Martial Olivier admits it, and they both laugh, recalling when he saw her on the quay in Camaret, at the end of August.
‘When I saw her arrive, a featherweight in a rapper’s cap and her tank top, I said to myself, what are we going to do with this one?’
At 52, with 30 years of crabbing behind him, the skipper – and co-owner with Beganton – of crabber Bag Kevell, has seen plenty of crew. The last time female engineer was on his old crabber Intron Varia, she ended up being airlifted off after just a day at sea. So it’s understandable that he was concerned when Charlotte Sau arrived with her sea bag.
But his fears turned out to be groundless, and his praise for the 22-year old engineer is almost enough to make her blush.
Built 31 years ago, the 22 metre ex-Steren Mor was extensively refitted in 2018 at the Tanguy shipyard in Douarnenez, which left Roscoff, its home port, had to stop at Camaret.
A combination of circumstances brought Charlotte to Bag Kevell. After a year’s training at the Hydro de St Malo towards a chief engineer’s certificate, she was recruited by Bourbon offshore to spend the summer in Cameroon – until Covid-19 halted those plans in April. Then a fellow student put her in touch with Bag Kevell’s mate, Morgan. Two phone calls later, and she was on board as a second engineer for the summer, to put in some of the required sea time and to save up to support her training.
‘The first time I set foot on a fishing boat … At college, we had only done one week on a Brittany ferry,’ she said.
‘I’m from the south, I came to the maritime college in St Malo, after my baccalaureate, to do a year of preparation for the ENSM, and came third out of 68. I’ve never crammed so hard at school as I did this year, but I was really motivated!’
The fascinating for the sea, and her appetite for anything mechanical goes back to her grandfather Michel Antonioli, a merchant navy engineer officer, who lived on a sailing boat in Marseille.
“When I was eight, I spent six months with him cruising the Mediterranean. I missed school, which was great!’
Charlotte admits that she doesn’t like being shut up in classroom, and even though she did well, she skipped school a lot in high school. She preferred to tinker on her grandfather’s boat, or repair motorcycles.
“A marine engine, like a solid old Volvo such as on Bag Kevell, is simple. You also have to take care of the big vivier pump, but that’s fine, once you understand how the valves work. In fact, you don’t spend much time in the engine room. On the other hand, at the hauler, to start with, you sweat seriously … I started with the bait (ray), but I do other work on deck, except nicking, which I don’t do well. I love pulling the crabs out of the traps, even if it’s heavier physical work,‘ she said.
Breton crabbers do not work like the English boats, instead working nomadically to follow the crab migrations, working fairly light 12-15kg traps. All the same, the work on board a crabber is demanding.
After the first ten-day trip, she had to stop at a convenience store to buy two cans of fresh soda, and had to massage her hands, which had locked tight, so she could drive back to St Malo. It’s a common problem for crabber crews, she said, adding that her appetite also grew.
‘Normally I eat nothing in the morning, but on the second day I started with five rounds of toast with Nutella so I would be able to keep going until the evening meal. Then you sleep like a log, and up at three in the morning. So when the engineer left following an incident in mid-trip, I offered to replace him, and I’m staying here. Things are going very well with the crew, helpful and supportive. I have a derogation, and I’ll go for the 250 kW certificate in January.’
Bag Kevell’s engine is capped at this power output. It is becoming difficult to find properly qualified engineers for crabbers with more powerful engines. They prefer to go trawling, which is more profitable and less exhausting.
After a slightly better year in 2019, the Breton offshore crabbers are experiencing a very average 2020, at best, both in the Channel and in the Bay of Biscay – and the covid-related market problems haven’t helped the situation, pulling prices down.