When I first started working on tugs, I was the only woman on the boat. It was three years before I had the opportunity to work on the same vessel as another woman. There were other women in the fleet, and I got to meet them and talk in passing, but working together is an entirely different thing.
The first woman I ever worked with, L, was a cook. Our cooks are also expected to work on deck when making up to ships, tying up at the dock, or working with barges. L was a few years older than I, and had been in the industry for about five years. I was a second mate. L impressed me with her no-nonsense approach to her job. She was there to work and she did a great job. I was apprehensive about working with another woman at first, because some of us (myself included, admittedly) tend to be very territorial and competitive with one another. I didn’t have that problem with L. We bonded quickly and found that having another woman to work with was a great experience; that we are each other’s cheerleaders and not each other’s foes. I still have her recipe for honey mustard vinaigrette dressing taped to my refrigerator at home.
Then there’s M. I have never actually worked with M on the same boat. She’s a cook, getting close to retirement, and has been working on boats for an indeterminate but long amount of time. We were talking a few weeks ago and she said to me “when I started in the industry, the only way a woman could get on a boat was to be a cook. And even then, you had to be related to somebody.” She is tough as nails and takes flak from nobody. She continued, “I’m just so proud of you. When I started, women couldn’t be mates, and they definitely couldn’t be captains. It makes me so happy to see you guys climb the ranks.” Women like M are the reason I am on the boats today. She was one of those women who got her foot in the door and then kept that door open for the rest for us.
I am currently the only female captain in the fleet, but I am not the first. The first was M, different from the M above. She is the human embodiment of unbridled joie de vivre. She was a captain here when I first came into the fleet, and left for other endeavors a few years ago. Funnily enough, I am currently assigned to the same vessel she was – and it means so much to me to finally be on a boat where I am not her first female captain. When I first started working, M was one of my role models. Someone who, without saying as much, let me know that she was always in my corner and that I could do what she’s doing. I wouldn’t have to break that glass ceiling, because she already did it for me.
Earlier this year, I found myself working with not one, but two other women as part of a crew of 10. Incidentally, that was the first vessel my company ever had with women at the top of all their departments – the captain (me), the chief engineer, and the chief steward. Granted, the chief steward was the only person in the steward’s department, but I’m not letting that slow me down from celebrating how far we’ve come. Those of you who sail know there is often an “us versus them” mentality between the deck and engine departments. When I was working with K, my female chief engineer, there was no battle of egos between us. We worked well together and she was always up front about what was going on in the engine room and what she needed from me. The best word I can think of to describe it is “easy.” Everything was just so easy.
This past month, I was part of a crew that comprised three women and three men. The captain (me), the second mate (who I will call J) and the cook (who I will call A) are the women who made up half the crew. It might not sound like a big deal, but here’s the surprising thing: It totally wasn’t a big deal.
J did her job well and was organized and thoughtful. A made incredible meals for us and was always in a good mood. The thing is – these are qualities I would expect in my crew no matter their gender (or any other identifying factor like race, religion, political affiliation, or who they’re rooting for in the World Cup). Nobody on board made a big deal about us all being on board together. Nobody pointed out that any of us were doing a good job “ya know, for a GIRL.” I don’t think anybody noticed that we had a crew with equal numbers of men and women.
And that is, to me, the real victory here.
In some of my previous experiences, while the fleet as a whole supported having women on board and wanted us to excel, there was always someone who just HAD to make a comment when there were multiple women on a crew, or when there was a woman in a high-ranking position aboard. Comments alluding to our menstrual cycles matching up, calling us the “estrogen boat,” or assuming all we would do is sit around and gossip. When I first got promoted to captain, a crew member from another boat (a man, obviously) called me to ask, “You’re in charge over there, right? Do they call you Mistress, since Master is a masculine term?” Captain. They call me Captain.
But not this time.
This time, while there was certainly plenty of estrogen to go around on board, nobody felt the need to make jokes about it. The male members of my crew treated me, J, and A as they would any other captain, second mate, and cook. The chief mate argued with me over petty things – as he does with everyone. The engineer would ask for the second mate’s help moving some things around in the engine room – as he would have with a male second mate. And the AB kept busy and also took out the cook’s trash at night – as he always does. None of them treated us with disrespect, not even a comment like “well, I would make a joke but we’re in mixed company.”
I look forward to the day that this is the norm. The day that my crew is just another tugboat crew doing tugboat stuff. The day that your worth on board is only determined by your ability and your attitude, not by what’s going on in your pants or in your bedroom. While my experience this hitch has been a good one, it is not a typical one for us tugboaters. But it’s a step in the right direction.