Feisty, Fierce and the Future Ship Captain – Meet Dilruba Söylemez

Feisty, Fierce and the Future Ship Captain – Meet Dilruba Söylemez
Published 11 Apr 2019

Who is Dilruba Duygu Söylemez? Could you please tell us about yourself in brief?

I was born into an idealist and traveller family as their second child in August, 1987. I first started going to the primary school in the city of Hatay and finished it in Urfa. Later on, I started going to the highschool in the same city and completed it in Sakarya. Afterwards, I did my major in Maritime Transportation/Management Engineering at Istanbul Technical University (ITU) based in Istanbul. Shortly after my graduation, I started out on my career in accordance with the department I’ve graduated from.

What motivated you to become a shipmaster in the first place? In what kind of vessels do you work on?

Well, to tell you the truth, I hadn’t made up my mind as to what I would be doing professionally in the future yet when I was about to graduate from high school. There was no profession I could think of that was appealing enough to me at the time. To put it more precisely, I didn’t even go through the university selection process although I did actually receive a fairly high mark from the examination that I had taken for the first time. Because, for as long as I could remember, I’d always been this girl in my dreams that would travel around the world with bare foots whilst reading books. Over the course of time -the books I was reading and all that helped me a great deal in my decision- I came to the realisation that I should become a mariner. After all, I thought to myself: this job would enable me to travel worldwide and in the meanwhile I would have a professional career. That’s basically why I decided to pursue my dream and I chose to follow this path.

The vessels where I carry out my duty tend to be the tanker (Crude oil also Chemical type) vessels.

In our graduation ceremony, we throw up our graduation caps in the air. Then, as tradition has it, our fellow freshmen students throw us to the sea.

Ring the bells! Drill time.(Maritime demands passion and devotion)

See, it most certainly does..

Is there a hierarchical structure on board? What exactly is the role that you fulfil within this system?

From the very first moment you enter into the Faculty of Maritime Studies onwards, you find yourself in the midst of a hierarchical system. In other words, I’d say, all in all it is nowhere near similar to what you would call a normal college life. It is more like you become part of a huge family that has quite a marked military aspect to it. Within this large family, there is a sense of order. So, yes, obviously there is an hierarchical structure aboard. It is divided into two main parts which are as follows: deck and engine. There is the captain and the list goes as: the chief officer, the second-third and the fourth officers. There may be a three to four officers included depending on the size of the vessel. The same goes for the engine for instance: There are the chief engineers and in addition to that there are the second, third and fourth engineers. I currently work as the second officer aboard ship.

So, you opted for a profession where woman hardly has any presence. Are there any other ship’s officers who happen to be female other than yourself? 

As a matter of fact, I must point out that this is a profession where women have no presence whatsoever. Not in the least. Most of the contracts, I am the only female on board and this has been the case in all my work experiences.

Staff meeting

It doesn’t matter what circumstances or weather we’re dealing with. We must be on the go at all costs.

Dressed in snowsuit along with another thick coat on the top and a thermal underwear inside.

What kind of processes are you required to undergo in order to become a ‘captain’?

Once you’ve graduated, you can begin to work as third/second officer. Having worked at sea for 3 years on end, you become qualified to sit for an examination to become the chief officer. That’s how you can upgrade your position. Afterwards, having completed another 3 consecutive years, you can take another exam in order to become a ‘captain’. These 3-year periods, obviously, require you to keep on working on board non-stop. Since you have the depreciation or vacations added to that, it can take a bit longer eventually.

Which navigation zones have you been to so far? Which ones have you enjoyed sailing the most? Do you have any memories you’d like to share with us?

The navigation zones vary based on the vessels trading area, the operating company. We work in merchant ships that sail to the locations from which they take on their cargo. The most enjoyable navigation sites for me are when we set sail across the ocean. Come to think of it, I do like storms very much. At times some dreadful storms can break out all of a sudden. Imagine that you’re confronted with waves with a length of 10 to 14 metres right on the top of an enormous 275-metre vessel. As the front side of the ship is going up towards the ocean, you see the propeller rising from the stern section, this can strike you as a little bit intimidating. There are two zones that I like the most. The tropics: The Caribbean, Mexican Gulf, the area where the Caribbean Islands are situated. You witness an incredibly stunning show of noctilucas/sea sparkle. By the way, what we call ‘sea sparkle’ is actually the unicellular marine species radiating their lights. Each area in the ocean has a different kind of sea sparkle. Sometimes the vibrant lights catch your eyes to the extent that it nearly resembles, as it were, an X-ray illuminating nothing but the waves on which the ship is drifting while the sky and everything else remains pitch-dark. It feels like you’re floating on luminous water whereas, when we navigate on the Gulf of Mexico, it feels like the stars are shooting under water. Another navigation zone that I really like is Scandinavia, the Baltic Sea, the Atlantic Ocean, the northern parts, Norway, Sweden… During my last contract, I worked for 5 and a half months in that area. Navigating through the islands of Sweden, you can’t help but marvel at the wonderful sights for hours. Since it coincided with Christmas, we were filled with admiration looking at those lovely dim Christmas lights shining from afar surrounded by pure beauty in the vastness of blue and green, thereby making everything look even more fascinating and impressive.

