An enabling environment

There is a lot of talk around creating an enabling environment within the maritime industry to foster growth and inclusivity. In this context we view enablers as positive drivers. But, as we approach International Day for Women in Maritime, we need to be cognisant of another type of enabling environment – one with devastating consequences.

TRIGGER WARNING: This blog discusses issues of sexual assault, bullying and harassment.

You see – the reality of abuse, bullying and sexual assault is that it relies on an enabling environment where silence allows perpetrators to continue even when their actions are known or at the very least suspected.

Recent revelations by women around the globe across industry sectors prove this. Every serial abuser is surrounded by enablers; people who are willing to simply ignore or are actively complicit in the situation and who do not speak out against it. While sentiment is shifting, the subject is still taboo within many circles where gender stereotypes fester.

The living conditions on board vessels amplify the problem. Unlike shore-based professions where victims of abuse can return to the safety of their homes at the end of the day – at sea they are forced to live, eat and sleep within reach of their persecutors creating an optimal environment for the abuse to continue. It is within this environment that many choose to turn a blind eye to what must be somewhat evident. 

Trained to accept the status quo

In addition, based on some of the incidents that are now being reported, it is during cadetships and training that many women appear to be most vulnerable. As young women they find themselves working within an environment where they are outnumbered and outranked by men. Sadly, it is within this crucial part of their journey towards becoming career seafarers that they are often exposed to harassment and even assault.

According to one survivor, who is now involved in turning the tide on such incidents, these incidents often result in women leaving the sector or rethinking their ambitions of a life at sea. She believes that this developmental stage of seafarer careers needs to be addressed and acknowledges that many men are also bullied back to shore.

The result is that those men and women that should be at sea and who would generally be less likely to become perpetrators are the ones being forced out by this unreported criminal behaviour. It’s a Catch 22 situation that provides an enabling environment which allows the perpetrators to rise within the ranks while others are weeded out.

The young TNPA (Transnet National Ports Authority) cadet, Akhona Geveza was just 19 in 2010 when she died while serving on board the Safmarine Kariba. Speculation at the time around her cause of death highlighted the vulnerability of young men and women at sea as claims arose about how several cadets in South Africa’s maritime studies programme were subjected to “systematic abuse of power by senior officers, who threatened cadets’ careers if they did not perform sexual acts”. (Reported in a Sunday Times article at the time)

Difficult reports

According to Safer Waves, an organisation that was established in 2019 to provide support to merchant seafarers, there are many indications that shipping companies and senior officers continue to mishandle allegations of abuse that are reported to them.

“There is plenty of anecdotal evidence of seafarers being given poor advice, being ignored, being made to feel worse, authorities failing to investigate alleged sexual violence, victims being transferred off of ships rather than removing the offenders, and cover-ups between officers. Unsurprisingly then, victims often keep their experiences to themselves,” they contend.

In an industry where 25 percent of surveyed women state that physical and sexual harassment is common on board vessels it becomes vital to vocally address this enabling environment. This statistic, as revealed in a survey undertaken by the Women In Shipping & Trading Association (WISTA), should be highlighted alongside the reality that 66 percent of women indicate that they have been intimidated by male co-workers while serving at sea.

Seeking help while still at sea can be difficult, especially within an environment that is by its very nature not conducive to protecting the needs of those at risk. Imagine having to report an incident within a system that values obedience and the hierarchal structure of ranks. Imagine having to continue living in this environment until at very least the next port – in close confines with the person who is responsible for your trauma as well as those who would rather turn a blind eye to the situation in order to maintain the status quo.

It is no wonder that most prefer to report incidents anonymously via email or hotlines. Sadly, this continues to shroud the victims in unwarranted shame while those at fault remain largely unscathed.

Standing up and speaking out

But the tide is turning. Organisations such as Safer Waves as well as the many seafarer welfare and women’s associations are helping move the conversation forward. More importantly, victims are beginning to speak out and hold those that are guilty of abuse accountable – oftentimes decades after the incidents occurred.

Midshipman X took a bold stand by coming forward publicly to denounce her treatment as a cadet on board a Maersk vessel. Others too are adding their names to the list – and one can only wonder whether the increased openness to have these kind of conversations may have saved South African seafarer, Geveza if we had been more proactive much earlier.

