The statistics are bleak: of the estimated 1.25 million sailors worldwide, only between one and two per cent are women. There are a whole lot of reasons for this (such as a long tradition of discrimination, actual laws in some countries preventing women from working on ships, and more), and the percentage is even lower on vessels from non-Western nations. In other words, sailing on a ship – especially a cargo ship – is to subject oneself to literally one of the most cis male-dominated environments on earth. But ironically, it was amid such an incredibly testosterone-filled setting this past holiday season that I learnt a few things about what being a feminist means – and how toxic masculinity can arise when there’s no-one around to challenge misogynist worldviews.
Anyone who knows me can attest to the fact that I’m afflicted with a terminal case of wanderlust. Whether it’s North Korea, Afghanistan, the Amazon, or many other destinations, I’m at my happiest when at the edge of the map, and then plunging over the side into the unknown. So when I learnt that it was possible to sail on a cargo ship – as opposed to a cruise ship (which many people of course do) – hauling millions of dollars’ worth of all manner of goods stored inside thousands of shipping containers (7,738 on our voyage to be exact) through Southeast Asia from Malaysia to Hong Kong aboard the M/V CMA CGM Amerigo Vespucci, I leapt at the opportunity. The fact that I’d never been on a ship at sea before be damned.
Although the place in which we sailed (the Strait of Malacca and later the South China Sea) has more pirate attacks than anywhere else in the world, the reality is you’re still more likely to be hit by lightning even when sailing through the area – and unsurprisingly we didn’t see any modern-day buccaneers. The most unnerving moments came the evening of the fifth day we were at sea, when around the edges of the darkness near the disputed Paracel Islands were the eerie bright lights of several Chinese warships and reconnaissance aircraft. Clearly visible on the radar in the ship’s bridge, they stopped monitoring us as soon as we left the vicinity of the islands. The whole situation was not at all surprising, considering the fact China has been installing weapons systems and other military facilities on the islands (moves which have been widely covered in international media).
The voyage wasn’t at all what I expected. My private cabin was far more luxurious than I thought it would be (and much bigger than my room in my flat in Auckland), and the food (prepared every day by a trained French chef) was so decadent that I felt guilty every time I ate any of it – and guilty when I didn’t because I thought it might go to waste; in other words, I realised the quaint image I had in my head of sparse accommodations, fleas, scurvy, and the phrase “swearing like a sailor” wasn’t accurate at all on a modern ship that was only built in 2010. Among other amenities on this working vessel: a gym, swimming pool, washing facilities, free coffee 24 hours a day, and even a small library (filled mostly with pulp fiction like Clive Cussler and Dan Brown, but a library nonetheless).
Although the officers aboard the French-flagged vessel (CMA CGM is a French company, after all) were French, the majority of the 32-person crew (I thought it a small number for a ship more than 360 metres long) were from the Philippines. The middle-aged captain commanded the complete respect of his crew. He never had to raise his voice once, even in stormy seas and through the crowded waters around Singapore and Hong Kong. If the crew questioned his orders, I certainly didn’t see them do it in front of him. Still, it begged a question: what if the captain were a woman? Would the crew show as much respect then? I’m not sure. Why? Because of the art on the walls of the ship.
All along the interior decks of the ship (where the crew stayed when they were not working) were paintings and other pieces of art, much like in any home or office. But unlike most residences and businesses (or so I would hope), the paintings were incredibly lurid – many of them featured naked women having sex and in various states of undress. One of these paintings was even in my cabin. I was disgusted – and thought how uncomfortable I’d feel if I identified as a woman. Believe me: the thought of ripping one of those sexist pieces of “art” off the wall and throwing it over the side of the ship did cross my mind.
I was also offended by the paintings because of the message they sent. These were not celebrations of women’s bodies; instead, they projected an attitude that women’s bodies were things to be ogled at and sexualised – because clearly that’s all that women are good for. If these images were the things the crew looked at every day, what did that say about how they viewed women? And – perhaps even more concerning – it begged another question: are all almost exclusively cis male environments like this? The fact misogynist groups such as the so-called “manosphere” and “alt right” are almost entirely made up of men – as well as other repressive organisations like the Catholic Church (where women, of course, cannot hold power) – was not lost on me.
I should have said something. I should have explained that such things on the walls, such misogynist attitudes, were not OK, ever, and that people needed to be treated equally and with respect – even when they were not around (you know, the things feminism is all about). But I didn’t.
It was that “f” word that keeps so many of us back that prevented me from speaking up: fear. What if the crew disagreed and turned on me? I was at sea – there was no-one around to help me or back me up. I was completely at their mercy. And it scared me.
Ironically, the voyage also helped me empathise with the things women and people who identify as women have to put up with all the time, even when not at sea. Fear of physical or emotional violence from large, physically intimidating men. Fear of being labelled a “burden” or a “nag.” Looking at groups of men and assessing the risk before walking past. Not going out for fear of the above. And experiencing those things made me realise something else: if this was what I was experiencing on one short trip on a ship at sea, imagine how bad it must be for women all over the world every fucking day.
After spending New Year’s at sea, we finally sailed into Hong Kong on January 7, where I disembarked. It was an incredible adventure, feminist lessons and all, and it cost much less than travelling on a cruise ship. If you’re looking for an off-the-wall escapade, travelling on a cargo ship may just be for you.
Hopefully, over time, more diversity on the high seas will help to change the ingrained male-dominated maritime culture – or at least help challenge individual sailors’ worldviews and attitudes towards women. And their taste in ‘art’.