Who's navigating? No such thing as a dumb question
Nic Gardner MNI talks about challenges, inspiration and experience throughout her career at sea – and what comes next
What led you to work at sea?
I was in Cubs and Scouts as a kid. At the 1994-95 Jamboree in Perth, I spent a few hours on a local sail training ship, fell in love with sailing, and signed up for a voyage as a trainee. After spending the rest of my high-school career volunteering on board, a career at sea was an obvious choice.
Tell us a bit about your career path to date?
What did you find most interesting/challenging? I think careers at sea are just challenges glued together by periods of boredom. Physical challenges are easy and fun (at least afterwards): a knockdown and flooding on a sailing ship, a rogue wave and near-sinking on another sailing ship, and serious flooding on a capesize bulk carrier stand out in my mind.
Mental challenges are completely different. Nearly three years on a twentyone metre 16th-century sailing ship with 16 crew, and volunteering as safety officer on the hospital ship Africa Mercy before and during Covid were completely different types of mental challenge. Right now, my biggest challenge is working in an area with no access to up-to-date charts, so we have to complete our own surveys before we can do anything. It’s never dull!
Where do you see yourself in five years time? Ten?
In the last few years I’ve rediscovered my passion for humanitarian work. If the borders open in the next five years I’d like to be allowed to go home to New Zealand, but apart from that I’d like to spend more time with Mercy Ships and Peace Winds.
I’m studying emergency health care, and hoping to go on to study law and safety science next. During or after my studies, I’d like to work in either refugee rescue or marine accident investigation. If that doesn’t happen, it’ll be because something more useful came up.
You’ve worked on many types of vessels – what strengths and skills help you transfer between them?
I was lucky enough to get almost a decade of hands-on experience in practical seamanship and improvisation on square riggers, and sail with incredible mentors who modelled patience and effective crew management. I’d say the combination of practical seamanship, a willingness to ask ‘dumb questions’ (note: there’s no such thing as a dumb question), and great role models have helped me throughout my career.
How can navigators and bridge teams most effectively work with Pilots?
I think if both sides took a few minutes to connect at a human level, it would lead to more effective bridge teams. Pilots are there to help us, not make our lives more difficult. It often feels as if many seafarers have an adversarial rather than a cooperative relationship with Pilots; language and cultural barriers make it worse. Some officers and crew see Pilots as bossy outsiders, and some Pilots absolutely fit that stereotype. Procedures and paperwork can’t force mutual understanding and respect, or overcome fear and cultural norms—only human connection can do that.