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Dynamic positioning officer (DPO) in the oil and gas sector Karley Smith was the first female to win the UK Maritime & Coastguard Agency Officer Trainee of the Year Award. 'Staring at screens all day' is a common misconception of her job, she says. She is happy to recommend a career at sea, but like many of her peers looks forward to time when a female at sea is 'no longer a surprise', a 'morning lads' briefing is more gender neutral – and safety clothing fits.
What is a typical day in your job?
I am responsible for keeping a 12-hour watch each day, operating and monitoring the Dynamic Positioning (DP) System as well as keeping a safe navigational watch.
This involves navigating the vessel to each new drilling location and setting the vessel up in DP. I must then monitor the vessel's position and DP status, ensuring that the thruster response, sensor information and power availability are always all within operational limits.
I also monitor the vessel's stability, control the ballast system and monitor any cargo operations occurring. As a drillship we are regularly working with a platform supply vessel that provides us with our provisions, stores and both wet and dry bulk cargoes such as cement and mud which are required for our operations.
On the bridge we co-ordinate and control all vessel movements in and out of our 500m zone, as well as all helicopter operations conducted on board. Additionally, we respond to and initiate any alarms and signals in the event of any emergency situation. As part of my role in an emergency, I am coxswain of a lifeboat.
Why did you choose a career at sea?
My entry into the Merchant Navy happened by accident. While studying for my A-Levels my younger brother embarked on a cadetship at Fleetwood Nautical College. I attended an open day that he was helping at and I was attracted by the opportunity to complete a degree while also training for a career at sea. I had always intended to go university, but this seemed much more appealing.
To be debt-free and gain a degree, as well as professional qualifications with a clear career structure and opportunities mapped out after qualifying in a career that can help you see the world was appealing.
I decided to apply to James Fisher (the company my brother was with) and was subsequently offered a cadetship on the Pacific Nuclear Transport Limited (PNTL) ships that Fishers were managing at the time, pending the outcome of my A Level results. Come results day, I received the results required for both the university I applied to as a first choice, and the cadetship with PNTL, so I was faced with a choice and a career at sea won.
Following the completion of my A Levels, in September 2006, I was enrolled on Fleetwood's first Foundation Degree course, partnered with Liverpool John Moore's University. I was employed by PNTL as a deck cadet, officer trainee on the three-year cadetship programme.
Tell us some of your career highlights so far – and challenges
Career highlights for me were achieving my Master Mariner Certificate of Competency and being the first female to win the Maritime & Coastguard Agency Officer Trainee of the Year Award (2010).
I worked on numerous ships with some fantastic crews, sharing adventures and experiences that I will never forget, in places that you would not usually consider visiting.
Everyone experiences personal difficulties in life, and I would say that working away from home, often thousands of miles away and on a different time zone can be a challenge.
While it has not been entirely smooth sailing, I can honestly say that for most of my sea-going career I have felt supported and encouraged by my colleagues. I always aim to carry myself in a polite and professional manner, treating others as I wish to be treated. This approach has not always been reciprocated, but then the difficulties I have faced at sea could also be encountered in an office environment.
In the past I have faced those that do not believe women should be at sea and have been vocal in airing my opinion. It has only ever added to my determination to succeed and fortunately, this viewpoint is encountered less and less.
To be debt-free and gain a degree, as well as professional qualifications with a clear career structure and opportunities mapped out after qualifying in a career that can help you see the world was appealing Karley Smith, DPO
How can women be made to feel welcome and retained in a career at sea?
There are a few things that could be changed in order to assist women to feel both welcome and included. For instance, amending company policies so that they do not only refer to 'he', providing information on maternity rights and including it in contracts or the SMS and during operational discussions, a simple 'morning all' rather than 'morning lads' would all contribute towards making women feel welcome.
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) can also be a problem for women with regards to the sizing. I have been on board several vessels that did not have PPE to correctly fit me and I know that female colleagues have experienced the same.
Attitudes in general need to adjust so that a female at sea is no longer a surprise, but instead viewed as normal.
What are the best things about your job?
Working on an equal time for time rotation enables you to have a good work/life balance which is important to me. I have also been very fortunate to work all over the world, from Peru and Brazil to Singapore and Thailand.
Would you recommend seafaring as a career?
Maritime is such a vast industry with many possible paths. The UK historically was a leading shipping nation and even now around 90% trade is transported by ship. As an island nation, the UK is always going to need shipping and the many roles required to facilitate this. I have found my career so far to be both challenging and rewarding, so I would recommend it to others.
I would like to remain working at sea within the offshore sector and progress onto higher ranks. There may come a time when I no longer wish to remain working at sea, but I plan to stay within the maritime industry given the varied career paths and opportunities available.
Tell us one thing that people may not know about your job
I have met a few people that think the role of a DPO is to simply sit back and stare at screens all day. There is however, a little more to it than that! In order to become a DPO you must follow a structured training scheme and DP operations themselves vary vastly.