Image: Aysun Akbay, parents
Aysun Akbay, a third officer of the Turkish cargo vessel MV Horizon-1, is seen with her parents. She is among 100 mariners held captive by Somali pirates.
updated 9/16/2009 2:53:32 PM ET 2009-09-16T18:53:32

Somali pirates who seize ships for ransom currently hold more than 100 captive mariners, including a rarity in the male-dominated shipping industry — a woman officer.

Women like Aysun Akbay, a 24-year-old Turk, are slowly making inroads into the upper levels of seafaring, a profession more resistant than most to female command. Women have long worked on passenger ships, but they are increasingly enduring the risks and hardships of life on merchant vessels, a key engine of global commerce.

Akbay, a third officer, was on the MV Horizon-1 cargo vessel when it was hijacked July 9 in the Gulf of Aden, near Somalia, and has said by satellite telephone from captivity that the two-dozen crew members had not been harmed.

"The pirates told Aysun that she could call her family when she wants because she is a woman, but Aysun calls us only when others get the chance to call their families, too. She tells us not to worry," said her sister, Aysen.

Most of the world's shipping routes are relatively safe, but Somali piracy — among the security woes of a lawless land where al-Qaida-linked militants are waging a violent insurgency — has surged more than 50 percent this year despite an international effort to stem the scourge.

Pirates usually release ships after a ransom payment, with negotiations often taking months. The crime will be a major topic at an annual forum on Sept. 16-18 in London of a group led by female managers in the maritime industry.

More women on board
Founded in 1974, the Women's International Shipping & Trading Association, or WISTA, reported a membership increase of 40 percent in the past two years, with 20 country branches and more than 1,000 individual members.

The Geneva-based International Labor Office said in a 2003 book that 1 percent to 2 percent of the world's 1.25 million seafarers were women, many of them caterers on ferries and cruise liners. The labor group believes those figures have not changed significantly. There are no global figures for women ship commanders or officers; people familiar with the industry say the number is increasing, mostly in the West, though they remain a tiny fraction of the total.

"In the old times, men thought that this job cannot be done by a woman. Before, they believed a woman on board brings bad luck," said Bianca Froemming, a German ship commander who has traveled to Asia, Africa and the Americas. "It is harder for a woman. You have to show more on board, you always have to work harder than a man to become higher in rank."

Froemming, who is taking two years off to care for her baby son, said she plans to go back to sea with her employer, shipping firm Reederei Rudolf Schepers. Her career has other dimensions: during long voyages, she worked on "Genius of Horror," a German-language novel about a maritime student with murder on her mind that has sold several thousand copies.

There are at least five German female masters, or commanders, on German-flagged merchant vessels, out of a total of 1,400 masters. The South African navy has its first female commander of a patrol vessel. In 2007, Royal Caribbean International named the first female captain in its cruise ship fleet, a Swede with a background in cargo shipping.

Male-dominated profession
Western laws and shipping policies aim to protect women from discrimination or harassment, but such codes are sparse or erratically enforced in many countries.

The Philippines has a "few" female deck officers and no women masters, and Asian women face more difficulty because of cultural biases that favor Western job candidates, said Carla Limcaoco, executive managing director of Philippine Transmarine Carriers, Inc., which provides crew to shipping around the world.

"While the Philippines is probably the most progressive country in Southeast Asia with regard to having women occupy senior positions in land-based organizations, we do not have the same success in seafaring," Limcaoco wrote in an e-mail message.

On land, women can better balance families and careers. At sea, the prospect of months away from home, deep skepticism among male mariners and an unawareness of career opportunities have preserved a man's world. Merchant vessels often have small crews of 20 and cramped quarters.

Momoko Kitada, who is studying women mariners at the Seafarers International Research Center at Cardiff University in Britain, recalled a conversation with a male supervisor in Kobe, Japan, where she trained as a deck cadet.

"This captain told me that 'women's happiness is to get married and have children, so try not to continue this career,"' Kitada said.

U.S. maritime academies barred women from entry until 1974. Today, 12 percent to 15 percent of the 1,000 cadets at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at King's Point in  New York are women.

Rising in the ranks
Capt. Sherri Hickman worked as an officer on ships with U.S. government cargoes that traveled through piracy-prone areas in Southeast Asia. Now a Houston ship channel pilot, Hickman said she once spoke at a career day at her Pennsylvania high school, and her session was labeled "Men Only" on the program.

"Even today, women don't even realize the field is there," Hickman said. "They normally feel like: 'I didn't know they let women do that.'"

Many women mariners quit and have a family before they have a chance to become masters. In the old days, captains traditionally brought wives and even children on voyages.

Capt. Louise Angel, a 30-year-old married South African, is the first female captain in Safmarine, a Belgium-based containership company with strong South African links. The company is working on a maternity plan for mariners who want to have a family and return to sea, or seek onshore employment in the shipping industry.

As master, Angel has guided her vessel through an area where pirates operate, traveling at a top speed of 18 knots, or 20.7 mph, and posting lookouts to spot any threats. In foreign ports, she gets a positive, often surprised reaction from shipping pilots and agents.

"A couple of times, I have been asked to pose for pictures with them to show their colleagues," Angel wrote in an e-mail message from sea. "On two occasions, agents have actually asked me if I really was the Captain."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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