Today there is no field where the women have not shown their worth. Women have shouldered all kind of responsibilities with grand success. The entry of women into the seafaring trade is a small but a growing phenomenon.
As seafaring is conventionally a man’s world, many women fear to take it up as profession. However, I believe fear is nothing but only a product of our imagination. If you believe in yourself and if you have a strong determination, trust me, nothing is unachievable.
To be honest seafaring is an arduous task. One needs to be prepared mentally, physically and emotionally before choosing this as a profession. It requires strength and courage, however with a positive attitude and approach you are good to go.
Working on-board ship is fun and challenging for me at the same time. Everyday has been a learning day. I learn while I work. Each day comes with a new hope, a new beginning, a new lesson and new bunch of challenges. There is never an end to learning new things. It is enjoyable.
As every profession has its own set of challenges, so does the maritime industry. Being an overwhelmingly male dominated industry over the years, it presents some unique and unusual challenges, especially for the women seafarers. Here, I would like to highlight some of the challenges every women seafarer are expected to face on-board ships. I wish this article will encourage other young women to take on the same challenges as I did and make a promising career in days to come, eventually increasing the percentage of women seafarers in the industry.
Problem Of Acceptance: The first and foremost challenge that I faced on-board my first ship was of acceptance. Being accepted in the entire group of men and considering you as one of them may often seem to be time taking. As the environment is strictly male dominated, women at sea may feel left out or ignored. The only solution to it I found is to work together and earn their respect. Take initiative. There are times when I was questioned on my capabilities. Often women are pushed harder to prove their worth. Be strong and show active participation in everything you do. The maritime world is the place where different cultures, people and religion mix. People learn to live together with their differences and in mutual respect.
Fighting Loneliness: Like for any seafarer, my initial days on ship were hard to pass. Days were gloomy and I was surrounded by loneliness. Being the only women on-board I had no one to share my feelings and thoughts. Isolation can often take its toll on you. Loneliness and homesickness are some of the problems you may face. The only way I could cope up with this situation is by keeping myself engaged. I would pen down my thoughts in a personal diary and would engage in hobbies. Do artwork or sing songs, read some good books and watch movies. I would always carry some inspirational books with me on board ships. I would also load my laptop’s hard drive with some motivational movies. If there was internet on-board, it would help me to stay connected with friends and family, which would always help. I often spent my time studying and preparing for competency exams. I gave time to myself. There were several evenings I spent gazing at the endless horizon, the sun sets, watching the radiant sky and the untold beauties of nature. I soon realised life on board is so beautiful.
Dealing With Prejudice and Stereotyping People: The first time I stepped on-board ship almost every officer and crew member asked me the same question- What am I doing here and why did I choose Merchant Navy as my career. Every time I came across a new face in this industry, the initial topic of our conversation would begin with the same questions. It was very discouraging and disconcerting. Most seamen are stereotypes (No offence to anyone) and have a common belief that women have no business on board ship. It is solely their world and they are the only rulers. Some even advised me to quit my career and look for jobs ashore. They considered household work as the sole responsibility of women. They always highlighted the negative aspects of shipping as a career and often tried to make me realise that I am too weak and incompetent to do a man’s job. But I strongly believed that that the universe favours the brave. Willpower is the essential virtue of a fully actualised life. I waged war against the weaker thoughts that crept into my mind, strengthened myself ceaselessly and worked meticulously to prove myself and win their trust. It was not too late that my seniors started to rely upon me and gave me equal importance and respect.
Lack of Basics For Women Seafarers: I have noticed that the ship’s culture is a reflection of masculine norms and values. On my first day of work I was quite surprised to find that neither the uniform nor any of the working overalls matched my size. I had to manage myself anyhow in baggy boiler suits and oversized boots. Everyone on board took it for granted that they will never have a women working onboard along with them. Finally I had to personally request my senior officers to provide me with shoes and overalls of my size. In addition to it though I could reach most of the spaces on board, at times I also experienced some physical shocks owning to the design of space which reflects an assumption that the environment of ship is male territory.
Facing Narrow-mindedness: All men think and react differently. On-board if you have a good relationship with a particular male colleague, it can foment jealousy and also lead to favouritism. It can result in loss of unity and ignorance. I was subjected to bilious remarks by many crew members; some of them even stopped interacting with me and deserted me at work. I have learnt that it is better to mix and mingle with all equally than to give space and importance to anyone in particular. It is better not to be too close or over friendly to avoid bullying by others on board.
Adapting To Mental and Physical Stress: I have worked only on container vessels so far. Containerships generally experience frequent port calls. On an average we visit a port every second day. The sailing time is too short. My sleep was disturbed by erratic and arrhythmic working hours and duty calls. After completing 8 hours of shift I practically got no time to rest and was called on bridge during pilotage. It seemed annoying and beyond my endurance power. It was mentally exhausting as well. Shipboard life is not as easy as it seems to be. Being a woman I was never given any preference to rest more or work less even though it was toilsome (neither I asked for it as I wanted to be accepted as “equal”). In fact I worked harder and sometimes more than my male counterparts to prove my competency as an officer.
Proving My Competency: In my initial days of training I was also sent on deck to tighten the lashing gear on the containers to keep them safe in rough seas offshore. Because of their heavy weight I found it too hard to handle them. Adding to that, working under the scorching sun totally enervated me. My fellow mates were so versatile and they could do it even single handed. They often looked at me with askance questioning my competency. I had to come out of my comfort zone and worked hard to prove my worth. Though it was difficult in the beginning I carried on assiduously and my confidence began to burgeon. As I worked harder, I gained physical strength. My message to all women seafarers is don’t ever give up and think you are less competent to anyone. With persistent and diligent efforts you can make the impossible possible.
Gathering Courage To Do Difficult Tasks: Working with the cranes was another big hurdle for me. I was quite reluctant to climb up the lashing bridge to secure the cranes with wire. The enormous height scared me. Also no one encouraged me to go up as they thought it was not my cup of tea. I resolved to do it one day and gathered enough courage to climb all the way up and reach the top of the crane. I could feel the strong winds blustering all over me. That day I realised the only limits in our lives are those that we set ourselves. We should dare to get out of our circle of comfort and explore the unknown. Of course safety is of utmost priority and should never be compromised.
Also, we all know mooring is an extremely critical operation. One of the biggest challenges that I faced was handling the heavy mooring ropes. It is also very laborious and difficult. Transferring the lines from the storage drum to the tension drum demands skills and practice. With time I learnt the correct handling of mooring ropes. My fellow crew members were also kind enough to help me in this regard. Now that I have learnt the skills of safe mooring practices I supervise the whole operation and also control the winches.
I completely agree that the life of a seafarer is not bed of roses. It is challenging, mentally and physically. Women seafarers face many difficulties and hardships. But, trust yourself and have the courage to face your fears. Create the kind of life you will be happy to live with all your life. If you will have an unconquerable will to win, victory will never be denied. Enjoy the joys of your job. Every job has its positive and negative aspects. It is the positive ones we must reflect upon.
I wish every woman seafarer excel and integrate themselves into the workforce and bring wellness and success to the shipping industry.
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