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Engineers without a Y chromosome

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Many people have never met a female yacht engineer. So until they do, we talked with nine of them about their jobs, what they have learned and share their visions for the future in the field.

One of the reasons people rarely meet female engineers is that engineers are probably the least visible crew onboard a yacht, said Mate/Eng. Karen L. Murray. By definition they manage behind-the-scenes systems such as engines, plumbing, electrical, water, air conditioning, refrigeration, hydraulics and pneumatics.

“It’s the most important part, but the least sexy side of yachting,” Murray said. She started as a deck/stew in 2005, has served as 2nd engineer and currently works on a 96-foot yacht.

Another reason people rarely meet female engineers is that they don’t meet that many engineers overall. A crew roster may include multiple stews and deck crew, but only one engineer, if any at all. Although there is usually one captain and one chef, they are more visible because of crew and guest interactions.

Occasionally, engineers may work a dual role like captain/engineer, deck/engineer or mate/engineer. In 2012, junior engineer Cailin Reid worked as mate on a boat with a captain/engineer, who was stressed with the work load.

“Show me how to do some of the engineering, give it to me,” Reid said to the captain. And soon the crew called on her to fix things instead of him.

“It was better for my interests and I thought, ‘this is really cool’,” Reid said. The 24-year-old has since worked on several yachts more than 100 feet in length as deck/engineer and 2nd engineer.

Melissa van der Walt has been in yachting for 14 years, working her way to be captain, and then changing over to engineer six years ago.

“There are more female captains than female engineers,” van der Walt said. “We’ve been in the shadows for some time.”

So what’s the big deal with female engineers? Not much, said most of the ones we talked with.

“It’s not a guy/girl issue,” Reid said. “The competition is the same. If it is meant to be, you get the job. It’s not more difficult for us. We’re no different.”

When a yacht docks in a new port, other engineers are more interested in the boat and what systems are onboard, Reid said.

“When we pull in, people are intrigued,” Reid said. “First, they’re surprised and say, ‘you’re the engineer?’, but then they just want to talk and see the engine room.”

Nadia Uccello began yachting as a deckhand on a 108-foot yacht and headed toward engineering when she worked on projects like re-wiring shorepower sockets and cleaning out bilge pump valves.

“The captain treated me like neither a male nor a female but an engineering assistant,” Uccello said by e-mail. “I carried what I was told to carry and fixed what I was told to fix.”

So why aren’t more women in the engine room?

“It is a non-traditional job for women, and not something we are socialized to do,” said a Canadian engineer who has worked on megayachts since 2009 and asked not to be named. She said it is not a very glamorous job and the position calls for a lot of time in a noisy, dirty, hot engine room.

“The job can be physically demanding and you have a great deal of responsibility,” she said. “I know a lot of men who wouldn’t want to work in the engine room let alone women wanting to do the job.”

There are certain personalities that are drawn to the field, Murray said. Many in the engineering department like to work alone.

“I like behind the scenes; I don’t like to be Ms. Personality,” she said. “I can do it, but I don’t enjoy it as much.”

Most engineers are hands-on workers, and those hands are often covered in grease and fuels.

“I am genuinely happy to wake up every day, work with my hands, fix broken things, smarten up the engine room and end the day completely filthy.” Uccello said.

The topic of physical ability sometimes comes up, several of the women said.

“I am not as strong as a man, but I can use tools, use my brain,” van der Walt said.

“That’s what chain blocks are for,” said Sarah Duskin, a 2d engineer on a yacht larger than 140 feet. “And I’m accelerating school to get to a management position to get crew to work for me.”

But there is stigma against women doing this work, van der Walt said. Even her family can’t understand what she does.

“When my brothers came onboard, they said, you fix these things?’,” van der Walt said.

Plus, people expect an engineer to have a certain look, she said.

“Why can’t a woman be a blonde and fix things?” van der Walt said. “I am a feminine sort of girl; grit and grime by day, glitz and glam by night. When I tell them what I do, they fall back in their chair.”

“My mom said, ‘what do you do for hair and makeup?’ and I said, ‘I don’t.’,” Reid said. She said the crew are surprised at how different she looks when she dresses to go out.

Duskin agreed and said her choice to be an engineer also affects her personal relationships.

“I am learning how to accept my priorities and how they will affect my life and romantic life,” 22-year-old Duskin said. “I’m in coveralls at work, but when I’m out, I wear dresses and I like to meet people. Hopefully one day I’ll have boyfriend or husband and they will realize this is my life.”

Many of the engineers were quick to offer advice for other women considering the field.

“Give it a try, daywork, learn as you go,” said a Canadian engineer who asked not to be named. “There are tons of opportunities and your skills are highly transferable. It is very rewarding. It’s intimidating at first, but go for it. It is a field where it may be easier to advance because there are fewer engineers, than say, deck or stew.”

“If you love the outside, love being on deck, be a deckhand, be a dive instructor, or be an engineer if you love to fix things,” Charlene Van Niekerk said. She has served as first officer and engineer since 2007 on several yachts over 100 feet in length.

“That males have to be engineers is totally untrue,” she said. “Don’t let that thought stop you. Look for challenges, don’t set off for less than that.”

“If someone says, ‘what do you want to do?’, you don’t have to think inside,” she said. “Engineering, it’s wonderful.”

Pay attention to aspects of the job that you especially enjoy, Murray said.

“Come in with a specialization like electrical, thats the big one, or plumbing, pneumatic, or hydraulic,” she said. “It can help you to have that. Most guys are not an expert in everything; they may have expertise in one aspect.”

Women interested in engineering should push ahead, even through resistance, Uccello said.

“Tell them to give you work tomorrow at 8 a.m. and if they still think you suck, then fine,” Uccello said. “But until then, judgment just makes them look shameful.”

“Sometimes they just need to get to know you,” Van Niekerk said. “Men sometimes feel threatened. Remember, no one is going to wear their pants; you’re just there to work.”

“Don’t worry that there are still some captains that don’t want a female,” she added. “For women, there is still huge room for opportunity.”

In the past, Reid met a captain who told her he did not like to hire women.

“He had a problem, but he admitted it,” Reid said. “But most guys applaud me. The important part is to be good at what you do.”

All of the engineers stressed the value of confidence, especially when first starting out.

“You have to be confident,”  Murray said. “I am more meticulous because I don’t want to be wrong. Sometimes I’m scared to say I’m an engineer. I’m afraid the guys might laugh. But I know that people fix things wrong all the time. Men just say, ‘I can figure this out’.”

“Don’t bother with what others say,” van der Walt said. “I studied at night and learned more and more. If you have the passion, you can do it, whatever you believe in.”

“Unfortunately, we ladies not only have to shout as loud, but louder than the boys to even get a look-in,” Uccello said. “Try not to get bitter. As a fellow, and more successful, engineering lady friend of mine told me, don’t stop talking about it. Tell everyone you want to be in the engine room.”

So even though you may not know a female yacht engineer, the women interviewed hope your odds increase in the future.

When Murray started as deck/stew, she was striving for a full-time deck position at a time when there weren’t that many women outside.

“The owner’s wife said, ‘good luck finding work on deck’,” Murray said. “That was 2005 or 6. I went for deck anyway and never looked back. Now I’m seeing more women. Now I hear people say, ‘I like women working in the engine room’.”

“Yachting is ridiculously far behind the rest of society, but there is still movement,” Uccello said. “It’s slow, but the more we talk about it, the more familiar the term ‘female engineer’ will become, until we finally reach the point where we’re all just engineers.”

Read more about how they got their start.

Dorie Cox is associate editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome at dorie@the-triton.com.

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