Wednesday 30 March 2011

Woman engineer on ships, Christine Shurrock

Today's Financial Times has an interesting article about a woman engineer working at sea: 'Interview: A life as the only female on board', by Peter Whitehead.

Under the FT's terms and conditions I can't post any of it here. But you can read it at:

Essentially Christine Shurrock, who works for Cable and Wireless, was the sole woman on her trips to repair under-sea cables. Now a manager with an MBA she describes her work, and says at sea she missed female company, but was treated as a professional.

It sounds like this obviously competent person has succeeded partly because the (male) managers in her company have been so very supportive. Repeatedly in looking at women working at sea I've seen that this is how women manage to do high-flying maritime jobs. Without that enlightened backing from men even the most brilliant women find it a hard and lonely path.

Tonght US women mariners talk about their work, on Facebook.

It's short notice but tonight at midnight BST Jack Tar Magazine will be streaming a panel discussion by seven women mariners about working at sea. The event has been staged by New York for Working Harbor Committee.

It follows a screening of the PBS documentary Shipping Out—The Story of America’s Seafaring Women. Go to the Jack Tar Facebook page just before 19.00 New York time (midnight BST). The screening of the 56 minute documentary starts at 18:00 (23.00 BST).It's Jack Tar magazine's first ever webcast.

FILM: Shipping Out: The Story of America's Seafaring Women - Featuring Captain Ann Sanborn
Produced by Maria Brooks - Waterfront Soundings Productions

This unusual documentary tells the history of seafaring women in America. We meet modern women performing jobs in commercial shipping. They work on container ships, tankers, tugs and other vessels, as pilots, engineers, mates and ordinary 'seamen'. "Shipping Out" explores the history, mythologies and attitudes which limited women's participation in seafaring roles until recent times.

A panel of seven women active in maritime trades including:

Jessica DuLong, chief engineer retired NYC Fireboat John J. Harvey
Capt. Linda L. Fagan, USCG Captain of the Port of New York
Capt. Ann Loeding, tugboat captain
Capt. Coleen Quinn, Sandy Hook Pilot
Marissa Strawbridge, KP’06, Second mate for American Marine Officers
Commander Linda A. Sturgis, USCG, Head of Prevention NY
Debra Tischler, Former second mate on tankers, car and bulk carriers
Betsy Frawley Haggerty, Maritime Writer will be the moderator.

Panelists' Biographies

Jessica DuLong. DuLong is chief engineer aboard the retired fireboat John J. Harvey. She is the author of the critically acclaimed My River Chronicles: Rediscovering the Work that Built America; A Personal and Historical Journey. In her book, DuLong describes how she learned to appreciate the value of hands-on work after she her crew served at Ground Zero, where, for several days, fireboats provided the only water available to fight blazes.

Captain Linda A. Fagan. U.S. Coast Guard Captain of the Port of New York. A 1985 graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, Captain Fagan’s career has taken her to all seven continents. She has served aboard ships in the Arctic and Antarctic and has held policy and port management positions in many locations. She is now in charge of Coast Guard operations in the busy Port of New York and New Jersey. She is seen here aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Sturgeon Bay which is icebreaking in the Hudson River. (Courtesy of the U..S. Coast Guard)

Captain Ann Loeding. Tugboat captain Loeding began working as a deckhand on tugs in New York and near coastal waters and eventually "came up through the hawse pipe" to work in the wheelhouse on tugs in New York, the Erie Canal, the Great Lakes, the Atlantic Ocean and, briefly, Alaska. These days she is active in historic vessel restoration, but still occasionally steers tugs. She lives on the shores of the Hudson River in Kingston, NY.

Captain Coleen Quinn, Sandy Hook Pilot. Before joining the Pilots’ intense 5-year Apprenticeship Program in 2003, Captain Quinn sailed as second mate on ocean-going ships for three years after her 2000 graduation from the United States Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point. A deputy pilot since 2008, she is one of 72 pilots, only two of whom are women, who are required to board and guide all major ships entering and leaving the Port of New York.

Commander Linda A. Sturgis. U. S, Coast Guard Commander Sturgis joined the Coast Guard in 1993 and served as a Deck Watch Officer on the Coast Guard Cutter Mellon, which was homeported in Seattle and conducted missions in Alaska, the Caribbean and the South Pacific. A marine safety expert, she is now head of the Prevention Department at Coast Guard Sector New York.

