Captain Joanna Makal is the Master of the Geos Group’s vessel the Thun Grace. She comes from Bialystok in Poland, close to the Belarus border. “I have no maritime history in my family,” she says, “but it was my dream to travel and see places like Brazil and Africa. One time I met a seafarer on a train and he told me about his life, and from that moment I just knew I had to try. I wanted to see adventure, different cultures, a different life.” Captain Makal got her qualifications and spent two years sailing all around the world on bulk carrier ships, before joining MF Shipping Group in 2009.
Captain Makal is responsible for overseeing everything on board the ship. “In the morning I have meetings with the Heads of Departments – the Chief Officer and the Chief Engineer, checking the status of our jobs and a little conversation – then I check the email and what is going on with cargo planning,” she says. “My role is to be the link between everybody and satisfy all parties, including the crew, the Geos Group and the management company. For us, the weather is also important – everything depends on the weather around this part of the UK – so my role is to see it coming and to protect the crew, the ship and the cargo. We have a storm every week in the winter, so many times we have to change course, stay in port or just drop our anchor somewhere and wait until it passes.”
One of the Captain’s responsibilities is to plan and manage the working hours and rest time of the 10 crew members on board. “I am very lucky with the crew – we are one big team, so it is important that everybody feels comfortable and confident to speak up,” she says. “We have Polish, Dutch, Russian, Romanian, Ukrainian and Philippino crew members on board at the moment, so it is very mixed. Everybody has their own cabin and we eat in the mess rooms, where we have a TV, games consoles and a bit of exercise equipment. Our crew loves to sing, so we have karaoke equipment too – our Cook has a beautiful voice.”
But the pandemic has been tough on seafarers everywhere, as borders were closed, flights were cancelled and crew members were stuck on board for months on end. “It is getting better this year, but last year it was a disaster,” says Captain Makal. “We could not go home, we could not go ashore, we were worrying about our health and our families. I was stuck on board for four months when it was meant to be two, but some of my colleagues from outside Europe were stuck for nine months or even longer because they could not get home.”
It is unusual to be a female Captain in what is a traditionally male-dominated industry. “You have to be very tolerant because in this environment there are plenty of rude jokes, so you have to be open-minded and not take things too seriously,” says Captain Makal. “On the other hand, you need to stand up right from the beginning and show that you’re worth it – you’re not here by mistake. When I was an Officer, every time I went to the ship and had a different Captain and a different crew, it was like starting a new job every time as I had to prove myself again and again – as a woman you are observed and judged twice as carefully. But I’ve been in the company for 12 years and now I’m a Captain and everybody knows me, so it’s got easier.” Things are gradually changing, as more women start working in the shipping industry, and next week a new female Chief Officer will be coming on board the Thun Grace.
Captain Makal still lives in Bialystok, where she grew up. “There are plenty of advantages and disadvantages to the lifestyle – we are far away from our families, but then we have half a year off and we can forget about the job and focus on our families and our hobbies. I do cookery courses and I like adrenalin sports like parachute jumping and motorcycling. And I can say that I am the best seafarer in my home town, because I am the only one.”
Read about Captain Pieter Dekker and life on board the Thun Blyth