Being The Only Woman On Board [Part 2/3]
The first thing veterinarian Dr Lynn Simpson did before boarding the livestock carriers that she worked on for the first time was to slip on a wedding ring. Even though she wasn’t married, it helped to deter unwanted attention from the men she encountered at sea and in port.
In the vast majority of cases, she found the men she worked with to be friendly, respectful, even protective. Then there was the time she woke suddenly in the night, no longer alone in her cabin because there was a man on top of her.
Lynn spoke to HRAS about the best and the worst of being the only woman on board.
What was it like as the only woman on board?
As a vet, I had to develop a way of dealing with unwanted attention if I found the crew were a little bit creepy about me being on board. Each time I joined a ship for the first time and the crew didn’t know me or stories of me hadn’t got across yet, I’d use a weird tactic. This sounds really callous but any animal that’s going to succumb to stress quickly usually collapsed by day one of the voyage or by day one of loading. So, if I knew that there was somebody shadowing me suspiciously throughout the decks and I wanted to get a message through them to the crew, I would find a sick animal that I knew was never going to make it anyway and I would put it on the ground. I’d cut its throat, because that’s what we often had to do at sea. I knew all the right arteries were severed, and I’d walk away.
I would make it look so nonchalant that I probably looked like the most heartless bitch on the planet. It looked like I’d gone to no more effort than flicking my hair behind my ears in the breeze, and I’d just walk off with the animal still thrashing on the ground. I knew it was unconscious – that’s just what they often do.
Very quickly the message would get through to everybody, and no one would stalk me again.
It sounds really awful but, that happened multiple times, usually only once per company or once per new ship. After that, I was usually left alone.
Usually, but not always?
It’s interesting, because people often relate rape to late at night and seedy situations or alcohol consumption, promiscuous dressing. It’s not like that at sea.
One day, I was walking through a ship that I felt very safe in. It was about six o’clock in the evening. It was still daylight, but we’d finished for the day and I was actually clean after the day’s work. I’d come from the officers’ mess and was walking down the corridor. It was a well-lit corridor, and one of the officer’s doors was open.
As I walked past, he came to the doorway. He was somebody I considered a friend. I said: “Hey, how’s it going?” and he reached out and grabbed me, pulled me into his cabin, shut the door and threw me on his bed. Before I knew it, he was on top of me. He pinned me down and was basically explaining – and this is what’s weird – when someone thinks they’re going to rape you, they tell you what they’re going to do. Idiots!
He had me pinned down, but he made the mistake of putting his tongue down my throat, so I bit it. He jumped off screaming at me that I was a slut, at which point, I just stepped out of the cabin and kept walking down the corridor going: “What the hell?”
I think of all those movies you see where kids walk past the proverbial white van and the door opens, the kid disappears inside, the door shuts and that’s it; the kid doesn’t get found again. That’s how quickly that happens; snatched from the corridor.
And the second time someone attempted to rape you?
I was fast sleep in my cabin. I always lock my cabin, but the next thing I know there’s somebody on top of me trying to rape me. It takes a second to sort of work out what’s happening, but I went from fright to fight.
I used to sleep with a dolphin torch next to me which is one of those heavy waterproof torches. I smacked him over the head with it.
Once I got over the fright part, I was so angry. It was ironic, because I was naked in the dark beating the hell out of a man. You would normally just end it, and get him out, but I was actually so, so angry that while I grabbed him and headed to the door, I didn’t just turf him out. I thought: “Hang on, I want another go at this.”
The little table in my cabin was bolted down, and it used to annoy me because I had bruises on my hips from where I’d walk into it all the time in heavy weather. It was a small ship, so we got thrown around a lot. And I thought “Hey, that really hurts; there’s a weapon,” so I smashed the guy into the table a few times until I was satisfied. Then I took him to the door, kicked him out and shut it.
I was told subsequently that the captain had actually given him the master key to my accommodation.
How did you protect yourself after that?
I used to booby-trap the door. I had to join that ship again a couple of years later, and I actually went to the hardware store first and bought some latches. I liquid-nailed the latch to the door, so that if somebody tried to open it from the outside, I would at least hear them.
Why didn’t you report the rape attempts?
I didn’t report them because there were so few women in the trade full stop, let alone sailing. I was the only one sailing at that time and, to the best of my knowledge, there’s only ever been one woman at a time sailing in the live export trade.
