the community grows

As the summer comes to a hot and sunny finale over here in California, I am so excited to tell everyone I know about the new website in town - WomenOffshore.org. The site went live last month, and showcases information on a multitude of topics, from industry news and featured seagoing women, to maintaining personal health and wellness while working offshore. Their mission statement reaches out to women in maritime sectors across the globe: 

"Women Offshore is an online resource center supporting a diverse workforce on the water. Our mission is to report the latest news on gender diversity in the offshore and maritime industries, while shining a light on women in operations and providing resources to foster long-term careers." 

Founder Ally Cedeno and her team reached out to Sea Sisters and wrote a feature on our community. You can read it here. We look forward to watching the community grow, and empowering  the team at WomenOffshore with any support and resources the Sea Sisters Organization can offer. 

There are a few more groups I've had the pleasure of discovering in recent years. One of these groups is Against The Tide, a project created by Liz Marami, a marine pilot based in the Kenya Ports Authority. Liz has featured women seafarers from around the globe by sharing their images and telling their stories in their own words. Follow their Instagram account for the latest! 

Lastly, let me also point out a group that has been around for quite some time: WISTA, Women's International Shipping & Trading Association. Founded in 1974, WISTA provides networking opportunities for female executives in the maritime industry around the world. The international establishment is divided into National WISTA Associations by country; for information on your nearest chapter and to apply for membership, click here


In our latest newsletter, we introduced a new contributor: Aurora, an Alaskan badass with a penchant for slaying salmon and turning wrenches. Aurora and I met in the strangest and most unique way - that is to say, we haven't even met yet; not in person.

I was working in my capacity as tugboat deck hand, and we were putting our hawser up to a tanker at the Richmond Long Wharf in San Francisco Bay last spring. The crew had just made our line fast on their bitt up on deck when a young woman ran to the rail and waved down at me excitedly, beaming broadly. I am always happy to see women on ships, and I happily waved and smiled back. I reached out to some women who I know were working on the same ship, or for the same company, at the time, and they told me that the electric young woman was Aurora. She had learned who I was through the Sea Sisters project, and recognized me on the tugboat below. She connected with me to give her contact information, and naturally at that point I couldn't resist asking her if she would contribute to Sea Sisters. She graciously agreed, and now I am honored to publish her story and share it with the world for the first time. 

Aurora's saga is at once intricate and soul-piercing, as my favorite sea stories always are. In her own words: 

"As a woman who has been terrified, almost every step of the way, it is really important to me to express that, because it was all so much less scary than I had made it out to be in my mind. The life that I am living now is beyond better than anything that I could have dreamt for myself. It was worth all of the anxiety and fear and loneliness. I hope that my story might encourage timid women like me to go for it anyway, even though it's terrifying. It's a story for the women who are afraid to admit that they'd like to turn a wrench, because they might be ridiculed or mocked. I wish I had heard a similar story when I was sixteen. That's when my secret interest in machinery began to develop." 

There are so many young women who are not hearing enough encouraging messages such as this, and much like Aurora points out, I wish I had read these stories when I was sixteen as well. 

So grab your favorite beverage, some popcorn - perhaps a hanky or two - and settle in, because I promise you won't want to stop reading. 

Thank you, Aurora. And fair seas to all, 

Elizabeth 

women and pilotage

Greetings friends! 

Can you believe we are already halfway through 2017? A lot has been happening in our maritime world; in our Sea Sisters circle we have an upcoming wedding, a recent baby (I can't wait to read the story on that), and a new essay from one of our contributors. In the community at large, we have seen quite a few women recently admitted into pilot training programs around the country, notably Southeast Alaska, Sandy Hook, and Puget Sound. It's very exciting to see more women entering these elite associations of master mariners, and I hope the trend continues to gain momentum. 

To become a maritime pilot is to reach the pinnacle of the maritime industry. As you can imagine, it takes a long time to reach that place in one's career, and there are many obstacles along the way which even the most driven individuals can struggle to overcome. Considering how few women there are in the industry to begin with, it makes sense that the numbers dwindle as you get to the higher ranks. 

I see several factors that prevent women from becoming pilots: first, and the major elephant in the room, is the pressure to drop out of the work force and become mothers. For women who are not interested in having children, this is a non-issue. But the question of child-rearing and motherhood is a complicated issue for women in maritime that requires some examination, in a different setting from this one. 

