…“Women don’t belong at Sea” – or so I was told by some senior sailors, when I joined the RAN (Royal Australian Navy). Sadly – these men had very clear ideas as to what women were best at doing, and it had nothing to do with keeping a warship afloat at sea. Understand though, that this wasn’t every man’s opinion – some firmly believed that a person made themselves their sense of place. You simply did what you were meant to do, as well as the next ‘man’. So women could be considered ‘equal’ if what they did was work really hard at proving themselves – once again – against the men.
So what’s changed you might ask? Well to be truthful, perhaps not an awful lot. Whilst more women might serve in the RAN now, and in more active roles, they still can’t fill front-line combat roles in any of Australia’s Defence Force, so women are still measured up against the men. I don’t necessarily believe this to be the same as it was 20 years ago; more that it’s now a left over remnant of a ‘culture’ that hasn’t managed to turn the corner on this particular ‘change’ yet. Ten years ago I left a Navy that still struggled with addressing how best women and men should live together on a ship at sea. I wonder today if that’s really changed all that much?
Women are on my mind. Amazing women – the XO not withstanding of course – but I’m talking about those women I served with. Across ten years in two different uniforms, over a time where women were slowly brought into the mainstream Defence Forces, I met many amazingly strong women. My mother always maintained the equilibrium in our house. Whilst my father was the main bread winner; my mother ran a tight ship herself, at home. None of her son’s ever escaped the world of ‘women’s work’. We were taught to cook and clean at a very early age, and put to work in the family house. I couldn’t imagine a life without these skills being necessary. So my mother influenced us greatly. I never really understood the difference between the sexes as far as actual capability went; the ability to do or not do a task depended on the set of skills you might have had, or may be developing. Nothing more, nothing less!
I remember every single one of their names – all of them. They stick in my memory – not so much for the fact that they persevered in an environment such as the Defence Force – but for the fact that they endured! All but one of the women I knew served their complete term. Some signed on again, but most – like me – left for other things. They performed a wide range of core duties, and on all manner of warships and support vessels. They were all professionals – in an environment that demanded a capital ‘P’ in the word Professional – and all of this was often asked of you before your 21st birthday. Your ability to acquire skills, and professionally bend your mind to a task of any sort, had nothing to do with the particular bits and pieces you had – stowed away in your underwear.
I trusted all of these women with my life. Completely! It might have been true that most of them wouldn’t have been able to lift my unconscious body out of a fire or gas situation – but the truth of it was, there were men on board that I couldn’t have lifted out of those places in the same circumstances. That place alongside of me in an aggressive fire-fighting situation was determined by three things; skill, guts (nothing short of sheer determination) and mateship. You’d have to be an absolute mug to think that this was only ever the domain of mere males. My best offsider on the front of a fire-fighting team was lucky to be all of about 5 feet tall, to my 6 feet 2 inches. She overcame claustrophobia, the initial stinging comments on her ability to do the job in the first place, and an OCCABA set that sat on you like a television set. I can’t remember the exact weight of the OCCABA now, but there were time where even I struggled with it. She never gave up and always ‘had my back’ – I’ve never felt as safe or secure since.
Yes; (let’s get the cliche’s out of the way now) as a sailo,r I did have a woman in every port! They were part of the Ships Company, and came along for the ride. And yes; some of the women I served with were unfortunate enough to ‘step out’ with me on the odd occasion (luckily though – most had more sense!). We kept time together; laughed together; cried together; got senseless together; worried together; shared life together – we faced all kinds of things together – and saw the likes of things I hope never to see again. I unashamedly confess to loving women; they smell fantastic, feel great, and come in all shapes and sizes – all of which serves to tantalize the senses, and muddle the mind. I have never been a fan of what women appear to be in a consumer driven world of advertising and bulldust. I like that people are different, and attractive in all their own separate ways. All of the women I served with were attractive to me in one way or another – and mostly not in any obvious ways. Today I remember their smiles, their laughter, their tears, their jibes, their touch, and their incredible sense of spirit. I remember that they were ALWAYS there for me, and that they never once stepped back. They were my Mates – in every (Australian) sense of the word!
R, A, J, L, D, L, T, J, M, D, L, K, C, M, D, M, S, A, O, C, and H; where ever you are today, you might not realise this but – I wouldn’t be half the man I am Now, if you mob hadn’t been the women I shared a life with, Then! In serving with you all, you helped me grow and – I’m not saying that the men I served with didn’t help that along too fellas, so stay with me on this – it’s just that these women overcame great odds to be who they were (and whom they eventually became), in an environment that mostly didn’t welcome them to the party. I don’t know if they got any thanks for that – ever! I thank you. You’ve built upon the business my good old Mum started, and helped it grow more then you may ever truly realise. I am – and will be – a better partner, lover, father, uncle, friend, brother, cousin, nephew, grandson, mate, colleague, and overall – contributor in life – because of you.
BRAVO ZULU to you all.
Belongum – Out!