Marissa Strawbridge. A 2006 graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, Strawbridge has been sailing with American Maritime Officers since graduation. She has sailed aboard tankers and is currently second mate aboard MV SBX-1, a Dynamic Positioning vessel, for the Missile Defense Agency. This highly unusual vessel combines the world’s largest phased-array X-band radar system carried aboard a mobile, ocean-going semi-submersible oil platform.

Debra Tischler. A 2002 graduate of SUNY Maritime College, Tischler sailed with Overseas Shipholding Group (OSG) on tankers, car carriers and bulk carriers for 4.1/2 years as second and third mate. She came ashore in 2006 to work as an operations manager for Moran Towing, Inc. She currently works shoreside with OSG as a Commercial Operator, acting as liaison between voyage charterers and vessels.


Maritime journalist Betsy Frawley Haggerty. Haggerty is the former editor in chief of Offshore Magazine and a freelance writer, whose articles have appeared in many maritime periodicals, including Workboat, Professional Mariner and Soundings. She is a columnist for Boating on the Hudson, a lifelong sailor, president of the North River Historic, and a member of the board of directors of the Working Harbor Committee.

Sunday 20 March 2011

When will augmented breasts be normal in the Thai navy?

Sorrawee Nattee, Miss Ladyboy 2009. Too good for the navy?

Thailand has been well known to Western seafarers and travellers as the country that has vast number of 'ladyboys' or kathoeys: maybe one in every 165 men. Their high profile, their beauty, and the tolerance with which they are often treated has been an education.

Many seafarers have told me that docking in Thailand opened their eyes to the fact that narrow western hostility to transsexual and transgender people is not the only way of handling such fellow members of the human race. Indeed, Thailand has been an inspiration to transgender visitors.

Now the country is going a step further (impelled by shortages of army recruits) and choosing more delicate language with which to refer to transsexuals. Trouble is, it's still exceptionalising them as abnormal and undesirable for the armed forces, rather than accepting the full breadth of the human spectrum.

Similarly, PC Air's decision last month to employ transsexual women as cabin crew brought the news that their name tags will be be gold-coloured, to demarcate them from genetic women and from men.

In an article called 'Army renames transgender conscripts', today's Bangkok Post carries the news that 'Instead of their sexuality being called a "psychological abnormality" or a "gender identity disorder", they will simply be referred to as "Type 2" or "Type 3". The army has coined the terms to avoid offending transgender people.

'Type 2 refers to men who have undergone breast augmentation. Type 3 comprises people who have had a full sex change.

'The army had proposed replacing the term "psychological abnormality" with "gender identity disorder." But it had a rethink after fierce criticisms from human rights groups, who were opposed to any term that suggests abnormality.

'The Defence Ministry is amending the Conscription Act of 1954, said Thaksin Chiamthong, director of the academic resources division of the Army Reserve Command.'

'He said the main purpose of the amendment is to correct the part of the law that states transgender people are exempt from conscription because they are considered psychologically abnormal.

'"Normally only Type 1 [men whose appearances are typical of men] are required to draw a conscription ballot," said Col Thaksin. But if the number of Type 1 is insufficient, Type 2 will be conscripted as well, despite their female-like breasts,"' which the forces have often termed 'malformed'.

The relevance of this to the Thai navy is that it needs 16,000 conscripts in April. In fact the entire armed forces and Defence Ministry need to conscript 97,280 men, an increase of 9,828 from last year.

But they don’t fancy it. Patrick Winn found earlier this winter that ‘of the half million young Thai men facing military conscription lottery each year fear it, most fear being drafted into grunthood. Best case scenario: Two years in a dull outpost. Worst case: Patrolling the southern Thai-Malay borderlands, where Islamic insurgents are notorious for beheading troops.’

And few fear it more than kathoeys. Conscript Prempreeda Pramoj told him that '"Buzzing off a kathoey’s long locks and forcing her to go soldiering in the sun is the cruellest of punishments.

‘“No transgender would ever want to be in the army,” Prempreeda said. “They’ll cut your hair off. They’ll destroy your femininity. You will do everything you can to avoid it.”’

