Women assess the travails and satisfactions of careers as mariners

A St. Lawrence River pilot boarded the tug Cheyenne and greeted Ann Loeding.

"What time is lunch?" he asked Loeding, thinking she was the cook.

A crewman intervened and corrected the pilot. "She's the captain!" he warned — too late.

Such is the life of a woman professional mariner. In March in New York, a panel of seven female mariners shared sea stories and discussed career opportunities before a crowd of 180 people in a packed auditorium.

A contingent of midshipmen from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point were among those in attendance. (Dom Yanchunas photo)

The panelists credited earlier women pioneers who shattered barriers before the maritime academies began admitting female applicants in the 1970s. They discussed how their work schedules force adjustments in family life and relationships. They compared notes on male chauvinism.

Often men don't expect to see a woman on a merchant vessel. An uncomfortable first impression may result. That can harm the working relationship, as Loeding explained when she recalled the shocked pilot on Cheyenne.

"He was so horrified, he couldn't talk to me after that," Loeding said.

The panel was part of "America's Women Seafarers Tell Their Stories," sponsored by the Working Harbor Committee of New York and New Jersey. The program included a screening of the documentary film Shipping Out — The Story of America's Seafaring Women.

Attendees included female midshipmen from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, working women seeking a career change and even youngsters from Girl Scout Troop #12402 from Hoboken, N.J.

Ann Loeding, a tugboat captain who described how a pilot once mistook her for the cook. (Dom Yanchunas photo)

Industry representatives believe the percentage of female professional mariners is growing, but few groups offer statistics. The number of licensed female merchant mariners was unavailable from the U.S. Coast Guard. The International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots doesn't keep track of its members' gender.

The five-year-old Shipping Out film reported 3 percent of U.S. ship pilots are women. Paul Kirchner, executive director of the American Pilots' Association, said his group doesn't keep such data, but he thinks the total may have risen to 4 or 5 percent and is probably greater than the industrywide average.

The Seattle-based Women's Maritime Association has about 350 members and the number has remained steady recently. The Women's International Shipping & Trading Association, representing managerial positions, said its membership has increased 40 percent in recent years.

The crowd in New York heard from women seafarers who have risen to positions of leadership.

Debra Tischler, a former second mate on large ships, said a woman certainly can succeed in the predominantly male industry. She attributed her promotions to a willingness to work overtime and to learn about all aspects of ship operation.

Debra Tischler of Overseas Shipholding Group and Coast Guard Cmdr. Linda Sturgis provided examples of successfully navigating the challenges facing women. (Dom Yanchunas photo)

"I went into the engine room and learned how to weld," Tischler said. "Which is something the deck officers usually don't do."

Tischler, of Overseas Shipholding Group (OSG), served on tankers, car carriers and bulk carriers. She is now in the chartering department.

"At OSG, we have a lot of experienced women in the company," Tischler said. "So they set the trend, and it's easy to come in and prove yourself. You just have to pull your weight."

Cmdr. Linda Sturgis, head of prevention at Coast Guard Sector New York, said it's satisfying to inspect vessels to promote maritime safety and to ensure that crews are not exploited.

"We make sure that the ships have all of their lifesaving equipment and it works. We make sure the firefighting equipment works. We make sure the crew is being fed," Sturgis said. "It is a rewarding feeling from a humanitarian (standpoint) — a good feeling that you left a ship in excellent shape."

The panelists made sure the audience understood the difficulties of working a vessel. Jessica DuLong, chief engineer aboard the New York City fireboat John J. Harvey, said you can't avoid getting dirty. A one-time visitor to the boat recounted later, with a laugh, DuLong's appearance as she emerged from the engine compartment.

"It was like a cartoon. You had soot all over your face," the visitor said.

"I was trying to think about what trip that was," DuLong told the group. "But honestly, it could have been any trip."

Along with the good pay and frequent vacations comes a sometimes-haywire family and personal life. Most of the panel had served at sea for long periods with little contact with their families, although that's changing now with wireless communication. Friendships get strained when the mariner can't visit regularly.

Many men are not used to adjusting to an achievement-oriented wife or girlfriend who is away in a confined environment, surrounded by other men.

"They knew that if they were going to be interested in me, they would have to be interested in a driven, independent woman," said Tischler, who is engaged.

Marissa Strawbridge, a second mate with American Maritime Officers, said her career at sea has been satisfying. She encouraged the audience to learn about job opportunities.

"It has been very good," Strawbridge said. "I'd recommend it to anybody — even to little Girl Scouts!"

One of the pioneers is Capt. Deborah Dempsey, a Columbia River bar pilot and Maine Maritime Academy's first woman graduate.

"We've been following our dreams since 1973," said Dempsey, who watched a webcast of the panel discussion. "It's refreshing and enlightening to see so many women there and to see the panel made up of what I consider the next generation. That's definitely progress, and you have to smile."

By Professional Mariner Staff