A shell arched under my toes,
Stirred up a whirl of silt
That riffled around my knees.
Whatever I owed to time
Slowed in my human form;
Sea water stood in my veins,
The elements I kept warm
Crumbled and flowed away,
And I knew I had been there before,
In that cold, granitic slime,
In the dark, in the rolling water.
I was raised on the water in a remote region of Southeast Alaska, but my path to becoming a licensed mariner wasn’t a straight one, and wasn’t one of my own making - I couldn’t avoid it! The water was simply my home as a child and adolescent: I lived on a float house, completely off the grid until I was six, then during my grade school years on an island across from “town”, so every single day I was on the water. It was just how life worked. I learned to walk while wearing a lifejacket on slippery logs. I took a skiff to get to the big island so I could catch a bus once I was of school age. I missed school when the channel was too rough to cross, taking a “harbor day”: baking, making jewelry, and playing Nintedo with my mom. I spent countless hours peering at creatures around docks and in the muck, and my play time literally ebbed and flowed with the tide. I always loved low tide for hunting creatures to catch and keep as pets (starfish, sea cucumbers; mostly the slimy things), and high tide was for swimming as soon as the air temperature broke 60 degrees. Slack tide meant time for halibut fishing. Huge spring tides always meant a big work project on a dock or float, and I did my best to help my parents. I was a really happy kid, and I can never thank them enough for raising me the way they did, with hard work, problem-solving, respect, and cooperation as core values.
Both of my parents were commercial fishermen. It was how they met in La Push, Washington in the 70s. It was never an issue that my mother was a fisherwoman, as it was and is fairly common in Southeast Alaska for women to commercial fish, on their own or with their family. Sure, there were fewer women on the water, but few people would bat an eye at a commercial fishing crew with a few women in it. I grew up without realizing how exceptionally egalitarian my community and especially my family was. Dad was the “captain” on our fishing boats, but Mom could wire bilge pumps, crank hand gurdies, shoot big fish in the head at 20 yards, and get a finicky outboard fired up. It was a rude awakening years later when I entered the world of big ships, where sexism was alive and well.
My mother eventually quit fishing, as did my father a few years later, because the type of fishing they did had become less lucrative. He then worked his way up from OS to AB on the Alaska Marine Highway. I loved it when he was home for two weeks at a stretch, and for the first time, my family wasn’t broke. Looking back, this was probably when I began to realize how great working on ships could be. A common question people ask about the long stretches of time away is how will I ever start a family? But my experience is that maritime families are very solid, independent, and loving. It also may be that I don't want one, preferring freedom and spontaneity. I’m not going to pretend it is all love, mermaids, and adventures, however; the almighty dollar has a lot to do with why many people, including my parents and myself, have gone to sea. I learned early on that money came from the water, and for the most part, the bigger the boat, the better the money.
I lost touch with the ocean from junior high until my early 20s. I got into a little (ok, more than a little) trouble here and there. I tried living in a few cities and worked a lot of different jobs, flopping between community college classes, not really wanting to make a career of anything despite always being academically inclined. During a low point at age 20, I returned to Southeast Alaska, and my love for the water was renewed and amplified when I started working as a sea kayak guide, having no idea that my career would lead me to much bigger vessels in just a few a years. I realized that summer how much beauty I had taken for granted as a child. I will forever be grateful to the owners of the company I worked for, because they pushed me to get my 50 ton captain’s license when I turned 22 so that I could run their transport boats. A recurring theme in my maritime career is my own reluctance. I tried to talk my way out of doing the work, but they wouldn’t let up, so I decided I might as well give it a try. I was my father's first student, as at the time he was preparing to begin teaching maritime courses, so we figured it all out together around my parents’ kitchen table, and after a few familial disagreements and seemingly endless chart plots, I got my first license.
I went on to run charter fishing boats and various transport boats in the summers, and spent my winters trying to fit as much life and travel into my meager budget as I could. My summer jobs paid well enough and were a blast, and I had no obligations in the winter, except to stretch my summer money as far as it would go in cheap countries. When my parents were asked what their daughter was doing for work, the easy and amusing answer was that I was “a professional recreationalist”, or that I was “practicing retirement”. I loved my seasonal and unpredictable life.
