A French Girl in the Merchant Marine

Audrey on board
Audrey with a client In Tagaytay, Philippines, there’s a shop which sells pet supplies and also offers pet grooming and boarding. The owner is extremely friendly and helpful. Send her a text, and you get cat food and litter delivered to your door. She even does special orders. Audrey is settled now with a shop, a Filipino boyfriend and their house. But she once had a very different life.
Audrey’s shop in Tagaytay

Thanks to Audrey for the photos. At the end of the interview there’s a brief account with videos of the cable ship, Île de Sein, recovering the black boxes from the wreckage of Air France 447. The video provides a good look at the ship, the personnel on board and some of the equipment. Another video is a documentary about the plane crash in the middle of the Atlantic.

Audrey’s story

Becoming a sailor wasn’t an obvious choice for me. I grew up in Orleans, in north-central France, definitely inland, and I had no seafaring relatives. But I wanted contact with the sea. In high school I thought about joining the military, the marines. When I applied I was told that at seventeen I was a bit young. So I did some internet searches looking for other possibilities. After graduating from high school I went to Brittany—in northwest France—to attend a one-year preparatory school for the merchant marine entrance exam. The top 150 applicants were accepted. I was number fourteen.

The Berlioz, my first ship

The officers’ school program was three years of learning about navigation and engineering. I learned how to plot a route on a chart, how to get from point A to point B, and how to fix problems in the engine room. On a ship the engine can be four floors high, about a hundred times the size of a car engine. I had to learn how to dismantle and fix it.

During Christmas vacation the cadets were supposed to find jobs on board. I sent out thirty-five to forty application letters. After receiving no reply, I went in person to a big container ship company in Le Havre, CMA.CGM. They put me on a waiting list.

Stairs outside show the height of the engine
The main engine in the Berlioz. Notice the size of the exhaust valves.

In 2003 there were very few female cadets and female officers. You weren’t told that the company wasn’t hiring girls, but only that all the positions had already been filled. Then you found out that one of your male classmates was later hired by the same company. I was one of the last of my schoolmates to get an assignment, while the boys who had family connections would write one letter and get hired right away.

My first on-board assignment was two and a half months as both engine cadet and deck cadet. We sailed from Le Havre to Great Britain, Denmark, Belgium, and then down past Gibraltar through the Suez Canal, to the Red Sea, to India and up to China and Korea. The officers on board were Croatian and the crew Filipino. Once on board I saw I was the only French person and the only girl.

The wheel

I was just nineteen, and my English wasn’t very good. I’d learned some at school, but it’s different when you have to speak with others who also have strong accents and other problems with the language. I think there were around fifteen people on board or maybe a few more, only as many as were needed to run the ship. A container ship is very different from a cruise ship, where the passengers are pampered by a large staff. The cruise ship mentality didn’t interest me.

Installing fire hoses to ward off pirates in the Malacca Strait. For more see the Tom Hanks movie “Captain Philips.”

As an engine cadet I felt like a slave, always cleaning up the crude oil spilled in the engine room. I think I did more cleaning than a male cadet would have, maybe because the Croatian officers didn’t know what kind of tasks to give a French girl. Maybe it was also a bit macho. Each time the ship had a commercial operation alongside—loading or unloading—I was assigned to help on deck. That was six hours on, six hours off, from midnight to six in the morning and from noon to six in the evening., with some additional hours for each maneuver. I was always tired. But I was eager to explore new places and new cultures. We went to several ports in China and Singapore.

Dynamic positioning controls

I liked working on deck, where the chief mate was teaching me things like how to load containers, how to balance the load on the ship, how to unload. I found all this very interesting. My favorite part was the sea watch. I really liked the anti-collision process, maneuvering the ship, calling other ships on VHF radio and calling the port. At first it was difficult for me because I was shy and not good at English. I had to call the port to tell them what time we would be in the vicinity and when we needed the pilot to take the ship into port. The local pilots knew the dangers. We also needed tugboats to pull the ship in because a container ship didn’t have the propellers necessary to maneuver alongside the dock.

Tugboat for maneuvering

As a cadet I got a lot of sexual harassment. I was young and didn’t know how to react, especially with someone of a higher rank, like the chief mate. Even the crew ranked higher than a cadet. I always locked my cabin door so no one could get in. Some of the guys seemed a little crazy, or at least they didn’t know how to act around a girl. After a while I figured out that I needed to set boundaries between myself and the crew. At the end of my assignment when I received an evaluation from the captain, he said, “Be careful. You’re very friendly, but if you’re too friendly it will lead to problems.” I didn’t know whether or not to tell him about the chief mate. They were friends. I had some Filipino friends in the crew, but what could they do when the chief mate outranked them?

