While this space is usually reserved for senior executives from a variety of sectors within the shipping industry, we realized that we were missing an important perspective — that of the future generation of leaders. Meet Rhianna Henderson, a 23-year-old cadet in her third year of a four-year Nautical Sciences Program at the BCIT Marine Campus. Given BCIT’s strong reputation for producing high-calibre officers for the cruise industry — indeed, you’ll remember our interview two years ago with BCIT grad Wendy Williams, Staff Captain of Royal Caribbean Cruise Line’s Anthem of the Seas — we are pleased to correct this oversight and provide a unique view of the challenges, opportunities and experiences of someone at the beginning of their career. And from all I gather of Henderson, she’s in for quite a career.
BCSN: Tell me about the Nautical Sciences Program and the courses you’ve taken to date to prepare for work at sea.
RH: I’m in my third year of a four-year co-op program. We go to school for six months of the year, then go to sea for the remainder of the year to gain sea time for our Watchkeeping Unlimited Certificate. The way the program is set up is that every year we complete on average 16 courses, which are levels of each course. Each year, we take the next level of the course in order to continually advance and maintain our academic skills.
All of the courses are directly relevant to what we will learn and do on board the ships. I have taken Ship Stability, Ship Cargo, Ship Construction, Chartwork, Terrestrial Navigation, Celestial Navi-gation, Physics, Math, Engineering Knowledge, SEN 1 and 2, Meteorology, Regulations Navigation Safety, Oil Tanker Familiarization, Ship Security Officer, Seamanship and all safety training, including Basic Safety, Marine Advanced First Aid, Survival Craft and Fire Fighting.
BCSN: Which ships have you sailed with so far?
RH: In my first year as a cadet, I was employed by BC Ferries, sailing on board the Northern Expedition and the Northern Adventure, serving the Northern Routes of British Columbia. The Northern Expedition is a RoRo-passenger vessel measuring 150 metres in length, and the Northern Adventure is a passenger vessel measuring 117 metres long. We sailed between Port Hardy and Prince Rupert, and Prince Rupert and Haida Gwaii. I was on board for five and a half months.
My second sea phase this past year was with Royal Caribbean on board the Oasis of the Seas. She is 362 metres in length and weighs 225,000 tons — one of the largest cruise ships in the world, carrying 8,800 people (crew and passengers combined). I spent seven months sailing both the Eastern and Western Caribbean routes.
BCSN: What was your role on the ship and what kind of tasks and duties were expected of you?
RH: As a cadet, it’s my job to learn and participate in as much as possible in the time on board. On the cruise ship, I spent my first two months working on deck with the deckhands, under the command of the Chief Officer. We were responsible for the maintenance of the ship, including chipping and painting, replacing flooring, entering tanks for cleaning, painting and inspection purposes and small maintenance projects that were assigned.
There were some very hard, long, and hot days in the Caribbean sun but every cadet needs to learn about the tasks of crew members who will one day be under our charge to appreciate their job and gain their respect.
After a couple months, I was assigned to the bridge, mostly working with the 1st Officer Navigation where I was trained on the bridge equipment, helped with paperwork and passage planning, and all of the duties involved in being a Bridge Officer on a cruise ship.
I worked with the 1st Officer Lifesaving, learning about the lifesaving equipment on board and the maintenance that is required to ensure the survival crafts are to standard. I worked with the Fire Fighting Officers as well, checking fire-fighting equipment on a monthly basis; and I was also tasked with being on the bridge for every arrival and departure throughout my time on board, including attendance at the arrival and departure briefings and sometimes even preparing the brief and presenting it to the other bridge officers and Captain. After the briefing, I would either fill out the logbook as we departed, or would go down to the bow or stern mooring decks, shadowing the officer and doing the communication for the Bridge in sending mooring lines and securing or letting go the lines and proceeding to sea .
In addition to these tasks, I spent two weeks in the engine room, working with the engineers to become familiar with the machinery. While there, I got the unique opportunity to help pull apart one of the diesel engines that was to have its crank shaft replaced later in the year. Learning the machinery and how the engineers work is crucial for a well-rounded understanding of what it takes to run the ship and how the action of Bridge Officers can affect the machinery throughout the voyage.
