The following interview was published in Seatalk (4th Edition, 2022).
Helga Van Noten used to stay regularly with her grandparents, in a flat on the Scheldt quays. The ships stirred the little girl’s curiosity. What is their destination, who are the people on board…? No one in her family was active in the maritime sector, so she lacked a stepping stone to enter this world. It was because of her fascination with ships and her sense of adventure that Helga found herself at the Hogere Zeevaartschool (HZS − Higher Academy of Shipping), at the age of 18. In the past 23 years, Helga has professionally sailed many seas. Her current workplace, with a view of her familiar Scheldt river, is in the Antwerp offices of CMB (Compagnie Maritime Belge).
In 1994 Helga started studying Nautical Sciences, with the idea of exploring the world by water or working as a pilot. As is still the case nowadays, she was then one of very few female students in a world dominated by testosterone. “It was quite a revelation”, Helga laughs, “from kindergarten up to that moment I had always attended a nunnery school with only girls. During my years as a student, and in my later career, I have always worked well with male colleagues. They always appreciated the feminine touch I brought on board.”
“I chose this programme in the HZS because the variety appealed to me: from typical nautical subjects to language and medicine. On board of a ship, you need to know what to do if someone gets wounded”, Helga states. “I have always been interested in a profession in the social sector. Had I not started at the HZS, medicine might have been one of the options in my choice of study.”
In those days, students received plenty of job offers during their final year of education. “So, I never had to look for a job”, Helga explains, “unlike students who are graduating nowadays. Unfortunately, it’s a lot harder for graduates now.”
“At 23, I had no obstacles, and I wanted to find out if I was cut out for a sailor’s life. With a fixed-term contract (contracts were given per voyage) with Exmar, my first voyage took me
to the Caribbean. I was an apprentice second mate on a gas tanker, and received excellent training from the acting second mate. The atmosphere on board, the adventure, sometimes the homesickness and the letters I received when we moored in a harbour… all these things confirmed that I really was cut out for this life!”
In 2002 Helga left Exmar for Allseas, a global player in the offshore energy market.
“I sailed on the Solitaire as Dynamic Positioning Officer (DPO). The ship has a length of 397 metres (1302 feet) and was at that moment the largest pipe layer in the world until the Pioneering Spirit was delivered in 2014. It had a crew of more than four hundred. With a rhythm of five weeks at sea, five weeks at home, it was easy to maintain social ties with your family and friends back home. I consider the years I spent working for Allseas the best and most exciting of my career so far. Positioning a pipeline perfectly within two metres of the platform, while everybody is watching, gives a tremendous kick! You know, this is where you really learn the job. Here I learned everything there is to know on Dynamic Positioning. During your student days, you have to lay a solid foundation, but the real construction work happens at sea!”
As much as Helga loved to sail the wide seas, she realised that this wasn’t a life she could keep on until retirement. In 2005, she started working at dredger DEME, as Designated Person Ashore (DPA), the link between shore and ship for the implementation of the safety management system. She was away from home for about a week a month, which was ideal to make the transition from a life of ‘always at sea’ to a life permanently ashore.
And, no matter how adventurous she is, Helga still was itching to start a family. After her first intermediate step via DEME, she opted permanently for a life ashore. During her time at sea, she studied Maritime Law for a year at the University of Antwerp, in preparation of an academic career. When she became a mother of her son Abi (16) in 2012 – the greatest adventure of all – she resolutely chose education. First as a teacher at the Shipping School- Cenflumarin, later as a lecturer at the Hogere Zeevaartschool (Higher Maritime
Academy) in Antwerp, which is now the Antwerp Maritime Academy. She combined teaching with her doctoral research and raising her son.
“I loved teaching, and still do”, Helga tells us with enthusiasm, but she still chose a new challenge in 2021. “I now only teach sporadically as a guest lecturer. I may have had some trouble with the education system, which often resembles an unwieldy tanker. There is little to no space for renewal, which kept me wanting; so it was time for the next step in my career.”
She found that new challenge at CMB (Compagnie Maritime Belge). As an operator, Helga is responsible for the management of the ships assigned to her. “The function is mainly administrative”, she says, “but it’s still a job with plenty of variation. I know when my working day starts, but never when it ends. Every day brings different tasks: planning, administration, communication with port authorities and the captain… You also visit your fleet regularly, but when I started, COVID ruled. So, travelling was out of the question. I’m glad that this is gradually changing.”
Does she find sufficient challenge here for the future? She doesn’t need to ponder very long: “Absolutely, there is still a lot of work to be done. Communication is still not sufficiently electronic in the maritime world. For instance, certain information still must be handed over on paper to the captain in person. Digital transformation and administrative simplification are certainly working points in our industry.”
Helga spends very little of her free time on the water. “I have always considered the maritime life as my job. My field of interest is so wide that I have friends who are professionally active in all kinds of other industries. This also involves activities that have nothing to do with the maritime world, and that is fine by me. I do go sailing with friends occasionally, but I certainly don’t spend every weekend or holiday on the water. There is so much more in my spare time.”
When Helga visited the Global Mercy, the largest civilian hospital ship in the world, docked in Antwerp this year, her love for the soft sector was rekindled. “In the future, I would very much like to do some volunteering on board this ship. Unfortunately, it won’t be as a second mate, as I no longer hold the necessary certificate, or any other certificates such as crowd or crisis management. But there are so many functions on board; who knows, with the experience I acquired in teaching, I might go and teach the children on the ship?”
Helga still has a lot of active years ahead of her. An ambitious woman who perfectly balances her knowledge and skills, her sense of adventure and the phase of her life. A grand lady with an exciting career, and still going strong!
Photos: Helga Van Noten & Nancy Kegels