I had no plans to go to college, no plans to ever work aboard ships, but a family friend who was a bit of a mentor started encouraging me (by teasing me mercilessly), to go to a maritime academy. He was a former shipmate of my father’s who had gone on to become a member of the Southeast Alaska Pilots Association. He represented the pinnacle of a tempting industry, but I didn’t want to listen to him. I didn’t want to do the work. I didn’t want to wear khakis. I didn’t want more responsibility. I didn’t really want a career. I didn’t want to sacrifice my winters of global travel and romantic poverty. I was 25 and loved my life most of the time, but I was also broke.
As fate would have it, I was eligible for a scholarship available only to people from my little town in Southeast Alaska, only for maritime studies, which would cover almost all of my tuition. I had run out of excuses. The stars had aligned. It was the way my life wanted to flow, despite my unwillingness. Luckily, you don’t have to be happy about it to work hard. Stubbornness and determination were great motivators.
So I landed at the California Maritime Academy. I had considered other schools that had stronger marine biology programs in case I wanted to double major or bail out completely on being a mate, but my whole family lives on the West Coast, and the Pacific was already a big part of my life, so Cali it was. I managed to complete the program in 3 years instead of the usual 4, but it was a big push. My first year I wanted to quit almost every day. I didn’t like going to school with 18 year old boys, and I couldn’t stand the para-military attitude. I was, and still am, independent and stubborn to a fault, and I didn’t want to fall in line. Luckily, that first training cruise sold me. I was as at home in deep water as I was in my familiar coastal waters. I liked working hard, I didn’t get seasick, I didn’t feel cooped up, and for the first time since I landed at Cal Maritime I was actually happy. I loved open water, I loved the dark bridge, I loved the indescribable blue of the deep sea.
Remembering how it felt to be at sea and looking forward to having that environment as my office kept me going during the land-based school year, when I felt trapped and miserable. To be honest, I very much regret my attitude during my years at Cal Maritime. I earned excellent grades, I loved the summer training and internship cruises, and I made a few good friends, but I was frequently angry, borderline combative, and ungrateful for the path that had been handed to me on a silver platter. Not a great mental state to spend the prime years of my mid-twenties. I am sharing this bit of unflattering information because I hope it will help someone out there who has the same reservations about going to an academy, or is struggling at one, and also because if I claimed that I loved it every step of the way, any of my former classmates would know I was full of it.
It was worth it, and I would do it again in a heartbeat. I am not working in traditional shipping at the moment, but my office is still surrounded by azure waters, and my commute via helicopter is unique. I work as a mate aboard an ultra-deepwater oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, and despite the ups and downs of work, it’s wonderful. First and foremost I adore my crew; as you’ll find out, a good crew can make anything tolerable! The schedule is amazing and the money isn’t bad at all. It is hot as hell out there, I do a lot of manual labor, and the oil field doesn’t promote or pay like it did a few years ago, but I am content for now. I’ve earned my 2nd Mate Unlimited and 1600 ton Master’s licenses in the two years I’ve been working offshore, as well as my Dynamic Positioning Operator Certificate, and Tankerman PIC endorsement. I miss operating ships and boats that actually move every day, and it’s possible that my career might take me back to the Inside Passage and Southeast Alaska someday. What I know for sure is I’m sticking with this industry, whatever that might mean. For now, I am going to wait and see, and work hard, because that’s what I’ve learned to do when I am not sure of something.
Sometimes I get questioned about why I do this, or whether I’m trying to prove something, which is absolutely laughable. I like getting paid well despite only working half of the time. Most people get two to four weeks of vacation a year! I would lose my mind! I also get to work around incredible technology and see things many people can’t even (or don’t want to) imagine. This was the only career I could find that would still allow me the time to be free to travel and live just to live. Who knows where I would be without the maritime industry. It has been challenging and frustrating at times, but I choose to go with the flow and give every opportunity my best effort, because it seems that this is just the course my life was meant to take. It was drawn by luck, circumstance, and all of my wonderful mentors and friends who spotted opportunities I couldn’t or didn’t want to see; like the stars, compasses, and gadgets by which we navigate, they pointed me in the right direction.