Growing up, Natasha Kema never saw herself in the maritime industry. Today, she is the first marine engineer and seafarer in her family. Natasha, who comes from a mixed parentage of Central, East New Britain and Milne Bay provinces, took a few detours before becoming a seafarer. After completing year 12 at Cameron Secondary School in Alotau, she pursued a science and technology course at the National Polytechnic Institute of PNG in 2016. She realised that her passion laid elsewhere, leading her to take a few gap years in Kokopo.

During this time, Natasha focused on her art: painting and sketching to earn an income and eventually contesting in EMTV’s singing competition Vocal Fusion in 2019. She was on the verge of competing in the semi-finals when a friend, an alumna under the Australia Awards PNG Maritime Cadetships for Women in partnership with Steamships, encouraged her to apply for the next intake. Natasha seized the opportunity and received a scholarship to commence studies in 2020 at the PNG Maritime College. She graduated as an Officer of the Watch (Engine), now putting into practice her four years of training as a marine engineer onboard KEERA, a tug vessel under Pacific Towing (PacTow).

Natash Kema with one of her crew-mates during one of their break hours. Pacific Towing  docking yard (Napanapa, Port Moresby)

“This scholarship has led me to find my true calling, something that I’m passionate about – all thanks to the partnership between Australia Awards PNG and the Steamships Consortium. This partnership proves that we can raise the profile of Papua New Guinean women in maritime because the ability to thrive in a maritime career is dependent on an individual’s inherent abilities and not gender,” Natasha proudly says.

The tough working conditions, from the ship to rolling seas, call for adequate training through quality education and sea time experience in the maritime industry. Through the cadetship, Natasha is confident in her abilities.

“Being a marine engineer is like being a jack of all trades. For me it’s the opportunity to dabble in chemistry, electrical, materials and operating procedures for the engine room machinery and more all at once – this makes it a constant learning experience for me, and I love it.”

Natasha and the rest of her crew-mates are on-call 24/7 to respond to after-hours issues that may arise like vessels that require tug assistance.

It is a demanding work with risks – safety is paramount to ensure the mental, physical and emotional wellbeing of seafarers. Natasha says her team strive to ‘work smarter and to always think safety’. “We do necessary pre-checks and toolbox talks before carrying out tasks, and we take our breaks to not overwork ourselves. I find that keeping an open mind and positive attitude creates a safe space for other people, especially other females onboard, to talk to me about safety concerns.”

In terms of perks to the job, Natasha enjoys living aboard different tugs across various parts of Papua New Guinea – in a way she gets to travel for free. She admits that there are days she misses her family and partner who is also a seafarer. “I work away from home for 12 weeks and then go home for a six-week break, and it’s difficult when your partner is also a seafarer. Right now, he’s at home on his leave and I’m working – by the time I return, he’ll be going back to sea.”

Natasha remains optimistic during these challenging moments. She says her employer PacTow ensures there is a healthy work-life balance to keep seafarers engaged through various team bonding activities. In addition, it also helps to have a supportive crew and fellow female seafarers to lean on.

To young women who might be interested in an unconventional career, Natasha encourages them to try one at sea, like she has done. But it’s important to keep in mind that you’ll need to be adaptable, responsible and disciplined, she said. Now in her current role, Natasha is mentoring female cadets under her watch who recently joined the Maritime Cadetship for Women program. She says the scholarship taught her that female seafarers can lead abroad and ashore and shape shipping’s future. “I’d really like to see a lot of women coming into the maritime industry. One day I hope to see a tug with equal number of males and females onboard,” Natasha says.