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Pacific women make historical voyage

Eight women set sail from Suva in Fiji this week, marking a historical day for girls and women all over the world.

They are an all-female deck crew on a tuna longline fishing vessel.

The day started with rain but it soon cleared as a rainbow appeared to touch the sea, perhaps symbolising good luck for the crew led by a brave chief officer, Joana Vakaucautadra.

The name of the ship is Seaka II and the female crew have dubbed themselves the Seaka Pirates, a jolly name for the history making crew.

For most of these women, getting there was the hardest part.

For Ms Vakaucautadra, she knew she was bound to work on seas at the age of seven, when she was a passenger on board a ferry to her mother’s village.

Allowed to move around the ship, she knew then what she was destined for.

The history making all female deck crew with Fijian Fisheries PS Pene Baleinabuli and FFA director general Dr Manu Tupou-Roosen. Picture: Shalveen Chand

“For nine years, the doors kept closing. I was qualified, had done my school but never given a chance,” she said.

“I was stuck in an office for so many years. My body was there but my heart was out at sea.”

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Ms Vakaucautadra will be the chief officer on board the Seaka II. Other crew members are fresh graduates from the Fiji Maritime Academy.

They were part of the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) initiative designed to give equal opportunities to women in fisheries.

They share similar stories of how their parents were not keen on the idea of them becoming sailors, but all that changed over the years.

Eight women set sail from Suva in Fiji this week, marking a historical day for girls and women all over the world. Picture: Shalveen Chand

The eight women on board the ship have Master Class qualifications which mean with enough sailing hours under their wings, any one of them could captain a ship.

FFA Director General, Dr Manu Tupou-Roosen said the women on this crew are pioneers, charting a new direction for the Pacific and the world by challenging the status quo.

“The research tells us that most women’s jobs in Pacific fisheries are in processing (small scale and commercial) and marketing for the domestic market. Women working on fishing vessels are exceedingly rare,” said Dr Tupou-Roosen.

“There are a multitude of reasons why we don’t see women on fishing vessels from socio-cultural beliefs, family obligations, lack of skills and experience to attitudes to what roles women can play.

Eight women set sail from Suva in Fiji this week, marking a historical day for girls and women all over the world. Picture Shalveen Chand

“The uphill battle these women have faced to be on this vessel today is a testament to their strength, determination and commitment to their training. They are an inspiration for us and for generations to come.”

SeaQuest, a Fijian fishing company was part of the initiative that allowed these women to get a chance to sail.

Chief Executive Officer Brett Haywood said he was proud of his crew and how far they had come.

“What started out as an ambitious hope to train and put forward an all-female deck crew for this very first voyage, has morphed into also having two senior officers, a first officer and an engineer onboard – which is an amazing achievement,” said Mr Haywood.

“We are at this point in our journey thanks to the collaboration with FFA and the Fiji Maritime Academy (FMA) who supported the women in completing the formal training to attain the skills and knowledge to become a competent longline vessel crew.

“This is the first crew we are putting out to fish for our company post-covid so it is particularly symbolic for us that it is also our very first all female deck crew. We know they will make us proud.”

The fishing vessel will have two experienced, male, deck crew trainers present to provide direction on safe procedures and handling of fish, and help run safety drills. The women will be out to sea for a two week fishing trip.

This female crewing initiative is the first phase of a project that is planned to be progressively rolled out in other Pacific countries by the FFA with local partners.

The Seaka II will return in nine days but after that the ship and its crew will make two trips per month for six months.

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