A man we had never met wrote us, saying he felt inspired to write about his maritime experiences. He asked what he should write about. We said "Write about your experiences working with women in the maritime industry." His experience was limited but this is what he had to say. - JT

I have a penis. I’m also white, smart, and I come from a middle class home in the USA. These five facts make me a world-wide 1%-er with regard to the opportunities I’ve had in my life. Honestly, I won the fucking genetic, socioeconomic, and spacio-temporal lotteries. Yet I don’t have it all.

One thing I lack is the perspective of those who weren’t born in my circumstances. Not only do I have no earthly idea what it’s like to be a poor Rwandan Hutu, but I can’t even fully comprehend the point of view of someone who ticks every box in the first two sentences of this article except for the penis. I can imagine that it’s probably annoying, and sometimes frightening, to be physically weaker than a bunch of knuckle-draggers who leer at you all the time, and from what little I know of the female reproductive system, dealing with all that doesn’t sound like a picnic, either. And there’s where my laughably limited understanding of what it’s like to be a woman ends.

So, when it was suggested that I write an article about my experiences working with women in the maritime industry, I knew it was going to be a minefield. That’s simply because of the facts previously stated, facts that I have absolutely no control over. I am not, have never been, nor ever will be a woman, so perforce I must remain ignorant of that way of experiencing the world. Therefore I can only give my limited perspective as a white male. With that caveat, let’s step into the minefield.

I’m not going to generalize and say, “Women are thus and such,” because every person is an individual, and their gender may or may not have anything to do with their other characteristics. Instead, I’m going to give concrete examples, stories of all the women I’ve worked with—there’ve only been three with whom I worked in the deck department—and then perhaps extrapolate some commonalities from that extremely limited sample size.

The first woman I ever worked with in the deck department was an AB deck boss, my immediate superior as I was an OS at that time. She was a hard worker. She’d often stay working well after her 12-hour shift was over, even at non-essential tasks. I had the impression that she was working toward a goal of becoming a mate, and wanted to impress the officers with her work ethic. Either that, or she was a workaholic.

Unfortunately, she was physically very weak, unable to throw a mooring line from the boat onto a dolphin bitt. She was also combative towards anyone who offered to show her how to do something she didn’t already know how to do, including how to compensate with rigging techniques for her lack of physical strength. There is a difference between being unreceptive to mansplaining and being a touchy know-it-all without an ounce of humility, and she crossed that line regularly.

At first her work ethic endeared her to the other members of the deck department, and then her “you can’t show me anything” attitude turned people away from her. When she began sleeping with the chief mate, everyone I spoke with thought that it was because her ambition outstripped her abilities, and that she was therefore going to fuck her way to the top.

As her tryst with the mate went on, she became lazy at work, sometimes being up to a half-hour late on watch. She was never disciplined for this. Small wonder, as the person who would be doing the discipline would’ve been the same chief mate who was likely keeping her up at night so that she was too tired to come to work on time. Resentment against her and the chief mate increased. Other people in the deck department, myself included, became lazy as well. The attitude was, “Why should we kill ourselves if our superiors are just having a laugh?” The culture became one of doing as little work as we could get away with. It’s amazing how quickly a crew will take cues from their higher-ups. All of the blame can’t be laid at their feet, however, because I could still have chosen to be a hard-worker. But if I work hard on a ship where hard work isn’t rewarded, what do I get for my trouble except for more hard work? The answer, I know now, is that I would’ve gained the strength of character that can only be had by doing the right thing when everyone around you is doing wrongly.

I recently found out that that same female AB is now a 2nd Mate aboard that same ship. You couldn’t pay me enough money to go back there.

The second and third women I worked with were both OS’s on a ship whereon I was a licensed deckhand—essentially a small boat captain whose job it was to drive the Zodiacs we kept onboard. While I wasn’t technically their superior, by this point in my career I had had enough experience to feel competent in guiding the efforts of those who had never previously worked aboard large ships. These two female deckhands were inseparable friends—not to say co-dependent—before they came aboard, and spent nearly every waking hour together, laughing and joking around. One of them, we’ll call her One, had a surly attitude, was a constant complainer, an overbearing know-it-all with almost no experience, and went out of her way to be unpleasant to those she didn’t like, which was almost everyone. She really didn’t like me. The second, we’ll call her Two, was always cheerful, if somewhat childish and lacking in self-awareness and general competence. They both had been working onboard the vessel for three months before I came aboard.

There are things to be learned from everyone who comes into one’s life, whether those things be positive lessons—things to be imitated—or negative lessons—things to be sure not to do—and I am open to learning from anyone, either type of lesson. From One I learned how the captain liked to hear the radio calls on how the anchor rode led as it was hauled in through the hawsepipe. But when I tried to show her some things she didn’t know, like how to tie a bowline, she quickly became defensive and would say things like, “And how long have you been on this boat?” From Two I learned how much a positive attitude can make up for a complete lack of ability, at least in the estimation of others. One was accident-prone, whiskey-gripping the throttle of a Zodiac and knocking herself overboard as the transom hit her behind the knees. She was hit in the face with various different objects, sometimes thrown at her behest and sometimes stationary. Two giggled constantly.

As one might have guessed by now, all my experiences working with women onboard ships have been negative. Not because they were women, but because they lacked character, integrity, and competence. I have worked with men, also, who lacked these traits, and they were just as odious to be around. However, due to the disparity in the ratio of women to men working aboard ships, I have only had the chance to work with three women. That all three of them were bad shipmates and objectionable people is purely coincidental. I don’t have anything against women working on deck with me, and as a matter of fact, I look forward to working with women who prove to be exceptions to what, for me, for now, is the rule. I know women ashore who are consummate professionals and wonderful people. I have no doubt that there are women working in the maritime industry who are the same. I look forward to working with them. And if I have a bad taste in my mouth about the women I’ve worked with thus far, it’s only because I’ve been unlucky.

It’s not even that I’d like to work with women aboard a ship who are excellent at their job. Hell, give me average. The majority of mariner men I’ve worked with have been just normal, workaday guys, unremarkable in most respects (though I have found that most mariners are harder workers than people ashore, but talking about grass-combing, stump-kicking, mud-licking landlubbers is whole different article). I would cherish working with a woman who was simply normal.

Finally, one aspect that I most enjoy about working as a mariner is the wide variety of people I get to meet from different backgrounds. We need more women on boats. We need their different perspective and experience. What we don’t need is people who have a chip on their shoulder about trying to prove themselves by out-working everyone else. We don’t need the divisiveness caused by having a sexual relationship with one’s superior. We don’t need airheads or dingbats. And we don’t need shitty attitudes and an unreceptiveness to learning. All of these hold true no matter what the accidents of your birth bestowed you with.

- Jonathan Short

Photo by Cameron Venti

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