Moments after graduating with a degree in Computer Science and Business Management at University, Catherine Jefferson began her life at sea.
Operating as a Marine Support Manager on The Humber Estuary Port, her love of the sea may have arrived later than many in the industry, but it has since taken her far and wide, from the Arctic to Easter Island, Cape Horn to the Suez Canal.
So, what brought a once-aspiring coder to become such a key part of the UK’s busiest estuary, you ask? Well, we sat down with Catherine to discuss her extraordinary journey and career on the ocean, as well as what it was like to work on the HM Bark Endeavour, one of the world’s most iconic, prestigious and historic ships.
KW: What’s an average day in the life of a Marine Support Manager?
Cat: Now this is a pretty tough one to answer, I don’t really have an average day! I have certain weekly and monthly tasks I need to do, but each day is very different.
A lot of what I do is very much driven by operations that have or are due to happen on the River Humber.
Planning complex operations with a number of vessels, carrying out surveys, construction works within our jurisdiction, and liaising with Humber Coastguard/RNLI in the event of some form of maritime incident on the river can all constitute a working day. The variety is one of the reasons I love it so much!
We recently had a report of damage to a navigation buoy (which marks the channel through which the ships move up and down the river), by a vessel. In order to ensure that the river continues to run smoothly, we need to replace the damaged buoy, contact the owners of the vessel, complete a survey of the damage for insurance purposes, keep our paperwork in order, and advise other river users of the damage to the buoy.
KW: When did your interest and passion for the sea begin? And where did it come from?
Cat: I had no interest in the sea, and had never done more than go on the North Sea Ferries until an accidental life-changing event that happened in my final year at university. I entered a competition run by the local BBC News to win a chance to sail on the HM Bark Endeavour, a full-size replica of Captain Cook’s ship.
My mother couldn’t enter the competition so I entered by proxy for her! And won. I spent two weeks sailing from the Azores to Whitby on this tall ship and was hooked! Once in Whitby, I got a job on board and then spent two years sailing around the UK and Northern Europe living life as an 18th Century Sailor!
KW: What inspired such a drastic career change? And how scary was taking that change in direction?
Cat: In my early twenties, with the conceit of youth I didn’t really worry about the future a great deal. This definitely worked in my favour when it came to making a drastic change in career.
I had chosen to study Computer Science and Management at university without any clear direction, only to discover that a great coder I was not!
Languages have never been my forte, which I probably should have realised would make my university life as a programmer pretty tough! I passed to a more than reasonable standard (that was down to the business element more than the computer science one) but knew that life in corporate IT was not for me.
I was half-heartedly applying for jobs in my final year, but had already decided to take a year out to do a ski season on graduation whilst I decided where my future lay. Lady luck was definitely smiling in my favour when I won the competition that set me in my current direction.
KW: What advice would you give to someone considering a career change?
Cat: Don’t discount it because you believe you are too old, can’t manage the drop in salary or are scared of the change. We spend too much time at work throughout our lives to work in a place and do a job that doesn’t fulfil us.
Your career is just that, yours and only you can drive it. If you are unhappy in your current role, I believe it is your responsibility to action the change to improve it. All the reasons not to do it are holding you back, and if you want to be truly happy in your working life you need to take a chance and believe that whatever comes your way you will succeed.
KW: What’s surprised you most about working at sea?
Cat: I am still surprised by other people’s reactions when I tell them my career path. Not only are they surprised that I was a woman working at sea, but that it was an actual career choice.
Growing up in an area in which almost everything has a connection to the River Humber, it still astounds me that as a career choice to youngsters it is not more well known, particularly within the Humber area.
The Humber Estuary Ports, and in particular Immingham, handle a quarter of the UK’s oil and gas, and we deal with up to 17,000 ship movements in a year, making it the busiest estuary within the UK, a fact largely unknown outside of the industry.
KW: What’s it like to travel around the world working on a cruise ship?
Cat: Like most jobs it definitely has its positive and negative aspects. Obviously the biggest positive is that I got paid to travel the world; I have been to every continent (bar Antarctica) and sailed every ocean.
I crossed the Equator, the Date Line, sailed through the Suez Canal and rounded Cape Horn. Working on a ship such as the QE2 meant I met some amazing people: the rich, famous and infamous (Jimmy Saville was a prolific passenger on board), and everywhere the ship sailed we were greeted with love and excitement as a vessel that held such a special place in people’s hearts.
The negatives were the incredibly long working hours, including split shifts, every day, twice a day, for three months at a time. The utter exhaustion at the end of a trip, especially if the voyages had had numerous clock changes, meant that it took me a good week of hibernation when I first arrived home to recharge myself to be able to make the most of my remaining leave.
Despite what people may think, the long working hours meant that actually getting off in every destination was sometimes impossible; sleep would nearly always win, especially towards the end of a contract!