Every crew member on board was assigned a duty for emergency drills. I was assigned to the Rapid Response Team, which was a small team of eight crew members who are the first to respond to a fire or other emergency. We are the ones who try to fight the fire initially while also setting all the fire hoses and preparing the forward control point for the fire teams. Once the fire teams are on scene, we make sure all of their fire equipment is properly in place and they are ready to fight the fire safely. I think I learned the most in this position — I had an up-close view of the Chief Officer Safety’s actions to prepare and then fight a fire as well as what it takes to run a successful drill. I participated in every drill the ship carried out, including fire, damage control, man overboard, security threat and navigational emergencies.
BCSN: I’d like to hear about your personal experiences — what were some of the challenges or most rewarding tasks?
RH: As a whole, working on a cruise ship was the best experience I could have had while in training. It exposed me to the type of career I want to pursue and I was able to travel to new places on one of the most beautiful ships in the world. I met some really talented officers, people who became my mentors and friends throughout the seven months as well as an amazing group of friends who worked in different departments. I now have lifelong friends around the world which was not something I expected to gain.
I was able to refine my navigation skills and learn about the way passenger ships are run in a safe and supportive environment. Being a cadet allows for the opportunity to learn and participate in as much as possible — it’s almost as if I needed to clone myself to be able to see everything happening around the ship on a daily basis!
The greatest challenge of being on board a ship for that length of time is maintaining sanity and enthusiasm. Working seven days a week, 10 hours a day for seven months can take its toll. And being a woman in a male-dominated industry presents some challenges, as it would in any industry. It sometimes felt like I wasn’t being taken seriously in my position. I was the first female cadet the ship had ever had so it was a learning curve for everyone and they really tried to be as supportive as they could. As a cadet, you are constantly trying to prove yourself — it’s almost like one long, continuous job interview for a future position with the company. Not putting too much pressure on myself, and enjoying the experience was a constant battle, but one I survived.
I would have to say the most rewarding task for me was being singled out by the Coast Guard during a Port State Inspection as a member of the Rapid Response Team that did exceptionally well. I caught a few mistakes that could have affected the outcome of the fire drill. As a cadet, you work so hard, keeping your head down and expecting no recognition and then to have that hard work acknowledged was unexpected and almost overwhelming.
Another rewarding task was being part of the team that prepared the vessel for a helicopter evacuation in a medical emergency involving a child. To see the helicopter approach the ship and watch the child and his family be lifted up and taken to the hospital was something I will never forget.
BCSN: Was the experience what you thought it would be before you started?
RH: The luxury and brilliance of the cruise ship is something I don’t think anyone can prepare for when you first join a ship. It’s as if you’ve walked into a different world. Work wise, I expected it to be as tough as it was but didn’t expect to find it as rewarding as I did. I was also surprised at the amount of people and how friendly every crew member was to each other. For a ship with 6,500 passengers and 2,300 crew, there were lots of opportunities to meet new people and have a life outside of work. I think that is something that makes working on cruise ships so fantastic.
BCSN: Which courses helped you the most in preparing for work on the ship?
RH: The program at BCIT focuses more on the shipping industry as a whole — cargo vessels, tankers and container ships — so some courses aren’t as relevant for a cruise ship, but every course has something that is applicable to any type of ship, especially the stability and navigation equipment courses. All of the emergency duty training we go through is definitely useful as are the leadership courses.
BCSN: Do you have any advice for other students?
RH: I think the most important thing every cadet needs is an open mind. And don’t be afraid of making mistakes. After all, being a cadet is the time to make these mistakes when there are multiple officers watching over you and teaching you the right way to do something.
You need to be able to put aside your pride, accept the criticism as constructive and not personal. Use every moment of being a cadet to learn every inch of the ship and everything it takes to be an officer because once you’re certified you won’t have that chance.
Joining the cadet program was the best thing I could have done. There are highs and lows and times that you wonder why you signed up to be away from your family but the pros of the career will always outweigh the cons. I love my job and I don’t think many 23-year-olds can say that these days.
BCSN: What are your future goals?
RH: I have completed all of the sea time required and can now sit my Watchkeeping Oral Exam in the summer. Once I finish my third-year academic portion at the beginning of July, I will sit my oral exam and become a certified Watchkeeeping Officer. I plan on returning to Royal Caribbean as an officer in the near future and working through the ranks. I will be returning to school in spring 2018 for my final term of school, which will give me the schooling I need to sit my Chief Officers Exam after gaining another year of sea time. Long term, I hope to return to BC Ferries in order to continue to work on ships while also having a family I can see more often.