My cabin with private bath

After that first assignment I went back to school, then back to CMA CGM, where I was assigned to the Berlioz. The officers were French and the crew Romanian. I was glad to see that the second engineer was a girl, especially in the engine room. I watched how she behaved with a man who was annoying her and how she gained the respect of the crew. I learned how to avoid being bothered. Among the cadets on board I also had friends who could look after me.

There was a Romanian man who I thought was crazy because he was much older than me, maybe fifty-five, about my father’s age, and every night he’d put a letter under my door, three or four pages long. I didn’t like him. I avoided him, but that wasn’t easy on a ship around 300 meters long, with a crew of only fifteen to twenty.

Two ships repairing a cable

The Berlioz always took the same route—Europe, Gibraltar, then the Suez Canal the same ports in China, Korea or Singapore. I got a little tired of it. I wanted someone to say, “Okay now you’re going to Canada.” When I went back to school I decided the next time I’d try something else. After completing an exam I became a cadet officer, and my onboard tasks were more like an officer’s work.

CMA.CGM called to offer me a job, but I turned it down even though I knew that I risked having a hard time finding one with another company. Luckily, I got a job with a French company, France Telecom Marine. The officers were French and the crew Madagascan. That was easier for me.

The cable engine

In the huge engine room, the machinery needed to be maintained. Like the main engine, the generators, the separators, and the heaters. After a certain number of hours each piece of equipment had to be dismantled and inspected. For example, after running 1200 hours the oil separator had to be dismantled, each part has to be cleaned and checked and some parts replaced. We needed to avoid letting anything go wrong during transit because stopping the ship for repairs would delay our commercial operations. It’s basically the same as looking after a car, but we had to take more precautions because the ship was where we lived.

Other routine work included chipping off rust and painting because a ship always rusts when it’s on the water. So the officer has to assign work—chipping, painting, checking the ballast and its surroundings for leaks and rust. The ballast is like a big tank under the water line which is supposed to maintain stability in the current sea conditions. It may need to be emptied and painted.

Testing a life raft

When you’re on sea watch, on deck steering the ship, you check the horizon and radar. According to the rules of the sea, you have to maneuver to prevent collision. You always have to check the weather forecasts and find out about possible dangers to ensure safe sailing. Safety comes first. While you’re on watch, you’re responsible for the sip and everyone on board. If you pass a Maritime Rescue Coordination Center, you have to report to them.

Splicing the cable

Then there’s maintenance of the inflatable liferafts, the closed, rigid lifeboats and the life preservers. Most of the time we have also a rescue boat too. Everything which have to be in the best condition in case you need to abandon ship. We had drills once or twice a month so people knew which lifeboats they would be in, who would steer the boat, who would bring food, medicine, and other necessities. In each boat the engineer would be in charge of the engine so he or she could fix a problem that might occur. Each lifeboat had an engineer and two officers in charge of the launch. Most of the time, I worked on launching the lifeboats in the water and training people to steer it. We had periodic tests of our distress signals like smoke signals and rockets.

the ROV

The fire system also had to be maintained. We had fire extinguishers, fire hoses and hydrants everywhere in the ship accommodations. There was a CO2 fire suppression system in the engine room and the generator room that could be operated by remote control from the engine control room or the bridge. Each ship had a CO2 room full of big CO2 bottles which could be released in the engine room after we made sure no one was there. We had an emergency generator in case of a main engine blackout. We would need power for the radio, for example, to alert any nearby ships and radar to avoid a collision in case of thick fog.

As a cadet officer I’d had to conduct drills in order to gain experience. There were a lot of rules about what to do in all kinds of emergency situations—pollution, man overboard, fire, abandoning ship or piracy. The individual crew members needed to know exactly what their jobs were in each situation. In case of fire there was a rescue team, usually the kitchen staff. We had drills twice a month, each time with the fictional fire in a different place, like the engine room, the laundry, or on deck. We had two teams, and we made it realistic, sometimes with smoke. One team was always ready to react quickly in case of an emergency.

Taking the buoys to shallow water

We also needed to know first aid. I had some medical training. Usually there was no doctor on board although we might have an accident when we were far from the shore. So we need to know what to do, like how to treat and stitch up a wound. We had it set up so we could reach particular doctors via satellite. Then the doctor could recommend giving an antibiotic or treating the wound in a particular way.

The shore end of the cable

France Telecom Marine laid fiber optic cable under the sea for telephone and internet service. Since it was twenty-four-hour work, there were two people for each position—two crews for each twelve-hour shift. We had specialists like jointers, who spliced the parts of the cable together, testers, who made sure the signal was suitable for the shore stations, and or slack managers, who made sure that when laying the cable we always kept the proper tension on it. After the tension on the cable was checked, the cable engine might need to be slowed down or speeded up so the cable wouldn’t break. Each kind of cable had specific requirements.

