Maritime pioneers proved a woman’s place is at the helm
Five women sitting at a long table in the beautiful San Francisco Maritime Museum building last weekend didn’t look like pioneers, but they were.
Four of them hold Coast Guard licenses that allow them to command seagoing ships. The fifth, Alice Watts, spent a lifetime on San Francisco Bay and teaches young people about the lore of the sea and ships.
They were among the very first women in positions of command aboard ships. They didn’t crack the glass ceiling the Millennials complain of — these women broke a wall that was thousands of years old, backed by long tradition and even superstition.
Nancy Wagner was the first female ship pilot in the United States. A pilot is a senior sea officer in charge of bringing a ship in and out of port, responsible for the safe navigation of huge cargo ships and tankers. Lynn Korwatch, now a shoreside executive, was the first woman to captain a freighter flying the American flag.
Tuuli Messer Bookman, now a professor at the California Maritime Academy in Vallejo, has both a law degree and a captain’s license. She served as a deck officer at sea and is a lieutenant commander in the Navy Reserve. Jeanne Pintois a pilot — the equivalent of skipper — on San Francisco’s fire boats. She knows the bay very well — she spent 20 years as a tugboat skipper.
It wasn’t that long ago that women broke into the maritime industry. Korwatch was in the class of 1976 at California Maritime Academy — the first class to include women. Wagner graduated with six other women and 236 men from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y. in 1978. Both made it to the top of their profession.
Though both women came from seagoing families, neither of them thought of the sea as a career when they were younger. “Girls didn’t do that,” Wagner said. She dreamed of being a dancer.
But new horizons opened when the country’s six maritime academies opened their ranks to women. It was a sea change; sailors didn’t take orders from women. Besides, everyone knew the ancient traditions of the sea. Women at sea are bad luck.
Wagner remembered her first trip as a cadet. She was 19 years old and assigned to the States Line freighter Colorado, bound to the Far East from San Francisco. The captain was unhappy about having her aboard and said so.
The ship went north, through the Unimak Pass strait and then near the Aleutian Islands. They ran into one winter storm after another. The ship rolled and pitched and lost some of the cargo over the side. “It was awful,” Wagner recalled. “And you know what? They blamed me.”
A few years later, Messer Bookman got a berth as a deck officer on an American ship and joined the vessel in Singapore. The local port officials were so dismayed at the thought of a female officer they smuggled her to the ship in disguise. Unbelievable.
Korwatch, who also sailed as a deck officer her first time out, had a little different experience. “I knew what to expect,” she said.
Finally, in 1988 when she was chief mate on a Matson ship, she got her big break: She was offered the chance to sail as captain of Matson’s container ship Maui, across the Pacific, Oakland to Hawaii.
There was one problem: Capt. Korwatch was more than eight months pregnant. “But I learned one thing,” she said. “Never pass up an opportunity. Here was my chance to be a captain. I didn’t care how pregnant I was.”
There are no doctors on cargo ships, but the voyage to Hawaii and back was calm and uneventful. Korwatch’s son was born a week after the ship got back to Oakland.
So there are two messages here: Never give up, and never pass on the big chance. But it is a sad story too: Though there are female maritime executives and lots of women working in tugs, ferries and small commercial vessels, there are few jobs as ship captains. That’s because of the decline of the U.S. merchant marine, and not so much about gender discrimination.
Wagner retired last week as a bar pilot, and Korwatch left the sea some time ago to be executive director of the Marine Exchange of San Francisco Bay.
Though there are dozens of women in maritime executive jobs, and hundreds enrolled in maritime academies, there are only two female ship pilots on the West Coast.