At sea with UAE female boat captain Patricia Caswell: 'Have confidence in what you do'

Captain Patricia Caswell reflects on being a trailblazer for women in the male-dominated maritime world

Patricia Caswell, the only female boat captain in the UAE, one of only a few hundred worldwide at the Gulf Craft in Umm Al Quwain on April 28,2021. Pawan Singh / The National

"Good morning, Captain." The greeting hails Captain Patricia Caswell as she walks through the brand new $35 million, 780-tonne, 53-metre long Gulf Craft Majesty superyacht languishing in the waters of the Arabian Gulf off Umm Al Quwain.

It’s a boat she’ll soon be taking out to test, pushing it to its very limits before the owner takes possession, and with this in mind, the engineers, carpenters, electricians, plumbers and cleaners quickly get back to work as she passes through.

The marble-inlaid bathrooms, cool, contemporary cabins and coffee-coloured corridors are gleaming new as she heads past million-dollar details such as the glass lift and the on-deck pool towards the bridge. Here, a bank of monitors, gauges and controls stretching the breadth of the sleek black console, quietly beep and flash under her watchful gaze.

To an outsider, it all looks slightly more complicated than the deck of the Starship Enterprise crossed with that of a modern nuclear submarine. But for Caswell, who has been on boats since she was 17, it's her equivalent of opening a laptop and checking her email.

Patricia Caswell, the only female boat captain in the UAE, one of only a few hundred worldwide at the Gulf Craft in Umm Al Quwain on April 28,2021. Pawan Singh / The National

“Captain” is a greeting the 42-year-old Australian has been hearing for 21 years now, ever since she became qualified to use the title at 21. An age she admits is tender, not only for the industry as a whole, but also for a woman in a male-dominated field.

"Twenty-one is young to become a captain, and back then there were only two other females who had done it before me in Australia," she says. "They were my idols. One went to Antarctica, the other went over to superyachts, and I was like: 'These chicks are amazing. This is cool, I need to be involved in this'."

‘I got seasick my first day’

Growing up in Brisbane, Queensland on Australia’s west coast, by her own admission Caswell was a “determined teenager”. One who left home at 16, got her own place and a job at a bank straight out of high school, already exhibiting the kind of independence and self-reliance that would befit a young woman about to embark on a life at sea.

An invitation when she was 17 from her mother to visit her in the Whitsunday Islands in the heart of the Great Barrier Reef where she owned a travel company, proved the hook that set her on her path.

“My mum sent me out sailing for the day on this 80-foot [24-metre] yacht and I was like, this is awesome,” she recalls. “I never went back to Brisbane. I had someone pack up my bags and send them on to me.”

Her first job wasn’t all plain sailing.

“I started on a catamaran as a stewardess. I got seasick my very first day and they gave me the nickname ‘Chucky’,” she laughs. “It was horrible. I went back the next day and the captain said: ‘Really? You want to have another go at this?’ And I was like: ‘Yeah, let’s have another go’, and I stayed.

“As a stewardess, you’re serving drinks, making sandwiches and taking care of guests, but I only lasted a few months because I wanted to be on deck, I wanted to be sailing with the boys, so I started learning to sail.”

‘I got a job… I’m going to the Caribbean’

Sailing around Australia and New Zealand in her early twenties sounds like the stuff inspirational Instagram accounts, which of course didn’t exist then, are made of.

Trips out to watch the America's Cup, diving in Cairns and sailing around the crystal clear waters of Papua New Guinea were all in a day's work for Caswell, who, after a stint working for a New Zealand family, finally saved up enough money to go where she had always intended to head: Europe.

Once you get a taste of it, you know there's a big world and you want to see it. I also wanted to move onto superyachts

“I wanted to travel and I had always wanted to go to Europe,” she says. “Once you get a taste of it, you know there’s a big world and you want to see it. I also wanted to move onto superyachts.”

Caswell, who had to convert her Australian credentials to the UK’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) licences, went back to school, this time to a maritime college in Southampton, where a phone call from an old friend from proved a game changer.

“She called me and said: ‘Where are you?’ I said: ‘I’m in England.’ And she said: ‘We need a first mate, are you available?’” Caswell says. “I flew to the south of France to meet the manager of the boat and when I flew back to the UK, I said to my friends: ‘Funny story, I got a job and I’m going to the Caribbean tomorrow.’”

Of the post she took of first mate on the 300-tonne, 36-metre boat, Caswell says: “That’s how I managed to save up to go back to school to do the chief mate, so I could be second in charge of larger vessels.”

