International Day of Women in Maritime

18 May, 2023 RRS Sir David Attenborough

Today, 18 May, is the IMO International Day of Women in Maritime – a day to celebrate and raise the profile of women who work at sea. Here at British Antarctic Survey, we’re proud to have several female crew members, in roles ranging from Chef, to Engineer, to Deck Officer.

Beth Wilkinson is the Third Officer on RRS Sir David Attenborough. She joined the crew of the James Clark Ross three years ago (with about four hours’ notice!) after another Officer was unable to join at the last minute.

Below, Beth tells us more about how she ended up working in maritime, what it was like sailing to Antarctica for the first time, and what her hopes for the future of the maritime industry are.

Hello! My name is Beth Wilkinson and I’m the Third Officer on board RRS Sir David Attenborough. My job involves holding watches twice a day on the Bridge – currently 8-12, morning and evening – during which time I’m responsible for the safe navigation of the ship. I also look after the ship’s Life Saving Appliances and Fire Fighting Equipment, and help out with other day-to-day tasks such as small boat work and cargo loading and unloading.

A person talking on a cell phone
Beth conducts watches twice a day. This International Day of Women in Maritime, Beth shares her experiences of being a woman at sea.

From four legs to sea legs

I hadn’t really planned to end up working at sea. I previously worked in horse racing but after an injury it was time to look for an alternative career. I developed an interest in working on ships through volunteering with the RNLI but always thought it would be very difficult to get into for various reasons. However, I was fortunate to come across some crew members from a fellow RNLI station who also worked in the Maritime College, Fleetwood and they helped guide me in the right direction. I’ve never looked back since!

Sailing to Antarctica for the first time was just magical – there really is no other place like it. All the different blues of the ice are mesmerising. I don’t think its possible to ever get bored of looking at it, and it makes Bridge watches so much more interesting and fun! Its also incredible how close you can get to the wildlife – even though we keep our distance the whales are so inquisitive they often swim right up to the ship.

A woman is sat on the snow, looking at a penguin
The wildlife in Antarctica is so special

Even the rough weather doesn’t put me off – I really enjoy it (OK, maybe not sleeping in it so much!) but there’s something so fascinating about watching the waves and foam kick up. We had 70-82 knots in our last Drakes Passage crossing and I loved every second of my watch in it.

A close up of a train station
Crossing Drake’s Passage can be rough – but Beth loves every second of it.

The challenges of working at sea

That’s not to say working at sea is always smooth sailing (excuse the pun). Working at sea will always throw challenges at you, and it definitely takes a certain type of character to want and be able to do it. Different people face different challenges, whether it be personal, like not being available for family and friends, and missing birthdays and Christmas, or operational, especially when you’re located in one of the most remote places on Earth. We are lucky on board that we have some wonderful people and generally help each other through.

Luckily, with BAS, I’ve never experienced any issues being a woman in a male-dominated environment. But it does still happen. Sometimes it literally comes down to a difference in culture or, in one case, even superstition! (Historically, it was bad luck to have women at sea and there is a minority that will go above and beyond to let you know they still believe this.) Usually it’s a case of building an understanding of modern cultures and beliefs. I have been able to solve most things by taking the time to educate in various ways about what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour – a few instances requiring me to be stronger than others. I’ve also been privileged to work with some wonderful characters who have always been there to give me additional support if ever needed.

A group of people on a beach
Beth joined BAS three years ago – and hasn’t looked back since!

Other times it’s a case of proving that I can actually do the job. Often girls are seen stereotypically as being weaker and with a lot of our work being manual, sometimes it does require me to think outside the box to complete a task, especially with my lack of height! Once its noted that you can do the job, and are keen/willing to get stuck in and are not a hindrance, this stigma usually disappears fairly quickly.

Future focussed

I would like to continue working with BAS and I’m starting to look at building on my experiences with a view to eventually doing my Chief Mate and, eventually, Masters, tickets.

As for the maritime industry more broadly, I think it has come on leaps and bounds with supporting everyone, especially women, and I would love to see this continue so long as its in a way that’s fair for all. I look forward to celebrating International Day of Women in Maritime for many years in the future!