Natia Labadze, 24 years old, from Batumi

“On July 18, 2015 at the age of 22 in the Hong Kong seaport on the bridge of one of the largest ships I shook hands with a Captain for the first time. He greeted me, “welcome aboard. I wish you peaceful sailing”.

Many of my family members are seamen, including my father, my brother and my uncles. My dad has not served on a ship ever since the death of my uncles caused by the sinking of the ship Memed Abashidze. Growing up, I always dreamed of embarking on an epic sailing journey. The idea of traveling around the world and visiting foreign countries always fascinated me. Besides, working as a sailor is one of the highest paid jobs, yet the field is mainly dominated by men. I thought to myself: why can’t I take that opportunity, too?
So I decided to pursue sailing.

In the vessel management faculty of the maritime academy I was the only female among 121 students, showing up for every morning formation properly dressed in a uniform. I remember a lot of people pointing their fingers at me – filled with astonishment and disapproval of a girl who chose to pursue a path of a sailor. Female sailors are so uncommon that the sailor’s uniform only fits men, implying that dresses do not belong here. One time my English lecturer told me: “You are a nice girl, a talented student, but there’s no doubt that 4 years from now, once you complete your studies, you will rather get married and find a job in your hometown, Batumi.”

In exactly 4 years I was chosen amongst 6 most successful students for an interview with Columbia – a marine agency – that was looking for new employees – sea cadets – for the upcoming international trip. I passed the test successfully but one of the East European examiners told me: “You will be rejected because of your gender. You are a woman”.

I was terribly upset even though it did not affect my determination to continue fighting till the end. I managed to fully demonstrate my knowledge in the next stage of the selection, during a Skype interview. Surprisingly, one of the interviewers was a female employee of the agency. 15 minutes after the interview was over, I received a phone call from the agency congratulating me on getting the new job on their ship.

That was the first successful fight I had won against the cultural and social restrictions set for women. My high qualifications and my knowledge in the field of navigation has also been proven by the fact that I was chosen as a staff member for a nautical vessel with a width of 365 meters and with a height of 68 meters, loaded with up to 14,000 units of shipping containers filled with new cars. This was a huge responsibility.

I remember a book I read when I was a student called Sea and Four Daughters”. Sadly, most people don’t even know that the first sailor from Georgia achieving a high-grade marine position in the beginning of the 20th century (even though she was not able to claim the Captain’s title) was a woman from Batumi named Julia Phailodze. By some extraordinary coincidence Julia lived in the same house as I do, and worked in the same library where I found the book that inspires me so much. Certain barriers kept Julia from reaching the Captain’s position. After exactly a century, here I am, the second Georgian female sailor, eventually to become the first female Sea Captain from my country.

I worked as a cadet for the first six months and was the only female member of the crew. Usually, after 6 months of service sailors prefer to return to their homes, since it is so hard to deal with the deep sentiments arising in an open sea. However, I decided to prolong my contract for up to 8 months. This would give me the chance to grow professionally and to apply for the position of a 3rd assistant to the Captain. I would be able to work on my self-esteem and realize that I was able to handle challenging tasks independently. The Captain, curious about my decision, approached me and asked whether I was completely sure about staying on the ship for additional 2 months. I had already made up my mind.

Several months later I was actually promoted and was I managing the ship’s manoeuvre from its bridge independently as a 3rd officer. Now I’m mostly responsible for the ship’s safety management and technical maintenance. In the evenings when everyone is resting I’m in charge of the ship’s manoeuvre from the sea cabin. Once, one of my fellow Ukrainian sailors confessed to me that he began praying for survival the night after he saw that I, a 22-year-old young woman, was in charge of the ship’s navigation.

Even though the crew members of the ships I serve on are mostly from Europe and have worked with fellow female sailors, I still have to deal with gender stereotypes. For example, once my male colleagues made a bet that I would get sick during a storm and would not be able to eat food. Guess what actually happened – they got sick and I ate a double portion.

Gender stereotypes in Georgia are even worse. People believe that a sailor’s job is not only inappropriate for a woman, but women in general belong in the kitchen. I was on a ship when I first read the Facebook comments on a post about me. I was being criticized. By whom? Mostly women! That was very devastating for me but I decided not to respond to any of the negative feedback. I believe that I perform very effectively in my job, and that serving on a ship is equally safe or unsafe for women and men, especially during storms. I care for my career advancements and the improvement of my financial state. My family and friends are highly supportive of me, so the criticism is just a matter of underdevelopment.

The sad thing is that I have already been celebrating holidays like my birthday or New Year on the ship for three years now. Sailors are leading the ship in the silence while everyone’s having fun ashore. But you get used to it. Now I’m 24 years old and I think I don’t have time to complain. I’ll definitely become a sea Captain one day.”

Author: Maiko Chitaia
The Women of Georgia project gives a special thanks to Mamuka Chkhikvadze for taking photos and for his support for the project.
Translation: Natia Kuprava