When I heard the knock, I was barefoot in the kitchen, adjusting the sash on my bright geometric patterned dress. I opened the whiny screen door to find a young man holding a teal clipboard pasted with No Pebble Mine stickers. I am not exactly the picture of a stereotypical commercial fisherman, so he was inclined to ask, “Are you opposed to the proposed Pebble Mine?”
The timing of his visit was almost comical because the place that he was going door to door to protect, Bristol Bay, was the subject from which I was seeking asylum at that very moment. I had been stabbing at my keyboard all morning trying to convey why Bristol Bay is possibly the single most important place in the world for me. He caught me taking a break from my self-criticism and I gladly took advantage of the ear of an ally. I was so grateful to have any distraction from the overwhelming task of answering the question: How did you get started in the maritime industry? I explained my struggle to him, which was that the only way to answer this question properly would be to write a story. And it's the most important story I've got.
I am writing this for the timid women, the terrified women, the women who have always had grinders and wrenches taken from them instead of handed to them. I am writing this for the women who desperately want to say out loud, “I want to be a QMED or a licensed marine engineer or a diesel mechanic,” but have never felt that they had anyone to whom they could safely say those words. I was sixteen when I became interested in mechanics, twenty-one when I said it out loud for the first time, and twenty-nine when I finally sat in a classroom, opened a hardback book titled Marine Engineering Volume I, and hoped for the best. So if you are a woman who fits the above description or you care about a woman who does, this story is for you.
I am not the story you made of me. - Lidia Yuknavitch
I was fresh out of a treatment center when my sister found me a job on a commercial fishing vessel in Bristol Bay. For some reason, my very capable, confident and talented sister always believed in me, despite all of my failures. I didn't have much in the way of self-worth or accolades. My legs were still shaky post-trauma, and my confidence was nil. I felt paralyzed by fear but knew that I wouldn't be able to forgive myself if I passed up this opportunity. So I took the job and had nightmares for weeks about screwing it up and embarrassing myself and my sister. I kept these fears to myself, and the day eventually came when I landed on the gravel strip provided for bush planes to dump off lost deckhands like me, in a tiny fishing village called Egegik. That's the day I walked down to the dock at Alaska General Seafoods asking everyone I passed, “Do you know Mark Munro?” That was the name of a man I'd never met, my new boss, the Captain of the F/V K2. A man who, just by looking at him you'd think I was lying when I say that no other person's influence has so profoundly changed the course of my life as his has.
I grew up being micromanaged by my perfectionist Swiss-German father and my overly worried but well-meaning mother. Whereas, nothing would nauseate Mark more than having to micromanage people. As his daughter describes it, Mark's belief is that if you give people the opportunity to rise to the occasion, they usually will. I think that is especially true with young women who are eager to break into male-dominated industries. His MO was to give me the physical tools, tell me what the job was and leave me to figure it out. He didn't care how many times I screwed it up as long as the job got done and the boat was still afloat.
Mark's anti-perfectionism liberated me. It softened all of the sharp edges and tight spaces of my belief system that had been bruising and suffocating me. I was allowed to be myself. No - I was encouraged to be myself. I was given a new landscape. I was believed in. I was valued. I discovered self worth.
After my first season, Mark only hired female deckhands until he sold the boat to his daughter. Over the course of the six seasons that I fished for him, the three of us young women built a new deck for the boat, ran wires, replaced tubing, bled systems, hung and mended all of our nets, and were also encouraged to take it easy and have a good time. We did everything besides decide where to set the net. I felt like a part owner of the F/V K2. I was made to feel that way. By the end of each fishing season I felt like I could accomplish anything.
It was in Bristol Bay that I decided I would give myself a better story, better than the ones I saw regularly offered to women like me. If it weren't for Mark's continual support and the encouragement of many of the incredible men and women fishing in Bristol Bay, I don't think I would ever have grown confident enough to say out loud, “I want to be a diesel mechanic.”
Part II : Begin Again
It's funny sometimes what people know about you that you cannot see yourself. My stepfather is a retired merchant marine and over the years he observed how much I loved the lifestyle of a fisherman. How I was happier at sea than at home, how I flourished in an environment where I was constantly learning, being challenged, and gaining new skills. He began to gently encourage me to think about sailing deep sea. While I didn't think that I wanted to work on ships, I agreed to meet up with a female Chief Engineer friend of his on one of the Alaska Marine Highway ferries. So I did, unenthusiastically, but to make him happy. She gave me a tour of the engine room and the whole time I was thinking: “hell no”. It was muggy and loud, everything was painted yellow and I didn't know what a single thing was until we walked through the machine shop. Plus, I didn't even understand what marine engineering was. I wanted the job of the diesel mechanic that gets flown into the villages to do work on small fishing vessels that require a greater skill level and knowledge than your average fisherman has.
The more I learned about studying diesel mechanics, the more I realized that the path to becoming the kind of specialized mechanic that I wanted to be would take years and I would likely end up working on all sorts of boring heavy equipment in the meantime, nowhere near the ocean. So in the summer of 2013, while living in Portland, I took a solo trip to Astoria, Oregon to do some soul searching. I sat at the top of Coxcomb Hill, overlooking the massive ships and tugs navigating the uneasy waters of the Columbia River and I thought, that is what I want, that is where I want to be. I wanted to be out there, on oceangoing vessels in storms and surrounded by salty old sailors; not on shore working on stupid forklifts.