Another factor is the environment in which mariners work. Tugboats and ships can be cramped, dirty, lonely places. Many of the people I've met have been conditioned to withstand this environment for as long as it takes to reach their goal, but many women are discouraged from being tough or hardy enough to embrace the dirt and muck and noise of engine rooms, cargo, and boat or ship handling, and end up going ashore. 

Many women are expected to become caretakers of ailing family members or aging parents, and once you drop out of the seagoing work force, it can be difficult to find your way back in. Most women experience harassment at work at least once, which can make them question whether staying in the offshore sector is worth it. Gender bias causes many to subconsciously doubt the competency of women whereas men are largely given the benefit of the doubt; repeatedly proving competence and paying a heavier price for a misstep can burn a lot of women out in these male-dominated industries. 

The amount of academic study that goes into testing for pilotage endorsements and for entry into a training program can be grueling and stressful. The amount of knowledge needed to do the job is staggering. 

And lastly, the time it takes to make it to the top is daunting for anyone; to get from zero to pilot will take the average mariner ten to fifteen years, and unless you take things day by day and set small, reachable goals along the way, the thought of putting that much of your life into your career can be scary. Many mariners need support and guidance which can be hard to find - networking and mentorships are enormously helpful in encouraging workers to stay on track (which is what the Sea Sisters community is here to do). 

But I always hold out the hope that by persevering, the few women who start from the bottom can make it to the peak, and show everyone around them that we have the grit to carry on through whatever adversity this life throws our way; that we have the right to choose what is best for us. 

Our contributor Jill, a SEAPA apprentice, has written up some of her best advice for anyone hoping to become a pilot one day, and there are some great takeaways from her words. 

As always, thank you for your ongoing support; fair winds, 

Elizabeth 

the newsletter

On the first of June, we sent out our first-ever newsletter! This is very exciting to me for a host of reasons, which are: 

  • I have come to find that news to your inbox is easier to access and digest than it is if you have to navigate to the website just to see it. It recently occurred to me that when it comes to my favorite newsletters, I have almost never visited the actual websites; I just rely on the emails to tell me what's up. Bonus if the formatting is pretty. 
  • We can directly update our audience with news about upcoming events, or about achievements by women in our community. In real time, no barriers, no delays. 
  • You can save or share a copy of the newsletter because it has its own URL. You can also locate past issues, apparently, just by clicking a link on the issue you're reading (since we're only on number one, we'll see how that shapes up!) 
  • More internet magic has provided me with code to install a pop-up subscription button that appears when you land on our website; once you either subscribe or decline, that pop-up will not appear again on your unique browser. And lastly: 
  • It's beautiful! 

I've been using MailChimp as a platform to build the newsletter and subsequent group emails; it's pretty simple but still not the most user-friendly experience, and I'm glad no one was around to witness me screaming at my computer when I couldn't figure out how to do something. But it is up and running, and I love it. I hope you'll subscribe to the newsletter, and I will see to it that we send helpful and interesting information to your inbox! 

- Elizabeth 

one year of sea sisters

We launched this site in April 2016, and an entire world has opened up to me in the year since. The "contact us" button (which is magic) has allowed strangers to send us messages with positive words of encouragement. On instagram (also magic), I have connected with dozens of women who sail for a living. As a girlfriend of mine recently said, the more I look for them, the more I find. They're on the ships we assist when I'm out on deck handling the hawser; we wave to each other and smile (or jump up and down and gesticulate joyfully, as the case would be with me some days). They're on tugboats, moving cargo up and down the coasts and across oceans; they're on the ferries that get you to and from work each day; they're on the research ships working to study our planet and preserve our ocean ecosystems. We connect and discuss and encourage each other to thrive in our work. 

We have two new contributors since our last blog appearance: Lia, and Darcy

I met Lia in September 2011 on a weekend sail aboard the Schooner Zodiac in the Salish Sea, which is the traditional name for the region also known as northern Puget Sound. The Zodiac carries a lot of fascinating history; she was once the San Francisco Bar Pilots station boat, retiring from that duty only in the mid-seventies. Lia is at once whip-smart, quite tall, and entirely captivating, and she intimidated me until I got to know her, whereupon we discovered that she had worked for my father's cousin doing research in the fisheries department at the University of Washington (this world of ours gets smaller all the time). Since we met, she took the workboat academy route, and has been garnering sea time aboard research vessels all over the Pacific and the Atlantic. 

