*Names are changed in our stories to protect our contributors.
Trigger Warning – This story contains descriptions of sexual assault which some readers may find distressing.
I wanted to experience life on a merchant ship before starting a cadetship. My family went on holiday on a car carrier to give me a taste of life at sea and a quiet place to revise for my GCSEs. The steward molested me on the last two consecutive nights. My first “kiss” (if it counts through grated teeth). First touching.
“I didn’t want my dream ending before it had even begun.”
I went off to maritime college 6 months later. By the end of my second week, I was raped. Virginity gone. All because I said no and stop, but my body froze. I tried to scream but all that came out was a muted whimper. The rest of induction phase is a blur facing the guy daily wondering whether I was pregnant, did I have an STI? I knew I had to keep this secret – I didn’t want my dream ending before it had even begun.
Headed off to sea. First month and more grated teeth. More touching. I was an easy target for the Bosun alone with him in the lower holds out of sight. This time I dared to report and was told “its your fault as a woman at sea”. From then on, I knew I had to grit my teeth and survive. There was no Internet onboard back then, no whatsapp, no data on phones. I was alone in my cabin trying to deal as best I could.
I also had my first present bought for me onboard – by the officers – a sex toy. Fending off daily requests of asking whether I was using it and if they could watch. My first ship teaching me to lock my door when I shower. I wasn’t alone in my cabin. There was more to deal with. Bosun by day, the Chief by night.
“I didn’t know either how to stop the Supercargo/ Senior Company Captain from inviting himself into my cabin”
Second ship. More life lessons. Scared for the future of my cadetship and bad reports if I made a fuss. So when the Chief Engineer invited me to his cabin, I didn’t know how to say no when he pleaded “just for a nightcap” some nights after an evening in the Officer’s bar. His idea of a nightcap and mine were clearly different. The feel of his bristly grey beard sticks with me to this day. I didn’t know either how to stop the Supercargo/Senior Company Captain from inviting himself into my cabin when I took my leave saying I was going to bed (alone). More body violations. More shame and disgust. He called me on the ship’s satphone on my 17th birthday 2 weeks later to wish me a happy birthday. Then I knew. All the ship knew. He was known for activities with underage girls in our loading ports and they all knew I had been another victory. The bulkheads were thin – some probably even heard my futile calls for him to stop and get away but it changed nothing.
I didn’t know how to deal with a Steward coming into my adjacent cabin to his to “give a kiss goodnight”, drunk from the crew bar as I was trying to sleep before my morning 4-8 watch. I learned how violating it could feel just to have my personal space (cabin) violated and the vulnerabilities of that.
The above were all physical but some of the most demoralising actions have been more subtle – being at the end of bad ‘jokes’, snide remarks about my gender or constant comments to grind me down. How to react when the 3rd Engineer says “you are the most ugly woman I have ever seen” in passing on the stairs, or the Chief Mate who asks constant questions about your sex life with your fiancé and you’re stuck in a trap of being uncomfortable to answer but believing he will continue to smear your abilities and performance.
It did get better. These sorts of happenings did happen less as I progressed through the ranks. I did learn how to form a hard outer shell and how to effectively hold my ground. But that wasn’t the panacea for everything. 16 years after first dealing with the groping Bosun, there was the transfer vessel Pilot alone with me for 2 hours and feeling trapped as he stood mere centimetres from me wanting to know if I had nude pictures on my phone. There was the Chief Engineer who refused to cooperate with me or even sign a Permit to Work that I needed, and who requested to speak to someone “other than the woman” when he called the Bridge. Even the Captain saying “she’s the Chief Officer, you have to speak to her” didn’t help much.
“It should be their shame, not mine.”
I became more empowered, I learned how to read situations but the fear and vulnerability remains. I’m still learning to drop the guilt and leave the shame at the feet where it belongs. I’m still trying to replace the “it’s your fault” rhetoric to “it shouldn’t have happened”. But most of all, I’m learning that there is hope. There is also power about speaking out and taking the power away from what they did. It should be their shame, not mine.