This article was written for the Rewriting Women into Maritime inititative by Tom Scott for the International Maritime Rescue Federation.
Breaking the glass ceiling for women in maritime SAR
Colour Portrait of Grace Darling © LI384, RNLI
On 7 September 1838, 23-year-old Grace Darling became one of the most famous heroines in the history of maritime rescue.
The daughter of a lighthouse keeper at Longstone Lighthouse off the coast of Bamburgh, Grace, along with her father William, set sail in torrential conditions to save the lives of those remaining on board the 366-ton side-wheel steamer Forfarshire, which swung around during high winds to hit Big Harcar Rock. The vessel almost immediately broke into two, claiming the lives of most onboard, including its captain.
Looking through the dawn, Grace could see the grim outline of what remained of Forfarshire, making out signs of life remaining on the wreck. In a moment that would see her become a Victorian heroine, Grace and her father set sail in similarly appalling conditions, avoiding surging rocks and reefs to save and rescue as many as they could.
In the first boatload, William scrambled off the coble to the rock, leaving Grace to fend off and keep their frail craft from facing a similar fate to Forfarshire. William got four crew members and a woman, whose two children had perished in the incident, onboard their vessel. While the men helped row back to shore, Grace immediately attended to the despairing mother, wrapping her in blankets. Upon making shore, Grace and her mother took the woman and two survivors to the lighthouse to provide first aid.
Grace and her father received gold medals from the Royal Humane Society, silver medals from the Shipwreck Institution and a substantial stipend from the Duke of Northumberland. The Times summed up the national mood, stating, ‘Is there, in the whole field of history or of fiction, even one instance of female heroism to compare for one moment with this?’
Grace had stolen the show and became a national hero. To honour Grace and her heroism on that day in 1838, the poet William Wordsworth penned these words:
Together they out forth, Father and Child!
Each grasps an oar and struggling on they go –
Rivals in effort; alike intent
Here to elude and there surmount, they watch
The billows lengthening, mutually crossed
And shattered, and re-gathering their might;
As if the tumult, by the Almighty’s will
Were, in the conscious sea, roused and prolonged
That woman’s fortitude – so tried, so proved –
May brighten more and more!
Women have longed play an integral role in the history of coastal lifesaving. In most cases, however, history has ignored their participation or they have been overshadowed by men’s deeds. While Grace Darling remains one of the most famous sea-rescue heroines, her courage was not without precedent.
Women had been directly involved in lifesaving from the earliest days. It was women who took in shipwreck survivors and clothed and fed them. Women would follow their husbands and menfolk to the surf-line and help them launch the lifeboat into the darkness, not knowing if they would ever return. It was women who, like Grace, risked their lives to rescue those in peril.
Almost 185 years later, women now play a crucial part in search and rescue (SAR) organisations worldwide. They have since taken on more and more responsibilities to become first responders, lifeboat drivers, coxswains, crew leaders and heads of governmental departments and SAR organisations. Women are now ingrained in the maritime SAR community like never before.
However, challenges remain. The maritime SAR industry remains one that is still traditionally thought of as male-dominated. Picture a first responder at sea; many will naturally assume the image of a man with the physical capabilities to save people at sea. In the 21st Century, women are continuing to challenge that perception. After all, Grace Darling was only 5ft tall and not someone you would assume would be a natural lifesaver.
In June 2019, the International Maritime Rescue Federation (IMRF) launched its #WomenInSAR initiative to increase the representation of women in the maritime sector generally and to provide support for and raise the profile of women in the maritime SAR sector specifically. The initiative also supported the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) Empowering Women in Maritime initiative.
The initiative has so far seen the involvement of more than 1,600 men and women in the maritime search and rescue sector from over 48 countries.
In March 2021, the IMRF released their findings of their extensive work. The report noted that, although things are improving, there is still a perception that SAR jobs are more suitable for men. However, the report provided a number of recommendations for SAR organisations to improve equipment, facilities, working conditions and training materials for women.
The report also encouraged the IMRF to continue developing resources and assisting SAR organisations to improve the recruitment and retention of women, both as volunteers and paid staff, as well as share reported experiences and good practices among the wider community.
Following the report’s release, the IMRF launched its official #WomenInSAR Guidance document in December 2021 that addressed the key themes and issues that stemmed from the report. These included: Culture & Values of an Organisation, Recruitment, In-Post Support Schemes, Addressing Wider Societal Attitudes & Perceptions, and Be A Learning Organisation.
The IMRF has also made showcasing the role of women in SAR a cornerstone of their work. They have launched a mentoring scheme for women in the maritime SAR sector, held exclusive women-only training events worldwide, and highlighted the work of those who have inspired, encouraged and supported greater participation of women in maritime through its annual #WomenInSAR award.
Women continue to play an integral part in the maritime SAR community. Their contributions are just as valuable as their male counterparts. The stories of women who make notable efforts in the world of maritime SAR must continue to be told.
Although the story of Grace Darling lives in history, women worldwide are undertaking similar acts daily, putting their own safety at risk for those in need.
Women are breaking the glass ceiling in all industries but their impact in search and rescue remains one of their earliest.