Navy’s first woman commander commends equal opportunities

The first female commander of a major warship joined the Royal Navy because she believed it was the “primary equal opportunities employer”.

Commander Sarah West, 40, from Grimsby, took up her post on HMS Portland last week.

The ship, which was commissioned in 2001, is currently undergoing a £20m refit in Rosyth, Fife, to bring it up to date with other frontline warships.

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Cdr West joined the Navy in 1995 after two years working as a trainee manager in the steel industry.

She said: “I really wasn’t getting the challenging career that I wanted, so I looked into other careers and the Armed Forces in particular, and at that time it appeared that the Royal Navy was the primary equal opportunities employer for what I wanted to do.

“In particular what attracted me was that the Navy was training male and female officers together, and that wasn’t the same in other services.

“It also looked like my gender wasn’t going to be an issue. I wanted a challenging career and the Navy seemed the place to get that.”

Cdr West has been in charge of smaller ships before and her appointment on HMS Portland marked a significant milestone in her life. She added: “I’m afraid to admit it was my 40th birthday last week but it was a great present to officially join the ship’s company.

“Commanding any ship is a privilege and I was very lucky to command minehunter ships in Faslane and had a great crew to do that, but obviously this is a step up and rather than a company of 40 I’m now looking at a crew of 185, and the ship itself is 10 times bigger as well.”

The ship is due to return to sea in September and the captain is responsible for preparing the crew for active duty.

Cdr West, who is single, has been “flattered” by the attention her appointment has received but said it is “just everyday business” for the Navy.

The Ministry of Defence said that since women went to sea with the Navy in 1990, they have achieved success in many fields and have become pilots, observers and mine clearance divers. Last December , the MoD announced that women will join their male counterparts in submarines next year.

Despite being the first woman in charge of a frontline warship, Cdr West does not see herself as a role model. She said: “It’s everyday business for the Navy but hopefully it does demonstrate to both male and female officers, and those interest in joining the Navy, that it is a rewarding career that promotes on merit.”