Road trip to the Cape of Good Hope

I liked the job because it always took us to different ports, and we never knew what was coming next. I got to see a lot of places I hadn’t been to before—Hawaii, Australia, Greenland, Iceland, Canada, South Africa and new ports in Asia. Sometimes unloading and loading cable took a long time, and we might need repairs or maintenance. That gave us quite a bit of time in port. I spent three weeks in Cape Town as we waited for an order to replace a section of the cable. We took a road trip to the Cape of Good Hope.

You might be on duty at night. One officer always had to be on board in case of an emergency. But normally if you were not on duty you were free to leave. You just needed to be reachable. There was usually at least a twelve-hour notice before the ship sailed.

Music time

There was a gym on board, which is important when you’re out at sea for a long time. I play piano, and I particularly liked having a keyboard, guitars and speakers available. The Madagascan crew members were very good musicians who could easily follow, even if they didn’t know the tune.

Considering the extra work I did for France Telecom Marine, I should have gotten a better evaluation than the other cadet officers. I was mostly in charge of maintenance tasks. In the evening I put in a lot of overtime preparing for drills, where I was in charge. I was really sleep deprived.

The crossing the equator ceremony, where the initiates have to be body painted and then kiss the foot of the sea goddess

The male cadet officers weren’t doing all that overtime, but they got better evaluations.  The officers I was working with were all happy with me. They said my work was good and I put in a lot of overtime. But the captain said I was still immature and should work with another company before reapplying to France Telecom Marine.  I think he kicked me out of the company because he didn’t like working with girls. That ship was really old school, with separate facilities for officers and crew. Most of the people had been working together for a long time, so it was easy to get rid of a newcomer. I was told another girl had had the same experience. On the other hand, maybe it was not unfortunate because I really liked the next company I worked for.

On board barbecue

I had quite a bit of experience with the dynamic positioning system used to keep the ship on track while laying or repairing cables. So I decided to apply to another French company with cable ships, Louis Dreyfus Armateurs. The officers were French, and the crew was Filipino. But for music making there was only a guitar and—of course for a Filipino crew—a karaoke machine.

I joined the ranks of Louis Dreyfus Armateurs in 2007. After that, particularly in 2010, I noticed an increasing number of women, especially cadets, even though we were still a minority. Times had changed since I was a cadet and mostly alone. The atmosphere improved. The jokes and the harassment stopped. I’d become an officer and learned how to set boundaries. I felt I had friends on board.

At the dynamic positioning controls

At sea in cable operation, I worked twelve hours a day without overtime. At night I was free to rest. In port, once the cable was loaded, I only had to check on it. I was free to do my maintenance work. We had different work schedules depending on whether we were in port on stand-by or doing repairs, loading cable, at sea in transit or laying cable. For example, hours could be seven in the morning to five or six, with evenings free except for checking on things. Or you could be on twelve-hour shifts. Or you might have a combination of eight hours sea watch and maintenance work.

Night watch

A sailor’s life isn’t easy. I missed watching my sister grow up. I missed my friends’ weddings. I missed being with my family. People died, and I couldn’t be there. In 2015 I quit. A woman may want to have kids. I knew when I started that there would be a time when I should stop.

It was priceless to be at sea instead of working in an office. My favorite part was night watch, driving the ship while everybody else was sleeping, being the only one awake, being responsible for the safety of officers and crew. It’s a really good feeling. 

The recovery of Air France 447:

Our ship could be chartered for other kind of operations. For example, we were once sent out to find the black boxes from Air France 447.  A special ROV with a special team from an American company was loaded on board, since it could reach down to the sea floor where the wreck had been found, about five kilometers below the surface. A lot of people were brought on board, including investigators, photographers and psychologists to help us deal with the stress of recovering the bodies. We had a ceremony, threw flowers overboard  and laid a commemorative plate on the bottom of the Atlantic.

The commemoration ceremony

A reader


The recovery of the black boxes. In French, but the audio isn’t necessary to see what’s happening. (Link)

A documentary in English of the crash of F 447. (Scoot your cursor through the commercials) (Link)

A reader writes:

When I graduated from high school in 1961, one of my thoughts was,”If I were a boy, I would join the merchant marines.”  When I was 19, I went to the Scandinavian Shipping Office in San Fransisco to apply for a job on a Scandinavian freighter as a stewardess to take care of the limited number of passengers carried on freighters.  The man said that I needed to be 21 (a boy needed to be only 15).  When I was 21, I went back to the Scandinavian Shipping Office to put my name on the list.  The office did call me but I was in the hospital with a severe concussion and multi-fractured pelvis. A year or so later, I wanted to try again.  Not having been off crutches long, my doctor said ‘no’.  Sigh

Eventually I did get on a Norwegian freighter as a passenger.  Good for the young lady.  Times have really changed.

A reader writes:

What a life!

Another reader writes:

Interesting story, that.

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