New SABBEX staffer shows you can still reach the stars with your feet on the ground

If there was ever a moment when Thina Qutywa was going to regret her life choices, it was a few years back aboard a Maersk cargo ship somewhere between China and South Africa, in the middle of a storm.

The view from the poop deck looked nothing like the undulating hills around East London and Umtata where she grew up: on board all Thina could see now was moving hills of seething deep ocean madness.

It was the kind of view that separates seafarers from landlubbers, a vista of violence known to terminate promising maritime careers.

Not Thina. She took out her cell phone and pressed record.

“We were having very bad weather that day and we sat at the poop deck to see how high the waves were,” recalls Thina with a wry smile. “I made a video and sent it to my parents. My mom was, like, don’t you ever do that again.”

Clearly a little bad weather was never going to scupper Thina’s prospects, and her rapid ascent in the maritime world comes as no surprise to those who know her. As of late last year she is part of the admin team at the South African Boat Builders Export Council, under the watchful tutelage of executive manager Vanessa Davidson.  She will join Davidson and the SA team in a few weeks at the Miami Boat Show, with other travels surely sparkling on the horizon.

The journey from East London to a comfortable office at the Waterfront is an inspiring one, not least because Thina is quick to credit her family for enabling her to succeed. In person she is quietly confident, watchful rather than guarded, and personable, with that innate ability some people have to converse easily about everything from Beyonce to boatbuilding.  Her CV is already a thing of wonder, studded with unexpected items such as provincial netball and part-time modelling, to which she will soon add an engineering degree from the Cape Peninsula University of Technology.

None of it would have been possible without the support of her family, particularly her parents who allowed Thina to pursue her chosen profession even if it meant disappearing over a distant new horizon – the male-dominated world of marine engineering. Her father, Enoch, works in the public health sector as Eastern Cape deputy director of radiological services; her mother, Koliswa, first raised five children and is now studying law. “The African Obamas” is how one maritime source described the Qutywa family, such is their success and ‘can-do’ philosophy.   “My parents have always been very open and supportive of what I wanted to be – they said as long as I was happy they were fine,” recalls Thina with visible pride.

Her early childhood was shaped largely by two other family dynamics: the fact that she was an only child for the first 12 years, and numerous relocations due to her father’s work  — from East London to Joburg, then to Umtata, and then back to East London.

Through it all Thina excelled at school and learnt how to adjust to unfamiliar situations.  “I was the teacher’s pet – a prefect, library monitor, a tutor,” says Thina the reluctant nerd, who presumably battled to be mediocre.  She succeeded despite having to switch schools with each move.

With maths as her favourite subject she settled on the idea of becoming a pilot, but was not accepted into flight training. “My second option was engineering and my third was to be a doctor,” she says, seemingly still a little bit deflated to still be on the ground. However the early disappointment might help explain why she was drawn to the idea of marine engineering which she heard about from a friend – a possible conduit to adventure.  “I thought marine mechanical engineering is the way to go because I would get to travel and work – that seemed amazing,” explains Thina, who duly registered at CPUT in 2014.

Two years later she started her cadetship with Maersk and never looked back.

Her studies also took her to Kimberley for training workshops at the De Beers technical training centre where, despite a notable gender imbalance, she never encountered any prejudice. “I never really felt like an outcast, even if sometimes I was the only girl.”  She finished her training in 2018 and recently added her Marine Engineering Degree in December last year.

Despite her adventurous spirit Thina does not feel compelled to return to sea, possibly due to the allure of greater opportunities on land and the thought of what she might need to sacrifice by staying longer at sea – a big price for somebody so rooted to friends and family: “During my cadetship (with Maersk) I missed my best friend giving birth to her first child. The funerals the weddings — you feel it.. But you just don’t focus on it. You focus on your goal.”

“I loved being at sea but didn’t want to cement myself at sea,” she adds. “I wanted to cement myself here (in Cape Town) and grow myself in the marine world, to learn the other side. I asked myself what more is there to maritime other than being an engineer on a ship?”

That’s where Vanessa Davidson stepped in, thanks to a chance meeting at a Women in Maritime workshop in Cape Town hosted by the South African International Maritime Institute.  Vanessa didn’t need a second introduction to recognise a possible protégé. Just a few weeks later Thina was getting her first taste of the Cape Town International Boat Show as part of the SABBEX delegation, rubbing shoulders with some of the world’s best luxury catamaran builders.

If Maersk was for Thina an introduction to international shipping, Cape Town has been a revelation about global boatbuilding and what it has to offer the local maritime industry. She sees her role within SABBEX as helping to bridge the divide between the builders, many of them international superstars in their professions, and the South African government which has been slow to create an enabling environment for the marine industry to flourish. “I feel that not a lot of people know about the sector – I myself didn’t know about it until I got into it,” she continues. “That is definitely something that needs to change. Boatbuilding can contribute a lot to the economy. We have ocean all around us and yet nothing much is being done about it.”

If Thina is clear on maritime priorities, she is crystal about her personal priorities – her family.  She does not hesitate when asked to name inspirational mentors from her past life: “My mom is my superstar!” she beams, adding that she values her relationship with her younger siblings: “I’m the big sister. I’m the Santa Claus.”

Thina might not know it yet but a Santa Claus might be exactly what the maritime sector needs to navigate the choppy water ahead.

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