The Triton


From stews, captains, and bilge rats, women become engineers


Yacht crew get their starts in a variety of ways. Several of the female engineers talked about their beginnings in the yachting industry.

Read “Engineers without a Y chromosome“.



Cailin Reid was a skin specialist and masseuse in her native South Africa before she started in yachting. Her first position was as a stew, but she knew that wouldn’t work for her interests so the captain moved her on deck instead. She enjoyed changing filters and the physical parts of the job.

“I was a tomboy growing up,” Reid said. “It was in high school I became more of a girl and then I went to beauty college.”

When she first came to yachting, girls worked on the inside and boys outside.

“My dad said, ‘you won’t make it’,” she said. “My dad said he didn’t mean I wouldn’t make it in yachting, only that I wouldn’t make it as a stew.”

The 24-year-old has since worked as 2d engineer on two yachts more than 120 feet and as a deck/engineer on a yacht more than 100 feet.


Charlene Van Niekerk left her job in South Africa as an IT specialist to “see life” when she was 34. She got the idea to work on boats from a yacht engineer friend in Ft. Lauderdale. She said she didn’t know a thing about boats but did the coastal course and STCW. She stayed in a crew house and registered with crew agencies. In one job, she cleaned an engine room on a sailboat that the owner had not been able to sell.

“I got a bike and rode two days a week to West Marine to study the products,” she said. “I eventually taught myself everything to use for all parts of the boat.”

Eventually she was interviewed by an owner.

“He asked if I knew how big the fenders were on his yacht,” she said. She didn’t. “He said, ‘they’re as big as you. How will you lift them over the rail?’ “

“I don’t know yet,” she told him. “It might not be graceful, but I will do everything I can to get the job done.”

The owner hired her. She also served as first officer on a charter yacht with five crew that paid for her engineering courses so she could share the job with the engineer onboard.


Melissa van der Walt is a 32-year old South African who started as stew on a small boat doing deliveries between Croatia, Dubai and countries in the Med.

“I had a nice captain that let me drive on a 30m,” van der Walt said. “I learned to drive and park and I didn’t want to be a stew anymore.”

She eventually took a captain’s position on 64-foot Sunseeker.

“I didn’t know much about engineering,” she said. “I topped off oils but with only one crew I needed to know more.” So she spent a season as an engineer.

“I wanted to be as safe as possible as a captain, but I fell in love with engineering,” she said. “I just love it.”


Sarah Duskin grew up Ft. Lauderdale and saw the boats shows in the area. She did a year-long technical course in marine engine management and found her passion.

“I was artsy, into music, playing drums, piano and now I have a ukulele,” she said. “But I am studying, so I don’t have time for the ukulele.”

Duskin said being a woman was a benefit because it caused her resume to stand out.

“Out of 20 resumes, he said there was just one girl,” Duskin said. “He questioned why, in 2014, there was just one girl?”

The 23-year-old said she wished she had started her career earlier and said she has plans to  buy a generator to have her own engine to work on.

“And I have ideas for safety features that I will market one day,” she said.


Karen L. Murray grew up sailing in Canada, winning in the youth division on Laser IIs. Her high school boyfriend was a chief officer and relief captain, so she called one day to ask how she could get into yachting.

She moved to Ft. Lauderdale and did the crew house, agency and dockwalking circuit until she found a captain who liked to train green crew. When he asked what she wanted to do, she asked to be put in the engine room.

“I would like to come up with a line of women’s tools,” she said. “I don’t mean pink. The grips are large on tools, and women’s hands are typically smaller.”


Dorie Cox is associate editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome at

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