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'Just look at the view! This is the best job in the world'

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Wendy Stowe, one of only seven female harbour masters in the UK
Wendy Stowe, one of only seven female harbour masters in the UK

SWEEPING her hand in front of her desk, Wendy Stowe exclaims: “Just look at the view from my office! No wonder I think this is the best job in the world.”

Flowing in front of her is the beautiful Beaulieu River, with its abundance of wildlife and colourful yachts and today on a sparkling cold but clear winter’s day it is definitely breath taking.

As Wendy says: “You never get tired of it. It’s just stunning.”

Harbour Master at Beaulieu for the last two years, astonishingly Wendy is one of only seven female Harbour Masters in the UK out of a total of 200. Although that is better than when she first started nearly three years ago when it was just three.

She revealed: It is quite an incredible statistic. But as we can see it is improving, there are a lot of females on my team and a lot more women coming up through the industry.

“In the past it was very much seen as a ‘man’s job’ as many of the harbour masters were retired naval officers. Sometimes I would go to meetings and be the only female there.”

“I think for a long time it was a career that most women didn’t think of going into, but that is changing.”

Having spent 18 years as deputy Harbour Master at Hamble River Wendy admits she has encountered more than her fair share of sexism.

She said: “Funnily enough it never came from the male Harbour Masters, it was mostly from boat owners. They would come into the office and want to ‘speak to a chap.’ they would mistake me for a secretary sometimes.

“Years ago a man came into the office when my husband was visiting me. He is in IT but the yacht owner refused to speak to me, ignoring me completely even when my husband told him it was me he needed. He carried on asking my husband questions while he was saying: “I haven’t got a clue what you are talking about, I work with computers!”

“Luckily I can laugh at things like that but it is astonishing that people can be so chauvinistic and still surprised to find a woman in charge.”

Wendy (45) said she ‘things have definitely changed’ although you still ‘need to earn that respect’ whether you a male, or female.

She said: “I’ve worked very, very hard to get to where I am. This is a job you can never really switch off. Even when I am home I am on call. I am always on my email.

“In the summer we work daylight hours, so that can be from 8am to 9-10pm at night. In the winter it’s less but I still work every other weekend.

“We are open 362 days of the year so people will be working on Christmas Day.

“A river is not something you can shut up shop and walk away from at 5pm.”

Wendy has always loved sailing taking it up as a sport in her late teens. When she left school she was originally going to study sports physiotherapy at Loughborough University but changed her mind at the last minute.

She said: “I was brought up near Brighton and had always been by the sea. Loughborough was landlocked and I felt I would really miss the coast.

“A friend was going to universtity to study maritime leisure management at Southampton which covers everything from yacht design to business. I thought ‘that sounds interesting’ and that was that.

“I was very fortunate to make that change as I absolutely love my job. Sailing is completely in my blood and I’ve always loved being on the water.”

In the last year of her studies she went to work at Hamble Harbour for the summer season and when she finished they took her on permanently. She learnt everything from safety, to caring for the environment, to managing yacht moorings, to building up the business.

Wendy revealed: “Hamble is a very, very busy harbour. There are 3,000 boats and 11 marinas. As Harbour Master you are in charge of all the comings and goings. You have to ensure that everyone is using the harbour safely from dinghy sailors to 30-foot yachts.

“You also have to constantly listen to the radio waves to make sure you are aware of what is going on. “

Wendy says Beaulieu is a "total contrast" while also being "a lot quieter" until it comes to May when until October they have 7,000 visiting yachts.

Wendy said: “It’s full on every weekend. Everyone is out on the river, we have to make sure we know exactly what is going on.”

Looking out at the tranquil waters she smiles saying: “It’s so very beautiful here. Beaulieu is unique as it is one of only three rivers in the country that are not owned by the Queen as the crown estate owns all the river beds. The Montagu family are really protective of it and have kept it as it has always been which I think is so lovely. They are very passionate about the river.

“Everyone who visits loves the fact that Beaulieu Harbour is still so unspoiled, it’s a natural haven that hasn’t been touched by big commercialism.

“There is so much heritage here, with all the connections with Nelson, I feel very privileged to be in charge of it.

“It’s a very beautiful river, there is so much wildlife on and around it. It’s also a very social harbour, in the summer we have a pop-up restaurant where two, or three of the boat owners will get together and cook a meal for everyone.

“There were over 300 people at our moorings holders’ annual party. We do have a lot of members and a lot of regular visitors which is lovely. Everyone who visits loves the fact that Beaulieu Harbour is still so natural.”

Part of her role is making sure the harbour remains competitive and sustainable. Wendy says plastic pollution is not something she has a problem with saying: “Boat owners have always been pretty aware of taking care of their rubbish. I very rarely see any plastic bottles floating about.

“We’ve spent half a million upgrading the shower facilities recently and installed super-fast broadband."

All of Wendy’s team are trained to deal with medical, fire and spillage emergencies. Her own skills were called for this summer when she had to help recover the body of a man from the river.

He was a guest at the Master Builder’s Hotel who was last seen on CCTV going for a walk along the pontoon.

Wendy said: “That was really sad for us, it was a shock for everyone involved. The family were frantically trying to find him. The CCTV didn’t cover the point at which he entered the river but I think he probably collapsed on the pontoon and rolled in the river.

“I have had to deal with quite a few deaths over the years and it never gets easier. At Hamble there were a lot more incidents, very serious accidents, fires.

“In Beaulieu it’s a lot quieter but you do get the odd novice idiot turning up! “

When Wendy is not working she is often found on her own boat a 30 foot yacht. She and her husband often enter races including taking part in Cowes Week.

She explained: “The adrenaline is fantastic. There is also the peace, just being out on the ocean with no computers, no phones. It’s just a wonderful feeling.”

She says she hopes to remain at Beaulieu for ‘forever’ and sees part of her future role as protecting it for future generations adding: “I want to ensure it remains as beautiful as it is.”

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