It was 14 years ago when Joanna Kwok Wing-yan set her foot on the deck of a 200-metre-long cargo ship at an Icelandic pier for the first time. The ship measured as long as two standard soccer fields and imparted an unfathomable grandeur that was awe-inspiring and unforgettable at the same time. She had her initial encounter with the oceangoing vessel not in her capacity as a tourist, but as a debutant in the engine department of the ship. Unfortunately, as soon as she stepped on the ship, she felt sick. “Most people say you don’t get seasick on a ship that big, but I felt dizzy and unwell once I got on it.” Joanna joked that she used to feel sick even on the ferry ride from Hong Kong to Macau. Never had she expected to have a seafaring career that lasted for more than 10 years. As a marine engineer in charge of mechanical engineering work, Joanna has also climbed the hierarchal ladder successfully. In 2019, she became the first woman in Hong Kong to pass the licensing exam for Chief Engineer Officer on oceangoing vessels. Life is full of surprises, but young people who dare to try and endure hardship can open up a world of possibilities that belongs exclusively to themselves.
Following her interests; launching a seafaring career
After HKCE exam, Joanna decided to apply to IVE and had to pick a programme. She chose mechanical engineering because she was never the type who can sit still in an office and she has been repairing her own toys with a screwdriver since an early age. Though Joanna was accepted into the programme, she was anxious at first as she doubted if her math grades could keep up with others’. It turned out her worries were unnecessary – she coped gradually and splendidly. In fact, her confidence got a major boost as she found a subject that really interested her. “It was fluid mechanics and my teacher was a foreign doctorate lady. The subject covers theories related to topics like air flow and buoyancy. It was practical and closely related to marine engineering. I got good grades and it boosted my confidence.”
Later on, in a career talk hosted by IVE, Joanna got to meet veteran workers in the marine engineering industry and had access to first-hand information about the sector. That experience has sowed in her the seeds of an illustrious career in marine engineering.
Daring to try; taking on challenges
Upon graduation, Joanna took some time to explore her career options. She came across a recruitment ad posted by a shipping company hiring vessel crew trainees. She and her classmates applied for the job and she was hired. She even chose to be a crew member on an oceangoing ship, thinking to herself, “Short trips between Hong Kong and Macau are too boring. I want to see the world.”
On her first official trip as a seafarer, Joanna had to fly to Iceland to board the ship. It was a 200-meter-long cargo ship and it was her first time setting foot on a watercraft that big. Just like that, she embarked on a sea journey that lasted for six months. “Our ship travelled from Iceland to Russia, before crossing the Atlantic Ocean to reach Brazil on the other side in the southern hemisphere. The last leg covers the U.S. and Canada, before heading back to Europe.”
Women fare as well as men
On the ship, it was up to the Chief Engineer to assign tasks to every worker. Being the only woman crew member on board from Hong Kong, Joanna received no favouritism whatsoever. Every morning from 6 to 7 am, she had to conduct routine inspections in the engine room. After breakfast, she did whatever was assigned to her. “There are many tasks that need to be done, such as maintenance and monitoring of various machines, cleaning mechanical parts and even adding a fresh coat of paint to the engine room.” After her shift was over at 6 pm, she would have dinner. Then she needed to conduct the night-time routine inspection at 9 pm. That was the end of her day’s work and she could go to bed.
Joanna had her own suite on the ship, but it happened to be right above the engine room. The ceaseless droning sound of the engine made it hard for someone prone to seasick like her to feel at home. Had she been working on an older ship, the crew members would have to take turns for night shifts. Those assigned to night shifts should expect the alarm in their rooms to go off any time when they are required to report to the engine room right away. Luckily, modern ships have automatic systems that run at night, and crew members are entitled to reasonably enough shut-eye at night.
Generally speaking, crew members have one day-off each week, and Joanna chose to enjoy her hard-earned me-time by watching movies that she had downloaded in advance or catching up on sleep. For oceangoing vessels, each journey can easily last for more than six months and it involves some hardships that most people find difficult to endure, such as the seasickness that one can never get acclimated to, eating the same curry made by Indian chefs day after day, or the physically demanding work in an engine room at 40°C. Nowadays, however, Joanna can recount these episodes with a smile on her face. To her, the most miserable and intolerable of it all was the loneliness.
In the earlier days, crew members can only communicate with the outside world by sending and receiving emails once a day. “Between each chance to send and receive emails, there is a 24-hour gap. If I come across anything happy or unhappy that I want to share with my family or friends after work, I can only get their response the next day. The incident might have been over by the time I see their replies. Unlike a WhatsApp message or a direct phone call on land, we can’t have instant communication with anyone when we are on board. Thus, managing emotions is very important to all seafarers.” Joanna added that most vessels are equipped with Internet nowadays. Streaming may not be supported, but constant communication with family and friends can be maintained smoothly.
Climbing hierarchal ladder on professional career path
Whenever a crew member sets out on a voyage, they have to sign a contract with the shipping company, and the contract period depends on the duration of the trip. Recalling how she boldly signed her first contract and embarked on her first journey, Joanna joked that she was just “young and ignorant” at that time. “My first seafaring contract lasted for six months. I thought to myself, there was no harm trying. Even if it’s not the right fit for me, it wouldn’t hurt to do it for six months, just like going on a long trip.”
Since then, Joanna has embarked on one voyage after another in the following 10 years – from the shortest one that lasted for four and a half months, to the longest one spanning nine months. One of the perks that attract Joanna is sure the chance to travel to different parts of the world. Yet, the satisfaction she derives from seeing solid results of her work is also a sound reason for her to stay on the job. She took pleasure in making sure that a ship operates smoothly and seeing it arriving at each port safely. Besides, she is also fascinated by the career prospects and the potential therein. After accumulating six months of sailing experience, a worker may start taking examinations for professional license of the engineering crew, from the lowest rank of an engineering watchkeeping officer, second engineer, and finally chief engineer. In 2019, Joanna made history being the first woman in Hong Kong to acquire the licence of a chief engineer on seagoing vessels.
Sailing experiences foster perseverance
Speaking of her personal growth, Joanna said all the ups and downs that she had seen in her seafaring career actually made her tougher. From a trainee to a senior marine engineer officer, she was assigned tasks passively at first until she had the authority to assign tasks to others. Her job nature also evolves from executing the orders given to her to managing the overall operation and making crucial decisions. “I learnt to increase my influence as a leader, guiding my team to accomplish each task, going through the thick and thin together as a team, and performing my role with the power vested in me.”
When asked about her most memorable or frightening experience, Joanna thought silently for a while before answering that she had never experienced anything dangerous or horrifying. “Most crises or accidents on the sea are caused by human errors. And our job is exactly to avoid those errors and keep the engine running properly under any circumstances. It may sound anticlimactic, but life is not a disaster movie. We are there to eliminate any error at the outset before it has the faintest chance to develop into a glitch, instead of saving the day after the fact.”
Amid the epidemic, Joanna was transferred ashore and has been working as a Vessel Manager in Anglo-Eastern Ship Management Ltd., in charge of fleet management and voyage scheduling. In terms of industry outlook, Joanna opined that the shipping industry will pick up as the world gradually returns to normal and will have high demand for manpower. Professional workers with qualifications, such as those with ship inspection qualifications, will be eagerly sought after. Young people interested in joining the industry may take the examination for relevant licence after accumulating the required seafaring experiences. They may then launch their professional career in the shipping industry.