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HOW IT ALL STARTED: Belinda O’Connor, Smit Lamnalco

My name is Belinda O’Connor. I am based in the most beautiful part of Australia in

Townsville, North Queensland with the Great Barrier Reef on my doorstep. I have been in the maritime industry for 34 years since I was 18 years old. I was very fortunate to start my marine career working on the Great Barrier Reef on a tourist’s vessel. These were the best days of my life as I squeezed in a dive or snorkel almost every day at work. From there I did a short period of time working on a couple of tall ships and other vessels before I joined the little known Floating Hotel that was based on the reef, where I had my first skippers job contracted to run a water taxi, I also did small fishing trips for hotel guests. After that, I worked for a barge company for a couple of years then joined the local ferry company and kept upgrading my tickets.

I was a master there for about 7 years then left to join a new company starting up in the area where I was employed as Senior Master. That company thrived and I was soon Operations Manager for about 80 crew and staff and 5 commercial vessels running to the local islands and undertaking reef trips. Following that, I left and became Marine Manager at the Port of Townsville, a role which I really enjoyed, but I kept looking out the window at the tugs and knew that’s where I wanted to be, back on the water and doing something exciting and challenging.

My first impressions when I took the helm on the ASD tugs for the first time was, ‘wow this is going to be more challenging than I thought’ but undertaking the SeaWays training gave me the skills I needed to achieve my dream of being a tug master. I have now been a Tug Master for Smit Lamnalco in Townsville, operating Damen 28/10 tugs for 5 years.

I live out of town on a semi-rural property so I need to be very organized for work. I also have a 10-year-old son so I am always planning in advance around ever-changing shipping. In this regard, I am very fortunate to be supported by a good family and a very flexible and reliable carer. There are a few different shift patterns in our roster so I’m usually well organized days before I commence work. The main challenges for me in this job are managing fatigue and ensuring I get enough rest. This is a challenge for all shift workers as it’s not always easy to get a good day’s sleep. I’ve improved on this aspect over the past few years by getting a couple of hours after the night shift, then not fighting to try and sleep more, but getting up and doing something until I’m ready to rest again for a few more hours. It is also easier now my son is older and understands that I have been awake all night. I always make time around his weekends and school holidays to do something special, even if only small, on the days I am working.

Despite the challenges of shift work, I love the downtime around the roster. I love to take off camping often and travel overseas a couple of times a year. The best thing about working in towage is that no day is ever the same, every job is different. I look at every job before I start to ensure I am up to speed with the type of ship, pilot and all other factors associated with the movement. I also love being part of a bigger port community of people that are required to keep ships moving, working with pilots, port services and all the other cogs in the wheel that ensure a safe and efficient job.

I have 34 years of memories from working up and down the Queensland coast,

working with passengers and tourists, on workboats and in the corporate world. I have so many stories to tell. I always wished I had kept a diary as we forget the finer details of our past. I have always found that in this job, despite the serious side, safety etc. you need to have a good sense of humour, especially working with the public, and at 2 am in the morning when you’re tired and done for the day but still pushing ships around. The memories that will always be with me are the wonderful people I have met over the years who have helped, guided and welcomed me. I have also been involved in many memorable maritime events in and around my hometown. Some were very sad and distressing, others were historical moments. These really stay in my mind. My lifelong friendships and how I met these wonderful people trigger many great memories.

I have hardly ever struck negativity in the marine industry in the past 10-15 or so years, but just a little bit in my younger days I had to deal with a few things. I’ve been asked by a maritime test examiner “why are you bothering with this” just before my oral exam. Also told by a potential employer whom I applied for a job with ‘this is no place for a woman’ (a previous tug operator many years ago). A few of these comments actually had the opposite effect in that it made me more determined to succeed. I think times have changed a lot now for everyone. Recently, I have replied to people that ask me this question that I have always felt welcome in new work roles and have for the most part found crews etc. to be very helpful. It doesn’t matter what gender you are, in any new job you need to be open and honest and ask questions, not try to second guess something you’re not sure about. I like to draw on the knowledge and experience of others and remain open to suggestions for a better way to do things. If you are true to yourself and don’t try to stand out in any aspect, just do your job, there is no reason these days why anyone would treat you differently. I am happy things have changed a lot and companies have good policies and practices in place.
I would like to see more information aimed at the school leaving generation about maritime careers both ashore and on the water. It’s something that young people don’t even think about.

I have taken a few young aspiring adults into the tugs and it’s a world they have never

even thought about or know exists. Whether you’re male or female the shift work and raising children is always going to be a challenge, as in any shift work job. Going to sea is even more challenging. There is always a way if you are well organised. It’s no different to working away in the mining industry or the airlines in terms of managing your outside life. Perhaps it would be worth getting some good role models at school career days, talking to students in conjunction with local maritime authorities about what’s needed to gain time and tickets.

Work hard, never give up and if you find yourself out of work don’t just approach a company once for a job, keep at them. Be open and ask as many questions as you like. No one knows everything and the only way you are going to get ahead is to be open to the help others are willing to give you. No one gets the top job straight up, so head down, listen well, work hard and be rewarded.

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