Women At Sea: A Trailblazing Royal Navy Career

Commodore Mel Robinson reflects on her extraordinary life with the Senior Service

One of the first women to command a warship has spoken of her impressive career as the Royal Navy mark 30 years since women were deployed to sea.

Commodore Mel Robinson spoke to BFBS Radio to celebrate the 14 women who became the first to go to sea on deployment and to encourage future sailors and officers to take advantage of the opportunities she was given.

Cdre Robinson was commissioned as a Royal Navy warfare officer in 1993. In February 2020, the trailblazer became one of only four female naval officers to have achieved flag rank as Commander of the Maritime Reserves. Speaking about the start to her career 27 years ago, she said: 

“The Navy had just made the decision to send women to sea three years previously, so I was amongst the first women to be recruited and trained with a sea-going career in mind which meant for the first time women could join the organisation at the bottom of our hierarchical pyramid with an aspiration to get to the top of it. 

“For somebody like myself who had that sense of adventure, it gave me a real opportunity to go out there and do the very best knowing that all doors were open to me, challenges for me to take advantage of really.” 

Another achievement that highlights her success was when Cdre Robinson took command of HMS Express, an Archer-class patrol vessel which was attached to the Wales University Royal Navy Unit (URNU), in an assignment which was the first of its kind.

Speaking with BFBS Radio broadcaster Amy Casey, Cdre Robinson remembers what it was like being at sea for the first time. She said: 

“I remember having this profound sense of responsibility. 

“There was no doubt in my mind that the training we received alongside each other, competing at the same standard was going to generate some of the most inclusive leaders of our generation. 

“I think, if you’re somebody like me that accepts that sense of responsibility and wants to do something with it then there was a great opportunity for me to do that.”

LISTEN: Cdre Robinson speaks to Amy Casey about her career highlight and what being at sea feels like to her

The trailblazer’s current role is to command Maritime Reserves which she describes as being “one of the most diverse parts of the Navy”. There are thousands of people keen to combine their civilian skills with the military in order to enjoy a career in the Royal Navy at a time of their choosing, that suits their families and employers.

Taking on this position is something that brings the naval officer huge pride. She joined the Royal Navy in the early 1990s knowing she wanted to have both a successful career and a family. She said: 

“It’s just fantastic that I’m coming to the end of my career knowing that I’m able to take advantage of the part time opportunities and I’m able to balance that opportunity to the people under my command.”

Commodore Mel Robinson Commander of the Maritime Reserves HMS Victory Credit Royal Navy
Credit: Royal Navy / February 2020

Cdre Robinson said seeing trades and branches being made available to women that she did not have access to when she joined the Royal Navy is incredibly exciting. She added: 

“If I turn to trades like the Submarine Service and the Royal Marines, these are trades that weren’t open to me 30 years ago. 

“If I had any regret at all it would be that if I had my time again, I would have joined the organisation of the Royal Marines.” 

The shift from no women being allowed to deploy to sea to now seeing more than 100 roles in the Royal Navy available to women is incredibly encouraging for the Commodore.

Witnessing the Royal Navy opening the door for women to join “one of our most adaptable and elite parts of the organisation” makes Cdre Robinson feel as though the organisation is as inclusive as she hoped it would become. She said: 

“We’re committed from the very top of the organisation to keeping the doors open for women to take advantage of.” 

Celebrating all the opportunities the naval officer was given throughout her career is an important part of the role she plays. She has always been incredibly ambitious and wants to inspire that in other women by being a strong role model: She said: 

“It’s about … helping younger women understand how I achieve the balance between my professional goals and my personal goals because I think those women want what I had which was an opportunity to do it all. 

“I think it’s very reasonable to be as ambitious as I am and have that family in the background as well because that’s perfect harmony with my family and my professional life is what makes me happy.” 

Cdre Robinson is married to Rear Admiral Guy Robinson and they live in Hampshire with their son, daughter and dog. 

As someone who is always looking for new ideas, Cdre Robinson worked very closely on ‘Project Firefly’ -  a process by which, if you are an ex-regular and have left the service within two years, you can join the Royal Navy Reserve on a 'seamless transfer' - and most recently wrote the Maritime Reserves Directive. 

The phrase ‘at sea’ to some means feeling lost or confused but for the naval officer, being at sea felt powerful. She remembers each day feeling very different, saying: 

“That sense of walking on to the bridge of a ship and looking out to the expanse that is the ocean knowing that you are responsible to Captain the ship, to keep the people within it safe. 

“If we were heading into conflict that you were responsible for fighting the ship and knowing that one day, if you wanted to, you could follow your dreams and ultimately be the Captain of a ship which I did very early on in my career back in ‘98 which feels an eternity ago but I can remember it as if it were yesterday.” 

Commodore Mel Robinson Commander of the Maritime Reserves HMS Victory Credit Royal Navy
Credit: Royal Navy / February 2020

A career highlight for Cdre Robinson happened in February 2020 on board HMS Victory. Surrounded by a ceremonial guard made up of Maritime Reservists from all over the UK, the naval officer took command of the Maritime Reserves. Being able to share that momentous occasion with her loved ones is something she will always be proud of. She said: 

“One of the highlights for me was I had my family, my best friends, colleagues that have worked with me for many years on those decks with me. 

“That harmony between keeping my family life and my professional life going was very, very important to me so to take Command and have those very special people sharing that experience with me was very, very special.”

Some people who are keen to become a Reservist might second guess themselves and worry they are too old or might not have the necessary skills to join but the Commander of the Maritime Reserves is keen to get rid of those negatives thoughts. She said: 

“I can take you back to the 40-year-old young officer that I saw passing out of my parade ground in September that was in a steady stream job, wanted to step into the military environment and use those military skills in our context and was able to do it and drew on all of his years' experience to help the recruits that he was training with to make a real difference.” 

Cdre Robinson believes that it is the Royal Navy Reserves diversity, not just of their talents but of their age groups that makes them exceptional. She said: 

“... quite frankly makes us a family that respects each other, supports each other, appreciates each other. 

“You’re not just joining the service to do a job. You’re joining for that sense of adventure and that very natural extension of your life.”