Ralitsa Mihaylova: Engineering progress in the yachting industry

Offered By Safinah Group

In our latest Women in Yachting interview, we catch up with a woman whose destiny always seemed likely to pull her into the yachting industry – all thanks to her family and a “love for engineering”.

Growing up, Ralitsa Mihaylova was surrounded by people who were naturally drawn to the sea, all with exciting stories to tell about the industry. Her grandfather, in particular, worked as a project manager at a shipyard for most of his career. It’s little wonder, then, that Mihaylova has forged a hugely successful career within both commercial shipping and yachting.

Ralitsa Mihyalova undertaking field work for Safinah Group

As head of special projects at Safinah Group, Mihaylova harbours a lot of responsibility but remains one of a small number of women occupying a senior role within the industry. She opens up about her career to date, the ongoing fight for equality and why it’s important to celebrate every personal win.

Did you have a particular passion for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects (that traditionally appeal more to male students) when you were younger?

Yes and no. I have never struggled with STEM subjects, but I was not particularly drawn to them either. What always fascinated me, however, was applying these principles in order to bring life to complex engineering projects.

As an only child in a family with strong ties to the sea, I grew up around people who had the most amazing stories about the industry, being at sea and magical faraway places.

My love for engineering and the industry comes from numerous summers spent with my grandfather, a project manager at a ship building yard for most of his career, who kept on designing and building the most peculiar and fascinating inventions after he retired. As his young apprentice and partner in crime, by the age of seven I had an eclectic mix of skills, such as soldering, bricklaying, interpreting engineering drawings, and grape vines pruning. I have always been keen on hedging my bets – if engineering did not work out, I could always become a wine maker.

The decision to pursue a career in shipping and to study in the Bulgarian Naval Academy (N Y Vaptsarov) came naturally. I have always felt like I belonged with people who were connected to the sea, and I also wanted a career that was not only exciting but that would allow me to be financially independent. The sea offered that and so much more.

How long have you been in yachting and what is your role?

I started my career in commercial shipping but I was introduced to the superyacht industry when I joined my current organisation about 4 years ago, and since then I have had the privilege to work on some of the largest and most recognisable mega yachts. Safinah Group is an independent coating consultancy providing expert advice and support for the chain of activities that links vessel, structure design and construction, coatings, and the environment. The yacht team provides a range of services tailored to the luxury yachting sector including coating project management at new-build or refit, condition surveys, review and development of functional specifications, failure investigation analysis, and expert witness work.

My current role, as the head of special projects, is very diverse and it involves coordinating multiple consultancy projects and R&D activities dedicated to helping the industry with choosing the optimal solutions in terms of protective coatings and other technologies to minimise its environmental impact. I am also responsible for improving and leveraging the company’s data infrastructure in order to explore and develop novel digital tools and services.

What does a typical day hold for you?

A typical day involves regular communication and technical discussions with the team and various stakeholders, such as owners, managers, yards, equipment manufacturers and service providers; trouble-shooting; and occasionally, a visit to a new-build or refit yard for coating related work. But what my job gives me in abundance are unusual and memorable days in which complex projects are delivered, novel technologies tested, or I get to participate in events that shape the industry, such as conferences and United Nations meetings.

Ralitsa Mihyalova selfie

What are some of the most challenging and/or rewarding aspects of your job?

Some of the most challenging aspects of my role as a coating consultant are related to supporting the team in high-profile legal cases related to coating failures. Outside of my day job, representing The Royal Institution of Naval Architects (RINA), a non-governmental organisation with a consultative status with the International Maritime Organisation, on aspects related to biofouling and participating in relevant technical Working Groups, has definitely been a challenging experience as the outcome of such work can have a significant impact on the industry.

The most rewarding aspects of my job are addressing industry challenges through collaboration and supporting students and early-stage researchers as part of the company’s commitment to continue demonstrating thought leadership. Introducing young people, typically from engineering and chemistry backgrounds, to the industry is a particularly rewarding experience.

A career in yachting (or shipping) – whether at sea or on shore – is demanding by definition. There are significant time commitments, commercial pressures, and potentially safety implications. Extensive travel and time away from loved ones are also part of the deal. However, it is a dynamic career, which provides so many unique life experiences – from exploring different destinations and cultures to meeting diverse groups of people and solving different challenges on a daily basis.

It is the kind of career that keeps you engaged and allows you to grow and evolve as a professional and as an individual – and despite the long hours, it has certainly been all worth it.

Were there any obstacles along the path to your current position? Have you broken through any gendered barriers, leading the way for other women? All women who work hard and are making a mark in their respective fields are leading the way for others. Gender is not a pre-requisite for success, nor should it be a limitation; and it should definitely not be associated with an individual’s capacity to do a job well.

We all face obstacles along the way, which shape us and make us the people we are today. Joining the Naval Academy at a time when the quotas for female students were very tight and formal navigation qualifications were only awarded to male students, was challenging. Having to keep being motivated despite occasionally facing gender related bias and prejudice, made us all even more focused on delivering results and exceeding expectations.

Ralitsa Mihyalova presenting at forum

I became a student body representative at faculty level and a vice chair of the Student Union. Other peers became involved in additional activities, such as sports competitions and organising student conferences. The high level of engagement definitely improved the overall student experience and helped normalise the presence of females. Later, while pursuing a PhD in Shipping Business in the UK, I acted as an Athena Swan post-graduate student ambassador to help address gender equality gaps in STEMM disciplines.

Yachting and shipping are still heavily male dominated and being the only woman in the room is not unusual. Things are certainly changing and young people everywhere, regardless of gender, ethnicity or background, keep on challenging outdated societal constructs and claiming space for communities that are not as widely represented in the industry. The great thing about yachting is that being passionate about the industry, taking pride in what you do, and the quality of the work is all that matters in the end.

What advice would you give to your 15-year-old self?

Do not let imposter syndrome, self-doubt and self-criticism stop you from exploring and from taking chances. Do not be afraid to ‘fail’ - you will regret not trying much more and the most valuable lessons come with doing. Cut yourself some slack (occasionally!) - chances are that you are better prepared than what you give yourself credit for.

What advice would you give to the next generation of women in yachting?

Although huge positive steps towards a more inclusive environment have been made and the number of women in leadership roles is growing, there is still more to be done to achieve equality at the work place and to fully realise the potential of diverse teams. Don’t get disheartened and celebrate every small win along the way.

Safinah Group

Safinah Group is an expert in coating and engineering, with a worldwide reputation for delivering innovative and effective solutions which reduce cost, extend asset lifespan and minimise environmental impact.

A leading consultant to the marine, energy and infrastructure, and yacht markets, Safinah Group prides itself on ensuring high quality and consistent levels of service.

If you're interested in pursuing a new position on board, search for Crew Agents in the Yachting Pages directory. Alternatively you can enjoy more interviews in our Women in Yachting series.

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