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Women just do their jobs in yachting; rooming, agencies and hiring could improve

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When we decided to gather a group of women for a Triton From the Bridge lunch, it sounded like a great idea, but as soon as we all sat down, one of our guests wondered why we felt the need.

“There is nothing to apologize for,” this woman said. “We are all doing our jobs like everyone else.”

Another woman noted that it is other people who notice there’s a woman at the helm. In fact, right before the lunch began, a vendor onboard made a point of saying he was glad to see a female captain.

“You don’t hear conversations about women firefighters or police officers because they went through that 20 years ago,” she said. “This [lunch] is our chance to stand up and say I am a person that just happens to be a female who drives a boat. And I do it really well.”

Individual comments are not attributed to any one woman in particular in order to encourage frank and open discussion. The attendees, identified in an accompanying photograph, ranged from captains and officers to a chief stew and chef.

Attendees of The Triton’s October From the Bridge luncheon were, from left, Capt. Veronica Hast, Capt. Vicki Melhuish, Chef Kathy Bell, Chief Stew Deborah Silvius, First Officer Delphine Estebe, First Officer Lia Usilton, Capt. Wendy Umla and Capt. Sally Wilkins. PHOTO/DORIE CO

Attendees of The Triton’s October From the Bridge luncheon were, from left, Capt. Veronica Hast, Capt. Vicki Melhuish, Chef Kathy Bell, Chief Stew Deborah Silvius, First Officer Delphine Estebe, First Officer Lia Usilton, Capt. Wendy Umla and Capt. Sally Wilkins. PHOTO/DORIE CO

Women in yachting — at least veterans like we gathered for the lunch — think of themselves as professionals, just like men, and the issue of gender rarely comes up. But every once in a while, they run into a situation that separates their experience. A common one is cabin assignments.

“It has been hard to find jobs because of rooming arrangements,” one woman said, and several others agreed.

“If a captain has 10 qualified applicants and they can all do the job, they say no to a female because of rooming,” another woman said. “[These officers] could work on Luna, Eclipse, or a massive boat, but these boats are run by male captains and officers. And they like to have the officers together because of the size of the rooms.”

The largest boats are built so that captains have their room, officers have theirs, second officers have theirs, she said. Deck crew tend to bunk together as do interior crew.

“Because of this, we’re looked at as a problem,” a woman officer said. “It’s not a problem, it’s just unusual.”

One woman said rooming is not an issue on commercial boats and was not an issue when she first came into yachting until MLC (Maritime Labour Convention) regulations changed.

“It’s been hard to get on Med boats becauses a lot of them are rotational and then they would need to find two or three crew who are fine with the rooming arrangements,” she said.

The group discussed the rules governing yachts and berths, and agreed that crew can share quarters if all parties consent.

“Regulations don’t say you can’t room with men, just that you need consent,” a woman said. “They’re not taking time to find consent.”

This has inspired them to think outside the box when it comes to rooming.

“Maybe you can offer to bunk with a stew, or a female chef,” one woman said to an officer. “Tell them you don’t mind sharing with the crew, you are trying to find a solution.”

“Having the job is more important; I’ll sleep anywhere,” a woman said. “It’s a bed, how often are you in there?”

 

 Could we get a little help here?

We asked where the yachting industry fell short in supporting women.

“Crew agencies are not supportive,” an officer said. “It is the only place that’s not supportive. Captains I meet in person are great, they don’t see any issue. It’s crew agents I’ve had issue with.”
“I have seen when girls want a deck job, the crew agency will put them forward as stews,” another woman said.

“Agencies have a lot of power,” said a third.

One agency divides crew CVs into separate slots for female crew, another woman said.

“Can’t you just put mate?” she said she asked the agent. The agent said the company specifically asks if employers want a female. The same goes for captains; the agency asks if the owner wants a female captain, she said.

“Can’t you just ask if they are looking for a good captain?” the woman said.

One woman, fresh with a new, big captain’s license, told the story of proudly taking it to a placement agent years ago, expecting a world of opportunity.

Instead, the agent told her “You will never get a job as a captain. You need be a chief stew.”

This resistance is another way women in yachting have it different from men. From their first job — especially if they were looking for a job on deck — many faced hurdles.

“My first job was interior and I hated it,” one woman said. “I think a lot of women can relate to that. It is a very important job, I don’t dismiss it, but as soon as I could, I quit.”

She tried to work as a deckhand but was told no, “they needed someone big and strong.”

Another woman was invited to join the crew of a vessel she had vacationed on as a teenager.

“I had no title, I didn’t know what I was,” she said. “I dove, fished and cleaned heads. I had no idea what I was doing and they barely paid me because I was inexperienced.”

She wondered about training and found out about STCW, the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping.

“I thought, ‘That sounds important’,” she said. “Glad I took it, I realized it’s not about me sitting on the bow in a bathing suit.”

This woman loved working on the outside, but ended up working the interior where she became chief stew.

“It was a sexism thing when they said I was too small and they needed someone who could carry the lines, but I did enjoy the inside,” she said.

Several women at the lunch grew up on boats and most of the rest grew up around the water. All have worked as professional crew for more more than a decade and half for more than 20 years. And most had a story to tell of a challenge at the start of their career.

“I started as a deck/stew, but the title didn’t exist,” one woman said. “I got the job because the captain wanted to date me.”

At that time, she said women didn’t start as deck because entry level was stew for a woman and deck for a man.

