BElinda Joslin has owned, raced, maintained and repaired boats all her life. So when she was looking for work after her children had started school, she turned to her local shipyard in Ipswich. They offer him a job as a finisher and his life is quickly taken over by sandblasting, painting and varnishing. “I arrived at the school gate absolutely dirty,” said Joslin, 48.
Eager to find other women who share her passion, in May 2021 she created an Instagram account entitled Women in Boatbuilding. “I thought I couldn’t be the only woman in the world obsessed with fixing boats,” she says. “I wanted to connect with other women and hear their stories. I discovered incredible and inspiring women.
Initially, the goal was to celebrate each other’s accomplishments, but as the women opened up about their experiences, they began to share some of their struggles and the battles they were fighting. Shipbuilding is still largely reserved for men. Many women were victims of sexism and had to work harder than men to prove their skills.
“As an industry, we are far from gender parity,” says Joslin. “Much more could be done.” Joslin wants the account to be a force to lobby for equality and diversity in shipbuilding, as well as a place to showcase and support women in the industry.
“You produce your share of a beautiful sculpture”
The noise and din of the shipyard reminds Sacha Walker of the rhythms of editing a festival or a concert. Walker, 53, a former tour manager and music agent, now works as a finisher, sanding and varnishing boats built at Spirit Yachts in Ipswich.
“We work as a team, with a common goal. All this noise, all this energy goes through me. I feed on it,” she says.
After leaving London five years ago, Walker moved near Ipswich and started a photography degree. In 2017, she visited Spirit to take photos of people at work and immediately felt at home: “I loved the atmosphere and the boats.
When Spirit general manager Karen Underwood offered Walker a chance to train as a finisher, she took it. “I love it. I don’t have a desk or an email,” says Walker. “I’m always on the move, always in touch with the wood. a whale. It’s very physical.
“It’s really pure, artistic and creative,” she says. “You produce your share of a beautiful sculpture.”
Nearly a third of Spirit’s workforce is female, but not all shipyards are equally inclusive or supportive, Walker says. Elsewhere, “women are not treated well and forced to prove themselves”.
Even where there is gender parity, she says, it can still be more difficult for women – tools and work clothes are often designed for men: “We need modifications, but that doesn’t not make them useless or weak.
“People talk to you like you’re a pioneer”
Friends and family describe Belinda Cree’s work as “painter and defiler”. Either she meticulously prepares the surfaces and finishes of a boat, or, armed with a grinder, she cuts out pieces of hull.
“Boat maintenance is my specialty,” she says. “Right now, I’m derusting, dealing with the rough spots of the steel ramparts.”
Cree, 28, is an independent boat builder, who works refitting and servicing boats on land and sea. She is currently working on the refit of a 1962 30-meter luxury motor yacht as a as a contractor for the owner of the boat in Southampton.
She didn’t always see herself going to sea. Growing up in Northern Ireland, a back injury as a teenager thwarted her planned career in the military. It took years to learn to live with his chronic pain and to feel capable of embarking on a physically demanding career.
She took a traditional sailor course three years ago with National Historic Ships, which included a boat building course. “To live a good quality of life, I have to put a lot of effort into my health,” she says, “but it’s so much more rewarding when that effort pays off in a job I love.
As a woman in the maritime industry, she always feels a lot of pressure to prove herself. “I would love to see the perception of who can work in this industry change,” she says. “People talk to you like you’re a pioneer. There’s not much space to not be the best in the yard: ‘Are you going to allow me to be new, or to learn, or are you going to think that I’m no good because I am a woman?’
She thinks social media groups can help. “Seeing other women doing their own thing, especially women who are further ahead of me, with more experience, is encouraging. It gives you something to aim for.
“Physical strength is not a factor, it’s a matter of problem solving”
There’s something fundamental about getting close to water, says Obioma Oji, who just graduated as a boatbuilder.
Oji, 43, and three of his fellow Lyme Regis Boatbuilding Academy graduates launched a startup making high-end, affordable traditionally built wooden boats that have become sought after for their quality, craftsmanship and durability , she says.
Oji was working as an interior designer at Ikea when the pandemic prompted her to take a break from her career and start a boat building course. She saw it as an opportunity to learn practical skills and fuel her creativity – earlier in her career she had worked in ceramic design and interior architecture.
She started the course thinking she would be interested in rigging or sailmaking, “but it was woodworking that I liked the most,” she says. “Every piece of wood is different and you can’t force it, you have to coax it, read it. Physical strength isn’t a factor – it’s about problem solving.
Women were in the minority on the course, as they are in the shipbuilding industry. “We are strangers,” says Oji.
“The shape of a boat tells you about its past, its profession, its shore”
Gail McGarva often has no plans to follow when creating her traditional workboats in her Lyme Regis workshop. Finding a ship threatened with extinction, she tenderly builds a replica that she calls a “daughter” boat, following the lines of the mother ship, built by eye.
“I’ve always been drawn to work boats,” she says. “They have a strong sense of function. They are tough and beautiful, and every boat has a story. You look at the shape of the boat and it tells you about its past, its profession, its shore.
Having lived on boats for years, McGarva, 57, decided to devote herself to it after careers in theater and as a sign language interpreter. She trained in shipbuilding 18 years ago and is passionate about preserving cultural heritage.
His work includes building the 32ft (9.75m) Cornish Pilot Gigs, which were revived in the 1980s by craftsman boat builder Ralph Bird. Their running is now a popular sport.
“A lot of times as a traditional boat builder we focus on restoration, but I was lucky that there was an explosion of interest in gigs, and clubs were ordering new boats,” says -she. “It was such an honor to have Ralph Bird as a mentor – having someone who says you can do it is key.”
Having won numerous awards, including the British Empire Medal for services to clinker boat building and heritage craftsmanship, McGarva also runs workshops around the country, sharing stories about the role these boats play into our heritage.
“It’s still a preserve of men,” she says, “but I always believed that anything was possible. We need more role models for women.