I didn’t report it because I thought: “I’ve got a good reputation at sea”. I think what I’m doing is worthwhile. You can’t sugar-coat it – it’s depressing and it’s hard work, but I believe that my personality type and my veterinary skills mean that I was actually a really pragmatic and positive influence on the ships. I honestly believe I was making a positive difference, even if that difference was to euthanize something quickly; to make the decision that an animal needs to be put out of its misery and do it, because other people would just let them linger and die then throw them overboard afterwards. I’ve got the gumption to make that decision quickly and get the job done.
So I didn’t want to lose that position on the ship, and I didn’t want to make it more difficult for any woman coming behind me to get a job. I didn’t want companies thinking having a woman on board was a nightmare.
This issue was brought up in a conversation with some friends at a Soldier On meeting – the charity that I go to which helps me with my PTSD. There was a navy woman sitting with me, and a couple of the guys asked that very question: “Why didn’t you report it?”
She and I, at the exact time, and even though she didn’t know my situation, she’d never been on my ships, I’d never been on hers, – we both just looked at this guy and said: “Oh yeah, and then you’ll lose your job.”
With live export, because we’re just contracted voyage by voyage, it’s not like your contract gets shortened. You just don’t get a phone call again.
What about other forms of sexual harassment?
Another time, a captain had been sexually harassing me. Every time I went to the bridge to file my daily report, he would come up to me and say filthy, ridiculous things: “Oh, I had a dream last night, and in my dream you did this, this and this.” I was pretty forthright, and I’d just go “Mate, I don’t wanna hear about your dreams. It’s never gonna happen. Let’s keep this a professional relationship, we’ll get our job done, and this is how the rest of the voyage is gonna proceed, okay?”
It went on and on: “Oh in my dreams you blah, blah, blah” This guy just pushed it, and one day I was halfway through writing a report and I just screwed it up, threw it in his face and said “Fuck off! I’m never coming to your bridge again.” This put the other bridge officers in a difficult position. They pretended not to hear and kept their heads down, charts had never been so interesting apparently.
I didn’t return, and I thought “This will get the message through,” because the Australian Department of Agriculture will realise that they’ve not got daily reports from me. They’ll want to know why, and I’ll have to go to the bridge and answer the phone and say: “Because I’m being sexually harassed.” They’ll step in and do something to help me, because I’m there as their representative. No, they didn’t even notice, and we were only about half way through our voyage.
That wasn’t the end of the story with this captain either, was it?
I hadn’t complained, but when I joined that same ship year’s later, it was the same captain, and he started trying some shenanigans again. I told him: “This time I have a letter sitting at home, and I’ve got a friend that’s prepared to send it to the company,” and it’s a highly respected European company. I said: “I’m pretty sure that they think equality in the workplace is actually a reasonable thing to expect, and that your behaviour is not reasonable. If you carry on, I’ll be making a complaint.”
He carried on. I sent off a letter when I got home to the CEO of the shipping company. To their absolute credit, I got an email back almost immediately apologising. I explained to them that it had happened before, and I didn’t complain because I didn’t want you to think that I was some kind of princess who was out at sea and out of her depth. However, I think it’s really important for any woman coming behind me. I can take care of myself; that’s fine, but someone behind me might not be able to, and I think it’s really important that you know the calibre of this captain.
My understanding is the guy probably lost his job, but I’m not sure.
Were these isolated incidents?
Oh yeah. Apart from that, you would just get the odd person, usually like a lovesick puppy sort of following you around, some young bloke, and you’d have to say: “Go away! Go and phone your girlfriend or something”. But usually they were really lovely, and most of the time, once they get to know you and because, I guess, as a vet I carried a gun and a knife – they were very respectful and, in fact, very protective, and I’m still friends with some of them to this day. Working in the same conditions and never asking them to do anything I wouldn’t do myself helped a lot. I respected my seafarer colleagues, and it was generally reciprocated.
It’s like you’ve got this shipping family, so when you’ve got a dysfunctional land family like I have, to have this weird shipping family that you meet and leave at the top of a gangway is something beautiful.
The opinions expressed herein are the author’s and not necessarily those of Human Rights at Sea.
AFFECTED BY THIS STORY? Review our Managing Traumatic Stress publication here or go to our publications page to review all our free publications for download. Hard copies can be purchase from The Nautical Institute here.
Part 3: ‘Sailing War Zones and Cultural Conflicts’ Coming Soon – follow us on Twitter @hratsea