire to prove my supporters right.
To everyone who said I couldn’t, thank you for your inadvertent support when times were hard. Without you, I’m not sure I could have made it.
Now, I’ve got some time on my hands while I wait for my paperwork. What else did they say I couldn’t do?
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