Bananas and superstitions

Back beyond the 19th-century, women on boats were considered to bring bad luck for an array of superstitious reasons, from angering the sea gods to distracting the sailors. Conversely, their wood-carved, often bare-chested presence as figureheads at the bow was thought to calm the sea. And the perceived bad luck of women onboard didn’t stop sailors from naming their boats after females or referring to their vessels as “she”.

I won't have bananas onboard. If guests arrive with bananas in hand, I make them eat them on the deck before they come aboard

For her own part Caswell is an adherent to the age-old superstition of not allowing bananas aboard her boats, a ritual that dates back beyond the 1700s and the belief that at the height of the trading empire between Spain and the Caribbean, the majority of ships that disappeared had been carrying cargos of bananas.

“I won’t have bananas onboard,” she says. “If guests arrive with bananas in hand, I make them eat them on the deck before they come aboard.”

These days, the presence of women on boats is growing. The vast majority are in roles such as stewardesses and deck hands, although the numbers becoming first mates and captains is increasing. Caswell's qualification of Master 3000 means she can command a craft of up to 3,000 tonnes.

“I qualified just as I turned 30,” she says. “That was my goal, I wanted to have my Master 3000 by the time I was 30 and I got it in the February after my birthday in December.

"Females only make up something like 2 per cent of captains for superyachts globally," she adds. "When I first qualified, there were only a dozen or so at my level. Of course, it's grown now and there are many females coming through, but it's still a tiny percentage. It's coming but it takes time."

‘Whatever guests want, you find’

Capri, St Tropez, Antibes. The mere mention of some of the most glamorous places on earth conjures up images of sun, luxury and money, plenty of it. But for Caswell, these destinations are usually about reverse parking a 60-metre superyacht with just metres to spare on either side while trying to avoid other floating palaces.

Patricia Caswell, the only female boat captain in the UAE, one of only a few hundred worldwide at the Gulf Craft in Umm Al Quwain on April 28,2021. Pawan Singh / The National

“The Mediterranean can be intense in high season,” she says of the celebrity summer destination of choice. “There’ll be lots of people on the dock milling around taking photos, wanting to see whose boat it is. And if you have high-profile guests onboard then you’ll have the paparazzi there too, all while your team is on the microphone in your ear, saying: ‘Two metres this side, one metre that side’.”

Captains are also not just captains, they also take on the role of uber-concierges.

“Over the years you get to know the best chauffeurs, marinas, and hotels," she says. "If guests want privacy or if they want to be spotted by the paparazzi, whatever they want you have to be able to arrange these things.”

From movie stars to cannibals

"The first big movie star I met was Sean Connery, I was so excited," Caswell says. "He came on the boat for dinner with the owner. I was first mate, and it was really fresh to me.

“I had this periscope that had been given to me as a present. Everyone was in the main dining room and I crawled along the side deck and put this periscope up to the window to see what was happening at the dining table. The Italian owner saw what I was doing and he was laughing. He came out later and said: ‘This is cool, right?’ And I was like: ‘Yes!’

You can just go to the most out of the way places and meet the most interesting, amazing people

"The following year, I met Pierce Brosnan. He came onboard while filming Mamma Mia! and I was like: 'I've met another Bond!'"

But over the years, who has been her favourite guest?

“I’ve had Rihanna on my boat a few times,” she smiles. “She’s amazing, one of my favourites for sure. She’s very, very cool.”

However, when it comes to her favourite passages, Caswell names the South Pacific, specifically the Marquesas Islands and French Polynesia.

"If I could, I would just go from Pacific island to Pacific island," she says. "I had Christmas dinner with a cannibal once, the chief of the village in the Marquesas. We arrived on a sailboat and this big guy came down. He brought us fruit and was telling us old stories about the old cannibals eating their enemies. The last person they ate was in the 1960s, it was wild. This was at Christmas dinner, I was like: 'You don't say? What are we eating now?'

“That is one of the great things about being on boats that you can just go to the most out of the way places and meet the most interesting, amazing people.”

The difficulties faced at sea

As you would expect from someone who has spent 25 years at sea, Caswell has run into both bad weather and pirates from time to time, although it’s difficult to tell which force of nature is the most unpredictable.

“The time of year when we’re all moving towards the Caribbean is around the tail end of hurricane season,” she says. “And as the weather’s coming in, you learn to drive to deal with it. On one occasion, we ended up turning south and going for two days to outrun it before coming back.”

However, outrunning pirates is a different matter altogether.