Darcy is another woman I've had the pleasure to find on instagram, and she was recently introduced to me via email by my friend Daryl of the Pacific Maritime Institute as a possible contributor. Darcy accrued sea time and experience on research ships and is now also a student of the workboat academy, pursuing her mate's license. I'm looking forward to seeing where she is headed; she has already experienced some sights that few people will ever see for themselves (just the words "oceanographic data acquisition systems" is enough to make my head spin and put stars in my eyes!). 

At this time, I am working on a quarterly newsletter of sorts; you can sign up at the bottom of our Contact page. Its purpose will be to highlight notable women in the industry as well as our own contributors, and to discuss current maritime events and opportunities for women. Thank you for stopping by and stay tuned!  

XO, Elizabeth 

What is it like being away from friends and family when you go to sea? Is it difficult to maintain relationships? How do you stay connected to immediate family members (spouse/partner, children, siblings, parents)? If it's lonely, how do you cope? Do you think this has affected your personality?

I'm sorry it's been three months since I last wrote a post - I've been deep in the throes of tackling a new job in a new place, and it's got me pretty overwhelmed. My sea sisters have been out there killing it, too, and I've happily followed their adventures from afar while trying to put off a swirling storm of blog drafts and thoughts filling my brain, waiting to be written. Before I start, please consider following my amazing maritime lady friends on instagram: LiaClaire, Katie, Megan, Jill, Kim, Elinor, Liz, Jan, Amanda, Carly, Jill - and that's just a fraction of the women with whom I've connected personally via social media. There are many of us, and we are pretty awesome! 

A few months ago I sent a message out to fellow sea sisters with the questions above; I had been thinking a lot about how much I've adapted to this lifestyle in the last seven years, how the industry and isolation has (or hasn't) changed me. Since we just wrapped up the holidays I felt like this would be a good time to take a look at these questions, because it's the toughest thing to be on a boat or ship out on the water and missing all the fun happening ashore: Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, New Years, birthdays, weddings, and babies... When I'm ambivalent about a special occasion I'm missing, Christmas in particular, my mother gets mad at me: "your father [a ship captain] never cared about holidays either!" The difficult response to this is: you can't care, at least not too much. It hurts to care too much. If you torture yourself with thoughts of all the happy times you're missing ashore, you'll likely drive yourself crazy and quit going to sea. And most mariners I know really love their work and don't want to quit, so they adapt to a method of celebrating the good things when they come ashore. December 28th is not that different from December 25th, except for what's written in a calendar, so what's wrong with celebrating Christmas on a different day with your family when you get home? Or someone's birthday? It works, if you let it. 

Relationships with family and friends take a considerable strain as well. When I first started sailing on oceangoing tugs, I spent a lot of time thinking no potential partner would wait for me because I was never around. When I did find myself in a relationship, I discovered that trust, independence, and communication were the pillars holding up our very foundation. Communication can take a lot of energy, and there have been friends that I have not been able to hold onto because having less and less time to connect and having less in common as life goes on means that you will inevitably grow apart. Sometimes you have to accept that friendships will be what they will be, and you can't force them. The people who remain in my circle are the ones with whom I have the energy to connect month after month, year after year, and they are the ones who are willing to wait until I am able to reach out. 

I feel in some ways that the mariner lifestyle has made me a tougher or harder person; we cope with the loneliness by becoming rather cold and self-sufficient, and when we go home it may take a few days to get used to being around people again. When facing hostility at work in the past, I've become angry and bitter, internalized a lot of self-hate, and continued to take it out on my family when I returned from the boat. In these situations, I forgot that there was a world away from work where tugboats didn't matter that much and people would always accept me for who I am. It took a lot of time and experience to learn how to balance the effect of work on my personality and my connections with non-mariners (and I'm still learning), but one thing I know for certain is that staying open, staying vulnerable, is essential. While getting tough may help your career, it certainly won't help the people who love you. 

My friend Megan has offered up her take on how loneliness at work affects her friendships and her personality, and I laugh as I read it because I identify with every word. Stay safe out there, and remember to reach out to the ones most important to you. Above all, stay true to yourself. 

