Meet Lucinda Krige, South Africa's first female marine engineer

21 November 2019 - 07:00 By Maggie Connolly
Lucinda Krige, the first woman to qualify as a chief engineer in the South African fishing industry.
Lucinda Krige, the first woman to qualify as a chief engineer in the South African fishing industry.
Image: WWF

Lucinda Krige was used to being the only female in the room, so when a job came up that would mean spending years away from her friends in an all-male environment, she was not fazed.

In a sense it was just like home, where she had grown up as the youngest in the family and the only girl in the house.

At 20, Krige found herself wondering whether an advert she spotted in a newspaper might be her ticket out of her job as a chambermaid in a Cape Town hotel. On offer was training to become an engineering cadet.

She had always harboured a dream of becoming an engineer, but she didn’t know what marine engineering would entail, or whether it was meant for her.

As it turned out, it was. Not only did she love it, she excelled - ultimately becoming the first woman to qualify for the daunting position of chief engineer - the person responsible for the entire technical operations of a vessel, including engineering, electrical and mechanical divisions.

She loved all of it - even the moments of crisis and danger, such as the day things went spectacularly wrong on board ship and she and her fellow cadet ended up soaked in hydraulic oil. They had to throw away everything they were wearing and all the equipment they were using - even the computers. 

Krige was never daunted by the job. “I loved what I was doing. I loved the technical part of it, the fact that you get so much satisfaction of not every day being the same. That’s how I discovered this is what I actually wanted to do,” she said.

I had to adapt to the fact that I was living life at sea and working in an engine room.
Lucinda Krige

She said her biggest challenge was that she didn’t have a technical background. But she dug in and learnt to do the job by immersing herself in the theoretical training and work experience on the ship. Her cadetship lasted from 2003 to 2007. By the time she was 23, she had qualified as a chief engineer.

The field required an entirely new vocabulary and set of skills. “I had to adapt to the fact that I was living life at sea and working in an engine room. You never know what might happen.”

The first in her family to venture into the fishing industry, Krige explained how growing up in a family of brothers helped her. “When I was younger, the boys would go and build tree houses and play sports in the street. I did all that with them, so it was quite easy to just slot in with the guys [on the ships].”

In fact, said Krige, it was the men who had to adapt to her presence when she came on board.

“They would say, 'OK, you’re the first female we’re ever sailing with, so what do we need to do to ensure that you’re safe and comfortable?' I think the only change they had to make was to put a padlock on the shower door!” she said.

"At the end of the day, I had a lot of big brothers.”

Now, 16 years since she answered the advert and 11 years since she obtained her chief engineer’s qualification, Krige is helping others gain the skills they need to enter the industry.

At 27, she hung up her engineering uniform and came to shore. She now works in the learning and development department at Sea Harvest, one of South Africa’s largest deep-sea trawling fishing companies, primarily working in the hake sector.

Krige’s new post is in Saldanha Bay, where she is responsible for maritime and technical training for the company’s full-time employees and around 40 apprentices.

It’s a privilege, she says, to be able to show young people what opportunities there are in the industry. 

November 21 is World Fisheries Day, celebrated around the world by fishing communities.

According to the UN, fishing is central to the livelihood and food security of over 200-million people, especially in the developing world. Small-scale fisheries, both marine and inland, employ about 90% of those involved in fisheries. More than 25% of the world’s dietary protein is provided by fish.

* Maggie Connolly is a student journalist visiting South Africa on a SIT Study Abroad programme.