How to Be a Riverboat Captain
One of only 2 female skippers on the Thames, Lois has met a 110 year old suffragette and inspired little girls to want a Riverboat Barbie!
What made you become a river boat captain?
I’d always enjoyed watching the boats cruising up and down the river, and when I turned sixteen and was looking for a part-time job while I was doing my GCSEs I wrote to the company, who gave me an interview. They had an opening in their ticket office, which I did for about a year (this was actually quite a demanding role; I had to deal with people from all walks of life and ages, often with a language barrier – for which my Japanese proved to be really useful!) and this also taught me a lot about the company’s accounting procedures. Subsequent to this, I was invited to learn how to crew the passenger boats, which involved being compliant with the company’s safety policies and providing bar and customer services, and I did this for about three years. I was then invited to train as a riverboat skipper, which I now do when I am not at university – I’m presently doing my Masters degree. What I’m saying is that it is a job that you need to work your way up to – you can’t just turn up and ask to train as skipper – there are statutory requirements for qualifying for this job.
What is the pay like?
This very much varies depending on your experience level and the company that you work for – also, as you need to work in an entry level position first as crew (this is required by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, to ensure that you have a good grounding, particularly in terms of safety) you have to be prepared for some hard slog which is on a lower pay rate first.
Job satisfaction? Perks?
It’s great seeing people having a good time – you meet lots of different people and particularly when the weather is good it feels great to be out on the river. It’s demanding being in control of the boat and its operation, but it’s a great feeling. You get to see lots of things you would never see on land, lots of beautiful wildlife and you get to make a lot of friends who live and work on the river.
Sometimes the weather’s horrible (not only making working a bit wet and cold, but also making for some tough driving conditions) and like any job where you deal with the general public some situations dealing with passengers can be challenging. You can get very dirty dealing with oil, diesel etc (you have to like engines!) but we do carry spare uniforms, and the hours can be very long and include night and weekend work.
How physically/mentally demanding is the job?
It is definitely both of those things – you have to be able to make a decision and make it quickly in many cases. The safety of the passengers, the crew and the boat can often come down to these decisions, and you cannot take your eyes off the river for a second. Unfortunately, not all river users are competent – anybody anywhere can take a boat out and you need to be aware of their safety also. On a basic physical level, it can be stressful and tiring – you need to be able to run, climb and jump, as well as lift and carry things safely. You also need to have a good head for figures as the bar accounts need to be tallied at the end of each cruise.
Most glorious career moment to date?
I met a little old lady who was 110 years old, who said how proud she was of me doing “a man’s job” – she remembered her role in the suffragette movement, and she’d always been involved in women’s rights. At the other end of the scale, I had a little girl’s birthday party on board with all their Barbies in tow – they were really interested to learn about the boat and my job and they all said that they wanted a Riverboat Barbie!
Most horrific career moment to date? Danger Factor?
Fortunately, nothing’s ever happened that I haven’t managed to adequately deal with so far. But when you hear of things that do happen on the river it can be quite hard-hitting – it really makes you appreciate the importance of vigilance and safety.
Gender prejudice factor?
This is a big one. There’s not much gender prejudice within the working people of the river (you do get the odd one, but normally someone else will say something that nips that in the bud) but where the public are concerned you do get the odd person (normally middle-aged and male) that expects the skipper to be a six-foot tall man with shiny epaulettes and a big peaked cap – and to behave accordingly. Most elderly gentlemen who have lived through World War II are generally very accepting, as they remember a time when women did do “men’s work”, such as building and delivering aeroplanes and ships. I won’t lie to you, you face gender prejudice quite a lot – you need to have a thick skin and do your job properly. In some ways, you have to prove yourself every single day.
Dating factor? Any chance of meeting people you might like?
On the whole it’s a young workforce, and that goes for all the companies, so you do meet lots and lots of different people. The river is a small community however, and everybody knows everybody else, so sometimes it’s not such a good idea!
Uniform factor? What do you need to wear?
This very much depends on the company – the company I work for has one which is smart and thoroughly adhered to, the big safety boots are a bit of a turn-off though…
View from the stern of the boat…
What sort of training/qualifications/skills do you need?
You need crew experience first, then you need to follow a set training programme and maintain a portfolio of all the work that you do in the statutory proficiencies, which need to be signed off by a supervising skipper. You need to pass a practical exam from the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, in which your safety procedures and knowledge of the vessel you work on are tested. Your driving skills are also assessed, and you are required to complete several courses in Sea Survival, First Aid and Fire-fighting training. You are normally sponsored by your company to do this. Once you have passed these and your portfolio is signed off, you will receive your Boatmasters Licence (BML) – the level of this varies depending on what waters you work on and in what capacity – mine allows me to carry up to 250 passengers in non-tidal waters. You also need to be fit and healthy – you must be medically assessed by a doctor before you can take your exam, and the job itself is physically demanding.
Do you have any advice for someone interested in going into this role?
Always be professional, always be yourself, and always be polite.
Is there anything we should have asked you but were too selfish to realise?
I think you’ve got it covered really! I think maybe it’s just good to remember that at the moment there are only two female skippers (including myself) on the stretch of the Thames that I work on as far as I know, so we are still very much outnumbered. But it is a very rewarding role that will give you qualifications and skills for life.
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Lois is one of only two female skippers on the Thames