by Rebecca Rankin
Over the weekend of November 1-3, 2018, I had the honor of attending the Women on the Water (WOW) conference which took place at Maine Maritime Academy, where I am currently enrolled as a non-traditional, 32-year-old first year student. Maine Maritime hosted the event for the first time in many moons and enjoyed the participation of over 150 students, professionals and educators hailing from all over the United States, Canada and even Norway! The conference offered workshops, panel discussions, speakers, waterfront tours, mock interviews and plenty of time to mingle and get to know the plethora of incredible maritime professionals present during socials, meals and activities. And despite the gloomy, overcast and rainy Maine weather, most attendees left the weekend with a big smile on their faces, stoked to be part of such a magnanimous group of women, getting to know one another and becoming stronger for it.
I have never personally attended a conference of female maritime professionals and, I must admit, I was pretty hesitant to try it out. To be honest, I don’t reconcile myself well with the concept of “small talk.” In fact, I used to feel a deep sense of relief when working with engineers who refused to speak until they had consumed their first cup of coffee, and the idea of “socializing” with a hundred and fifty strangers, no matter their gender or career, made me as nervous as a Chihuahua on the fourth of July.
However, in accordance with the personal creed that “where there is the sense of discomfort, there is something to be learned,” I accepted the invitation from MMA’s Vice President for Student Affairs Liz True to not only attend the conference, but also to moderate a panel discussion. Three cheers for stepping outside your comfort zone…!
…seriously, though. First, a group of Canadian mariners, who recognized my cagey eyes and apparent desire to flee, cornered me and would not allow me to leave. They started asking me questions about boats. Then a beautiful woman in the group offered me a compliment. Then a Californian maritime student struck up a magnificent conversation with me concerning her love of mathematics. She tactfully queried me, “What is the highest level of mathematics available at your institution?” and we then shared a glorious conversation about how math is magic and gosh, wouldn’t it be wonderful to achieve a degree in mathematics? Then I met Deb Dempsey, a personal hero of mine and of many other strong women. Captain Dempsey was the first female graduate of Maine Maritime, as well as the first woman to become a Columbia River Bar pilot.
Later, a woman who simply would not stop laughing sat down next to me at dinner. She happened to know everyone who has ever been onboard a boat, of course. What is this place, what a wild opportunity! I met tugboat, tanker and schooner captains, some of the finest in the industry; listened to the advice of accomplished women speaking to their peers in a variety of panel discussions ranging from achieving a balance of work and life (i.e. I’m pregnant and I’m a mariner; what the hell do I do now?), to the ups and downs of the various maritime labor unions, to the advantages of owning your own company, a topic that was discussed in the Limited License Captain’s panel I moderated. There was so much energy, so many stories, so many incredibly brave, strong and barrier-breaking women in one place at one time. I’d never seen anything like it! It was absolutely amazing.
The students of MMA’s Women on the Water club worked tirelessly to prepare for this event, and their efforts paid off. I find it incredibly inspiring that so many women from so many different facets of the industry took the time to come together and network in the rather remote, small town of Castine, Maine. We did it because events like these are essential to supporting women and closing the gender gap in maritime.
Female mariners are a special breed. We spend a lot of time alone, a lot of time at sea, and a lot of time being the odd person out. These careers are on the edge of societal awareness, and the industry teeters on the edge of recent antiquity. Gender still plays a huge role in one’s professional image and women are terrifically underrepresented in the industry overall. As Captain Dempsey so tactfully put it: “sweetie, you can hope for 20% in my lifetime.”
But, as evidenced by the moving finale to the conference, a staged interview between the first female graduate of Maine Maritime Academy Deb Dempsey and current Women on the Water President Mary Shea, we will persevere. Time continues forward. There are more events like this one on the horizon and the groundbreaking nature of the Women on the Water will continue, as will the conversations had and the support networks built in this nurturing environment.
So many women make excellent mariners, deserving of recognition and support, and I was so honored to be a part of this event. I am, however, sad I missed the excursion to Acadia National Park and the dip-in-Penobscot-Bay-in-your-skivvies-in-November portion of the conference… so let’s do it again, y’all!