 

Elizabeth

courage

Hello friends! 

It makes my heart happy to introduce a new contributor: Chelsea, an accomplished and spirited sailor who hails from Southeast Alaska (by way of Cal Maritime and now the oil field). I want to share what she said when she sent me her bio: 

"I was listening to a podcast about Astronomy today, and there was a panel of women who work for JPL and NASA on it... Did you know that even aero-space has a higher percentage of women than the maritime industry!!???!!!! They are at about 10%, much higher at NASA. How, down here on Earth, are we still at 1-2%?? ... They were talking about how female camaraderie is what made the numbers grow in their industry, especially at NASA. So I was inspired to finally write this."

I have the same query, with just as many question marks and exclamation points; I really think it's time to even out the numbers in this industry, and I think the best way to do that is through camaraderie, support, encouragement and empowerment. And if it's not going to come from outside our numbers, it's got to come from within. We have to lift each other up, we have to make it clear that there is plenty of room for all of us. 

In her bio, Chelsea highlights not just the positive facets of her experience along the way, but some of the negative and unflattering details of the path that led her to working at sea. I was moved to emotion when she talked about being unhappy in school, and I was so proud that she was willing to share this with the world. Her story illustrates what a community like ours can give to women trying to get into the maritime industry: courage. We don't have to worry about being alone, about not having a voice. We can be sure that we'll be heard and not judged for being imperfect. Struggling and learning is all part of the experience, and we're all here to listen. 

Thank you so much for joining us, Chelsea. Fair winds to you, 

 

Elizabeth

october

One year ago today, mariners across the country waited tensely, desperately, for news about the SS El Faro, which was reported missing in Hurricane Joaquin on October 1, 2015. It didn't take long to understand that she had not survived; the Coast Guard search was called off at sunset on October 7, and the hope that had been holding everyone afloat for a week quickly crumbled into despair. After multiple attempts to locate the ship, the USNS Apache found her at the bottom of the ocean in one piece and a submersible returned with images on November 1, 2015, confirming the wreck was indeed the El Faro. The Voyage Data Recorder has since been recovered from the vessel in her final resting place on the sea floor. I doubt I'll ever be able to listen to those tapes, and I didn't even know anyone on board. For most seafarers, living vicariously through a fatal disaster unlocks visceral, primal reactions of fear and doubt. That's how I feel even attempting to read the now well-populated Wikipedia page on the ship to check my facts. There were two other notable tragedies on the waterfront in the last year; the drowning of three men in a collision on the Hudson River, and the death of a young deck hand in an accident in Naknek Alaska. 

What hurts so deeply when I read about these incidents is that they were so goddamn preventable. Decisions were made that caused these things to happen; they didn't just occur out of the blue. I try not to dwell on what it would have been like to be in the shoes of the men and women facing their end, but now and then I put myself there and it's a terrible feeling. I've had my own close calls once or twice, and there are times when I wonder "what if?" What if I hadn't ducked before that line jumped the bitts? What if I were to have slipped and fallen in between the tug and barge instead of catching myself? It's so important that we take the lessons learned from these losses forward into the future and apply them to our own environments. Doesn't feel right? Don't do it; take your time, find a safer way. Category 3 hurricane? Don't sail, hide out, jog, take a different route. Losing a little time is better than the alternative. 

But as a maritime community we need to come together to remember and honor those lost, as there have always been mariners lost to the sea. My friend Claire's moving tribute to her college roommate and longtime friend Danielle Randolph, who perished on board the El Faro along with 32 other crew, will remind us all why we are a family, and why we do the job in spite of the dangers we face. 

To speed the return of the Sea Sisters to the world wide web after a lengthy absence, we have also introduced a new topic for discussion: what is it like being away from friends and family when you go to sea? Is it difficult to maintain relationships? How do you stay connected to immediate family members? If it's lonely, how do you cope, and do you think this has affected your personality? Speaking for myself, I am very different in many ways from the person I was seven years ago before I started going to sea. When you're away a lot, you see how much interaction you need from certain people and how much attention certain people need from you. You lose friends and gain friends; you become fierce in your devotion to your family. The isolation forces you also to get to know yourself, and knowing yourself changes the way you know others. 

