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The women helping to keep Belfast Harbour shipshape

By Una Brankin

Published 09/06/2016

Problem solver: Laura Morgan
Problem solver: Laura Morgan
Port pioneer: Brigid Beattie
High life: engineer Grace Davitt also played rugby for Ireland scoring a try against France in the 2014 World Cup
The World cruise liner in Belfast harbour

Belfast Harbour traditionally has been a male dominated domain, but females are now occupying a wide variety of jobs, from guiding vessels into port to keeping the cranes working.

Once a macho, all-male domain, Belfast Harbour has been attracting an increasing number of female employees across its varied departments in recent years.

And the bustling port, which has a very healthy turnover of over £52.6m per year, wants to attract more women workers and trainees.

To shine a light on the current #My Harbour competition, an initiative to help local school children understand more about Belfast Harbour and the impact it has on our everyday lives, we spoke to three of its most impressive female staff members - all go-getting single ladies, coincidentally.

Laura Morgan (26) has worked as an assistant property executive at Belfast Harbour for two years. A graduate in planning and property development, Laura is the only female in her team at the port. She shares a flat near the harbour with a friend and walks or cycles to work every day. She says:

There's so much property development going on now at the port, it's a very exciting time to be working there. I never realised how big the harbour is until I left university - you tend to think only of the ships coming in and out, and not all the property around it, which stretches all the way to the Holywood Exchange.

My job involves financial appraisal and research. I look at how other harbours are using their waterfront space to see how we can enhance ours and make it nicer. We've 2,000 acres to manage and keep tidy and safe for our tenants, and we guard against vandalism and graffiti.

We also help harbour property landlords prepare leases for tenants. There are thousands of direct leasing and sub-lets. There's another 300 acres of undeveloped land to look after, too, and other developments for residential, industrial and leisure facilities.

The City Quays development is particularly exciting - there'll be lots of offices and hotels which is great for Belfast. It's true that harbour jobs, historically, would have been seen as male roles, but the property line I'm in is more attractive to women now. I'm out on site often but it's not a dirty job - I wear smart office clothes and only have on a hard hat and high-vis jacket when I'm on-site. My job involves a lot of thought and problem solving as well as creativity.

I'm treated equally, as one of the guys. I worked hard for my degree and that has stood to me.

If you prove yourself to be capable of the job, you'll be treated well. I'm from Newcastle originally. My dad's in the car business and my mum's in retail. Growing up, I didn't appreciate the beauty of the coastline in Newcastle but I like working by the sea now, and being able to walk or cycle to work. I work nine to five - in my time-off, I like to run, knit a bit, watch box-sets and bake.

I'm studying to become a chartered surveyor and I'd love to progress up the ladder at the harbour. It's the first to take off in the property market and it's a fast-paced, exciting environment to be in.

Morale's high and I'd encourage any young girl interested in a career here to go for it."

From Newtownabbey, Bridget Beattie became the first female port controller at Belfast Harbour in 2008. Now one of three women in a team of six, Bridget (46) carries out a crucial role in the timing and guidance of vessels in and out of the dock. She says: We get a lot of visitors and VIPs coming in to see how we operate in Port Control. Prince Andrew and Meryl Streep have dropped in and there are more private yachts than ever coming into the marina, including that oil billionaire’s £130 million floating palace super-yacht, the Hampshire II (above) last week.

They report to us first for their safety, as they have to navigate through seven nautical miles from the fairway to the marina.

There was a big fuss a few years back when a big whale swam into the port but I missed it unfortunately. Michael Evans, the deputy harbour master, who was killed in the Cork airport plane crash in 2011, was one of the first out to it. I’ve seen lots of seals; some of them are enormous and, no — not nice and cuddly.

I’ve worked at the harbour for 17 years. I love it. I’m office-based, dealing with ship pilots and crews and  services, and ensuring their safe passage through the port. I’m on my own on eight-hour shifts but I have panoramic windows around me and people in the office beside me, and I’m constantly speaking to crews and other staff.