I have so many memories which I always dearly cherish, so do all the mariners. People mostly find a couple of things very intriguing. The pirates, the storms, the adventures we embark on when we stop by at the ports and all that. I could go on and on for hours and it would take ages. I can say one thing, though. The pirates do exist. In particular, when we pass through shady areas such as the Suez Canal, we request the guidance of the armed forces so that they accompany us. With their guidance, we feel safer and more comfortable. Earlier on, however, we had to wait tensely with anxiety and fear as we had to pass without counting on their assistance. We went through some accidents that could’ve potentially led to some dire consequences. There have been times when we felt so overly stressed out that even our palms were sweating. I can share another memory. There are “harbour pilots” experts in certain areas that offer some guidance when we arrive at and depart from these ports. The captain is still in full charge of everything, though. Once, one of those harbour pilots came to the ship – and these places that I talk about are countries where women rights are highly valued such as Italy and France. Whenever they saw me, they would seem really astonished and then they would ask “Is there a woman working in the vessel?”

We are well-prepared for the pirates.

On the board everything’s clean tidy.

Have you had any difficulties on shipboard as a mariner or more importantly as a ‘woman’?

Well, Turks have actually made remarkable progress in maritime as far as female mariners are concerned but make no mistake, on the whole the male dominance is very evident in every aspect. For example, let’s say in total there are 1500 students from the first grade to the last. Out of all those students, the number of female students is less than 50. On top of that, some of these women might end up quitting maritime after they see how demanding and tough the working conditions are. As mariners, we are well aware of this reality but for some reason there is this misconception amongst people that it is a well-paid job and it gives you the opportunity to travel without any difficulties involved but once you’re in it, you inevitably realise that not everything is as good/easy as it might seem. More often than not, mining and marine are considered the most difficult jobs in the world. Indeed, that’s true. First of all, I think about the issue on a human level as a human being but the fact that we are women alone does aggravate problems as it seems. You need to instruct people in junior positions, you need to follow the instructions of people who are in senior positions than you.

Another thing that I should mention at this point is this; if a woman somehow makes a mistake, even though the same error has already been committed by male mariners a number of times previously, it just so happens that this easily turns into a bias, a prejudice on the part of men directed at women. As they maintain this approach towards women, it becomes increasingly harder for us to acquire professions in these fields. Back in the day, one of the 3 most prominent companies in Turkey were against hiring women. However, things have changed over time. In one of these companies, I was a cadet and in the other one, I started working as the first female officer and kept working for 6 years.

As a woman, the difficulties begin to arise as early as you start studying at the university way before you start working on board. You’re also faced with problems when it comes to seeking jobs. In many walks of life, women tend to be more tenacious, devoted and principled than men. After all, nowadays everything boils down to automation, the machines rule everything. The system doesn’t depend on physical strength any longer. In all honesty, however, breaking down these prejudices, being successful requires a great of hard work, effort and commitment. As a woman, hardships are a part of your journey from the very beginning and you have no choice but to tackle them.

Are there other members in your family that work in maritime? What was their reaction like when they found out you were going to do this job?

There is no one in my relatives, let alone my family members who does this job. I think it was my dad who resented my choice of profession the most, the reason being his attachment to us. He said to me ‘I always wished I wouldn’t have a son so I wouldn’t have to send him off to military away from us (the military service is mandatory in Turkey for males) but now that you’ve chosen this job I’ve got to deal with something far worse.’ Whenever I am away sailing on the sea, my mother feels sad. The family come together in my absence. We had some emotional moments. For example, I remember one time I was in transit passing through Bosphorus, I blew a whistle shorewards and waved at them from the ship. They get upset whenever I set sail for a new journey and they rejoice over my return whenever I come back. They’re used to it by now, though.

– After 5 and a half months: Obviously signing off smile there is.

-Sunrise/watch starts.

What are the most challenging aspects of your occupation? 

First and foremost, one of the most crucial things is ‘patience’. There are people that you are supposed to work with all along. Whether you like them or you don’t, whether you get along with them or not, you need to learn how to handle every situation with people surrounding you. Secondly, we should take into consideration that sea is not our natural habitat. For this reason, we must adjust ourselves to some unusual weather conditions that might come about. At times it can be rather demanding physically. Last but not least, it is the amount of responsibility that you take on. It can be overwhelmingly hard to cope with. People, the load, the environment and those whom you’ve left behind… However, once you have learnt how to overcome these setbacks and hardships, you become much more resilient, your patience becomes invincible and you are ready to undertake pretty much anything that may get in the way.

As far as your job is concerned, do you have to keep working at sea at all times?

If you’re planning on working on board in the long run, yes you do, to keep the license valid. Contracts are bound to change (6 moths on – 1 month off, 4/1 or 3/2), so are the systems. If you pursue to continue your career at sea, you’ve got to work at sea. Of course, we do have job opportunities on land as well. For example, you can work for maritime companies. Besides, we are engineers. Therefore, we also have the chance to work in the field of engineering on land.

-The view from my office: Viking Shores&Fjords

Are there any activities you do in your private life outside of your job?

This is job more than an occupation for us. It’s a way of living– a lifestyle so to say. For one thing, you can’t possibly get a gym membership. You don’t know how long you will stay on shore. It usually remains uncertain when exactly you will return. Let’s assume you have 2 months off. You will most likely want to spend a month with your family and you will spend the rest of your holidays taking some rest and travelling. So, this prevents you from getting involved in fixed, long term sort of activities. That being said, you can always go for more personalised, individual activities instead. I like riding motorcycle and I like to do nature sports whenever I can get around to doing that. Needless to say, I really like reading books.

Captain Dilruba, we’d like to thank you very much for your time and sharing these interesting details with us on behalf of Kocaeli Burada community. We genuinely appreciate it. Have a safe journey!

You are very welcome. Thank you for reminding me of all these details all over again through this interview…