Because the truth is you know someone. You know someone that is both the victim and the perpetrator. You may not know exactly who they are, but trust me they are within your professional circle. This means that we all have to make a choice to stand up and dismantle the environment of enablers.

Seemingly innocent remarks that diminish the agency of any rank, gender or other minority at sea should be unacceptable within our midst. It is our responsibility to develop the courage to stand up when we see or hear about incidents.

Become dismissive

The old ethos of “what did she expect”; “women don’t belong at sea” or any other diatribes that shift the blame from the perpetrator to the victim need to be dismissed. What a woman wears or where she finds herself within any profession cannot be used to explain away the behaviour of abusers. It is time to stop policing women and rather educate men and boys about their responsibility to behave like decent human beings.

Many of those that speak out do so in an attempt to save future generations and other women serving with their perpetrators. Most do not receive any real catharsis from doing so and certainly there is rarely much of a fallout for those who continue to take advantage of their position at sea.

One can only applaud SAMSA’s (South African Maritime Safety Authority) decision to host a gender based violence seminar in November last year. Although more than a decade after launching the local national cadet programme, the seminar gave a voice to the ongoing problem. In addition, educational information was distributed by the Authority in the month prior to the event.

Redesigning the future

It is, however, rather ironic that so many of our youngsters face harassment during their training at sea when it is precisely the right type of training that could ultimately reduce such incidents and improve the life of men and women at sea. I had the privilege of sitting down with Ann Pletschke – a volunteer at Safer Waves for a cup of coffee recently, who is herself a survivor. She would like to see this type of education formalised within the existing structures of STCW and other training conventions that focus on safety at sea.

This is a cause that she aims to see addressed as training evolves. She also highlights that the variety of jurisdictions that seafarers operate within provide additional difficulties. While some jurisdictions state that sex can be consensual at 14 – others increase the age of consent to 16 or even higher. Of course non-consensual sex (rape) is not legal at any age, but perpetrators making a claim of consent are open to cherry pick their jurisdiction in some cases.  

So – as a society and as an industry we need to ask what we are teaching the next generation when we continue to remain silent. To remain silent is to enable and this is one enabling environment that we should all seek to eradicate.


“There are more than 50 young, strong, amazing women in my class at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy where I am currently in my Senior/1st Class year. I have not spoken to a single one of those women who has told me that she has not been sexually harassed, sexually assaulted, or degraded at some point during the last 3 years at the Academy or during Sea Year. Most people, and even the leaders of our school, do not seem to understand how serious this problem is, especially at sea. In our class of approximately 50 women, I know of at least 5 women who were forcibly raped during Sea Year. And I am one of them.”

The high-profile case of Midshipman X who dropped her anonymity and revealed her identity as Hope Hicks received much media coverage with the legal case being settled towards the end of 2022 for an undisclosed amount. The accused in this case also faced some consequences.

FOOTNOTE: While writing this blog I was struck by my own internal voices warning me about taking such a strong stand within a male-dominated industry. I was concerned about being seen as another vocal woman beating the “fashionable” drum of inequality and abuse of power. I did not want to be seen as “that woman”. The fact that I am concerned at the reaction of men to this blog, however, speaks volumes about the environment we find ourselves in. The fact that many may ask about the need to dredge up old news such as that of Akhona Geveza should also be seen as a kneejerk reaction to maintain a status quo that benefits no one in the long term.

Equally, I am aware that “not all men” are guilty and that women themselves can be bullies and abusers – but that does not mean we should silence the very real narrative that abuse continues on board vessels within a career that we are promoting to young men and women.


Ditch the important wife!

Towards the end of last year there were many vessels entering the water for the first time. As a maritime journalist I generally get invited to these events and I am always fascinated by the choice of lady sponsor on these occasions. The tradition of breaking a bottle of champagne across the bow of the vessel before bestowing good wishes on her and her crew continues to hold strong as does the necessity of bequeathing the honour to a woman.

More often than not, however, the women is still the wife of “someone important” and seldom the “someone important”. While I do not want to go as far as to say that this is a sad indictment on the role that women may be playing (or not playing) in the maritime industry, it does make one pause a little.

