Celebrating women in maritime: Claudene Sharp-Patel

For Claudene Sharp-Patel, a career in the maritime industry was in her blood. Claudene comes from a family of mariners going back almost 500 years, and after pulling apart her first ship’s engine at the age of just 13, Claudene knew then that she wanted to be an engineer at sea. Now working as Viva Energy’s Marine Technical Manager, this fortitude has led Claudene to an exceptional and accomplished career in the industry.

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A career spanning the globe from Gabon to Georgia

Claudene’s career has taken her into the Upstream and Downstream oil industry and to Terminals around the world. It has encompassed high-pressure roles in Salvage and regulatory roles in Marine Assurance.

Claudene was the driving force behind a review of the Global Barge Industry Standards early on in her career. After spending almost a full year drawing on the expertise of the industry to understand the Legislation, Claudene had to integrate the standards with the requirements from the Oil Companies International Marine Forum (OCIMF). This involved working with around 130 Oil and Gas companies, and Legislators, to learn the various approaches to barging around the world and working through the differences in country-specific industry terminologies to produce a universally understood document.

However, this was just the start of a career that then took Claudene to Russia, Astrakhan, Cameroon, Gabon, the North Sea, and Georgia working on offshore installations and platforms, which pump oil and gas to floating production or reliquefaction storage units on ships for delivery by pipeline to refineries.

Claudene recalled one of the more memorable roles she had at an oil refinery in Britain. “We had large ships coming in to offload the crude product by pipeline into tanks. The tides were known to come in very quickly so it was a challenge to get the crude load at the right level and get the ships to discharge before the tide changed. And with another refinery located next to us sharing the same jetties the constant negotiation on berthing priorities helped me to perfect my influencing skills.”

Claudene’s experience working for Insurance underwriters managing losses from marine incidents also proved to be valuable during a salvage operation of a ship in 2011. “Marine Insurance is an extremely interesting area because you have to understand the legal nuances and different requirements of total and constructive loss and how it all falls together. It could involve overseeing an installation operation, witnessing a repair, or investigating a maritime accident.

This experience ultimately steered Claudene towards a role as a consultant for the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) initially for Women in Maritime and subsequently for Insurance Instrumentations and Incidents. “I was part of a group of experts, that investigated and analysed serious marine casualties and incidents, identifying any learnings, and providing a recommendation around any changes to IMO’s rules and regulations, or the navigation codes required to address potential safety issues.”

Honoured by the industry

“I am a Fellow of the Institute of Marine Engineering, Science and Technology (IMarEST) which acknowledges that I am an expert and an Industry leader in my field. IMarEST is the international professional body and learned society for all marine professionals and this is the highest step that can be obtained as an academic in our field.”

“Being part of their Technical Leadership Board (TLB) and appointed as a Vice President of IMarEST in 2012 was an honour I will be forever grateful for. The TLB is considered a knowledge group that helps the IMO develop legislation by providing expert knowledge and experience from industry leading academics.”

Coming home to Australia

Claudene first visited Gore Bay Terminal in 1997 on a ship called the ‘Stellata’ and over two decades later, in 2018, found herself working at the terminal as Viva Energy’s Marine Technical Advisor. “It’s an honour to work in a terminal that has such a long history in Sydney. And the view of Sydney Harbour is also incredible”, says Claudene.

Gore Bay Terminal supplies fuel for customers ranging from Sydney Harbour’s iconic ferries, to cruise ships, and the Australian Defence Force. Viva Energy’s bunkering business in Sydney has thrived in this period, underpinned by supply of fuel that’s manufactured in Australia at Viva Energy’s Geelong Refinery in Victoria. The terminal also receives a range of products that get transferred to Clyde Terminal such as jet fuel destined for Sydney Airport and petrol and diesel for motorists across NSW.

Challenging the norm

Claudene initially managed the ship vetting process that Viva Energy undertakes and supported the terminal and vessels coming into Gore Bay.

