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Third officer Alix McDermott's decision to have a maritime career left her family a bit blind-sided, but she does not regret her decision so far. Her career highlights in the tanker industry include coming alongside a giant iceberg in the Falklands and enjoying a traffic jam-free commute away from a 9 to 5 shore job.
What is a typical day in your job?
Typically, I'm on the 08:00hrs to 12:00hrs watch so my day involves: waking up, throwing some clothes on, followed by throwing some breakfast down my neck and arriving on the bridge in time for a decent handover with the 04:00hrs to 08:00hrs officer. During watch, I keep a safe navigational watch, fill in the daily fuel reports to send to the company, weather reports to the MET office, answer the busy bridge telephone and making myself the odd brew. After handing over the watch to the second mate, I have lunch with the other officers and then go on deck to do some work.
Usually, deck work involves weekly or monthly checks of the firefighting equipment (FFE) and life saving appliance (LSA) equipment and, if any of the equipment is faulty, I'll fix or replace it as necessary.
After deck work, I'll chill out in my cabin, mainly watching something on my laptop and napping. After dinner, I'll hang out in the officer's day room with other crew members – we usually play some sort of board game or something on the Playstation – before heading up to the bridge for my next watch. I prefer the evening watch as it's much quieter than the morning one and in the summer, I love watching the sunsets, they're far better than sunsets viewed from land.
Why did you choose a career at sea?
I decided that a career at sea was for me after I realised the 9 to 5 career wasn't. I was working in an IT office when I applied for the cadetship and thought that a career where I could see a bit of the world while earning money sounded great. Also, the two-minute commute from your cabin to the bridge certainly beat the 75 minute each way stress-inducing one I was doing every day in my car at the time.
I have no family connections to the sea at all, so this career decision hit my parents a bit left field, but they've been nothing but supportive of me and have been out to visit my ship twice.
Tell us some of your career highlights so far – and challenges
As much as the engineers like to tease that all 'deckies' do is look out of the window (to be fair, they're not wrong, as it is an integral part of keeping a good and safe navigational watch), it paid off in late 2018.
We were on our way down to the Falklands and we spotted a large iceberg 10 degrees further north than the iceberg boundary in the South Atlantic suggests it should be. We estimated that it was about the size of the ship and it even had a few 'growlers' accompanying it. That was a definite highlight.
Another highlight was a trip up the Sydney Harbour bridge while berthed alongside. I don't think I'd have ever had the opportunity to do that, if not for being there on ship.
There have been a few personal challenges during my short career at sea. My dad's cancer came back after a brief remission and was diagnosed with stage four cancer while I was away on my first ship. That was difficult to deal with, as I wanted nothing more than to be home supporting him and my family through it. But, after a lecture from my dad about not wasting opportunities, I decided to stay and make the most of my time away.
One of the great things about being working away at sea, however, is that even though you're away for a long time, you're also home for a relatively long time, so by the time it came for my next ship my dad was sick of me hovering around him.
We were on our way down to the Falklands when we spotted a large iceberg 10 degrees further north than the iceberg boundary in the South Atlantic suggests it should be. We estimated that it was about the size of the ship and it even had a few 'growlers' accompanying it Alix McDermott, third officer
How do you think women can be made to feel welcome and retained in a career at sea?
As a female seafarer I feel that, overall, I have not faced any particular challenges caused by my gender. The men I have worked with have treated me the same as they would have if I was a bloke. I think the way you are treated onboard is mainly worked out by how hard you work and if you put the work in and are not unpleasant to be around, then you'll get along fine. I've heard horror stories from other women who work at sea and, thankfully, I haven't had any similar experiences where I feel like it makes me want to leave the sea entirely. There are more good people in the world than bad and if I let one bad apple spoil this career for me, then I've let that bad apple win which is not an option for me.
I currently work on a ship made up of British nationals and I am the sole woman. I feel very welcome on board. However, I have worked on ships with a multinational crew and for the first couple of weeks – until I've proved that I can work just as hard as them – it has been awkward at times culturally. Several times I have been made to justify my decision to the crew and officers to come to sea instead of 'finding a husband and having children'.
These questions can be annoying, but after the novelty wears off, they treat me as a regular crew member who happens to be female.
Personally, regarding the issue of 'retaining females at sea', I would not leave the sea because of this sort of behaviour. It just makes me work harder to prove myself and that women are worthy of being at sea too. I would leave because of other reasons like wanting to start a family – something that's hard to do if I continued being away for long periods of time.
What are the best things about your job?
One of the best things about my job is the hard-earned leave. I love being off for weeks at a time and being able to do what I want. My boyfriend also works at sea and our leaves are handily, mostly synced up. Being away from home for extended periods of time is annoying at times, as you miss big occasions like Christmas or birthdays, but it is good for saving money. My boyfriend and I have just bought our first house together and I think we'd have had to save up for a lot longer if we had typical 9 to 5 Monday to Friday shore jobs.
Where do you see your future – at sea or ashore?
In the future, I will probably want to start a family, so I will come ashore when that time comes. I would like to stay within the maritime industry, in some capacity. Now though, I am happy working at sea and don't see any immediate move to shore.