THE role of a marine pilot, regardless of gender, is crucial for safe navigation the world over. It involves guiding ships through narrow channels, turbulent waters and sometimes treacherous conditions.

Female marine pilots bring unique perspectives, skills and talents to this vital profession. They prove that maritime expertise is not bound by gender but determined by dedication, training, passion and experience.

At the recent Australasian Marine Pilots Institute Conference in Perth, Western Australia, I met Captain Maryanne Lokoloko, the first (and so far only) female marine pilot in Papua New Guinea.

I had a chance to catch up with her and learn more about her journey into the maritime industry.

Can you tell me a bit about yourself, and why you decided to join the maritime industry?

I started my career with a scholarship as an engine cadet with Chevron Texaco in 2002. I went to Los Angeles where I was trained by the best. I am so grateful to Chevron Texaco and Vanguard recruiting agency for giving me this start in the industry.

This great foundation for my training was also the beginning of my passion for the sea.

Eventually Chevron put me into the deck department, and I completed a dual course for deck and engine.

I had a wonderful three years on board ultra-large crude carriers, travelling four times around the world. I was in the third batch of cadet scholarships though, and there were some issues with the other two batches which meant my scholarship was cut short.

When I was asked by management to continue my scholarship without the others, I had to think about this carefully and remembered wise words from one of my captains. He said to me: “Maryanne, if you want to be a great master of ship manoeuvres you must start from the tug and pontoon in narrow rivers with fast currents and tight bends.”

I felt that nature wanted me to gather strength mentally and spiritually, so I decided to return to Papua New Guinea. I feel I have an opportunity to provide inspiration and leadership to other PNG women who want to work in the industry, and I am now a pioneering female pilot.

What made you decide to become a marine pilot?

That is a funny story. I never intended to be a pilot; my focus was simply to be the best that I could be in the maritime industry. I was asked by management of Island Salvage to deliver diesel from one island to the next – a 48-hour journey. The pilot boarded and asked me if I could bring my ship alongside without tugs and I said “yes”. There was a strong northwest blowing with 20-knot gusts but not much swell. I was able to put her alongside swiftly, without even throwing the heaving lines.

The senior pilot was amazed and asked me if I had berthed there in the past and I said “no”. That night we sailed without the pilot.

Within a week I was hired to be trained under the senior pilot. In my training I moved two ships on and off the berth. Then, on the third ship, the senior pilot said: “You can do this without me,” and he stayed on the wharf and watched me bring the third ship in. That was it, I was hooked, and I was a pilot.

I love working as a pilot because no matter the vessel, the weather, or the nationality of the crew – to me it is just about being one with the ship, making a connection between nature and the ship to pilot it safely.

I’m sure you have not always had smooth sailing throughout your career – can you share with us some of the challenges you have faced on your journey in the industry?

I think one of the greatest challenges was when I returned from the US, working in PNG as the first female onboard. I faced discrimination and sexual harassment.

Then I met another wise and humble captain from the Papua region of PNG, the late Captain Raka Tom Vagi.

He took me aside and gave me good advice: “If you run away from these men, you will still find the same behaviour on the next ship. You need to face it and challenge it using your brain and your skill, not your heart.”

At first this was hard advice to follow, but as time went by, I began to understand that if I face my fears and challenge them using my brain and not my heart then problems begin to fade away. Through confidence in myself, in my skill, I could work towards my dreams.

I started to speak up, focusing on respect and safety. I began fighting for better training for seafarers, enhancing their wellbeing and improving conditions onboard. This spark ignited a flame within me that I never knew existed.

You are the only female pilot in PNG – what steps do you think can be taken to promote women in maritime?

I really believe in role-models, so I think the first step is to show the way. The work done internationally highlights that women can be anything they want to be – but it does take determination.

The international organisations, such as UNWomen, the International Maritime Organization and others have a real role to play, since it is often difficult for women to think of what the opportunities might be.

We should also work with schools, especially high schools, to show them the advantages, and the challenges, of life in the maritime industry. You have such inner strength and passion for the industry.

Who has been your inspiration to continue to move forward and be the best you can be?

My mother, Margaret Loko, is my inspiration. She raised me as a single parent through many difficult times. I remember in prep the teacher asked the kids to bring their daddies to school the next day since it was Father’s Day. I went home and asked mum “what is a dad?” With great courage she told me that she was my dad and my mum at the same time.

She proved to me that I should never rely on a man to survive, that woman can be better relying on themselves. Her strength taught me that when we put our trust in God and believe in ourselves, we can achieve the impossible. I hope one day I can inspire others as my mother has inspired me.

This article appeared in the December 2023/January 2024 edition of DCN Magazine