With the understanding that one size does not fit all, Claudene has a passion for finding other ways to do things. “My experience has meant that I’ve seen what can happen when things go wrong which means that I can be more critical of something if I feel it could result in an issue but at the same time this experience has also made me more open to different approaches and practices.”

And it wasn’t long before this experience proved invaluable on a project to upgrade the loading arms on one of the wharves at Gore Bay. “My focus was to build on the previous work completed on the project by helping people understand the capacity of a vessel and its limitations, and providing a recommendation on further upgrades needed to give the terminal greater long-term versatility while reducing some of the more time-consuming activities.”

It takes “collective competence”

“I believe in collective competence. We are fortunate to have a diverse Marine team at Viva Energy in regards to skills, experience, and knowledge. We have people who have specialist knowledge of ships, and those who are experts in terminals. I will never have all the answers but together, the team will.”

This is evidenced by Claudene’s team working as a group and discussing different options before determining what would be the best approach from a safety and an economic perspective.

“We manage everything that floats and also manage the interface with the terminals so it’s about bringing in all that expertise and experience and having a discussion to ensure the whole marine business at Viva Energy is supported.”

“We’re currently also redeveloping our maritime process manual (MPM). The MPM is the overarching document dictating how all Maritime activities are undertaken, including publications, guidelines, and procedures that needed to be scrutinised and adhered to.”

“Ultimately, success is measured by how well a team performs and endures.”

Supporting women to scale new heights in the industry

This year’s theme for World Maritime Day is focused on “empowering women in the maritime community”.

Claudene has seen the value of supporting women in the industry first-hand through her previous work mentoring Engineering graduates. And this is an area that Claudene remains passionate about. As a female working in what is still a male-dominated industry, Claudene understands some of the challenges facing women today in the industry and the work that needs to be done to achieve better gender equality and career development opportunities for females.

“Traditionally, engineering roles in the maritime industry have been physically demanding and there’s still a stigma in the industry about employing a woman into those types of roles. Previously women at sea were either stewards, cooks, or wives of Officers. Now, advances in technology have meant that being female is no longer a barrier however, there’s a perception that a women may not be as capable or won’t be around for long due to family or other commitments.”

“It’s rare even in countries like Australia and Britain to have a female engineer in the maritime industry. It will probably take some level of Government intervention like there was in the nineties to encourage companies to invest in a more female balanced ratio.”

“Being a small industry where everyone knows everyone, it’s also about credibility. I’m well known in the international maritime community for the regulatory and legislation changes I have helped make and the guidance I provided to the Oil and Maritime industry. I was the first women in Australia to finish the full degree course, a Bachelor of Technology – Marine Engineering, which I completed at the Australian Maritime College. I was also the first women to get a Watchkeeper Certificate, which allowed me to work on ships of any gross tonnage in any operating area globally. I then went on to become the first woman in Australia to get a Chief’s ticket and then the first in the Western World to obtain a combined Motor and Steam Chief Engineer’s ticket.” This reputation still sees other females in the industry reach out to Claudene for advice today.

Claudene continues to be part of IMO’s Women in Maritime forum and the Women's International Shipping & Trading Association (WISTA) providing support at conferences and forums, and she remains involved in the industry through events including the upcoming Pilotage and Port Logistics Conference which will focus on ‘Empowering Women in Maritime’.

As a company, Viva Energy believes diversity in the workplace is every bit as important as it is in everyday life. We have been awarded the WGEA Employer of Choice for Gender Equality for our work on improving diversity. This includes the implementation of a superannuation policy to help improve the retirement balances of working parents, and supporting flexible work practices.

Claudene is an incredible example of what women can achieve in the maritime industry and how the industry can benefit from diversity of thought, experience, and different ways of doing things. We are proud to have Claudene supporting our maritime operations and as part of Viva Energy’s team.

Learn about Viva Energy’s commitment to improving diversity, and how we support our marine customers.

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