Edited by Katyanne M. Shoemaker
Image by Caia Colla
Hello to all again. It has been some time since I last wrote for this blog, even longer since I've boarded a ship, but many memories came to me after the World Ocean Day. Most memories are good, but some, not so much.
In posts published on this blog, you might have read about the adventures of working at sea, diving to the bottom of the ocean, or traveling the world in foreign ships. But working on an oceanographic vessel is not always a fantastic experience, especially if you are a woman.
It is important to be mindful that, when on a ship, one is also confined, surrounded by the ocean. Often, there is no access to a telephone, no internet, no way of visiting friends or family, and no way of going home whenever you want. In at least the last five oceanographic cruises I have participated in, I met only one female crewmember - she was a nurse on a supply ship which assisted oil platforms. On oceanographic ships, don't expect to see crew-women. In the scientific crew, yes, it is easier to find women, even when there's clear preference for men, because many tasks involve body strength. There's a need to carry boxes, nets, flasks, and other heavy equipment. But that’s not all! To be successful, the science crewmembers need strong skills in leadership, taking initiative, communication, management, and dealing with equipment. The work is very challenging, but against the common sense, I met women that are far better than a lot of guys in crew.
I was once stopped from boarding a boat that was poised for my doctoral research, under the “argument” that there were no suitable facilities on the boat for a woman.
If you think that this isn’t a big deal, and that this male to female imbalance in passengers on ships is normal, maybe you can imagine some level of vulnerability that women may be subjected to in such an environment. I have always been aboard research cruises with large groups of researchers and wonderful ship crews. I have always been treated with respect. Unfortunately, this level of respect is not always found in day-to-day research cruises.
To illustrate this vulnerability, I interviewed two biologists that told me about very inadequate situations they've been through while aboard a boat off of the Brazilian coast. In this post I'll tell the story of one of them; she decided to stay anonymous, so I'll refer to her as M.
CWN: Have you ever been excluded from an expedition so a man could go in your place?
M: That has never happened to me, although there is a preference in our laboratory for men to go, under the argument that there is a need to carry heavy objects on board.
CWN: How many times have you worked on a boat, and in how many of those trips did you feel uncomfortable or find yourself in inconvenient situations that made you feel insecure?
M: I have been on four cruises. Two of them put me in very uncomfortable situations, and I felt insecure in one of them.
CWN: Could you share a story about an uncomfortable situation you've been through?
M: I was on a ship twice, consulting in an environmental monitoring study. One of the crewmembers that worked on the deck made constant jokes about my accent. But he had issues with other members of the staff too.
The second situation, the one that made me feel insecure, happened on a ship that I rather not say the name of or the institution it's related to. I never thought I would go through that experience on a vessel connected with such a respectable institution. I had heard rumors about expeditions from the past, and I confess, I was a little worried about this experience, but I never thought that what happened, could have.
Some of the crewman had very inappropriate behavior. Everyday we would share the dining room with them. Before we had the chance to finish our meals, some of them (that had a high position in the boat's hierarchy) would play music videos of half-naked women (funk, axé, pagode) that always had images of men and women in insinuating situations, alluding to sexual acts, and very loud. Aside from that, every day there was drinking, and the crew would exhaustively offer us alcoholic beverages, especially to women, with the clear intention of trying to get us intoxicated. They would try to exalt their merits all the time, as an attempt of conquest. I would leave the room when those activities started, and some men would come after me asking why I wouldn't join them, insisting, and harassing me.
This didn't bother only the women, several of our male colleagues were also bothered, but they never spoke up. This situation kept growing, leading up to my next story. It is important to say that this was not everyone's behavior. While we were harassed by some, other crewmen treated us respectfully.
On one particular day, there was a get-together with a barbecue, and drinking started early in the morning. One of the crewmen drank so much he threatened to jump off of the boat, which caused a lot of confusion and trouble. During dinner, one of our male colleagues was eating while one of the falling-over drunk crewmen, spilled beer on the table. After a useless effort to clean it, he threw a dirty napkin on our colleague's plate, which really upset our colleague, as the action was interpreted as a racist move.
Facing all of that mess, I could not even have dinner that day because of all the embarrassment. I went to the pantry to get a piece of fruit and stopped for a while to talk to one of the crewmen about the situation. Then, another drunk crewman came over and started asking questions about one of my female colleagues. I tried to leave, but he kept stopping me and asking me to bring my friend. The other crewman that I was talking to defended me, so I could get out. I realized there were a lot of crewmembers feeling a sense of indignation, because their professional class could not tolerate this kind of behavior. What left me feeling more insecure was the fact that we could never talk to the captain of the ship; we could never see him and he never answered our calls or our contact attempts.
Luckily for us, one of the crewmen took our case to the captain, who took some action, we don't know what, but we didn't see the crewman that caused most of the trouble again. We were called to a meeting with the chief mate that finally listened to our claims and had a meeting with the “troublemakers,” forbidding the use of alcohol, the insulting videos, and the behaviors that caused us discomfort. The captain asked the harasser to publicly apologize to me and my colleague (about the dinner event), but nothing else happened to the other harassers.
During that expedition, something broke on the ship, so it was not possible to collect all of our research samples. The ship lost its speed and couldn't sail properly. The ship didn't land where it should have, taking us straight to the final destination, and the reason for that was not disclosed to us researchers. It took seven days to get to the final spot, all while we didn't know what was happening.
This same ship and crew were available to us again to finish the work that was not concluded. I was again in that expedition, and thankfully, we didn't have any other embarrassing situations arise.
However, there was a stressful and worrying situation. We were dragging a bongo net, which was supposed to go down to 200 m. We realized that was taking too little time. We found out that the person responsible for operating the hoist received orders from a superior crewmen to release less rope than needed so the work would be finished faster, which compromised our sampling and data quality.
CWN: Why do you think the crewmember responsible for the operations tried to sabotage your work? Do you think it was ignorance or a deliberate attempt to “get revenge”?
M: I have no idea. We didn't get an explanation. We don't know if it was revenge, if it was disrespect for us being women (the chief of the expedition was a woman), if it was laziness, impatience to get back home, disrespect for the work environment… Anyway, whatever the motive was, it is very lamentable for all it represents, and it is a waste of public money!
It is also very important to consider the loss of valuable scientific information, caused by irresponsible and unreliable work from the ship crew. This is especially true for the current state of our country, where obtaining resources for field collections in ocean research has been increasingly difficult.
In the end, all stories I hear and share show clearly that while on a ship, being it for scientific research or parallel consulting, there is prejudice coming from the male crew towards women. Women are still thought of as the “fragile sex.” This inappropriateness makes life on board even more challenging when the day-to-day work already demands physical strength and adaptations to the labor done in an environment ruled by the movement of the marine currents.