It is also testament to the lack of a little bit of imagination in the industry. While the usual designated “important person” at a shipping company may not be a woman – it is highly unlikely that there are absolutely no relevant and deserving women within that company that could be acknowledged in this way. Because being given the honour of this tradition just because you are “someone important’s” wife just seems a little archaic.

I do understand that by asking the “someone important’s” wife to crack the bottle, one is actually honouring his position and that this may be the politically correct move, but wouldn’t it be great if he actually deferred from dragging his wife out to a ship that she may have no interest in and took the opportunity to honour someone more directly involved?

So by all means ask “someone important” if he would like his wife to bless the next ship you launch, but let’s hope against all odds that he may have someone even more directly relevant to that ship’s journey in mind.



Over the last few weeks the Bring Back Our Girls (#bringbackourgirls) campaign has ignited quite a following across the globe. Initially fueled by many people’s outrage that the media had all but ignored the story, this grew to a lambasting of international super-powers for not stepping in to assist Nigeria find the girls. Mostly the argument followed the rather simplistic course that, if this had happened to 200 white schoolgirls the media would have been all over it and that if it was a situation that jeopardised America’s access to oil then they would have sent in the troops.

This is not the place to debate either of these suppositions and certainly the plight of these girls is one of grave concern. Indeed the message to Bring Back Our Girls has gone viral and everyone is standing up in support of it: from the ANC Women’s league to individuals keen to pen, blog and tweet about it to get in on the action. Even corporates are parading employees in front of cameras and posting photos of them holding up signs with the Bring Back Our Girls message on them – some of them in the maritime industry.

So damn it – where is the #BringBackOurSeafarers campaign? Why is every shipping company, support company, port company, importer, exporter and seafarer not jumping up and down for more media coverage about the plight of 54 seafarers who are still being held hostage in deplorable conditions. According to the recently released document on the State of Maritime Piracy by Oceans Beyond Piracy these seafarers have been held in captivity for almost three years.

“Substantial work must still be done in the interest of saving the lives of the 54 high risk hostages who remain in pirate captivity almost three years after their capture. Moreover, the continued ability of pirates to hijack small vessels such as dhows and fishing vessels is a continued risk. It is important to remember that piracy is not only a threat to the free flow of goods, but also to the well-being of individual seafarers, regardless of their vessel size or nationality. It is evident that the number of hostages in captivity, while trending downward, remains of immediate relevance to counter-piracy work and should be prioritized by the maritime and international communities,” the report says. 

While I am personally doubtful of the true effectiveness of viral campaigns such as the one directed at releasing the Nigerian schoolgirls and feel they simply help us feel better about being powerless in the face of such atrocities; what if they are even slightly successful in seeing their safe return as a global eye is turned to the situation?

What if viral campaigns do prompt the appropriate action? Then the maritime industry needs to be more active in pushing the agenda. Yes we have had successful intervention at sea in the form of naval presence, armed guards and vessel hardening – but 54 seafarers are still no closer to going home. So as you spare a thought for the schoolgirls and their families – spare a thought for those seafarers and their families and consider some action. #BringBackOurSeafarers.




The Safmarine Way

Today I received a press release that compels a comment. Apparently Safmarine was recognised at an awards ceremony yesterday. To quote the title of the press release: “Safmarine wins coveted Containerisation International Investment in People of the Year’ award”. Surely I am not alone in finding this just a little ironic?

This award comes exactly ten days after the announcement that Safmarine’s corporate functions would be “integrated” into Maersk and certainly not outside of the memory of the closing of a certain Safmarine department based in Cape Town.

Now one does understand that the judging was done some time back, but one cannot help but think that the some 240 people likely to be affected by this latest “integration” into Maersk may well find this announcement to be a bit of a slap in the face. Especially as the press release quotes a judge saying; “The entries demonstrated just how important staff are in any organisation and what can be achieved in terms of performance and branding ….”

To his credit, Safmarine’s HR Director Con De Ruig did have the decency to allude to the recent “changes in organisational structure” when he accepted the award. “Safmarine faces its greatest test ever and will, through its people, continue to serve customers in the Safmarine Way,” he said.

While one can certainly understand that the decision to integrate Safmarine into Maersk makes complete business sense and even commend them on maintaining separate operations for so long – it surely must have been a little embarrassing to accept such an award and send out a press release of this nature so soon after announcing the Maersk integration!

