Northstar Marine’s Commander was built as a standard offshore supply vessel (OSV), like many others that operate in the Gulf of Mexico. But Commander is different. Based out of Philadelphia since 2018, it is the only OSV operating exclusively on the East Coast of the United States.
But that’s not all that sets this OSV apart. On this vessel, half of the bridge team is made up of women, with another female filling a deck hand role. Just 2 percent of the world’s maritime work is performed by women. Having four on one crew is rare indeed.
A strong presence of women on board is reflective of the overall culture at Northstar, which is owned by a captain who has five daughters. Commander Capt. Dan Mahoney has no problem coaching the mates who come under his command.
A 1997 Maine Maritime grad, Mahoney has worked aboard Commander since 2018. Originally from Salem, Mass., he spent seven years in oil and gas operations off West Africa before joining Northstar, which is based in Cape May Cottage, N.J. His experience and wisdom has been invaluable to the crew he commands.
Ren Lyman, a mate who hails from Camden, Maine, appreciates the calm instruction that has allowed herself and her fellow bridge team to learn and grow in the industry. “I was having a moment of hesitation during my first time docking,” she recalled. “Dan reminded me that you can’t be afraid to hit things because if you hesitate, the environment will take over and that’s how you lose control.”
Having gone to sea at the age of 11, Lyman spent a year sailing the Caribbean with her family aboard their 57-foot ketch, Searcher. That was all it took for her to know exactly what she wanted to do with her life. After high school, she enrolled at Maine Maritime Academy. She cadet-shipped aboard Commander during her junior-senior summer, returning to work on deck the summer after graduation. When she passed her 1600-ton license a few months later, she was able to move up to mate. Now, only a year and a half after graduating, she’s driven the ship up and down the Delaware River and along the East Coast on a variety of operations. “I still think I have a lot to learn in this role,” she admitted.
Lyman is on one of Commander’s two rotations, each with crews of 10 men and in this case, her fellow women crewmates as well. “There are four girls aboard now,” she said. “We all get along and work together well.”
Another mate on the bridge is McKenna Jarvis, a Massachusetts Maritime grad hailing from southern New Jersey. Jarvis grew up on the water. Her father is a salvage master and her twin brother is a marine engineer.
Jarvis has been aboard Commander for nearly three years now. “After graduating from school, I really never expected to work with another woman. I was one of only three in my graduating class, so I always assumed that ratio would translate into the industry.” Jarvis added, “I’m not going to lie, I really didn’t know what to expect with having so many other women on board but it has ended up being one of the best parts of my job. Not only are they my co-workers, but we’ve become great friends as well.”
Lyman agrees with Jarvis when it comes to working with other women.
“It’s been such a great opportunity to work with other women and create those friendships,” she said. “I’m so happy Northstar is a company that continues to promote and encourage the growth of women in this industry.”
One of the many things Commander is involved in is the ever-growing offshore wind industry. One of Jarvis’ favorite jobs so far has been the “double bubble curtain” job Commander did a few years ago for Dominion Energy off Virginia Beach, Va. The back deck was filled with 18 air compressors and a 70-ton spool of air hose. Using a dynamic positioning (DP) “follow track function,” Commander deployed the air hose into circles surrounding the installation vessel. The air was used to create a vertical wall of bubbles or a “double bubble curtain” to provide noise mitigation during the hammering process of the installation. “It was really cool to be a part of the installation of the first turbines to go in,” Jarvis said.
The crew finds the survey work Commander is doing especially interesting. This past year, the vessel served as the launching platform for a Cone Penetration Testing (CPT) operation exploring possible cable routes for future wind turbines. The ship’s A-frame and winch were used to launch and recover the CPT over the stern. The 14-ton piece of survey equipment was dropped over the stern to penetrate the seabed and provide data on its composition. Using Commander’s DP system, the mates on the bridge kept the ship exactly on station. During just one deployment, the ship surveyed a couple of hundred different sites along the New Jersey shore all the way to Vineyard Sound.
The CPT research was followed by sediment sampling, using Vibracore sampling technology. Hollow tubes were driven into the sea floor using vibrations. The bottom sediment was captured in the hollow of the tube and brought on deck where physical samples provided evidence of sediments in its layers. “It’s been really interesting to see how much goes into every stage of the wind farm project and to be a part of it all from the very beginning,” Lyman said.
Offshore wind work is only one part of Commander’s daily operations. Lisa Kolibabek, the deck hand aboard, particularly enjoys when Commander participates in military training. With a background in tall ships, working alongside other women wasn’t new to her, but was a welcome aspect of her job on Commander nonetheless. The variety of projects and boats she gets to work on means life on board is rarely boring. “Everyone really works together to get the job done” Kolibabek added. At any given time, Commander will engage in research, dive operations and salvage work.
When I spoke with the crew, they referenced a project where they learned how to weld for the fabrication of a 41-foot-diameter cable tank for the back deck. This was to recover 12 miles of unused cable from the seabed off the New Jersey coast.
Rheann Dionne, a Maine Maritime grad, is another member of the bridge crew. She was the first woman to be a part of the crew when she cadet-shipped during her junior-senior summer. She has had a front row seat to the steady growth of the company ever since.
Northstar recently acquired Northstar Responder, a pollution control vessel converted to work as an OSV. Another addition to its fleet is the former Seacor anchor handling tugboat Keith Cowan, now known as Northstar Navigator.
Henry Knott, the chief mate on board, is also a Maine Maritime grad. He’s worked alongside Lyman, Jarvis and Kolibabek for almost two years now, as they’re all on the same 28-day rotation. When asked what it’s like to work with women, Knott answered, “We all just work together to get the job done.” •
Editor’s note: Freelance writer David Lyman is the father of Ren Lyman, a mariner on Commander and a subject of this story. Ren Lyman and McKenna Jarvis supplied images for the story.