Khrysilla Backo

Khrysilla Backo shares her journey as a Marine Cadet at Port of Brisbane Pty Ltd

“I really want this”.

I first met Khrysilla Backo in June 2018. She was one of 60 women attending an Open Day at Port of Brisbane to launch PBPL’s Cadetship Program for Women. We were filming the event and I remember Khrysilla vividly for two reasons. Firstly, because I almost didn’t get to interview her - she literally ran away from us when we tried to get her on camera. The second reason was what happened when we did persuade her to talk to us. I expected nerves and hesitation but out came a big smile and an even bigger personality. Combining hilarious chat and laughter with self-deprecation and gratitude to ‘even be here for this’, she showed me how open hearted, relaxed and down to earth she is.

Then it happened.
I asked her how she felt about the opportunity to apply for a place on the Program. Instantly, she stopped smiling, looked me straight in the eye and said it.
“I really want this.”

Then she relaxed, told a joke and charged off to meet our Hydrography team.
Those four words and that determined look are at the forefront of my mind as I return to PBPL’s Operation Base on a beautiful December morning to interview her again. Indeed, Khrysilla was one of four women to be selected for the ground-breaking Cadetship Program and, six months on, is well on her way to complete the two year program. As I walk into the Operations Base, she’s talking with one of the Crew about work happening that morning.

“Then, I’m going out on the Frankie – it’s a really big, beautiful boat”.
“So you’re enjoying it then?” I ask, and am met again with that incredible smile:
“It’s awesome! I come here every day and sit down there and see the water. I still can’t believe I’m here.”

Khrysilla on her role: I feel so lucky. Who wouldn’t want an office on the water?

As a deckhand for PBPL, Khrysilla spends most days working on the boats, performing deckhand duties including maintenance, safety management and cleaning, while learning about vessel operations, navigation and dredging. She’s clearly no stranger to hard work but it’s the learning and development that motivates her most… well, that and the workplace! 
“I’m so grateful to be learning so much and pushing myself every day. And who wouldn’t want an office on the water? Just look at it!”
With genuine humility, Khrysilla shares her astonishment at being selected ahead of “so many knowledgeable and talented women”. Yet the passion and drive in her voice gives a good indication of how she may have stood out.
“At the open day, there were women asking all these technical questions about the engines. I was just, like, ‘That boat’s cool’. I was so nervous at the interview and after that I thought. ‘No way will they pick me’. Then they asked me if I wanted to do a trial day to understand the kind of work. We went out to Aquatic Paradise where they were doing some dredging. It was amazing. My first boat was Little Turtle – it’s the smallest vessel we have. I want to drive that myself soon.”

Breaking down barriers: From glazing to marine

Khrysilla is Aboriginal Ni Vanuatu, and is originally from Mackay in Northern Queensland. She tells me she came to Brisbane in 2016 to get into high rise glazing. I ask her why she wanted to be glazier and the conversation which follows is as astonishing as it is impressive. When she was ten years old, she fell through a glass shower screen, which wasn’t the right safety standard.
“It ripped my skin apart, and it took a couple of months to recover. I was really afraid after that – I’d freak out the moment someone broke a bottle. So I went to work for a glazier, to get over it and not be scared anymore.”
My jaw drops at the bravery of that decision, and it drops further as Khrysilla tells me a story about what happened later.
“I started out in glazing as a labourer and I remember saying to a guy in the yard one day, ‘I’m gonna run this place, you know.’ He laughed but I meant it. I later became foreman there.”
She’s clearly a woman who enjoys breaking down barriers (I later found out she won Construction Skills Queensland’s ‘Indigenous Person of the Year’ in 2014 and Fenestration Australian Window Association’s ‘Woman of the Year’ in 2015) so I ask her about PBPL’s efforts to attract more women to the maritime industry. She says more women should absolutely explore this option and her advice is to “just go for it”.
“There’s no reason why women shouldn’t be here. I’ve never been treated any differently to anyone else. You’ve got to want to learn and you’ve got to build relationships.”  
I mention that her personality must be a real asset to her at PBPL but something on the water catches her attention and she brings me back to the boats:
“Us cadets are excited about the Brisbane [Ed: PBPL’s largest vessel] coming back next week. We’ve heard so much about it so I can’t wait to see what they have on there, and how big it is in real life. Everything here is so much more than I thought it would be – more learning, more projects, more complexity. And we’re learning from the best in their field. I just can’t believe I have this opportunity”
When I ask what’s next for Khrysilla, her answer is quite low-key; she says she can’t wait to complete her Marine Engine Driver Grade 3 (MED3) and be qualified to do what the experts around her are doing every day. I decide to probe a little further, asking ‘And do you have plan for after that?’
Her face changes and she looks me straight in the eye.
“Of course I have.”
By Mark Puncher, Proud Partner of PBPL

Find out more about Port of Brisbane’s Marine Cadetship Program for Women.