In the past, some straight young Thai men have attended draft meetings dressed in frocks in order to avoid doing their three year's military service. It looks like it's going to take a lot more than a pretty dress if 21-year olds are to dodge the draft in these hard-pressed times.

The really interesting question to me is 'How will the transsexual people's shipboard presence affect relationships, given that sexual activity in the enclosed space that a ship is can be such an issue?'

Remember the fuss over British women being allowed to work at sea in the Royal Navy? Rivalrous punch-ups and adultery were inevitable, the tabloids screamed and the diehards warned.

Surely the Thai navy will choose to put transsexual people in shore jobs. In an attempt to manage desire it will probably position them far from the intensity of ships on prolonged deep-sea missions.

After all, it's hrdaly news that in the US and UK navies men cross-dress 'for fun' in shipboard entertainments, and that the absence of genetic women certainly can lead to men having sex with men.

Thailand's shortage could actually suggest the unthinkable might finally have to happen: drafting genetic women too. Come to that,isn't this fuss a good argument for finally getting over all these narrow definitions about gender-appropriate roles and 'normal' sexual identities?

On this latest news on languge see:
On kathoeys' reluctance see: Patrick Winn’s Global Post article, ‘Thailand military: the lovely conscripts’, October 8, 2010 :

Friday 18 March 2011

Hear about an Aboriginal woman world traveller : 1825

Who says women didn't travel much, or far? You can hear the story of a fascinating Tasmanian sealer woman, Woretemoeteyenner, on ABC radio. Based on London lay preacher George Augustus Robinson's 1830 findings, the article tells of a culture where Aboriginal women were sold to sealers, for sex, and where t was women's job to deal with the sea's resources, such as seals.

In The tale of a sealer woman: Woretemoeteyenner Carol Raabus writes about Greg Lehman's broadcast.
'Woretemoeteyenner... may have been given to the sealer George Briggs by her father, perhaps as an attempt by Manalargenna [her father] to make a peaceful connection between Aboriginal people and white men.

'Woretemoeteyenner went to live with George Briggs in 1810 and the pair had five children.Woretemoeteyenner was part of a sealing party on a long-range trip, starting in Western Australia before setting sail for St Paul's Island in 1825...

'The captain ... decided to drop off Woretemoeteyenner, the other Aboriginal women and one sealer .... on the Island of Rodrigues.'Woretemoeteyenner waited for about seven months for the ship to return before making her way.... to Mauritius.

'Woretemoeteyenner lived on Mauritius until the Mauritian administrators petitioned the Governor of New South Wales in 1827 to pay for the return of the remaining Aboriginal women to Australia. Three women and one child made it back to Sydney, more than three years after they first set sail.

In 1841 Woretemoeteyenner's daughter Dolly petitioned to have her mother released into her care. This meant that Woretemoeteyenner could finally live out her days with her grandchildren, no longer the possession of any man.'

Wednesday 16 March 2011

Protesting about a homophobic article on Hello Sailor!

I've just heard that Scottish Daily Mail has retracted on a nasty slur it made about the Hello Sailor! Exhibition, when it was up in Glasgow in 2009.

The museum's director Dr Christopher Mason protested to the Press Complaints Commission: 'that the newspaper had published an article that inaccurately suggested the Tall Ship Museum in Glasgow had encouraged school children to attend an exhibition on gay merchant seamen in order to receive lessons in gay sex.'

The PCC says 'The complaint was resolved when the newspaper published the following statement:

On 28 August 2009 we published an article under the headline,"Hello sailor! Now children get lessons on the history of gays at sea". Our article reported that schools had been invited to send pupils to an exhibition on the history of gay merchant seamen at The Tall Ship maritime museum in Glasgow. We would like to make it clear that, whilst the museum does encourage school visits, it did not specifically invite any school parties to this particular exhibition; nor did any attend during the time it was being shown.' (06/05/2010)

You can see the PCC announcement at

Monday 7 March 2011

A woman writer's take on a wartime tanker: MV San Demetrio and F Tennyson Jesse

Woman journalist F Tennyson Jesse created what seems as if it could have been a new genre in writing about a Merchant naval vessel in WW2. The Saga of San Demetrio is about the crew as much as the ship. And it’s got a lyricism that is seldom present in the rare biographies of mariners. Unfortunately, her style wasn’t followed up by many other maritime writers.

