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Discovery’s Female Ship’s Crew

As it’s International Women’s Day, we’re handing the reigns of our blog over to Emma; our second ever female member of Ship’s Crew aboard the Royal Research Ship Discovery, to share with us her love of Discovery and the importance of women on ships! Enjoy.

Caulking the deck

“I first stepped onboard Discovery as a guest in June 2022, and at the time I knew almost nothing about polar history. When I was wandering through the galleries, something clicked in my brain—it was the fact that the explorers published a newspaper to boost morale in the polar night that first made me think, “I need to know more about this”. I started reading everything I could get my hands on about polar exploration, especially the 1901-1904 British National Antarctic Expedition on which Discovery first sailed.

“Obsession turned into a volunteering gig, and volunteering turned into a part-time job on the Ship’s Crew. Ship’s Crew are responsible for the daily maintenance work to keep Discovery shipshape. This includes caulking—the traditional way, with pitch and oakum, watering the deck, and preparing and coating wood and metal. For example, I’m currently working on a project to restore the helm on the bridge by re-varnishing it. Every day is varied, and that makes the job exciting! I especially love chatting with enthusiastic visitors, who often have excellent questions about the ship’s construction and history.

“I now understand the way sailors talk about their ships as if they’ve fallen in love with them, because I have, too. It’s an honour to work on such a storied ship as Discovery, walking in the footsteps of famous explorers like Scott and Shackleton. I often wonder what they would think of the fact that their ship is now a museum. We’ll never know, of course, but I recently found out that I am only the second woman to work on the Discovery’s Ship’s Crew in Dundee. While of course it is no longer the case, it is a sad fact that, back in the day, women weren’t allowed on polar expeditions. The first woman went to Antarctica in 1935, after all three of Discovery’s Antarctic expeditions.”

Emma aboard Discovery

“In 1914, while planning for his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, Ernest Shackleton received a letter from ‘three sporty girls’ called Peggy Pegrine, Valerie Davey, and Betty Webster. The young women asked to come on his expedition, saying they were healthy and strong and “we do not see why men should have all the glory, and women none, especially when there are women just as brave and capable as there are men“. Their hopes were dashed when they received a reply stating there were ‘no vacancies for the opposite sex on the Expedition‘.

“Today, plenty of women work in Antarctica, achieving both scientific and physical feats, and I serve on the crew of the Discovery. Still, though, I feel a bit of a kinship with the ‘three sporty girls’, even through the divide of time—were I running an expedition, I’d grant them an interview.”

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