This article was written for the Rewriting Women into Maritime inititative by Dr Jo Stanley from the Blaydes Maritime Centre.
Even today women are still only breaking into some maritime jobs. Davinia Monclus became the first commercial marine female pilot on the River Medway in 2019.
Davinia Monclus by Pilot Boat on Land.
Pilots have to be qualified master mariners. But because women masters have been so few, women pilots were even fewer. They are relatively recent incomers in a very select profession where jobs were handed from father to son.
Today, as part of the WhatsApp group Maritime SheEO pilots group, Davinia is one of 50 members globally. Other high-profile pilots include Jane Stone at Harwich and Reshma Nilofer at Syama Prasad Mookherjee port, Kolkata.
Davinia (42) works on the River Medway, the Swale and the Thames Estuary. It’s her dream job. This is someone truly happy in her work, even though it’s challenging at times.
This Maidstone-based pilot is employed by Peel Ports. She appreciates the way they fit round her needs as a mother of three boys aged 10, 9 and 8.
In turn, she is Peel Port’s diversity ‘poster girl’. That publicity gives her the opportunity to signal to young women ‘If I can do it, anyone can do it.’
A marine pilot’s job is to ensure that a ship arrives and leaves a port safely. It’s a risky time for the ship, the port and the environment. Davinia is one of 24 pilots based in Sheerness.
They handle all types of vessels from small coasters 80 metres long to 350-metre- long LNG tankers. She takes ships up to 180 metres long on the tricky rivers and estuaries, working twelve days on, eight days off.
Gender makes some differences. Davinia doesn’t wear makeup at work because it might encourage men to see her other than ‘simply being a pilot.’ Luckily she takes size 9 shoes, so women’s usual problems about ill-fitting PPE don’t apply.
How does a woman become a pilot? In Davinia’s case it grew out of being a P&O ferry stewardess, in 2000. ‘One day I went up on the bridge and I knew immediately “That’s what I want to do: drive ships!”’
So she went off and did it, becoming the company’s first woman deck officer. After going to South Shields Marine School, sponsored by P&O Ferries, she qualified as a master in 2010. (Their first female captain was appointed in 2015).
Like most deck officers, Davinia dreamt of becoming a captain. Then love, marriage and children happened. She took jobs, including lecturing and marine surveying, that enabled her to spend time mothering.
‘Then I started my pilot training the very day my youngest started school.’ The intense course was six-months long. Even male colleagues whose wives took all the family strain off the trainees’ shoulders found it like nothing they’d ever experienced before. In 2020 she passed, without a wife’s support.
Davinia Monclus with trainee, Lewis and a Dutch Captain.
Piloting is a hard job and an interesting one. ‘It is the best feeling in the world when a passage and berthing have gone well’. And it’s great when you have good relationships with captains. Some friendly ships even know how Davinia likes her tea and arrange for a cuppa to be ready the minute she climbs up from the cutter.
Three main challenges affect women pilots specifically:
- Fitting piloting round having a family life. Peel Ports are kind to Davinia. But some traditionalists are still troubled by parents ‘inconveniently’ needing time off for sickness and half-terms. Cultural change is needed.
- About 99% of the masters of the ships Davinia pilots are male. Initially some masters, especially from different cultures, are very alarmed at having to hand over their precious bit of real estate to a woman. She really enjoys sensing their attitudes change as they recognise that their pilot is indeed competent. ‘It’s wonderful when they announce at the end of the job “You are very welcome to come back again. Thank you. Good job!”’.
- Piloting used to be a very tight-knit dynastic world. Accusations of nepotism are still common but the exclusive brotherhood style is almost ended in the UK. Davinia, who is not related to other pilots, enjoys acceptance on the Medway.
Women Pilots of the Future
Does a woman do piloting differently? Davinia stresses to masters that, although she has the responsibility for the vessel, the bridge team working in collaboration gets a ship where it needs to be.
She is friendly, pointing out historic castles and the handiest Tesco as newcomers go down river. But she has to be authoritative and not give misogynistic masters any opportunity to imagine she is weak. So there can be a quiet power battle with some masters from countries unenlightened about equality.
Sisterhood helps. As a member of the SheEO WhatsApp group she’s involved in sharing information, mutual support and promoting females in pilotage.
Davinia absolutely wants more women to step into this work. That’s not only because it’s a wonderful job. More women will mean speedier progress towards the day when a pilot’s gender is irrelevant and their childcare responsibilities are factored in as normal.