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Former second officer Ellie Johnson offers insights for making the leap ashore

16 May 2022

Former oil tanker deck officer Ellie Johnson made the leap ashore. Nautilus catches up with her career progress over three years including her career-shaping Covid-19 pandemic experiences.

What is a typical day in your job?

A lot has changed in the last three years of my life at sea, and so has a typical day. I have been onboard an additional five prod/chem vessels and gained my promotion as second officer. To top things off, I have now chosen to make the massive leap ashore, down to personal circumstances and wanting a new challenge. I feel satisfied that up until now, I have achieved all my goals at sea.

So now, I am still with the same shipping company, however working in the office as a commercial freight trader – so my typical day job has changed dramatically. My new role is closely linked to my position on board vessels. I now manage the vessels I once sailed on. Day to day, I work alongside the traders (who purchase the cargoes), to find a ship to transport the cargoes. Ahead of the voyage, I clear the vessel to ensure it is suitable to carry the nominated cargo, and for entry to the intended ports. I ensure all maintenance is done, it is fully bunkered, and certificates up to date for the duration of the voyage. I then follow the ship on its voyage from A to B, issuing loading and discharging instructions along the way and keeping in touch with captains, should any problems arise.

I really enjoy being able to apply my previous maritime knowledge to any challenges that may arise, such as weather routing or stowage planning. The job involves making big monetary decisions and so cost saving is a real challenge in itself. I am also enjoying building up a good rapport with captains and getting to know the crew while my feet are on terra firma for once!

Why did you choose a career at sea?

I originally chose this job primarily because it was something completely different to any ordinary day job. You never ever know what's going to crop up during the day, from a report of faulty equipment which you must investigate, to a change of voyage orders. Despite being stressful at times, it keeps you on your toes and is certainly exciting. I'm proud of what I do, and it's made even more special as it's a concept that people cannot always come to terms with. To most people, they think you do a normal day job, but it's a bit more complex than that. I love seeing the looks on people's faces when they learn more about what our job entails!

I do have connections to sea, my dad is a royal naval engineer, however this had no influence on my joining as, having had many chats with him about it, it seems the way the commercial shipping industry operates compared with the forces, is a world apart.

From a young age, I've learned the importance of getting a good job and establishing a good career for yourself. Where I come from in South Devon, there are few career opportunities and people often get stuck in dead end jobs. I needed to get out there and throw myself into something completely out of the ordinary and give myself the best start in life, in a secure career. There are so many more opportunities open to me now, both within my company, and as a result of my unlimited Certificate Of Competency (CoC).

I came into the industry straight from school as a cadet aged 18. I studied at Fleetwood Nautical College and completed my cadetship in November 2018 after three years of hardest work I have ever done.

I would like to emphasise that although I am no longer at sea, I am still a massive supporter of all who still chose this as a job because it can sometimes be demanding beyond your wildest imagination and I really think it takes guts and a certain type of person to be able to do it long term.

Tell us some of your career highlights so far – and challenges

Completing my cadetship has to be the biggest highlight of the past six years. When you know you've applied yourself 100% for three years and then it all pays off, it's the most amazing feeling. Especially due to the unique nature of the career involved. Nothing at school prepares you for it knowledge, or experience wise. It’s like starting something from scratch!

Another career highlight has been finally obtaining my promotion to second officer after some really tough trips due to the impacts of Covid-19 on board and extended trip lengths. I turned my desire to return home into something great. I used it to get my head down, come to terms with the fact that nothing I was wishing for could send me home any quicker, and instead direct all my energies into understudying the second officer. This reaped massive rewards. Not only confidence that I was worthy of promotion, but a new sense of confidence in understanding of navigation.

I think all females would agree that the main issue is still some negative attitudes towards women at sea. In order to deal with anything which you may perceive as derogatory, you must summon incredible strength from within. This will develop the more time you spend at sea. It's amazing how strong you can become. Don't be afraid to ask for help if you cannot do something. You are not a superwoman, just as no man is superman.

How can women be made to feel welcome and retained in a career at sea?

To retain females in the industry, we still need to increase our numbers further. This adds a layer of support amongst females on board and a more pleasant environment as a result as lone females will then have some additional companionship on board, which was previously lacking. I think the female element must also be rolled out equally amongst all fleet groups/types of vessel. Female visibility within the oil tanker fleets remains to be seriously lacking.

One thing which coming shore has shed light on for me, is the fact that women need to be reassured that the career they have worked so hard to build at sea, will not suddenly end by coming ashore. We are rightly focusing so much of our attention to retaining females at sea, but this cannot always be the long-term option for all females, especially when conditions are still not as good as they could be. Therefore, there should also be the equivalent amount of support for females wishing to continue their maritime career onshore- as there are still plenty of opportunities with the skills we have acquired.

Anyone can become a captain or chief engineer whatever their background. If you stick at it and put in the hard work, the results pay off Ellie Johnson

What are the best things about your job?

The best thing about a job at sea, is the sense of accomplishment and achievement daily. Being faced with so many daily challenges such as equipment breaking, daily maintenance, and other challenges, allows you to become very resourceful and a day isn't complete without you having achieved something.

The second is the pay. I feel really lucky to be able to have given myself a good start in life and save with the wage I get. I know this is rare these days. However, with the good pay comes massive responsibility also.

Would you recommend seafaring as a career?

In today's jobs climate, I would say that seafaring is a very accessible career. I feel strongly about promoting this. It is a career which is obtainable by all no matter your age or ability. This job is a mix of practical experience along with academic work. Anyone can become a captain or chief engineer whatever their background. If you stick at it and put in the hard work, the results pay off. There are also so many sectors and ship types you can sail on, so if you don't get along in one sector, the transition to another is easy and your career can therefore be very dynamic.

Provided you have an unlimited CoC, provided by most maritime courses, any ship type is open to you. In addition to this, with your invaluable skills and knowledge as a seafarer, there are unlimited shoreside positions open to you in ports, shipping offices, maritime insurance, brokering… the list is endless. You just have to put the work in initially.

My initial goal of teaching others part time remains, as I would love to play a part in assisting the new generation of seafarers.


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