SA female sailors make waves

2010-10-14 13:26
Crew member Lindiwe Mawowa works on the bridge of the SA Agulhas. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

Crew member Lindiwe Mawowa works on the bridge of the SA Agulhas. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

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Port Elizabeth - As part of National Water Week, the SA Agulhas has sailed from Cape Town to Durban with an all-female crew from various shipping companies.

The women want to demonstrate that their careers are challenging in a male-dominated field but that they are as capable as anyone of doing the tasks required.

"I got a bursary from Portnet even though this career wasn't my first choice, but my dad wasn't happy. He was thinking about the environment on the ship," Transnet marine fleet manager Noeraan Daniels told News24.

She did mathematics and physical science at school and had dreams of being a doctor, but because of her family influence in the fishing industry, found herself drawn to a career at sea.

Daniels said that relationships can be challenging with the schedule, but that it depends on the individual.


"I'm dating a DJ and he frustrates me. I met him on Facebook and I'm not an overtly affectionate person - I don't like sending 'I love you' SMSes and so it can be difficult, but it depends on how you handle it."

Rembuluwani Nengovhela is married but also has to carefully manage her time with her husband.

"I was married in July 2006 and my husband is from the same village as I am in Venda (Limpopo). He's based in Johannesburg and I see him when I'm off. I work for 28 days on, 28 days off," said the second navigating officer for De Beers Marine.

She said that if they weren't too far from shore, there was usually cellphone signal and the couple uses email to stay in touch.

Nengovhela described how she found this career path after she completed her matric and was offered a Transnet bursary.

"I didn't know what this industry was about and there was no money at home to study. I had no choice but to grab this opportunity and I'm continuing with my studies.

"We’re normal people," she insisted.


One of Nengovhela's responsibilities entails positioning the ship so that drillers can do their work, but she said that life at sea can be stressful.

"Sometimes you get cabin fever and you just want to be away from everybody. I just go into my cabin and cry."

Other women echoed the difficulties faced by being at sea in what is still regarded as "man's work".

"Some of them (the men) will ask you 'What are you doing here? You'll never be anything.' On my third ship the mate didn't like me and gave me crappy jobs," said South African Maritime and Safety Authority (Samsa) ship surveyor Lindiwe Mawowa.

"On my first ship I was nicknamed 'Bubbles' and the third mate introduced me and says, 'Hi guys meet Bubbles, she's been talking non-stop.' There were six girls and two guys; the mate was shitting bricks. The chief mate said to me, 'You are useless,'" said Thembela "Bubbles" Taboshe, second navigation officer for Safmarine.

Mawowa said that people inspired her to make a career at sea and celebrated her 21st birthday aboard her first ship, the SA Helderberg.

She recounted how Samsa supported her when she was ill.


"The doctors didn't know what was wrong with me and Samsa sent people from Pretoria to come look at me and Samsa said, 'If your medical aid is exhausted, we’ll take over the rest.'"

Despite the often difficult circumstances, the female sailors have a distinct sense of independence and ambition.

"I went to an all girls' school and you leave there a total feminist. But when you're a cadet and you get a tough time, it kind of moulds you and makes you stronger," said Taboshe.

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