From sea to shore: 'there are some experiences you'd never have in a normal job'

Last edited: 26 September 2017

World Maritime Day in 2017 is celebrating the connections between ships, ports and people. Meet 30-year-old Courtney Godfrey (neé Sexton) whose day job is all about making those connections. After spending the early years of her shipping career at sea, she now works on shore as a ship operator, looking after BP-operated and chartered vessels in Australian and New Zealand waters

Time at sea

My background did not really point towards a shipping career; I certainly had no great love of the water. I spent some of my school years in Singapore, which is obviously a hub for the maritime industry, and knew family friends who worked in the business. I decided to study nautical science at the Australian Maritime College, part of the University of Tasmania, because the semester started early. I was one of two girls in a class of 50 students. 

I initially went to sea with an Australian company on bulk cement ships, but not long into my cadetship all the vessels were sold. BP took me on to finish my training, which was fairly unusual mid-way through a cadetship. It’s a three-year programme, splitting time at sea and college. I chose the deck cadetship that covers navigation, cargo activities and people management.
In total, I spent about a decade at sea with different companies. My worst experience was the motion sickness; I’ve had that since I was a child. I joined my first ship in Kyoto, Japan, and there was a typhoon coming down. We stayed on the safe side of it to reach Singapore but it was one of my roughest trips ever.
In contrast, one of the best was a visit to Diego Garcia – the British Indian Ocean Territory – where there is a US naval base. There was only a small discharge hose to unload the jet fuel cargo, so it ended up taking seven days to discharge rather than the normal 36 hours. It is a tropical island and we had bikes to ride around and they took us out on fishing trips. There are some experiences you would never have in a ‘normal’ job.

Life at sea is a self-contained little community; for example, when new DVDs arrived, we’d all gather for movie night. There were poker nights on Fridays and I’d play because everyone else was. It’s important to get involved with social activities.

There are less sociable moments too: one watch runs from midnight until four or six in the morning. It can be pretty quiet; you’re up on the bridge with a lookout but if they’re not much of a talker, it can be a long three months on shift in the dark.

Working at sea builds a good foundation for a range of skills. You learn what to do in an emergency: fire-fighting, first aid, lifeboat drills and helicopter escape training become second nature. I’m very calm around alarms now.

What I learned from working at sea...

  • Enjoy the ride: your life revolves around work even when you have time off on the vessel, so you may as well make the most of it
  • At sea you quickly learn what your unique skill-set is and your limitations; physically, I can’t swing a sledgehammer but I am good at opening up conversation in the workplace.
  • Men and women think and act differently: both can learn a lot from one another. I found it interesting the way men looked at certain problems and resolved them.
     
It never really dawned on me that there was a gender imbalance in the industry, until I was out at sea. Even then, I didn’t spend much time thinking about it. On BP ships back then, there were perhaps two women among a crew of 20 – one more than I’d experienced previously. 

When I left BP to work for a Norwegian anchor handling and supply vessel company, I never worked with another woman at sea again. I didn’t miss female company because we always had an internet connection to make phone calls, so I kept in touch with friends and family at home.

Time on shore

After the seafaring, I came home to study law but then realised I didn’t want to become a lawyer. I had really enjoyed working for BP during my cadetship and saw the opportunities available in such a huge global business. And I wanted to pursue the more commercial side of shipping.

I rejoined BP as a ship operator in 2015, based in Melbourne. I look after all the vessels around Australia and New Zealand, generally between 15 and 20 at any one time. There are a few captains still at sea who remember me sailing with them as a cadet.
Ship operators act as intermediaries between the vessel and the many other people who are involved in moving cargo. On a quiet day, my role might be summed up rather simply as “Hello ships. Here are your bunkers. Here is your cargo. Off you go, safe sailing.” That’s always nice! 

But, in reality, there is no average day. We may need to deal with unexpected cargo issues at a particular refinery. For example, if a facility is operating at reduced capacity, it may affect the cargo order which, in turn, would impact the relevant licences. In Australia, there is strict Coastal Trading legislation under which licences are required in order to carry passengers or cargo between ports in the country.

I enjoy the job because it’s ever-changing. I deal with a wide network of contacts, such as charterers, traders, cargo inspectors and even maritime lawyers. The ship operator is the person who knows what is happening – and if you’re not making the decisions, you know the people who can. Communication is sometimes challenging; a language barrier is tricky when you need to give very specific instructions.

Now, I really value routine: the ability to make plans in the knowledge that I won’t be called back to sea early or I won’t miss a flight because of a delayed berthing. Outside work, I don’t spend any time on the water. I love to cook – I sailed with some phenomenal chefs so I would go into the galley and help. I also love to read which comes from my time at sea, as there is plenty of time for books out on the ocean wave

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