In an industry dominated by men for a variety of very valid reasons – the time demands, the need for physical strength, the isolation – when a woman becomes captain of a ship, it seems as if this must be a first, but women have been ship captains going back to the 18th century. Captain Philomene Daniels, who ran steamboats with her husband as Daniels Boat Line, was the first woman in the United States to be licensed as a pilot and master. Captain Philomene ran the MV The Victor from Vermont to New York. When her husband died in 1903, Philomene continued to operate the business until her son and his wife took over. Daughter-in-law Helen Daniels became the second licensed female steamboat captain in the US.
Women today realize there are job opportunities working on the water that were never presented to them and on their own, many have found their own way of moving into work previously thought of as men’s work. Captain Belinda Bennett started at 17 as a deck cadet on the RMS Helena and stayed with the ship until she left as Second Officer to go to the private yacht SS Delphine as Chief Officer. She later ran ferries and worked her way up at Windstar from Second Officer to Chief Officer and Captain. She looks at her work as a one-of-a-kind adventure.
Captain Inger Olsen signed on at 16 to work on a cargo ship, just to make some money. She joined the Cunard Line as a cadet in 1997, thinking she’d work at it for a few years and then go ashore and have a family. The years went by and the family ashore didn’t happen, but the company did reward her being a good employee and she moved up to be Captain of the 90,000 ton Queen Victoria. She attributes her becoming a captain as “just circumstances,” that it was never a dream or a goal.
Captain Iakinthi Tzanakaki had her picture in the Wall Street Journal in February when she saved her tanker from colliding with another tanker. Both tankers were docked and unloading fuel when unusually strong winds pushed her vessel toward another tanker. Her “Full speed ahead” order broke the moorings and saved both ships, avoiding fire and explosion.
When she was twelve years old Kate McCue went on a cruise with her family for the first time. The good time she had stayed with her and she came away thinking she might get a job on a ship one day as a cruise director. Her father suggested she could do anything including driving the boat. Kate went to California Maritime Academy and graduated with a business degree and a Third Mate Unlimited Coast Guard license. She could sail anything from a tug to a supertanker. Finding a job at Royal Caribbean, she started as a Second Officer and worked her way up to Captain.
Captain Terri Smiley started out as a single mom looking for year-round work to support her family. Having grown up on a farm, Terri was willing to work hard and started her career on the water as a cook. She moved from the galley and became a deckhand, moving up to Second Mate and finally Captain. For 25 years she worked for a company now owned by American Commercial Barge Line, captaining the MV Capt. Gerald Boggs, a 138’ twin screw towboat. She currently runs towboats for Hunter Marine Transport in Nashville, Tennessee.
People think of Linda Greenlaw as an author, and she is, but there’s a lot more to Captain Greenlaw. Having written several best selling books about commercial fishing, a few mysteries and co-authoring several cookbooks, she signed on to the Discovery Channel’s reality show on commercial fishing, but she still thinks of herself as a commercial fisherman.
As an English and Government major at Colby College in Maine, Linda paid college expenses with jobs on fishing boats working as a cook and deckhand. She stayed with it after graduating from Colby and by the time she was 26, the owner of the boat she worked on, acquired a second boat and gave her the job as Captain. Her description of the 21 hour work days was so realistic you felt as though you were right there. Her writing skills are right up there with her ability to find and catch swordfish.
Captain Cindy Stahl’s degree in urban planning got her an office job in Seattle. Her next job, working for a small construction company, needed her to fill in as a field supervisor installing 2000 feet of shoreline bulkheading. Having succeeded at two construction jobs, when an offer came to her to finish a job on her own. Cindy mortgaged her house to buy a tugboat and a barge. She got used to and felt comfortable with running a single screw tug. She learned how to hop on a piece of equipment, drive it onto the barge, hop on the tug and drive the tug towing the equipment to the site and offload it. She added a second tug, another single screw, a 96 footer. Her boats are kept on the Duwamish River between a fuel scow and another company’s equipment in an area where it is hard to maneuver in the constantly moving river current. Captain Stahl’s feeling is that you have to think ahead and get it right the first time.
Her son works as an engineer on her boats. She likes to rebuild the interiors of her tugs so they fit the needs of her crew. She waits until they have used the boat for a year and watches to see how they use the cabin. On one tug she took out two unused staterooms to increase the size of the mess hall and lounge area and enlarged the galley.
Captain Liz Bunch-Spalding runs the Tiger 7 tugboat in Kahalul Harbor, Maui. She delivers whatever is not made or grown there – building materials, canned goods, cars and toilet paper. Her start in the maritime world came through a job on a snorkel boat. She’s a graduate of California Maritime Academy and has driven everything from dinghies to 900’ oil tankers. It’s not an easy life, being the only female tugboat captain in Hawaii, but she loves it and wouldn’t trade it for a 9 to 5 job ashore.
In the Anderson family, the children grew up learning to walk on the family tugboats. Captain Katrina Anderson’s first jobs were cleaning decks and toilets and preparing boats for painting. Upper Cook Inlet in Alaska, where Katrina works, is a tough environment with extreme tides that can rise an inch a minute, constantly moving mudbars created by the glacial silt in the water, strong current and the ice in the winter. But, as she says, it’s very satisfying. Where else could you work and see beavers, bears, harbor seals or beluga whales swimming past your boat?
Captain Brittany Catanzaro, New York Waterway ferry captain was in the right place at the right time, crossing the Hudson River the day Capt. Sully Sullenberger landed his US Airway passengers safely in the River after a flock of geese disabled his engines just after takeoff. She saw the plane in the water and immediately turned back toward the plane’s wing where passengers had collected. Her crew helped unload 24 of the plane’s passengers onto the ferry from the plane’s wing and some from the River.
Captain Catanzaro grew up in a boating family on L.I. Sound. At 19 she was the youngest ever and first female ferry captain for New York Waterway. Her usual run is from Weehawken and Hoboken, New Jersey to New York City.
Captain Kelly Nichols’ boat, a 50 foot Dorado, can carry more than 300 lobster traps. She wanted to be part of the family business, Nichols Seafood, which her father started when he was 16 years old. Both parents encouraged her to follow their advice and get a college degree in education, as they did. She came home from college and asked if her father would let her captain a second boat, a 40 footer. Her parents didn’t think she’d be able to handle the hard work and the long days, but she’s doing it and she loves it.
The only female of 23 harbor pilots that work for the Tampa Bay Pilots Association, Captain Carolyn Kurtz earned a congressional appointment to the US Merchant Marine Academy and holds an Unlimited Tonnage Master’s License to captain any size ship. Her job is to board a ship as it comes into the harbor from the small pilot boat she arrives in. (Some pilots in other ports sometimes use helicopters.) The rope ladder up the side of the ship might be 10 to 30 feet from the deck, challenging on a windy day. When it’s too windy, entering vessels are kept at anchor offshore until conditions improve.
Once a harbor pilot reaches the bridge, he or she is in charge and all steering and engine orders regulating speed come from the harbor pilot. As a large ship slows down its’ rudder becomes less effective. It’s the harbor pilot’s job to avoid collisions or other accidents that could shut down a busy port.
Why do women want to work on the water at jobs always considered men’s jobs? Some started with goals that were close – admiralty law – cruise director. To some the water seems like home, a place they feel comfortable. So many of the women started at the bottom, as deckhands and cooks, and worked their way up. There’s a certain amount of grit, determination and tenacity that accompanies a good work ethic and these women that moved up had all that. It’s good to see that being capable and willing to work hard has been recognized and a place made for these women.