Don’t disregard the importance of holiday experiences: they can become the defining moment of one’s life. Such is the case with Stéphanie who discovered sailing whilst on holiday when she was 18 and was hooked!
So, obviously, she chose the navy for the mandatory year of military training at French engineering school Polytechnique [see glossary]. She spent six months aboard the ageing Georges Leygues frigate “during which I discovered life at sea which I really, really loved. It was such a rich human experience.” Sixteen years on, she still owns the dark blue cotton T-shirts bearing the ship's name and was, coincidentally wearing one under her working overalls the day I interviewed her at the Naval Group shipyard in Lorient, Brittany.
Stéphanie did her third year internship with Naval Group, known at the time as DCNS, and then opted to spend her fourth year studying maritime engineering sciences at Southampton University, where she was top of her class... a fact she discreetly omitted during our chat. “Two of us wanted to study there but we had to battle to go because the authorities at Polytechnique had never heard of it!” Ironically, she has since found that her MSc from Southampton – ranked in the top 15 universities of the world by the ARWU (Academic Ranking of World Universities) for Marine/Ocean Engineering – is more instantly recognised by foreigners than her Masters in mechanics from Polytechnique. She found the teaching at Southampton “much more applied than the theory I was used to,” which she enjoyed. And, she improved her English and spent a lot of time sailing in the Solent!
With her degrees in hand, Stéphanie decided to take a gap year. She got a six month job in Freemantle, Australia as a naval architect programmer for leisure boats. She laughs when I suggest she might eventually work with an America’s Cup team. “That's exactly what my classmate from Polytechnique and Southampton is doing for Team New Zealand!” she exclaims. “But it took him 10 years to get there and the tiny shipyards prevalent in the yachting world so often go bankrupt that I didn't want to go down that route. I preferred a job with a big company, which offers more variety and possibilities of professional evolution.” Her thirst for adventure was somewhat assuaged conveying a catamaran from Auckland to San Francisco “which was the occasion for a few scary moments as we were crossing the North Pacific in winter,” she recalls.
By then she was 25. Remembering her internship at DCNS she applied for and got a job there as the structure engineer in the design transfer project for the Brazilian nuclear submarine. “But you knew nothing about submarines?” I question. She smiles broadly and remarks that “there are very few courses in submarine design in the world so you learn on the job.” But the customer, the older military Brazilians sent to France to learn the secrets of building a nuclear submarine were expecting to be taught by white-haired, highly experienced old DCNS hands and not a young woman. “At the beginning, relationships were extremely conflictual because of the gap between what they were expecting, and what we had initially prepared in the design transfer.” She’d go to work every morning “not quite dragging my feet but not very enthusiastically" until the day she fainted in front of them. After additional lessons and functioning adjustments, progressively confidence was restored, and by the time it came for instruction to move to São Paulo, the Brazilians specifically asked for her.
She spent one year in São Paulo on her own, her partner staying in France. “That whole experience taught me to handle conflict and today I’m better able to handle conflictual situations,” she remarks quietly, which might come in handy with her 1-yr old and 3-yr old children! She says family duties are equally split between her and her partner, each taking an alternative Wednesday off work to stay at home with the children.
When Stéphanie returned from Brazil in June 2013, she became responsible for ensuring the Design Authority as naval architect of the submarines in service sold by Naval Group. “A sort of after-sales service, if you like,” she explains.
By March 2016 it was time for a change. She moved to surface ships and today is the build skipper for the 9th FREMM frigate, the “Alsace”. She is responsible for the security of the workforce, for organising the work and ensuring that co-activity in a given area is compatible (e.g. no painting and soldering together). “I’m also responsible for ensuring the various work phases are completed on time, so that the main milestones such as the launching or 1st sea trial are held on schedule,” she says.
On April 1 she’ll change jobs again for one where she’s unlikely to have to wear a hard hat and overalls: director for corvette and patrol ship offers. “In other words I’ll have to define the best strategy so that we win the contract!”
And all this because she went sailing one day! Oh, and she's also good at maths.