“On the next boat, I was mate and I never went back inside,” she said.

Another woman was told to start as a stew but persisted until she found a job on deck.

“I’m a terrible stew; you don’t want me as stew,” she said.

When one woman left a boat that wouldn’t let her work on deck, she asked the captain to document her sea time.

“He thought that was pretty funny,” she said, and signed off on five days for her six months aboard.

 

Not new, just growing

Women have always worked on boats, and there are more onboard today.

“By numbers, of course, there are more men in the industry than women,” a woman said. “And there are more men that want to be captains than women.”

“In the 1980s I knew three women captains,” another woman said.

A woman in yachting since the early 2000s said she can name the six or seven women who were captains when she started.

“The difference now is, people are getting used to us and see how good we are,” she said.

“They realized we are capable, and there are more of us,” another woman said.

But that growth is not without stereotypes.

One captain was told, “You just want everything your way.”

“The four stripes on my shoulder say I get to do that,” she replied.

“Try to find a captain that doesn’t,” another woman said.

“A woman is called a bitch where a man is called a great leader,” a third woman said.

One of the attendees heard that a yacht run by a captain at the lunch had been referred to as the PMS [premenstrual syndrome] boat.

“Really?” this captain said, shocked. “We had a boat that looked fantastic, traveled the world with zero incident and had a fantastic crew. At the end of the day, who cares what anyone else thinks?

“I want crew that want to get on with their job and do it professionally,” she said. “I’m careful about who I employ, I put a lot of thought into it, and I don’t tolerate fools.”

They agreed that those stereotypes are beginning to fade. During interviews, several women noted that yacht owners have said, “It never occurred to me to have a woman run the boat.”

“It can be a novelty, but who cares?” another woman said. “The novelty will become the norm.”

“Owners get a kick out of being trailblazers,” said a third. “Once they see we can do it, it’s ‘wow’.

 

Mentors and role models

The story of the woman who struggled to get sea time out of her captain ended better. After she left that boat, a female captain gave her a deck job.

“That started my career, gave me a set path,” she said, noting that captain gave her time to take courses so she could see a future. “That’s when I learned what yachting was. Now, I’m a first officer.”

Women often look to other women in their field for advice and support.

“Of course, we are role models,” a woman said. “I love to mentor, so I consider myself more mentor than role model.”

One woman had a captain who encouraged her. When she said, “I can’t”, he said, “Do it.” She said it wasn’t his advice as much as the fact that he made her try.

“When you’re lucky enough to have great mentors, you’ll get more experience,” another woman said. “Find a good situation and stick with it. The grass is not greener on other side.”

Another woman agreed and said women should take advantage of the right opportunities.

“I have seen girls want to work on bigger boats,” she said. “But on bigger boats, the smaller your responsibility; the smaller the boat, the larger your responsibility.”

Some influences from women are direct, such as teaching young women to drive the tender.

“They never thought they could,” one woman said. “I don’t know if that’s how they grew up? They never thought of trying?”

Yet the strongest influences can be indirect, just those women doing their job well for others to see.

“If she can do it, I can,” another woman said. That idea helped her persevere when a crew agent told her she had “zero chance” of getting a job on deck.

And all the women encourage other women to do their job in their own way.

“It’s all in the attitude,” a woman said. “It’s not that I can do better than a man. I just do a good job. I don’t have to compare.”

“Don’t do what men do,” another said. “We are physiologically different with our weight in our hips and legs. Use that to your advantage.”

She said she tightened lines on a 220-foot yacht and crew asked, “How the hell did you do that?”

“A lot easier than the boys would,” she said. “I came up with a better way.”

“I have never not been able to do something,” another woman said. “I find a way.”

With a sweep around the table, each attendee shared what works for them in their careers:

  • Maintain an attitude of professionalism, that in this job, you are the most qualified.
  • It’s hard work. Be thick skinned.
  • You can’t fester and harp on the ones who say no.
  • Look for people to push you, not coddle you.
  • No one can take away things you have done.
  • Show up and say yes.
  • Don’t try to be a boy, don’t be a man.
  • We can do anything. We just find different ways.
  • Don’t be a girl with a chip on your shoulder. Be positive.
  • Plant the seed of success in your own mind. Tell other women they can.
  • Anyone who doesn’t succeed is held back by themselves, not held back by anyone else.
  • We’re all capable of succeeding in whatever we want to do. We’re all equal.

 

So what’s ahead for women in yachting?

“It is a challenge being a woman in yachting,” one woman said. “If you haven’t had a challenge, you are the exception.”

She told the story of a friend on a boat who said she never had a problem onboard, but when she got off that boat, she couldn’t find another job.

“I said welcome to the world,” this woman said. “But the industry is changing a lot and with it is our ability to change. The owners are different, they are more open to a female. They have females running their corporations.”

“I’m so ready for it to be a non-issue,” another woman said.

“Just think, it’s only been about 80 years ago that we couldn’t vote,” said a third. “We’re half-way through it being absolutely acceptable, and that’s what we have to think about.”

“It’s like driving a boat,” another woman said. “You can’t over-steer, you have to let it come around. You can’t turn the wheel hard, you have to do a little bit at a time.”

 

Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome at editorial@the-triton.com. Captains who make their living running someone else’s yacht are welcome to join in the conversation. Email us for an invitation to our monthly From the Bridge lunch.

 

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