Females at Sea

Posted: 22nd July 2016 | Written by: Pippa Nicholas

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Females at sea: It's one of the longest and most diverse discussions in the crew mess of commercial ships… and by commercial I mean tankers, containers, general cargo and car carriers.

When I first went to sea (don't ask when), we used things like Loran C and sextants, women were on the odd ship here and there, usually Russian and looking more like an Indrik beast than what we see today as the model Russian girl.

They were hardy folk, she says, clearing her throat as she remembers being drunk under the table by one such lady, then arm wrestled for the cost of a bottle of vodka… They could look after themselves but the British fleet didn't start to accept them for many years to come. 

In the late 80’s and early 90’s various world leading shipping companies introduced a cadet program for female officers, and we saw a few green female deck cadets about, with some also coming into engineering. 

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Pippa first day at sea

I’m in somewhat of an enviable position. Being transgender, I have seen both sides of the playing field, though had I known I was transgender back then I’m pretty sure I wouldn't have been accepted as I have been today.

I guess some of the acceptance comes from the fact that I have considerable engineering experience with good knowledge and technical expertise, and I’m still able to roll up my sleeves, kick off the heels and dive in head first to fix 99% of the problems put in front of me. 

But let’s consider the general acceptance of females in the marine industry today, either in deck or engineering positions. If we think back to the Titanic, even the interior staff were men - waiters and cabin attendants - and it took some strong women to change that. Today it’s the other way around where females dominate the interior in yachting as well as the front of house in most cruise ships. 

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In the late 80’s and 90’s when female deck and engineering cadets started to come through the ranks, it brought with it a new set of problems. Many of the chauvinistic (and I bow to the fact that I was probably one of them) male seafarers could not, and did not, put up with the fairer sex telling them what to do.

We lost a few good men due to their own ignorance and inability to accept change. However, many of those early female cadets stood tall and proud and many are now senior officers, or have moved on to managerial positions, carving a path for younger recruits. 

What I say to all budding girls out there is this: Don’t listen to the crew agent who says deck hand jobs are for male crew. Step up to the plate and say you want to work on deck, do the courses, keep a clear head, and you’ll have just as much chance of making it all the way. 

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Current day at work - hands on toilets

I have friends who have done it and a shining example of tenacity is my former sister-in-law, Carol Benbrook, who is captain of a recently launched Palmer Johnson, married to the chief engineer, and bringing up two beautiful children. Find me a man who’s doing that and, if he exists, my guess is he hasn’t yet found his transgender side! 

If you put your heart and soul in, anything is possible; dream a little and never be afraid to ask questions – it’s the stupid people in this world who don’t ask questions, who have never challenged an outcome or never looked for a better way to do things. 

Whatever you experience in life, and whatever your fears, remember this: As my former self I was respected by many, admired by some, feared by others and hated by a few. I also had my name in the yachting media some 17 years ago with lots of bad press for something over which I had no control. So imagine how I felt as the owner of an international marine company walking into my first meeting with multi millionaire clients in a dress! 

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Current day at work - hands on communications

I took that experience and made it work for me; I lived every moment and used it to my advantage. Never fear the future, never forget the past and, much like the ladies in the interior in the 30’s and 40’s and later those who took cadet status in the 80’s and 90’s, be a pioneer in your own right.

About Yacht Projects International
Yacht Projects International is a network and engineering solution consultancy specialist providing international marine communications, all hardware, all airtime, GMDSS, and remote/local management of systems. Headhunter water treatment global agents. Offices in Florida, USA and the south coast of the UK. 

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