Perhaps that’s just the Safmarine Way!


In memory of those at sea

On the 24th June 2010 a string of events culminated in the death of a young South African cadet serving on board the Safmarine Kariba. The discovery that Akhona Geveza had allegedly jumped overboard disturbed the maritime industry deeply and sent the media into a frenzy of headlines that spoke of rampant sexual abuse of cadets at sea. The next day – on the 25th June 2010 – the vessel returned to the place where Akhona had been found to hold a memorial service and lowered a floral wreath into the sea.

For some months media speculation around the actual facts surrounding the death of Akhona continued while the Croatian authorities investigated the incident. Locally Safmarine seemed perplexed that newspaper reporters had managed to uncover an apparent legacy of sexual harassment that extended beyond the current incident; and journalists did not name their sources in these allegations. Further investigations ensued and reports that the South African Maritime Safety Authority planned to conduct their own investigations surfaced this year.

In their July issue of Navigator (an inhouse publication), Safmarine devotes three pages to Akhona Geveza and the events that surrounded her death. They trace her last day onboard the Safmarine Kariba and discuss why they do not feel that the allegations of sexual misconduct existed on their fleet of vessels.

Capt Louise Angel weighs in on the debate saying; “A ship is run like a small community; this is our home for three to six months at a time and there is always someone you can turn to onboard if you have any kind of problem, and everybody generally knows everybody’s business. Our ‘bush telegraph’ onboard is finely tuned for sources of information (aka gossip) and at no time have we heard any allegations of sexual misconduct onboard any Safmarine ships.”

One cannot expect however, that those that travel our seas are always one hundred percent happy or one hundred percent at ease. Just as we experience our ups and downs in our own daily lives on land – seafarers must surely experience theirs. That we can take day off or easily seek comfort from our family or friends is something we take for granted. That we have the option of going home after a tough day in the office and relaxing with a glass of wine (or going to the gym for that matter) is another given.

Seafarers are stuck with their colleagues 24/7 for extended periods of time – a situation that must surely lead to periods of mental discomfort. For the most part they can move forward and look ahead to a time when they come ashore, but (for whatever reasons) Akhona was not able to do so and the whole maritime industry needs to acknowledge that the support systems in place failed this young cadet.

And so it is fitting that Tomas Dyrbye, CEO of Safmarine is quoted as saying; “We deeply regret any possible lapse in our duty of care which may have played a part in this sad incident and we remain deeply remorseful that we, despite our best efforts, could not have prevented Akhona’s death.”

But the industry also has to move forward. We have to continue to attract suitable candidates to engage with a career at sea and we have to continue to honour those that do.

Tomorrow is The International Day of the Seafarer. If you are in the maritime industry – what are you doing to say thank you to these men and women who have committed to the challenges at sea? In South Africa we have teamed up with some of the progressive maritime companies including Smit Amandla Marine, Grindrod and SAMSA to publicly demonstrate our appreciation. We will be participating in Flash Mobs around the country in Cape Town, Pretoria, Durban and Mossel Bay.

What are you doing?

Shipping will show the ripple effect of quake

Japan may be showing the very real physical and traumatic effects of last week’s earthquake, but the shipping industry will demonstrate the ripple effect of globalisation as the economic impact of damaged port infrastructure on the island takes hold.

With some 1020 ports in Japan, it may not seem significant that Reuters is reporting damage to only six major ports, but a closer look at the trade as well as commodities handled by these ports should point to an even larger impact.

Consider too Japan’s current ranking as an economic superpower. Third only to the US and China – Japan’s ability to trade will impact on the global market and consequently the wheels (or more accurately the propellers) that drive that trade.

To put this in perspective, Lloyds List predicts a  $3.4 billion a day loss in seaborne trade each day the ports remain closed in Japan and attributes a total of $1.5 trillion to maritime trade in 2010 for the island.

And so at a time when the global shipping industry debates freight rates in an environment of overcapacity, some economists are predicting an increase in dry bulk rates as Japan attempts to replenish stocks of coal and imports materials required for the rebuild process.

Indeed, there is no doubt that certain companies will already be mobilising for a piece of the very large pie that will most certainly result from the world’s third most economically active nation preparing  to rebuild its port infrastructure to ensure that it remains economically connected to its trading partners.