I don’t leave the office for lunch but there’s a kitchen beside me and I eat at my desk. It’s quite a responsible job; I’ve to make lots of decisions on-the-hoof. I’ve seen many a violent storm and have had to cancel sailings lots of times. Strong winds mean extra tugs and extra caution. Lightning has never been a big issue. Fog is the worst but we have lots of cameras around the harbour for guidance, and wind monitors.

We also have to be careful of tides, especially for cruise ships and the draft vessels — mostly carrying animal feed, coal and timber — to ensure the water margin is high enough for them to come in. Those draft vessels make up the daily bread-and-butter of the port.

This is my fourth job at the harbour. Beforehand, I worked in all sorts of jobs, from finance to estate agencies, but I settled in here well. For such a large operation, it has a relatively small staff of 130 in the head office. It was challenging and difficult to gain acceptance as the first female port controller in the beginning but once I settled into the role, it was fine. Since then, two of the guys I first worked with on this team have been replaced by women.

The role requires good organisational and co-ordinating skills. I started off as a secretary and this job was a natural progression for me. I’m now one of the longest serving port controllers, going on eight years. I enjoy every day and I’m quite happy to stay in this job. It was traditionally seen as an older man’s role but it’s office-based and any gender can do it.

I had no sea experience but I trained at marine college and on the job, which involves sometimes going out to sea with the pilots on familiarisation days.

It’s quite shocking when you’re actually on these huge boats, realising that it’s you who has been telling them where to go and when.

Grace Davitt is the first and only female maintenance technician, currently, at Belfast Harbour. Appointed in 2010, Co Meath-born Grace (33) ensures the port’s cranes and ramps are in good working order for the ferries and other vessels, which she also helps to maintain while in dock. A former Ireland rugby international, she lives with a fellow female sports enthusiast in the city centre.

She says: You have to have a good head for heights in my work, being up on the cranes a lot. I had to pass a heights test for the job, but I was used to being way up on the tail of aircraft in my previous job as a maintenance engineer at Dublin Airport for over four years.

Mine is not one of the most glamorous of jobs — I’m quite frequently covered in oil and grease.

There was some initial surprise when I first started. It’s a manual job in a heavy industry but once everyone got to know me, they saw I’m strong and eager to learn. I’m also stubborn.

The work at the harbour is heavier than at the airport. Aircraft are more compact and standardised.

Here, the job is more varied and creative.

I played rugby for Ireland for 10 years and I coach at Cooke Rugby Club now, so my fitness levels are good.

I go to the gym and the physical training stands to me. I was always a tomboy, yes — I loved playing with Lego growing up.

My dad was a diesel fitter and I was always curious when he was tinkering around with cars, always offering to give him a hand.

My mum worked as a civil servant and my younger brother is a carpenter in Australia.

Northern Ireland is home to me now. I love Belfast. It’s so compact and easy to get around. Everything is close to you. When I first arrived at the port, I was surprised at how much import and export was going on. There are so many cruise ships now, too.

There is a really good atmosphere at the harbour and great camaraderie among the staff.

If you’re not in for a day, you feel you’ve missed on whatever’s happening.

There’s good banter between everyone.

Being from the Republic, I never understood Northern Irish politics.

People hear my accent and ask where I’m from but the subject invariably turns to sport — Gaelic, hockey and rugby, which is what first brought me here.

I’ve lived in different parts of Belfast for six and half years and never had any issues.

I’d love to get the next NVQ level in maintenance engineering.

I want to continue learning and hopefully progress to a management role, although I’d hate to sit in an office all day.”

  • To help local school children understand more about Belfast Harbour and the impact it has on our everyday lives, the company is running a #MyHarbour competition. To enter, pupils simply need to take a photograph or upload a 30-second video which features an interesting item or a product of their choice that could be linked back to Belfast Harbour.
  • The pupil with the best idea and who demonstrates the most creativity will win a specially-chartered boat trip around the harbour for their whole class, while one pupil, chosen from each county in Northern Ireland will receive a special #MyHarbour pack for themselves and their classmates.
  • The #MyHarbour competition closes tomorrow (Friday, June 10) so you need to be quick. For more information, visit www.belfast-harbour.co.uk/myharbourcompetition

Belfast Telegraph

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