Meet South Africa's first female officer to navigate a submarine

Lieutenant Gillian Malouw (Photo: YOU)
Lieutenant Gillian Malouw (Photo: YOU)

She shares a bathroom with 44 men, sleeps in a narrow bunk bed in tiny quarters along with 14 colleagues for weeks at a time and spends her days in a humid metal tube that smells of grease.

But submarine officer Lieutenant Gillian Malouw wouldn’t have it any other way.This is her dream job – and she’s making history in the process. Gillian is the navigator of the submarine SAS Queen Modjadji, a 62m long South African navy vessel that glides stealthily 250m beneath the surface of the ocean.

She’s also the first female South African navy officer to work on a submarine, the first woman in Africa to do so and one of the few women naval submarine officers in the world. The determined 28-year-old couldn’t be prouder of her accomplishment.

“The world is filled with naysayers and negativity but no one can take away what you’ve learnt and no one can take away your dreams,” she says. “If you truly want something, do everything in your power to make it happen.” There were people who doubted she’d make it through training but she never gave up.

“They’d say, ‘Oh, we’re not sure about you’, because of my small frame or simply because they overlooked my abilities. But I never let it get to me. “For the first time in the history of our submarine service, we have a female in a leadership position. It shows we’re moving in the right direction.”

The harsh reality of life aboard a submarine is simply par for the course for this ambitious naval officer. “You choose to live in these conditions,” Gillian says. “You get used to it and make do with what you have. Claustrophobia doesn’t get to me.”The submarine service in the SA navy and in most other naval services is voluntary – and for good reason.

Not everyone has what it takes to live and work in a tightly confined space, breathing recycled air for weeks at a time and, in Gillian’s case, sharing two toilets, one shower and a tiny 2m wide kitchen with 44 colleagues.

The sub has just 15 single bunks shared by the crew, who take turns sleeping when they aren’t on duty. Gillian, who was born and raised in Schauderville in Port Elizabeth, began her naval journey when she was in Grade 9 and joined the South African Sea Cadets, a youth organisation that follows naval traditions and principles.

It teaches youngsters leadership skills, self-discipline, self-respect and navaloriented skills.“I would go on boat trips and that was when I truly found my passion for the sea. The fact that it’s so endless and so beautiful really captivated me,” she says.

“You know how some people say they joined by mistake? Or they filled in a form and didn’t think anything of it, or they did it because they desperately needed a job?

That wasn’t me. “I genuinely wanted to join the South African navy and I hope I can pass this on to someone one day – a genuine love for serving your country.” Gillian matriculated in 2007 and knew at that point she wanted to sail ships as she was already a sea cadet. Two years later she was accepted into the navy after nagging the naval recruitment offices in Pretoria about her application.

“I told myself these people had to accept me, no matter what. I didn’t want to study further – all I wanted to do was to sail ships.” She did her basic training in Saldanha Bay in the Western Cape, a gruelling experience at the hands of trainers “who are like evil stepmothers and -fathers, who shout at you all the time to work, work, work”, she recalls with a laugh.

One of her toughest challenges was learning how to swim. “Yes,” she says, clapping her hand over her mouth in embarrassment. “I couldn’t swim when I joined the navy!” She took lessons that ended in a test “in front of a whole lot of people” and passed.

“The entire training period was taxing both physically and emotionally but there was never a point where I wanted to pack up and go home.”

After basic training Gillian was selected for training in Gordon’s Bay near Cape Town as a combat officer candidate. On completing her officer’s training, she attended the SA Military Academy in Saldanha Bay and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in technology and defence management which “entailed completing a variety of management courses and nautical science for combat officers doing navigation”.

Life on a submarine may not be for everybody but for Gillian, living and working in tight quarters has become her new normal. She volunteered for the submarine service in 2016 and was assigned to SAS Queen Modjadji. There she began working on her submarine qualifications for combat officers and completed her training last year.

As the sub’s navigation officer she pilots the vessel and as its officer of the watch she’s also responsible for safety, especially related to collision risks or grounding at sea. How long she spends at sea depends on the sub’s assignment, she explains.

“It takes one-and-a-half weeks to sail to Durban [from Simon’s Town], for example, and the same amount of time to sail back, but it all depends on where we’re going. We’re underwater for most of the time when we’re at sea.”

When she’s not on duty Gillian loves to read. “I always have a book with me just to keep myself busy. Currently I’m reading The Handmaid’s Tale.” There’s little privacy on a submarine unless you’re in your bunk and your curtain is drawn. “That’s the time I feel like, ‘Yes, this is my time’.”

She misses her family, boyfriend Romero Hector and two dogs when she’s at sea but doesn’t let that get her down. “The navy has been very good to me. I’ve seen many things and I’ve met different people from various parts of the world.

Obviously this all comes at the cost of sacrificing some things, like cellphone signal and not seeing your loved ones for a while.” Her next big goal is to become the first female officer commanding a submarine.

“That would be an incredible achievement. The plan is to always keep moving forward and pioneering for future generations. “We shouldn’t limit ourselves to society’s wishes – we should always do what we’re capable of.

It’s important to overcome the voice that tells you ‘no’ in your mind before you prove everyone else around you wrong.”