However, you speak to most people who worked on board cruise ships at the time I did, and the ethos was very much work hard, play hard, so the social aspect was also a huge positive.
KW: What was your most memorable trip at sea and why?
Cat: I have been exceptionally lucky and travelled to some amazing places around the world: Easter Island and Pitcairn Island, the Arctic and South America to name a few. I was privileged enough to sail on the QE2 for the final couple of years she was a cruise ship, and without a shadow of a doubt my most memorable trip was her final voyage sailing from Southampton to Dubai.
The crew on board had been sailing together for some time, so it was more like family than colleagues, and we all knew that we were part of something exceptional, something to be proud of.
The QE2 was loved by many, passengers and crew alike and the emotion of handing the ship over and knowing that the world would never see another ship like her is something I will never forget.
KW: What made you decide to move back to a career ashore?
Cat: After I left the cruise ships, I moved to work on Supply ships, providing supplies to Oil and Gas Platforms in the Northern North Sea. The winters in the North Sea can be brutal, very rough and not a particularly pleasant place to work.
Approaching my third winter with some trepidation, I saw the job advertised as a Vessel Traffic Service Operator (VTSO) on the Humber and thought the job sounded fascinating enough to consider leaving being at sea for.
I was in a position when the financial implications affected only me, and I thought that the opportunity to be at home definitely outweighed any losses that I may make.
KW: What’s your favourite thing about what you do now?
Cat: Having just gone back to work after my second maternity leave in 2 years (oh yes, the dreaded two under two!), at the moment, my favourite thing about being at work is a hot cup of coffee and being surrounded by adults who talk about more than Peppa Pig and teething!
KW: Has a career at sea changed your perception of the world in any way?
Cat: I spent years growing up wanting to leave Lincolnshire and go out and explore the world, so on a personal level, realising that actually there is no place like home was quite a surprise!
Working at sea exposes you to so many different nationalities and cultures, especially within the melting pot of Cruise Ship crew, and makes you so much more aware of special religious holidays and celebrations of others.
It hasn’t changed my perception per say, but it has made me appreciate more than ever that there are more good people in the world than bad, and that ultimately we are all human beings just trying to make good for us and our loved ones.
KW: What are some of the biggest challenges facing the likes of Associated British Ports?
Cat: What are the biggest challenges facing any company at the moment? The uncertainty surrounding Brexit.
Another area of continuous improvement is that of safety. Over the last few years, there have been a number of fatalities within the ports industry, and in particular on the Humber (not necessarily within ABP, sometimes contractors, sometimes crew on board vessels or other third parties), but there is a big drive both within the company and across the industry to push safety to the absolute forefront and ensure that all members of staff operate safely every single time they go to work!
KW: So how has Brexit impacted your responsibilities at ABP?
Cat: The ports are generally a good barometer of change (both positive and negative) within the economy, and we can generally tell from ship movements what sort of health the economy is going to show over the next few months.
There was a big surge in vessel numbers prior to March 31st, but since then there has been a reduction in vessel movements, not helped by the summer shutdown on the continent. One hopes that there may well be another push for imports before October 31st, but after that, at the moment, is anyone’s guess.
KW: It’s been said that there is a lack of gender diversity in the UK maritime sector. Why do you think this is?
Cat: It is generally seen as a male dominated profession, and unfortunately the statistics and my own personal experience back this up.
There are a number of women who enter the profession through the traditional route (a cadetship with a shipping company – an apprenticeship of sorts), but there is a high rate of attrition of women working their way up through the ranks to make Captain or Chief Engineer, as fundamentally it comes down to the choice of family or career.
With months-long trips away at sea, the choice is: children or a life at sea. I don’t know any woman who has successfully managed to juggle both. Working ashore is slightly different, but the majority of marine based shore positions require seagoing experience and the number of women entering the industry is still lower than the number of men.
KW: What can be done to address and combat this?
Cat: The industry needs to encourage and advertise itself to the younger generation, we are an island nation, yet I would wager that most people don’t realise that 95% of goods that are imported and exported are done so by the sea.
If we can encourage females to commit to a career at sea, we will be in a much better position to begin to tip the scales in the opposite direction. I don’t expect this to change quickly or without proactive management, but for those women who do choose to live a life at sea, it is hard, but such a rewarding and fulfilling career that I would not hesitate to recommend to anyone considering it.
Your career. Your path. Your journey. Own it; make it yours.
Nothing portrays this message clearer than Catherine’s inspiring professional story. She was never afraid to stray from the path, to take a different route in search of something bigger.
As Catherine touched upon in our chat: nobody should ever feel too old or inexperienced; too male or female; too scared to chase that sense of belonging that she found at sea. You are always going to find many reasons not to make a leap, but they should never hold you back. Instead, let the reasons to do it propel you forwards.
“We are all human beings just trying to make good for us and our loved ones”, so let’s make waves in everything we do. After all, there’s an ocean of opportunities out there…