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Interview with Tabitha Van de Weyer, former student of the Antwerp Maritime Academy about her dream of a career at sea and with Bert Strobbe from the Social Security for Seafarers.

Women are still underrepresented in the maritime sector. According to the International Labour Organisation, they only account for 2% of the workforce worldwide. In Belgium, we do a little better. “Recent figures (2022) show that 3.5% of employed seafarers covered by Belgian Social Security are women,” says Bert.

To celebrate the International Day for Women in Maritime, we met Tabitha Van de Weyer, former student of the Antwerp Maritime Academy(New window) (AMA, formerly 'Higher Navigation School') Tabitha aspires to a successful career in the shipping industry. “If you dream of a career as a seafarer, you should definitely give it a try. Don't be discouraged by the dominating presence of men.”

Seafarer training

After finishing secondary school, Tabitha decided to go to maritime school. “The decision was not immediately clear, but today I’m sure that I made the right choice for me.” Tabitha has moved out of her comfort zone. “I had no experience with ships and no family member had worked in the navy, but that didn't stop me from doing this training.”

Tabitha has since completed the four-year course. “During the course, you learn about the different aspects of seafaring and scientific subjects like mathematics, physics, nautical science, chart reading and regulations. There are also other subjects such as maritime law, medicine, firefighting and telecommunications. Besides the theoretical part, room is also left for practical application of what has been learned. In the first year, for example, all the students go on board the Dar Młodzieży to become familiar with life on board a ship.”

The practical part isn’t limited to the sea, as simulators are available at AMA to test certain situations. One of these simulators, for instance, recreates the deck of a ship. “This allows us to learn, for example, what it’s like to navigate through the busy Strait of Dover. In my third and fourth year, with the help of a simulator, I also learned how the systems of oil, gas and chemical tankers work.”

If you dream of a career as a seafarer, you should definitely try. Don't be discouraged by the dominating presence of men.

Around the World

In her first year of training, Tabitha was introduced to life on board the Dar on a trip to Vigo in Spain. “After spending three days in the harbour, we set course for Antwerp again. This unforgettable experience made me want to explore more.” Her next adventure took place on board the T/S Rupel, a Belgian schooner, which took her to Denmark for three weeks together with other students from the Antwerp student fleet.

“As a Master's student, I went aboard the Dar again. This time as coach of a group of first-year students. The trip took us to La Coruña in Spain. I accompanied my team on this adventure.”

In June 2022, Tabitha received her diploma and the chance to sign her first real contract on board a ship of the French cruise company Ponant. “Since then, this cruise company has signed two contracts with me: one for three months (October-January) and one for two months (February-April). On board, I mainly help the officer with his duties. I also participate in the bridge watch and provide support in other areas. This experience has helped me refine my practical skills and develop into a future officer.”

Training Voyage: Internship at Sea

To work as an officer on board, you need to have spent 12 months at sea, which you have to do during or after your studies. “For seven months you practise on simulators and in other courses. For the remaining five months, you have to work on board a ship.”

Bert Strobbe of Social Security for Seafarers elaborates on this point: “The problem is that AMA students rarely reach the 12 months at sea during their studies, which puts them at a disadvantage in the labour market. Social Security for Seafarers(New window) reacts to this by providing allowances to students who go to sea during their holiday periods in order to reach the remaining five months. Enhanced by this investment in their future, they will be well equipped when they enter the labour market.” Informed about this scheme, Tabitha responds to us that she had never heard of it. “Many students aren’t aware of the concept of ‘training voyage’ and therefore don’t apply to the Social Security for Seafarers. With more communication about what exactly the 'training voyage' is and what allowances are involved, more students would make use of it. It is the ideal holiday job.”

According to Bert Strobbe, the ‘training voyage’ is a measure that applies to all students of the Antwerp Maritime Academy, regardless of their nationality. “At the moment, Social Security for Seafarers is talking to partners from the maritime sector about how we can better get the information about the 'training voyage' out to the students.”

In the summer of 2022, Tabitha and her sister took part in the Tall ships race 2022 (competition for tall ships)(New window). Aboard the Morgenster, a Dutch sailing vessel, she sailed to Aalborg in Denmark. “This experience didn't count as sailing time, but it was a unique opportunity to take part in a competition with old sailing ships from all over the world!”

Career prospects in seafaring

After completing the training, there are several career options: on board a ship or on land.

“I would like to work at sea. But if you prefer to stay on land, you can do inspections on ships or work as a harbour master, for example.”

This was a unique opportunity to take part in a competition with old sailing ships from all over the world!

However, if you choose to work on board a ship like Tabitha, you can get hired on many vessels: dredgers, container ships, cruise ships and oil tankers and cable-laying vessels.

In short, with a degree as a sailor, seafaring opens up a nice career horizon.

Women in the shipping industry

As mentioned in the introduction, the maritime sector is still predominantly male. However, more and more women express interest: They represent around 15% of the students at the Antwerp Maritime Academy.

“I’d like women who are considering an education or a job in the maritime world to know that the industry needs well-trained people in different positions, regardless of gender. It offers many opportunities for further development and personal growth. Also, working at sea allows one to see the world and experience new cultures. So if they are adventurous and love challenges, the maritime sector is for them!”

We wish Tabitha a bright future pursuing her dream!

  • Overseas Social Security: In Belgium, the National Social Security Office (NSSO) is responsible for the social security of seafarers.
    Seafarers qualify for the same social security benefits as other workers, but are subject to specific rules and procedures due to the nature of their work. You’ll find more information on this topic on the Website Social Security for Seafareres on the Portal of Social Security(New window).
  • You will be sailing under a foreign flag (a flag that does not belong to the European Economic Area, Switzerland or the United Kingdom)? In this case, you can join the Overseas Social Security. Thus, your social security remains guaranteed.. If you have any questions, please visit the Contact page on the Website of Overseas Social Security.
  • Training Voyages: Marine students can be hired on board ships to complete a training voyage. On board a seagoing vessel, students familiarise themselves with the physical and mental adaptations, the lifestyle and working conditions on a ship, e.g. limited space, long periods in isolation, irregular working hours and changing weather. It is the internship period for students of seafaring, for which they receive remuneration. The ideal holiday job for aspiring seafarers!
    For more information on this topic About training for life at sea on the Website Social Security for Seafarers on the Portal of Social Security(New window).

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