We've got news for you.

Register on Sunday Times at no cost to receive newsletters, read exclusive articles & more.
Register now

What aboat the captain? What it's like to live at sea


What aboat the captain? What it's like to live at sea

Spending six months a year at sea presents unique challenges, but this Durban seafarer loves it

Lwandile Bhengu

For 30-year old captain Zama Shabalala, navigating around the world's most dangerous bodies of water in a 40,000-ton vessel is as simple as driving a car.
Shabalala, who has spent over a decade working on ships throughout the world, would choose the sea over land any day – not unreasonable given that she spends six months of the year at the helm of ships belonging to the world’s biggest chemical and parcel tanker operators.
Her six months at sea are split into two three-month stints.“Basically, you’re driving a car. You’re driving on the road and you need to keep out of the way of other ships,” Shabalala said.
She admitted that maritime studies were not her first choice after she completed her matric – but that it was rather “God’s alignment” for the mother of one.
“When I finished school I didn’t know what I wanted to do; my parents wanted me to be an accountant and I knew that didn’t sound like me,” she said on Monday, which was designated the Day of the Seafarer.
It was Shabalala’s aunt who told her about a friend she knew that had done maritime studies.
Shabalala, from Umlazi, jokingly admits that it was the whole idea of “getting paid to travel” that drew her to the profession. She started working on ships in 2008 and obtained her national diploma in maritime studies from the Durban University of Technology in 2011.
Shabalala was one of several guests lauded during the International Day of the Seafarer event, which was commemorated in three multi-city events held in Durban, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town on June 25.
The event is to acknowledge and remember the roles and sacrifices seafarers have made over the centuries in ensuring economic trading through their work.A seafarer refers to any person who lives and works on ships, with Shabalala saying that her duties don’t just include steering a vessel – they also including loading and discharging of cargo, maintaining safety equipment and being in charge of, and responsible for, the cargo on the ship.
And it doesn’t stop there.
“If you study to a level of a navigation officer you will be in charge of planning the passage plans, which is the route in which the vessel will take. You will be in charge of maintaining them and how to execute them alongside the master on board,” Shabalala explained.
Shabalala qualified as a captain in March 2017 but is currently working as a second officer for Stolt tankers, a company that is responsible for the storage and distribution of chemicals and other bulk-liquid products, such as vegetable oils and ethanol.
“I love being at sea just because I am not someone who likes being in an office and controlled by a boss. You are in a space where you grow mentally, you grow spiritually, you become more self-aware and more confident,” she said.For many, the first concern about living on a ship, other than the seasickness, would be the living conditions, which Shabalala said are not as bad as people may think.
“It is as normal as you can imagine. You have your own room with a bathroom in it. It's really not as bad as people think it is,” she said.
When Shabalala is not planning cargo routes and navigating through sea traffic – her work has taken her to Japan, South Korea and her personal favourite, Singapore – she spends her time on board thinking about her seven-year-old daughter.
“When I’m at sea the thing I miss the most is my daughter. I try to spend as much time with her because she is at a stage where she goes through separation anxiety,” she said.
Seafaring is typically regarded as a “man's profession” and Shabalala does admit that being female is one of her biggest challenges.
“What I have found to be a challenge is that people underestimate me, my knowledge and what I am capable of doing.”While she has enjoyed proving them wrong, she is also trying to find a way to help young females navigate life.
“I trying to set up an NGO that focuses on upliftment and self-esteem of young females,” she said.
Referring to herself as a bit of an oxymoron she said: “As a teenager I was someone who suffered with low self-esteem but I had leadership qualities. I feel that being at sea would be able to help me balance it out and I want to help other kids figure that out.”
Shabalala added that finding a way to maintain one's sanity out at sea is very important for surviving the sea life – a comment that mirrored the theme of this year's International Seafarers events.
“Some people will find the isolation and the lonely time can drive one crazy,” she said. “I discovered God and spirituality at sea. That’s how I kept my sanity. I found my sense of peace at sea.”
Sharing Shabalala’s sentiments and stressing the importance of mental health was Londy Ngcobo, Africa’s first female dredge master, who MC'd the Durban seafarer event.
A dredge master is tasked with ensuring the ports are deep enough for ships with big draughts to navigate.
“No one really cared about what was in my head, no one ever asked me: ‘Are you okay?’ That question is very important,” she said.
According to the International Maritime Organisation, there has been a huge call in the maritime industry to address the mental health of a seafarer.
The COO of the South African Maritime Safety Authority, Sobantu Tilayi, said the organisation was committed to the mental health of the seafarer and was working on a hotline that seafarers can call into and turn to a qualified human voice.

This article is reserved for Sunday Times Daily subscribers.
A subscription gives you full digital access to all Sunday Times Daily content.

Sunday Times Daily

Already subscribed? Simply sign in below.

Questions or problems?
Email helpdesk@timeslive.co.za or call 0860 52 52 00.