THESE days she’s better known as a Melville councillor and political staffer, but at this year’s Fringe festival, Karen Wheatland will share the story of her trailblazing life at sea.
The first woman employed as a crew member on Fremantle Harbour’s tug boats, Cr Wheatland dedicated much of her career advocating to get more women into maritime industries.
She’ll be appearing at the Fringe show A Day of Ideas: At Sea with ABC presenter and yachtswoman Jo Trilling, and environmental researcher Holly Knight.
“I think predominantly it’s about how unique it is to have women at sea, especially when I started,” Cr Wheatland said.
Although her first job came by chance and was hardly her cup of tea, it sparked a love of rocking decks that kept her coming back.
“So when I was 21 I caught the Indian Pacific across to Sydney and was going to live with some friends, and I romanticised and thought they lived around Sydney Harbour – they were in Parramatta.
“I couldn’t see the ocean, so I was there for a week and a half and I moved to a friend’s house at Dee Why and then caught a bus up to Queensland.
“But I didn’t have a job; I’d run out of money.
“My brother rang me up and he was on a trawler in the Gulf of Carpentaria and needed a cook.
“He said ‘I’ve got a ticket for you to fly to Groote Island’ and I said ‘what am I going to do, I can’t cook’.
“So I went there for six weeks and just loved it and caught the trawler all the way back to Geraldton in Western Australia. I just fell in love with the sea, but I didn’t fall in love with cooking, I’ve got to say.”
Cr Wheatland took another job on the same trawler the following season, but she shared the cooking with a friend Joan from Geraldton and worked the deck as well.
It was then she discovered the darker side of the industry, as drugs and alcohol were rife in the fishing fleets in the 70s and 80s. The two friends stayed sober and out of trouble, but Cr Wheatland said she saw some terrible disrespect of women that troubles her to this day.
Taking a stint with a prawn trawler in Broome sent her in a completely new direction.
“A friend got me a job at Deepwater Point and I met this woman that changed my life; talk about women and the sea, Bev Kinney was partners in a pearl farm with Snowy Roberts.
“I went up there and started cleaning shell and Bev gave me my first drive; she said ‘you should be driving boats’.”
Her first command was a modest cleaning boat and Cr Wheatland was feeling on top of the world, but she also discovered how perilous life at sea could be.
First came Cyclone Bobby, which carved its way down the coast in 1995 and sank two trawlers off Onslow; a couple of Cr Wheatland’s friends from a time spent working in Geraldton were on board.
Later two pearling divers drifted off and disappeared.
“As soon as we started searching, the weather came up and it was like a massive squall.
“So we were searching 72 hours I think – Canberra, everyone was involved, and miraculously we found them … but it was so stressful.”
Cr Wheatland also got her chance to try pearl diving, but visiting Fremantle she was chatting to a friend in the merchant navy and decided to put in her own application.
“I felt that I’d conquered [pearling] and I wanted a different challenge.
“I wanted to actually go down to Antarctica.
“That was my dream, but unfortunately I didn’t get there because I ended up on ships.
“And there’s nothing better than being on the deck of a tanker cruising up the coast, when you’re so far above the water.”
When she went to the training course for the merchant navy, Cr Wheatland was the only woman among the 40 applicants.
“When we rocked up a couple of guys said ‘who’s your husband’.”
Another budding salt also offered the unwelcome advice that his father told him women shouldn’t be at sea because they took men’s jobs and
then took off when they got pregnant. Having more on-deck experience and qualifications than practically every other candidate, she took umbrage.
“I didn’t want to become the brunt of that conversation, so I stepped up at the union and started getting active in women’s issues within the union movement and tried to actively encourage more women to come to sea,” Cr Wheatland said.
With a couple of comrades from Sydney’s wharf she helped form a national committee
for women which established many of the structures around women’s issues that still guide the union today.
After becoming pregnant herself, Cr Wheatland found casual work on Freo’s tugs, and said while some embraced the change, overall it took a lot to gain acceptance amongst the blokes.
It took more than 10 years before she even made it onto the part-time books, by which stage she’d also enrolled at university where she studied photography.
An accident which left her with major shoulder damage finished her career at sea, but Cr Wheatland has continued to advocate for women at sea and is putting together a non-fiction book Sea Girls that talks about her connection to the sea and the people she’s met.
“I’ve been reflecting on being where I am and what I’ve been through to get where I am today.
“It’s a man’s world out there, especially in the maritime sector.
“I guess the way it was to be a woman to survive you had to be tough and you had to turn into a bloke, and you had to accept the behaviour.
“We have moved on since then, but like the mining sector, if you want to change the culture you need more women involved, because men can’t change the culture on their own.
“It’s an interesting point: right now, what do we do moving forward to encourage and increase women at sea and in the maritime sector?
“What do we do to change the culture?
“It needs to be a unilateral approach and it needs to be from women that have been at sea and do go to sea.
“I’ve always loved the idea of doing a careers awareness push on women in blue collar industries; seafarers, firefighters, policewomen.”