Celebrating women in the superyacht Industry
Maria Grazia Franco, Captain of MY Halo
Halo is currently undergoing a major refit in MB92 Barcelona for a variety of works including a 1-metre stern extension, new exterior decks set-up and an interior refit. We caught up with Captain Maria Grazia Franco in the week leading up to International Woman’s day to find out what it’s like to be a woman captain, and how the journey was to get to where she is today.
Who or what inspired you to take the career path that led you to where you are today?
My passion for the sea started when I was young with scuba diving, which led me into the world of sailing. While I was studying nautical engineering at university, I also worked as a piano teacher in order to fund my passion, but before graduating from university, I set off to the DEMA convention in the U.S. in search of a career in scuba diving. It was during this convention that I made contact with an Australian certifying agency who were looking for diving instructors and I moved to Queensland in 1998, ending up working as deckhand / divemaster for a cruise liner. It was a wonderful opportunity to do both my passions at once, so I jumped at the chance.
After three years and training including Master Class 5, I took my first step into the superyacht industry on board M/Y Maupiti in the Pacific, followed by a number of other positions from my new base in Antibes.
In 2002 and a new Master < 3000GT certificate from Plymouth under my belt, I got my first captains’ job in Spain on a large 38m sailing yacht and it was following the sale of the yacht that I got my first “big break”. M/Y Octopus, the largest superyacht in the world at that time, was in its last 6 months of build and there was an exciting role for an Officer. This was kind of a step down, but it was a wonderful experience, second to none, that enabled me to obtain multiple certifications such as a HND in Nautical Science and Unlimited certificates, Dynamic Positioning Operator and Helicopter Landing Officer, and to travel all Oceans and latitudes.
After 6 and half years on Octopus, I decided in 2009 it was well past time to find a captain position. And this is where things got a bit difficult… I would have to wait until 2014, after a number of senior superyacht positions onboard superyachts such as M/Y Madsummer (that changed name to M/Y TV) and just after I had returned to the more gender equal cruise industry that I was approached by the management of M/Y Mariu, whose owner was specifically looking for a woman captain. Bingo! With little competition, I got the job and it’s been plain sailing since then.
Were there any hurdles on this journey?
I applied for hundreds of positions where I was turned down because I was a woman, usually for “accommodation reasons” … But I never gave up my dream and was very lucky. But if I hadn’t had the opportunity on Mariu, I think I would probably have found a captain position with Windstar Cruises eventually leading me back to the superyacht industry.
In the commercial shipping world, there is a lot less discrimination than there is in yachting, where nationality can also be an issue. There I felt that I could make a career solely based on my skills and knowledge. Being a woman in a male dominated industry, we are required to be better than men.
How do guests feel about having a female captain?
Halo is strictly a private yacht, but on previous charter yachts, guests used to be quite surprised, some even very excited to have a female captain. In my experience, the feedback has been mostly very positive.
“Management and recruitment agencies have an important role to pay in changing owner’s mentalities, particularly first-time owners.“
How do you feel progress is being made (if at all) in this industry?
Yes, there’s definitely progress in the industry but it’s too slow. It’s not easy to change mentalities. Change must come from above (owners, management companies) and other leaders in the industry. There are some great examples of women working at a high level though such as Rose Damen, Managing Director at Amels / Damen Yachting, Nina Jensen, CEO of REV Ocean, Captain Kate McCue (Celebrity Cruises), and I have worked with a couple of women project managers in MB92 too.
There are more and more associations for women in the industry as well now such as the “She of the Sea” platform, whose founder was inspired by the role of women such as myself in captain positions.
Do you have a message or piece of advice for others who may feel inspired to follow your path into this industry?
Work hard, commit to what you want, and try and invest in your knowledge and preparation, so get experience, and never give up! And keep believing in yourself, even when you get knocked down. I’m a strong-minded person, which is what you need to be in order to succeed in a management position in this industry. You also need to be hard working and be the type of person who gets up after a fall. People who succeed are those who get up every time and more than the others. And a bit of luck of course! Being in the right place at the right time.
Unfortunately, if you want to become a captain, you may have to make some tough choices. As a woman captain I’ve had to make sacrifices such as no children… I wouldn’t be happy in a shore-based position or becoming a part-time Mum. It was a choice, captain or mother. I do have a family though, 2 furry four-legged children and a husband who I met skydiving and who I encouraged to transition from his shore business into the industry as an AV/IT.
In this line of work, you have to love your job. But as they say, when you love your job, you never work a day.
What more needs to be done in your opinion in the workplace or wider industry?
Management and recruitment agencies need to change their mentalities. They are advising owners, especially first-time owners and are able to influence them in the way they select the team.
Also, I think we need to improve diversity on board as a diverse and multi-cultural crew is a real strength. It helps encourage a respectful working environment and the team works better together.
What are your hopes for the future?
I hope for more and more professionalism within the crew. Both from people looking for short-term commitments and especially from those looking for real career paths.
So much progress has already been made with more and more women in management positions but there is still work to be done.
For myself, I’m very happy where I am so long as I can continue to improve and learn as much as I can.