Our friend Jill has written a piece on the topic of communication between land and sea that at times made me laugh out loud. There is also a line in her essay that gave me pause: But going to sea has never been about living in real time. Those who live on land live their lives day by day; those who live half their lives at sea communicate with their loved ones at intervals where all the important details are condensed into a single conversation. Then we wait for the next conversation. She couldn't be more right in her assessment. 

-Elizabeth

blogs and sea bags

Lately this hitch I've spent some time posted up in somewhat remote parts of Prince William Sound, where updates can be difficult to make. But I've spent the last week in Port Valdez and got the chance to publish new content from Katie and Claire, detailing how they manage to get everything they need into their sea bags, and what exactly they take with them to work. Before my first-ever hitch, I was completely in the dark with regard to what I would need on a tugboat, and a resource like this would have been invaluable. I hope this helps anyone who is starting out and needs a blueprint for the gear they should get before crewing up. 

We've received more outreach from potential contributors, one of whom has just reminded me how much this project has already changed my life. She told me that spending so much of her career working with only men has given her cause to crave more connection with other women in the industry and a desire to help others, if she can. I identify with her on this point: after a few years in the maritime industry I was left feeling profoundly isolated and wanted so much to not only connect with other women, but also to feel like we weren't pitted against one another. I wanted to reach out and become friends with them, form a network, so we could all benefit. Now, if I have a bad day at work, I'll text one of my mariner girlfriends to vent or seek some moral support, and they often do the same to me. If someone had told me five years ago I'd have a network of maritime women to whom I could turn for support, women who know exactly what my job is like, I would have laughed (albeit ruefully, because I wanted exactly that). 

I couldn't do it alone; these ladies have made and continue to make that wish a reality. 

I'll be out of town again starting today and don't know what the internet will be like at Naked Island, so I'd like to leave you with some of the wonderful blogs kept by a few of our contributors: Megan E. (Punctuation on the Ocean), Megan R. (Nautie Mermate), and Lia (Me, Myself and Isswat). Enjoy! 

- Elizabeth

it's a small world

What an honor it is to be asked to contribute to the Sea Sisters organization! My connection to this group of ladies is quite unusual, yet such a strong example of how few of us there are in the industry. Elizabeth and I have been pen pals for four or five years now, and have yet to meet! Timing is one thing that is hard to get right in a group of mariners. You get used to chatting with your friends remotely more than you actually see them. I am not even sure how Elizabeth and I connected - maybe it was an instagram hashtag involving something with the word #tug in it... However, since we connected it’s rare to get on a tug and not be asked, “Do you know a girl with blonde hair, I think she is from San Francisco, real nice girl, she has a blog?” I immediately say, “Liz?” “Yeeeaaaah, that’s the one!”

Yes, it is a very small world, and that is the point I want to get across to newcomers. We stick out like sore thumbs.

When Elizabeth and I connected she was working down in the Caribbean, towing barges from Jacksonville to Puerto Rico, and I was on a tug running between Washington, Oregon and California. We compared stories, wages, people: the usual scuttlebutt shared among sailors. But most importantly we created a bond that is truly unforgettable. I mean, I remember what run she was on four years ago and I haven’t even met her!

Reputation is a major player and being a female in this industry means your reputation will follow you a long way. I work for one of the country’s largest tug companies and there are still only two female officers; you stand out because you're different. Everything you do, everything you say will be remembered. You can only hope you will be remembered for good reasons and not bad. It’s hard to forget one woman in a sea of hundreds of men.

So, what do you do when all eyes are on you? You do a bad ass job, that’s what you do! I think we can all agree the maritime world has yet to level out the playing field, so you have to know your job well, sometimes better than anyone, and leave no room for doubt. The best piece of advice I can give is have thick skin and be yourself. 

<3 Katie

gearing up

I've been offline for more than a week, and just got back from a trip down to the Bay Area to see my family (that includes my maritime family). Now it's time to move forward with a new writing prompt for our contributors. The topic: what to pack. 

This sounds pretty simple at first, but there are some very specific items without which a sailor is going to feel pretty ill-at-ease. For a towboater, the obvious ones are a knife, gloves, steel-toe boots, heavy pants, maybe a float coat; so much of it depends on the region in which you'll be working. Leather boots or rubber boots? (or both?) Lace-up or pull-on? (boot lace hooks are bad news on deck - can you think of why?) Float coat and heavy bibs? If you're going to Alaska, you should probably invest in both, even if they're expensive. Your employer will supply you with a work vest and a hard hat; beyond that, you're pretty much on your own. 