The Gulf of Aden in the Indian Ocean between Yemen and Somalia has often been in the news for the piracy which became prevalent in the area, most famously for the Maersk Alabama hijacking which was later turned into the Tom Hanks film, Captain Phillips.

Patricia Caswell, the only female boat captain in the UAE, one of only a few hundred worldwide at the Gulf Craft in Umm Al Quwain on April 28,2021. Pawan Singh / The National

“My first few runs through the Gulf of Aden I was nervous,” Caswell says. “We’ve stopped in Djibouti and I’ve stopped in Yemen to refuel, that was pretty wild. You have the coalition warships that work in grids all through the Gulf of Aden, so you travel with these convoys. Boats use water cannons and keep all their fire hoses charged. Some put rolled up barbed wire around the sides as they’re coming through.

“We’d travel with armed security onboard. You pick them up in Egypt and the Suez Canal and a lot are ex-SAS and former military.

“You’re trained to deal with it and you put all the measures in place that you can,” she reasons. “You have to have confidence in the systems you’ve put in place and your emergency procedures if something were to happen. You can’t stress about it because you have to guide your team through it.”

A first in the UAE

Caswell came to the UAE in 2015 after securing a job for a high-profile local family who were looking for a female boat captain.

“As a female captain, you have good access around different family members,” she explains. “On a boat, if the women are in private areas, as a female I can enter, and it works a lot easier for the family.”

This followed five-and-a-half years of travelling the globe.

“They were a lovely, respectful, kind family,” she says. “I would go to sea when the boss and family went to sea. Sometimes I would go ahead to set things up for them and make sure everything was ready.

Patricia Caswell, the only female boat captain in the UAE, one of only a few hundred worldwide at the Gulf Craft in Umm Al Quwain on April 28,2021. Pawan Singh / The National

“One of the last runs I did, we picked up a boat in North Carolina and drove it down to Florida, put it on a ship to have it delivered here. Then we pull it off the ship and set it all up, put the personal items of the owner onboard so it’s ready to go.

“As a captain, you’re responsible for multi-million dollar assets. You run the budgets, the training, maintenance, everything.”

While Caswell is still years away from hanging up her captain’s hat, her new role at Gulf Craft Inc, a luxury yacht and boat manufacturer in Umm Al Quwain where she now lives, means more time spent on land.

“I joined Gulf Craft towards the end of last year,” she says. "It was an exciting time because they were just pulling the new 175ft super-yacht out of the shed which for me was like Christmas.

“It’s a big change from being at sea every day. I have a team of 19 and together we checked every system installed in the boat. Then I got to do the very first sea trial, and that for me is the rush. We turned everything on for the first time and left the dock. We pushed everything and tested and ran everything, that’s the fun part. Like playing with a new toy.”

Abeer AlShaali is deputy managing director at Gulf Craft Inc. Her father, Mohammed AlShaali established the company in 1982, says that the industry is in her blood: "I think there's something intrinsically calming about the sea that speaks to an unconscious part of ourselves. It's scary, mysterious and otherworldly and if you have a passion for it it's hard to stay away.

"When the team first came to me and said they had found Patricia they were so excited. 'Planetary alignment' was the term they used," she says. "Patricia has the depth of knowledge we were looking for and was difficult to find locally and of this calibre in the region. She's a great personality, a team player and very knowledgeable."

A Captain’s advice

So, what makes a good captain? With 25 years at sea and 21 years in the role, Caswell has had plenty of time to ruminate on the attributes that make a successful skipper.

“You’ve got to have confidence in what you do. You have to be able to lead your teams and do it in a confined space," she says. "You might be at sea for six months with the same 14 people living within 50 metres of one another, so you’ve got to be able to brush off the little things. Have a good ear to listen to people’s problems, but not take things to heart. Get on with the day and gently guide everyone.”

Patricia Caswell, the only female boat captain in the UAE, one of only a few hundred worldwide at the Gulf Craft in Umm Al Quwain on April 28,2021. Pawan Singh / The National

Getting used to life on dry land has its advantages. It's meant more time with her husband, Lee, but there's also more of the day-to-day things that those on land take for granted.

“I only just started getting my utility bills,” she laughs. “I never used to get them, ever. I was like: ‘Who pays for water?’ Luckily Lee has always helped with land-based operations.”

As far as her achievements go, she's happy to help lead the way for a new generation of women who would like to follow a similar path.

“I have to be proud,” she says. “I hope it gives confidence to young women coming up through the ranks, that it is achievable and possible to do.”