Laura Burden and her career at sea

November 4th 2022

Back in June, we interviewed Laura Burden - Deputy Principal Tertiary for UHI Shetland, about her career at sea and how it began with her experience sailing on a Tall Ship at 16 years old - a journey that opened her eyes to the different opportunities and career paths available to her.

Growing up in Newcastle and with no experience of sailing, when a piece of paper was passed around Laura’s class stating “Does anyone want to go sailing? Phone this number!” she decided to do just that and phone - she was told about an opportunity to go sailing on a tall ship and by that summer, at age 16, her dad was dropping her at the local bus station in Newcastle to set off to Great Yarmouth to begin her trip. Getting on the bus, Laura recalls the sheer mix of people all from different backgrounds and walks of life.

When arriving in Great Yarmouth, they joined the Prince William Tall Ship, the original route taken was to be abroad - but the weather proved too challenging, and they ended up sailing from Great Yarmouth back to Newcastle. Laura recalls the excitement she felt whilst onboard - reminiscing about her first time climbing the mast, halfway up and down, she loved that element of sailing. The Prince William returned to Newcastle, meaning her family got to watch as she returned home, an emotional occasion she recalls. The experience had been life-changing, getting away from what and who she was familiar with had sparked an idea in Laura’s head that there was something else out there for her.

Her trip had been so impactful that she didn’t feel ready to leave, so she stayed onboard for a few extra days helping - where she met the managing director of a local shopping centre. He stated that the company would be happy to sponsor her on another trip, as they often did for young people on sailing expeditions. The Tall Ships Races were set to return to Newcastle in 2005, two years later, and Laura decided to take part again. Part of her voyage was sponsored and as her 18th birthday present from her parents she joined the Races. Again, she was on the Prince William, this time was special as her family and friends could join in on the celebrations with Newcastle as a home port and wave her goodbye dockside as she sailed to Fredrikstad. It was a rough night, with force 9 winds - resulting in the Prince William having to forfeit and turn on their engine to help another ship. Yet when they arrived in Fredrikstad the atmosphere was incredible, Laura recalls the crew parade clearly as they danced their way down the street.

Laura had applied to Newcastle University with aspirations to become a barrister and was waiting on exam results to guarantee her place, but her Tall Ships experience had uprooted her plans - she no longer felt that university was right for her, she wanted to do something different. So, she had a drastic change of plan and applied to the Merchant Navy, where she got an interview, signed a contract there, and then went to sea - by that November she had been at college and was on a ship.

Laura’s class in the Merchant Navy had 70 pupils, seven of which were women and three of those women were from a Tall Ships background! Laura told us she’s faced no issues with being a woman in her line of work, commenting that she was on ships that had up to 52 different nationalities of people on them - everyone was ‘different’ and that’s the beauty of a career at sea. She adds “it’s a worldwide industry so there is still a slight preconception as to who does and should do what roles, but the industry is breaking down stereotypes and opening the public's eyes to the opportunities available to people from all walks of life.”

She first sailed for four and a half months around the Caribbean, working on the Wind Surf - one of the largest sailing cruise ships in the world. Carrying on she worked on Holland America cruise ships, sailing through Alaska, North and South America, the Mediterranean, Asia, Australia, and New Zealand. Eventually, coming ashore to have her first child and study for her next Certificate of Competency. Before long, Laura returned to sea with her baby boy and her husband as a spouse on board. They lived onboard for five months - Laura recalls the special memories of her baby seeing pink dolphins in the Amazon and experiencing Rio carnival - but they concluded it was not viable to bring up a child long-term onboard, so they came ashore.

As they came ashore a job came up in Shetland, lecturing at the NAFC Marine Centre in Scalloway, and Laura decided to give Shetland a go. They stayed in Shetland for six months but established that it wasn’t the right place for them at that point in time, as the transition from sea to shore had been hard. Laura was offered a position at South Shields Marine School - which was considerably closer to home and family. Two years later another job in Shetland caught her eye, as Head of The Cadet Programme at NAFC. The family moved back to Shetland, where they have lived for seven years now. Laura has worked her way up through the college, onto managing departments, and now to be Deputy Principal Tertiary.

Reflecting on her career in the maritime industry, and specifically in the Merchant Navy, she puts into words one of the big appeals of the industry - the variety and mix of people you will work with. Due to the fact the Merchant Navy is available and accessible to everybody, Individuals of all ages, people who have been to prison or people with PhDs. She explains, "It makes you appreciate what everyone can bring to the table and what you can learn from others as it puts you all on a level playing field. You can be the 16-year-old that struggled with school and university didn’t suit you, and still make it to a high level within the Merchant Navy with a well-paying job. There are not many career paths that offer opportunities to such a variety of people, especially for them to make their way to the top” adding that there is a job for everyone in the industry, whether that be working on the local ferry, going to Australia on a cargo ship or even working within the harbour, in insurance, recruitment or legal. Laura highlights that we need to bring awareness to the opportunities that are available in the maritime industry as it can lead you down a commendable career path. She added “Come along and speak to us at UHI Shetland where we can support you in finding a route in maritime studies”

Regarding the Tall Ships Races, Laura says “Phone that number!” Start by speaking to your local boat clubs, sail training organisation or local tall ships organisation, as the Tall Ships Races take place every year. Adults, It’s never too late, you can volunteer and get involved with the festival, meet the people with experience and see the vessels. For trainees the Tall Ships Races takes away social pressures as you are not surrounded by your peers, everyone is equal, and you will learn to value each other regardless of your backgrounds. Parents don’t be frightened - the people taking care of them onboard know what they’re doing. Laura concludes by telling us “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience and you have no idea where it may take you in life.” She certainly didn’t expect it to impact her life as positively as it has. The Tall Ships Races gave Laura the confidence she needed to make a bold change in her life and do what would truly make her happy.

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