Fledgling takes flight

Published: 10 May 2016

A young Nautilus member has secured her dream job within a few months of gaining her OOW qualifications — working as a navigator on the world’s longest-running commercial hovercraft service…

Samantha Belfitt When Samantha Belfitt was growing up on the south coast of the UK, she would often watch the hovercraft running between Southsea and the Isle of Wight. ‘I never thought then that I would be working on them now,’ she says.

Samantha, who gained her Officer of the Watch (Unlimited) certificate in July, is now a navigator with Hovertravel — working onboard the 24.5m  AP1-88 craft operated by the company, which can carry up to 101 passengers.

The job not only builds on her childhood fascination, but also provides a perfect platform for her professional and academic qualifications — for not only does she have her maritime ticket, but she also completed a degree in aviation technology with pilot studies.

‘My father was in the Royal Navy when I was very young, and when I was about five my mother joined the Foreign Office, so I have always travelled throughout my life, and I guess that it where my interest in shipping came from,’ Samantha says.

‘However, my original aim was to work in aviation, and I did my BSc in aviation technology and pilot studies at the University of Salford in Manchester,’ she explains. ‘Unfortunately, I couldn’t get a job when I graduated in 2011 as the jobs market had hit rock bottom then and there was no light to be seen at the end of the tunnel.’

Whilst studying for her degree, Samantha joined the university’s Royal Navy unit and had thought about going to sea with the RN. ‘I decided against it, though, as you kept hearing about how they were making redundancies at the time and I wasn’t sure what future it was offering.’

After graduating, Samantha worked at the Wheel of Manchester installation while deciding on her future career. ‘My dad had suggested looking at the Merchant Navy and I was looking at Maersk and BP, but had missed the deadline for applications. I approached SSTG and, because of my prior experience with the RN, I got in straight away,’ she recalls.

Samantha studied at Fleetwood and gained her seatime on the Evergreen containerships Ever Lasting, Ever Sigma and Ever Elite, visiting countries such as China, the US and Israel. ‘It was great to get to see parts of the world that I would never have got to as a tourist,’ she says.

‘I enjoyed my seatime and got on well with everyone,’ Samantha recalls. ‘The seafarers on the Evergreen ships were mainly Taiwanese and Filipinos, and socialising with them was really important as you very much need to put in to get something out,’ she says. ‘I also really liked Fleetwood. The staff were great and I liked the small scale of the place, which really suited me.’

The post at Hovertravel — a seasonal job which will run into the spring — is Samantha’s first job since gaining her OOW certification in July. ‘I applied in September and had an interview a couple of weeks later and then started my two weeks of training in mid-October.

‘This wasn’t like ending up with a random company,’ she says. ‘I grew up watching the hovercraft coming in and out near my home and the company has been a big part of my childhood. When an opportunity to work there came up, I jumped at the chance.’

As navigator, her main duties include assisting the captain by providing radar information about the traffic situation, as well as distances and courses to steer when necessary during the hours of darkness. ‘I have to assess the potentially dangerous situations and tell the pilot what is happening ahead and around us, predicting where we are going and whether we are clear port and starboard.

‘It can be quite stressful and it was all quite different from shipping at first,’ she admits. ‘You have to process all the information so much quicker because of the speed you are operating at, and at first it felt like information overload. But after a week or so I was much more confident and felt I had improved a lot.’

Seafaring has many similarities with flying, Samantha says. ‘Navigation and weather are at the heart of both, although I think aviation is about 20 years ahead of shipping in the way it uses crew resource management and checklists.’

Hovercraft operations are like a hybrid of shipping and aviation working practices, she adds. ‘There are only two of us in the cockpit and it is more like a plane than a bridge. The way we interact with each other is very much a team effort with constant two-way communication.

‘However, the big difference is the speed of things. We are running at up to 40 knots and our crossing usually takes about seven minutes. You have to acquire all the information that you need when you are navigating a ship, but use it in a very different way. Things like CPAs, for instance, when something is three miles away you will reach it in just a couple of minutes — so you have to expand what you are looking at and increase the range of possibilities.’

Conditions in the Solent can vary a lot, Samantha adds. ‘One day the traffic can be horrendous and at other times you can have a completely clear run. You have to be aware of things like other vessels assuming that we have to give away to everybody, or that when we approach large vessels they will blind our radar.’

The hovercraft can operate in conditions of up to force 8 and gusts of up to 40 knots, although wind direction and tides can also impose additional limitations.

‘A high tide and a strong southerly wind can really cut your stopping distances,’ Samantha notes.

‘You also need to be aware of what aspect you are showing to other vessels,’ she points out. ‘A hovercraft can turn in almost any direction and the sliding effect means that you could be showing one aspect but be driving in a different direction.’

Samantha says she hopes to be able to return to Hovertravel in the future — especially after the company takes delivery of its two newbuildings in 2016. ‘I am keen to progress my career further and get my chief mate’s. To do that, I will need to go away to get more seatime, as the hovercraft operate only in Cat D waters,’ she explains. ‘But I would love to come back here — you get to go home every night and it’s like a dream job for me.’

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