Films and literature tell us one thing about ship captains: The captain is almost always a man. The captain in “Titanic” was a man. Jack Sparrow from “Pirates of the Caribbean” is male; Captain Hook, too, menacing with a mean mustache at that.
Reality, however, can opt otherwise.
Hettie Geenen, captain of Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior, is a woman. She leads a team of 16 dedicated crew members, sailing around the world and fighting for climate justice.
Hettie has been sailing since she was 13 years old. She joined Greenpeace in 1999 as Third Mate, and her first voyage on the Rainbow Warrior brought her to Manila. She recalls a distinct but sad memory from that trip.
“Here we met a girl who lived in Clark Air Base. She was sick; sick because they had to leave their home after the eruption of a volcano. They moved to the former US airbase but the soil and water there was contaminated. Lots of the children became sick and the women had miscarriages. This girl had leukemia, and had one last dream—to visit the Rainbow Warrior,” said Geenen in a media conference during the Rainbow Warrior’s recent voyage to Manila.
“After a protest at the US Embassy, we invited these children and their mothers to the ship. The captain at that time sailed in a rip around the harbor with the children. She was at the helm. He let her drive. She had a huge smile on her face.”
The child passed on an hour after, at only 6 years old.
Geenen continues, “After this I was convinced; this is the job I want to do. I want to be part of this platform, giving people a voice. Someone needs to speak up. We need to do something.”
After almost 20 years, Geenen, now the Rainbow Warrior’s captain, still feels the same, and is ever as passionate about Greenpeace’s fight for climate justice.
She admits that being a woman in a job dominated by men has both its ups and downs.
“They look at you more critically. Probably if I make a mistake, it will be perceived differently. On the other hand, it helps. People look twice just because it’s not something that you see a lot.”
“What I see now, when authorities from the Philippines come onboard, they ask for the captain. And then I apologize and say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m the captain.’ They are all very humbled and say, ‘I’m really sorry, but we didn’t expect a woman.’”
Does she think women are vulnerable, and does she feel vulnerable as a woman?
“It depends. I cannot say that women are not. I have never felt vulnerable, but I come from another country. So I cannot say… on the ship, in the lifeboats, the priority is still the women and the children.”
“I think it’s important that women don’t separate so much. We need to move together, men and women. You can separate at first but you need to connect and be equals.”
“I think it’s time we equalize so that we have more women in certain positions. Women do things differently; not necessarily better, but differently. At the moment we have mostly men in power, and I think it should be more equal.”
For her, there is one aspect of one’s character necessary if you want to pursue a life at sea.
“You need to be able to live in a closed space with a lot of people, without the ones you want—you don’t choose. You have to respect and accept everybody.”
Geenen has moved from Third Mate to Second Mate, and then to Chief Mate, before finally being appointed as the captain of the Rainbow Warrior on International Women’s Day two years ago.
“The biggest learning is that we are all obliged to do something. We cannot sit at home and do nothing. It is for our children, and also for the Earth. I think if you do nothing, you are as guilty as those doing things to make the world a worse place to live in.”