Female Captains Command Respect, But Not Many Ships



As her tanker unloaded gasoline at a Beirut terminal early one morning, Iakinthi Tzanakaki awoke to the sound of lines snapping.

Strong winds were pushing her 600-foot vessel toward another tanker also discharging fuel. Capt. Tzanakaki ran to the bridge, knowing a collision could put lives and millions of dollars in cargo at risk.

“There was a lot of noise—the alarm, men yelling as they stumbled out of bed,” she said of that April 2013 morning.  “I screamed ‘Full speed ahead!’…We broke the moorings holding us in place and avoided a collision that could have caused a blaze.” No one was hurt.

For a woman to face such a challenge as commander is a rarity on a Greek ship.  According to data from the country’s merchant marine ministry, only 17 of the 2,704 people named captains since 2010 have been women.  Greece is the No. 1 ship-owning nation by tonnage, controlling about a fifth of the world’s merchant fleet, despite its multiyear debt crisis.  Its lack of women at the helm and in the ranks reflects the situation world-wide, with women making up about 2% of the global shipping workforce, according to the International Transport Workers’ Federation.

Capt. Tzanakaki was hailed by her crew for her handling of the incident. “She made the right call in Beirut and saved the ship and maybe our lives,” said Manolis Marinakis, who served as her second in command at the time.  “It was an honor to work with her.”

Despite the accolades and relatively high pay—when traveling, Capt. Tzanakaki earns up to 10 times the average monthly salary for a Greek adult —few women heed the sea’s call. At Greece’s 10 merchant-marine academies, there is one woman for every five men.

Ioannis Theotokas, the ministry’s general secretary, said he has encouraged shipowners to employ more women, and the ministry has organized events with female officers talking about the rewards of the career.  “But progress is slow,” he said.

Shipping officials cite the demands and frequent isolation of the profession, as well as an entrenched, male-dominated culture, for the disparity.

“A female officer at sea must put twice the effort to persuade her employers that she can do the same job as a man,” said Venetia Kallipolitou, head of maritime studies at the merchant marine ministry, who holds the rank of captain, second class.  “Ships are unwelcoming for women as a workplace,” she said.  “It’s a taboo that won’t be easy to overcome.”

The career is often seen as an obstacle to starting a family, said Katerina Ioannou, a 24-year-old  Captain C class, the No. 3 position on a ship.

“Shipping companies invest thousands to train you as a captain, but after a few months at sea, many girls ask for desk jobs,” she said.  “This makes employers reluctant to promote them.”

Trips routinely last six months or more, and a ship master is always on call, managing what is usually an all-male crew.  In addition to commanding the ship’s crew under way, she is responsible for reporting the ship’s position and status to her employer and the cargo owners, as well as overseeing everything from engine repairs to payroll.

During quiet periods, Capt. Tzanakaki organizes cooking competitions and karaoke nights for the crew, but other times, commotion and conflict are part of the job.  “A ship is no Sunday school,” she said.  “Tension flares up.  I break up arguments and sometimes even fistfights among the crew over many things, some as trivial as who has to do the dishes.”

Sexual harassment is an area of concern for women in the industry, said Karin Orsel, president of the Women’s International Shipping and Trading Association, a networking organization for female managers.

“When it happens in an environment where you are at sea, and isolated from resources or the ability to extricate oneself, it becomes even more concerning.  Industry is looking at this issue in search of solutions,” she said.

The Greek merchant-marine ministry’s Mr. Theotokas said that sexual-harassment cases are taken seriously and have mostly involved cruise ships or ferries. “We know that some incidents go unreported,” he said.  “But on oceangoing vessels when you have a single officer, incidents are very rare.”

Ms. Ioannou said she hasn’t faced any problems during her 36 months at sea, though she said “I dress like a man, in large T-shirts and wide pants or overalls.  No manicures, lipstick or makeup and I keep my hair tied up.”

Male junior officers sometimes bristle at her commands, however.

“It’s a Greek thing.  Greek boys have big egos,” Ms. Ioannou said.  “But the job gets done at the end.”

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Source: WSJ


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