So we've asked our Sea Sisters what they would recommend packing for your first hitch. We'll be coming at you with stories soon. 

-Elizabeth 

like us on facebook!

We've had some great developments in the past week! I created an official Facebook page for those interested in following and supporting the site via social media. We also have a new contributor - a lady I've had the pleasure of working with in Alaska. She's a complete badass, as well as a wonderful person. 

While we slowly build on our foundation, we are brainstorming ideas for new topics to discuss here. Among my favorites are: 

  • What kind of gear do you need to work on boats? Did you have any mishaps when you first went to sea and you didn't have the clothes or winter gear you needed to make it through your hitch? (for the record, I didn't have any of the stuff I needed when I went to Alaska for the first time on a tugboat; lucky for me, it was a mild January) 
  • How do you cope with being away from friends and family for long periods of time? 
  • Why do we choose workboats/ships over office jobs? 
  • What is it like living in close quarters with coworkers? 
  • Going through the process of license upgrades
  • What a maritime workplace with gender equality would look like

This is about ten percent of the ideas that our group has come up with, and it's enough to keep us talking for at least a year. 

There are yet more contributors to be added to the group! As we are all busy with work, life, license upgrades and studies, we'll check back soon to see the progress we've made. Thanks for your continued support.

-Elizabeth

 

alaska

I've known quite a few merchant mariners who have worked in Alaska - the sheer expanse of this state has called for the transportation of goods by ocean for centuries, and continues to do so. 

I'm finishing up a hitch in Valdez and wanted to pop by and share a photo I took of the amazing aurora borealis we got to see here the other night. 

We are still working on getting more contributor bios posted, as well as thinking of what we want to write about next. Do you have any questions you'd like answered or discussed by us? We are always looking for prompts and interesting topics! 

-Elizabeth 

and we're off

I officially introduced our site on social media last Sunday, and the positive response was electrifying! I had no idea the kind of dimension and depth it would add to have other voices telling their stories alongside my own, but I really am blown away. 

To the women who are published here: you inspire me to no end, and thank you for being a part of this. It's only going to get better. To the women out there who may be thinking about adding your voice: please don't hesitate to get in touch! Your stories are important and will give others courage.

I built this site in part because I would have loved to read about the experiences of other women in the maritime industry before I undertook this whole endeavor myself, but nowhere that I looked could I find anything of the sort (or if I did it was pretty sparse). The advice and guidance I received from the men who mentored me was an invaluable resource, but it only painted half the picture. I want to fill that void and see to it that opportunities in the maritime sector are marketed and promoted equally to men and women. This industry affords us such a unique and empowered way of life that I would like it to be more accessible to all. 

So the site is now live and I think I've got the bugs mostly worked out. I hope everyone enjoys reading our stories; we have more material from additional contributors in the works and it will get posted as soon as it becomes available. In the meantime, feel free to peruse the resources on the links page and if you have any questions, contact us! Thanks for visiting. 

-Elizabeth 

progress

Getting started is scary, but we're moving forward! Our "about" page now contains a description of who we are and what we intend to do with this site: share our stories and inspire the next generation of young women and girls (and guys) who need information and encouragement. They need the tools to get started in the maritime industry. We are here to let them know what to expect, to tell them they're not alone, that it's ok to dream big! 

Several awesome people have agreed to contribute to this site, and we are slowly gathering introductions to everyone in the group which we will start posting soon. 

taking a break

Thank you for visiting! Please note that my personal blog at www.simenstad.org will be disabled for a while. Meanwhile, I am on a campaign to recruit contributors for www.seasisters.org, and we hope to have a fantastic collective of rich content from women who make their living on ships and workboats available here soon. Thanks for your patience and if you have any interest in contributing, or know someone who does, please contact us! 

-Elizabeth 

not a blog... yet.

Hello and welcome! We will catalog our progress as a community, and our progress on getting this site up and running here in the "blog" section. We don't have much to share yet so in the meantime, please visit my blog to read about my adventures on tugboats! 

-Elizabeth