Luckily the Chief Engineer who gave me the engine room tour told me about Seattle Maritime Academy. She thought it might be a good fit since I already had a Bachelor's degree and probably didn't want to go to a four year academy. So the following weekend I went to an orientation at SMA to learn about their Marine Engineering Technology program.
A year later, I moved to Seattle with my boyfriend for the sole purpose of attending this school. A school that looked more like a place where boats go to die and a place easily forgotten once left. I could write this all very matter-of-factly and stoically but I would rather tell you that shortly before classes began, I had a mini melt down. Eyes wide with fear, heart racing, voice raised, I looked at my boyfriend as if this situation was somehow his fault and I protested, “I'm not mechanically inclined! I don't know the first thing about diesel engines! I get sea sick! I don't know the difference between a tow boat and a tug boat! I don't even know what kind of boat I want to work on! And I'm going into debt to live in Seattle and I hate cities!” To which he calmly replied, “Will you regret it if you don't do it?” Without hesitation I said, “Absolutely. Without a doubt.”
Part III : The Internship
If your Nerve, deny you-
Go above your Nerve-
To complete the QMED program (Qualified Member of the Engine Department) and get the associated ratings, it is required that you complete a 60 day at-sea internship. This happens after about three quarters of coursework and 30 days on the school's training vessel. During the time that most of my classmates were completing their internships, I was in Alaska slaying salmon with Mark's daughter, who now runs the K2. Upon my return to Seattle, the school's powers that be informed me that there were no more internships to go around and I'd just have to wait.
I don't know how long I would've continued to wait if it weren't for my sentimental attachment to a ragged old hooded sweatshirt I'd found on top of a net locker in Egegik years back. I had lost it at some point while attending school and the only place that I hadn't looked for it was SMA. So while in town for training at Fremont Maritime, I stopped in on the Seattle Maritime office staff. The lost-and-found was a dead end but what I did find, was myself in unusually pleasant banter with the school's notoriously unfriendly Administrative Assistant. Seemingly out of nowhere, the Port Captain sitting at a desk behind her asked me, “Aurora, if you could have any internship, what would it be?” I paused, finding the question strange as this was the kind of place where you get what you get and don't complain. After a moment I replied, “Container ships, but I know that we don't have connections with shipping companies, so I guess just...the bigger the better.” As it turned out, they had a very big opportunity on a very big ship, and I guess they had been keeping it up their sleeve until, I don't know, the next girl in flip flops and leggings walked through the door? Glad I went looking for that sweatshirt.
So shortly thereafter I joined a ship 895' in length and 151' at its beam. An oil tanker with the capacity to haul one million barrels of crude oil. The thought of joining such a massive ship with a crew of 24 men and one other woman was by far the most terrifying experience of my life. I didn't feel prepared in even the slightest way. I was expecting to disappoint my bosses and be an utter failure. I was expecting to cry myself to sleep at night and I just hoped to survive the experience. Instead I found myself in a situation that was everything I could have hoped for and simultaneously better than anything I could have dreamt of.
On that ship I found numerous mentors and friends that I continue to keep in touch with today. They treated me as their equal. They taught me by putting tools in my hands and by not taking the tools back when I hesitated or was clearly nervous. Instead they reassured me and watched patiently, without expressing judgment, as I fumbled around like a child who is really excited to walk but still in the stages of falling down a lot.
One of my greatest advocates and mentors on that ship figured me out quite quickly, and while alone with me in the elevator one day said, “Aurora, I think that you're much smarter than you think you are”, to which I protested. He replied, “It wasn't a question. I didn't ask your opinion.” I've heard these kinds of statements from people whom I respect enough over the years that when I struggle to believe in myself, I am able to believe in others' faith in me. And I carry on working towards a better story, in spite of myself.
Part IV : Betting on Me, Now
The company I interned for decided that they liked me as much as I liked them, and we decided to stay together. Professionally speaking, they hired me and I continue to work aboard their tankers today.
I'd be lying if I said that I am confident about my abilities, my intelligence or my capacity to obtain the knowledge and skill set required to become a licensed marine engineer. My math/science brain is constantly scrambling to catch up after years of neglect. More often than not, when a licensed engineer asks me a question about something that I DO know, I panic a for a moment and my mind feels like an Etch A Sketch that is being shaken up. But I want this, I want to be good at this and I have yet to meet an engineer in the fleet who wants anything less for me. I work hard, I do my best to be a good shipmate and to learn as much as I possibly can. I am confident in my ability to do those things and believe that the rest will fall into place.
I feel so fortunate to have been shown that this story could be mine. I hope to pay that kindness forward in any way that I can. So I'll leave you with the most important message that I have for any woman, at any age: Do it anyway.
If you want to be a sailor and can't deny it, even if you're afraid to say it out loud, do it anyway. Even if, when you do say it out loud, people try to talk you out of it, do it anyway. Let them live in their fears - their fears are not your problem. It's your story, so give yourself the one you've dreamed of. Bet on you, even if there is no evidence that you'll succeed.
When I started on this path, I had a Bachelors degree in photojournalism that I wasn't interested in using, and had primarily worked as a Case Worker at a shelter for homeless youth after undergrad. I didn't know what a torque wrench was or how to use a ratchet strap until I was twenty-eight years old. So if there is no evidence that points to your success in the maritime industry, join the club - and do it anyway.