Wednesday, 29 June 2016


                         BLACK  SOCIAL  HISTORY                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           Beatrice Vormawah                                                                                                                              Answered An Ad And Wound Up A Captain.                                                                              

                      She's Sailing Smoothly On An Accidental Voyage CAPTAIN BEATRICE VORMAWAH B By David O'Reilly,
In this information age of cyberspace, cellular car faxes and home offices, Beatrice Vormawah steers a different course.

She doesn't talk ``concept'' or transmit via modems and bits and baud. She talks tonnage and hauls timber and cocoa and aluminum across oceans.

Her space isn't virtual anything; it's blue sky and true horizon. And you don't rate Vormawah's machine in megahertz. Hers runs at 14,000 horsepower.

Welcome aboard the Keta Lagoon, a 549-foot freighter under command of this mother of three.

Vormawah, 40, is thought to be the world's only black woman sea captain, and she's one of only a dozen women commanding ocean-going merchant vessels.

``It wasn't something I planned,'' Vormawah says in Ghanaian-accented English. ``I was in boarding school, planning a career in medicine, when I saw this advert for the maritime academy.''

Soft-spoken, businesslike, she is seated in her cabin off Philadelphia wearing navy-blue trousers, a white shirt with black-and-gold epaulets, gold earrings and a dark necktie.

Outside, stevedores strain in the ship's open hold, loading giant bags of cocoa onto cranes and lowering them onto Pier 84.

Thirteen days out of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, the 16,000-ton Keta Lagoon is here on the first leg of a yearlong trip around the world.

Vormawah doesn't expect to see her husband or young children until 1997. But that, she says, is the life of a sea captain.

``I try not to think about them,'' she said. ``Thinking about them - knowing you won't see them - makes it even worse.''

The daughter of a civil servant and trader in the Ghanaian capital of Accra, she was 19 when she entered Ghana's Regional Maritime Academy on scholarship, one of three women in her class.

``Most men were skeptical,'' she recalled with a smile. ``They gave us cooperation because they thought: `Oh, they'll find husbands and get pregnant and finish halfway.' We proved them wrong.''

After a year at the academy, she shipped out as a deck cadet on the Pequa River, which in 1978 steamed into Philadelphia. Her return - at the helm of the impressive Keta Lagoon - was her first time back to Philadelphia since she was a cadet.

As for her previous career plans, she said: ``Oh, I could never go into medicine now. It is too confining. Here, I get to travel. It makes life more interesting.''

Evidence of her travels is everywhere in her office suite, which adjoins her sleeping quarters. On her desk rests a recent edition of the London Times. On the floor is an Oriental rug. On one wall is a Dutch calendar. On another is a map of the world.

Despite the initial skepticism of some men, Vormawah - the only woman among the 44-member crew - says she has encountered almost no sexist prejudice in her career. ``In Ghana, we don't discriminate much. We are all given a chance.''

Besides, she says, ``nobody can determine your destiny. Nobody makes a straight line for you. Whatever you turn out is up to you.''

She earned her master's certificate, or captain's license, in 1990, but it was not until last June that she was given command of the 15-year-old, Korean-built Keta Lagoon.

``It's a much bigger responsibility than chief officer. The safety of the ship is in your hands. You have to make sure everybody is happy as well as disciplined. You also are responsible for the cargo; safe landing and loading is part of the captain's job.''

The next-in-command first-mate and chief-engineer jobs are demanding, she says, ``but you always have someone to run to: the captain. Here, nobody helps you. You can ask their advice and opinion, but whatever step you take is up to you. And if it backfires,'' she says, and shrugs. ``Well. . . .''

Chief engineer Samuel Opare Akurang, 57, whose office is next door to hers, remembers Vormawah as a cadet.

``There is no problem working for a woman,'' he says. Gender ``doesn't come into it. She does her job as captain OK.''

And deck cadet Nanh Ofosu-Boateng - a Ghanaian tribal prince who speaks impeccable English - said he likes having a female captain. ``She is a mother; she has kids, so it is like a big family here. It's easy to approach her. She is more sensitive to our problems.''

Until recently, the Keta Lagoon regularly ran from Ghana to Great Britain. Now that Gulf & Orient Lines has chartered it from its owner, Black Star Lines, it will sail between the United States and the Far East.

And so, when she weighs anchor, probably today, Vormawah will steer south to Brunswick, Ga., near Savannah. From there she goes to New Orleans, then Houston, then through the Panama Canal to Japan and Singapore.

And someday she will call it quits and settle down again in Ghana with her husband and children. But after years with the wind in her hair and sky overhead, she can't imagine sitting all day in an office.

``Maybe surveying,'' she says with a shrug.

Anything with unlimited horizons.