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Perseverance and pedalling against adversity pay off for vessel traffic services officer Christine McLean

1 March 2024

Christine McLean, shoreside vessel traffic services officer in the Scottish archipelago of the Shetland Islands, has been a member of Nautilus International since she was a cadet. When she first went to sea over 40 years ago, Christine overcame traditional attitudes on careers for women in the Merchant Navy by successfully researching and seeking out her own first vessel, which took her from Rotterdam in the Netherlands and beyond. You would expect nothing less than such perseverance from a champion British racing cyclist

What is your job?

I'm a vessel traffic services officer (VTSO) in the port of Sullom Voe, Shetland, which is owned by Shetland Islands Council.

I'm mainly managing and monitoring the shipping around the port. Much of my time is dedicated to seeking out the weather windows to allow safe berthing of tankers, especially throughout Shetland's long winters.

What originally attracted you to a career in maritime?

I was approaching school leaving age and looking for something different and exciting. My brother and sister were crewing on a private yacht, and I was lucky enough to spend a couple of nights onboard while they were back in the UK. The skipper who had previously sailed as a mate with Blue Funnel Line noted my interest in the charts, instruments and books around the wheelhouse and encouraged me to look into a career in the Merchant Navy.

At the time it was still early days for female recruitment and I came up against a lack of information and encouragement. The attitudes and ignorance of my school and careers advisors were particularly unhelpful and I ended up approaching several shipping companies directly, and joined my first vessel that way.

Do you have any personal or family connection to the sea?

My siblings' yacht crew jobs were just for a handful of seasons, and they both left afterwards to pursue work in unrelated industries.

I am originally from North Wales but have lived in Shetland for over 30 years. My husband is a pilot in Lerwick, Shetland, and my son embarked on a career at sea, but left disillusioned after completing a four-month trip as a cadet with next to no camaraderie or shore leave.

What did you do in your career and/or education before joining the maritime sector?

I encountered a delay before joining Ocean Fleets, so to save myself from the usual 'fill in' holiday jobs waitressing and helping to run a disco in Llandudno, I enrolled on a pre-sea course at Riversdale College of Technology in Liverpool. This turned out to be a good move as it proved an excellent foundation and preparation for the way ahead, as well as being a lot of fun.

Tell us some of your career highlights and challenges

My earliest career highlight – joining my first ship – was also one of my biggest challenges. I joined my first vessel in Rotterdam and retain a clear image in my mind of clearing the berth with a satisfied feeling of having already achieved something.

Later, returning to work and securing a job in the maritime sector once I had a young family to consider. It wasn't easy and I appreciate how difficult it must still be for women in the industry to orchestrate.

The job I returned to was as a port controller in Lerwick harbour, which provided many highlights – especially when working through the 'Klondyker' period [in the Shetlands] during the 1990s when there was a huge influx of European factory fishing ships. 

How long have you been a member of Nautilus, and what made you join?

When I first went to sea in the 1970s I joined the Union via its earlier predecessor union the Merchant Navy and Airline Officers' Association (MNAOA). As cadets we were encouraged to do so (or donate the money to charity!). My membership lapsed while I took a break to have a family, then I rejoined another predecessor union to Nautilus, the National Union of Marine, Aviation and Shipping Transport Officers (NUMAST) in the early 1990s.

I'm now a newly-elected Nautilus Council member [from 2023] and also attended the TUC Women's Conference as a Nautilus delegate.

What would make the biggest positive difference to your job as a maritime professional?

Future-proofing skills for the maritime sector ashore and afloat to cope with new technology and innovations that are transforming the industry.

What do you like doing in your free time?

I love cycling and the freedom of travelling under my own steam. I've recently completed a 2,000-mile journey from Norway back to Shetland − the long way − through six countries!

What is your favourite place you have visited during your career?

Japan. I was fascinated by the culture.

Tell us one thing that people may not know about you.

I'm a former British cycling champion. [Christine won the British 12hr time trial Championship in 2008 and 2009. She also broke the Scottish 100-mile time trial record. In her last big race in Gotland, Sweden in 2017, she won Gold for Shetland. She says she would have continued but a global Covid-19 pandemic and a bad road accident put a stop to it all].


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