I’ve long known that San Demetrio, London
(1943, Dir Charles Frend) was one of the acclaimed WW2 films. It’s unusual because it’s about the Merchant, not Royal, Navy. And it’s about very human people.

But I’d never realised until this week that there was a book of the film. And that it was by a woman. And that it was by the woman who wrote what I think is the very best book about women in WW1. Jesse’s writing style is exceptional for both its realness and its accessibility (critics would say ‘chattiness’).

F Tennyson Jesse went to the Front in France (briefly) in WW1 and wrote about the women there, in The Sword of Deborah, 1918.

I read it last week at the British Library in Boston Spa. It’s my favourite book about women in that war – because it’s so real. It feels like the first time I’ve got a sense of the reality of the lives of those WAACs and VADs, drivers and spud-peelers, clerks and nurses, making their huts cheery with chintz and buttercups, tolerating unequal pay and food.

It’s a pity she didn’t wrote about the ferry trip across the Channel (which was why I was reading it, in search of stories of what women writers and journalists made of the voyage, for that chapter in my forthcoming book on women on the wartime seas).

But the bonus is that through Jesse I discovered a new writer to me, Susannah Clapp. In the London Review of Books Clapp wrote a truly impressive critique review of Jesse’s biography. A Portrait of Fryn: A Biography of F. Tennyson Jesse by Joanna Colenbrander, Deutsch, 1984. You can read the review at

My copy of The Saga of San Demetrio has just arrived in the post from Amazon. It looks like it’s been through a war. Printed by HMSO in 1942 it's an endearingly impoverished-looking waif. Skinny with a maroon and foxed cream cover, the pamphlet has a coffee cup stain on the front. Every page edge is as crisp as toasted popcorn, and as battered as if it's been shoved in a thousand pockets.

Within its pages, Jesse’s writing isn’t as sparkling as her WW1 style. After all, she was 53 and not the merry gadabout of 28 she presents herself as being in The Sword of Deborah. As her biography shows, love, work and life in between wars had challenged her.

But it’s still such a good and early description of the tanker that in November 1940 carried 12,000 tonnes of aviation fuel from Galveston in the Jervis Bay convoy. The tanker was attacked by German pocket battleship Admiral Scheer, and cuaght fire, forcing the crew to take to the lifeboats and face terrible ordeals.

I checked to see if Jesse had been allowed to write the screenplay. Yes, she had. And she’s listed third in the list of its writers, after Robert Hamer and Charles Frend. That position may refer to the actual size of her contribution to the writing. My hunch is that mainly it reflects the credit (sparse) that women were formally given.

One of the modern reviews praises the movie ‘because it tells of ordinary people getting on with the job that, due to a world war, has to be done. These are modest heroes. Problems that come their way are solved unfussily. No one expects medals, they just get on with it…. You feel these are real people, not just actors.’ (Henry Girling on

I like to think that’s Jesse’s doing, because that’s the clear strength of her book – it’s about ordinary people. It makes their experience real to us.

Thursday 3 March 2011

Outing the Past! Lancashire

Lancashire Record Office hosted its first Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender event – on Saturday, 26th February 2011. The lively, exhibition-packed day in Preston included talks about homosexual history on land by Harry Cocks, Jeff Evans, and Colin Penny as well as many local LGBT people talking – sometimes movingly - about their experiences.

Of course the homophobic policing and trials that so beset gay men - as well as the pride with which they contained to express who they were - were also part of GBT seafarers’ lives, too, when they were ashore. Homosexuality was illegal in the UK until 1967 and at sea until 1993.

I talked about Hello Sailor!, trying to pass on useful tips about using oral history to uncover the past of these exceptional workers.

It was pleasing to know that some attendees said my session was the highlight of the day. When I’m sitting at home creating a powerpoint I never know what the response will be when it’s aired, especially if audiences aren’t specifically interested in the sea.

Lancashire's Record Office have really created a great initative and I hope other record offices will follow suit. Lancashire Record Office may well do a follow-up LGBT event next year.Check out