Friday, September 28, 2007

Lt. Cordle's in command

This is long overdue but congrats to the first female captain of a coast guard vessel in Barbados, Lieutenant Fernella Cordle, who is in command of the newest addition to the Barbados Coast Guard, HMBS Leonard C. Banfield.

Here's a story written on Lieutenant Cordle a few days ago by the Nation Newspaper.

Cordle in command

"I GO OUT THERE every morning and I'm like, 'Wow, that is mine, I'm responsible for this!'"

Lieutenant Fernella Cordle is talking about her "baby", HMBS Leonard C. Banfield, the newest addition to the Barbados Coast Guard's fleet which arrived early on September 6.

Cordle, the first female captain of a Coast Guard vessel, saw the delivery through from Holland (where it was made) to Barbados; and from all indications, it was a smooth one.

It was a labour of love for this humble 32-year-old who is quite modest about her accomplishments.

She has already formed a bond with the vessel which measures 42 metres in length and boasts some of the most modern technology around.

Though Cordle doesn't have any children of her own, as yet, she desires to one day; and taking care of a US$6 million ship is certainly good practice.

"I remember the price tag and I think about how much is at stake if something should go wrong. That keeps everything in perspective," she told the SUNDAY SUN during a recent interview.

Cordle, who has been in the Coast Guard for the last 13 years, credits her achievement to everyone who has ever had a hand in her development as she climbed the ranks of the Barbados Defence Force (BDF).

Joining the Coast Guard was the last thing on her mind after graduating from the Samuel Jackman Prescod Polytechnic where she studied electronics. She said: "It was something that just happened."

She didn't want to go to university right away; but she didn't want to stay home twiddling her thumbs either. So her brother, who was already in the BDF, suggested she join until she made up her mind as to what she wanted to do.

The initial training was so tough that Cordle wanted to call it quits but she stuck with it and her perseverance paid off.

Everything that happened career-wise after that was just a matter of being in the right place at the right time, she said.

She went for training in 1997 at the Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, England, handling vessels of various sizes, and studying meteorology, oceanography, communications, navigation and other areas.

After that, she returned to Barbados and joined HMBS Trident as the navigating officer, a post she held until 2003. Cordle then moved on to become the operations officer where her duties entailed coordinating and managing the maritime operations on behalf of the commanding officer of the Coast Guard.

"That was a nice job but stressful. We worked 24 hours a day and if I was responsible for them, that meant I also worked 24 hours a day. Even though I am not physically there now, my mind is always still on them: what they are doing, if they are okay.

"I remember when they had counter-narcotic operations, I was always aware that I was sending people's children, husbands, brothers to sea. I always made sure I saw them before they left and when they returned to ensure that everybody was good," said Cordle, who has been accused of mothering those under her command.

Following her stint as an operations officer, she went back to Britain for higher training in the international sub-lieutenant's course which included navigation, communications and ship management.

It took her longer than she had originally planned, but in 2006 she took about a year off to attend the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus, where she pursued studies in linguistics and management.

When she went back to work, Cordle assisted the command of the Coast Guard in the move from Willoughby Fort to HMBS Pelican, the new headquarters at Spring Garden, St Michael.

Then the opportunity of a lifetime presented itself. Right after Cricket World Cup this year she got an offer she couldn't refuse.

"The commander said to me, 'How do you feel about being captain of the Leonard C. Banfield?' I said, 'Yes, sir' because I wanted to go back to sea. Being on base and dealing with the admin problems and all the personalities can be very tiring, more stressful than being at sea where you just wonder about the water and the boat.

"At first when the commander first told me I was a bit hesitant because it was the first one [of a new fleet] and it is a whole lot bigger than Trident which I can drive and was familiar with.

"She [the Leonard C. Banfield] is more modern than the Trident too. I had a lot of apprehension, fear and confidence issues but the guys here, my contemporaries believed in me and that was sufficient, along with the fact that the commander, headquarters and Government (because the Prime Minister had to sign off on it) believed in me. So I said if all these people believe in me why am I doubting myself?" said the Spooners Hill, St Michael resident and former Coleridge Parry School student.

So she packed her bags and went to Jamaica for training with the command team. After that, they went off to Holland for further training on the Leonard C. Banfield and with Cordle at the helm, they brought her home.

Cordle somehow managed to keep her big news a secret from her family and friends until she returned from Jamaica probably afraid she would jinx it. But when she finally broke the news, they were too excited to be mad with her.

Although she can't get away from it, she doesn't like being referred to as the first female captain. In her view, anyone could have got the post - male or female.

"It is too much pressure being the first female captain. I don't want that to be an excuse or a cover. We have other females here and the guys would say the females who are here are special because they fit right in. You retain your femininity but when it comes to doing a man's job you still have to do it and you do it to your best.

"When I first joined the BDF, I was not treated any differently than anybody else. I went through the paces just like everybody else. This promotion could've happened to anyone. It so happened that it was me. My colleagues are happy for me and we celebrated, we still have some more celebrating to do. With anything, there will be detractors but you just prepare yourself for it," she said, adding:

"There is a female ship captain in Jamaica and she was the first in the CARICOM region. When I was in Jamaica, I had the time to talk to her and she told me what it was like. It was good to have somebody else who understood what I would go through."

The Leonard C. Banfield not only has a young captain but also a pretty young crew of about 14 men. For the next few months they, along with Cordle, will be training on the vessel and familiarising themselves with its systems. Their first real mission probably won't be until early next year.

Although Cordle has reached the rank of captain, it hasn't gone to her head; she is still very much open to the opinions of others.

"It isn't a case that I'm captain now, so I know everything," she said.

Her schedule will be quite hectic as she and her crew ensure that local waters remain safe. It won't leave much time for family or a social life.

"You have to make time. That is why family is so important and when I do go home even if I don't switch off completely, I spend time with my family, my partner and his family.

"I have two years full command of the ship after that; the high command will determine if I will stay on. The BDF is pretty forward thinking when it comes to women and I think they understand that the biological clock is ticking," she said laughing.

While Cordle doesn't like words like "pioneer" or "trailblazer" she knows she has achieved something pretty special, paving the way for other women in the Coast Guard.

"There will be other females and if my opportunity is going to afford other females the opportunity, then I'm all for that," she said.


Anonymous said...

My heartiest congratulations to Lt. Cordle. I have always had a strong interest in history, particularly military, naval and maritime history. It is great to see Barbados become the second RSS member to have a woman commanding a coast guard vessel.

I'm actually pursuing a History MA at UWI, Cave Hill, and I hope to write my research paper on some aspect of the maritime history of Barbados and the Windward Islands. It is great to see a West Indian woman making maritime and naval history. Godspeed Lt. Cordle.


Bajegirl said...

Thanks for your post. Good luck with your studies.