Women Learn About Life at Sea from Captain with Firsthand Knowledge

CASTINE — Deborah Dempsey was “scared to death” when she learned in 1973 that she had been accepted as the first female student in the history of Maine Maritime Academy.

Three years later, as valedictorian of the MMA Class of 1976, she became the first woman to graduate from any U.S. maritime academy.


Last Friday, Dempsey returned to her alma mater to lead off the third annual Women on the Water conference. Hosted by the Federal Maritime Administration and MMA, the conference brought female students from the all of the federal and state maritime academies together with women who have achieved leadership positions in the maritime industry.

Deborah Dempsey
Deborah Dempsey
The professional mariner’s lot can be a hard one. Shipboard life can entail hard physical labor, long separations from loved ones, days of tedium and hours of danger that can make even the toughest sailors wonder what possessed them to go to sea.

For women who choose a career on the water, the life can be even tougher. They confront all the usual difficulties of the seafaring life, and they do so following a male-dominated profession with traditions more hidebound than most that was, until quite recently, actively hostile to women.

Since Dempsey first went to sea, women have increasingly assumed responsible positions in the maritime industry. Many more women go to sea as licensed Merchant Marine officers. A handful, like Dempsey, have reached the pinnacle of their profession, sailing as ship’s captains in the U.S. merchant fleet. But it wasn’t, and still isn’t, an easy path for women.

“You’re a girl in an industry that is mainly a man’s industry,” Chief Counsel Denise Krepp of the Federal Maritime Administration reminded several dozen young women who filled the audience in MMA’s Delano Auditorium as she opened the conference. “How do you avoid the traps? How do you step out of them?”

Dempsey traced the arc of her career at sea, beginning with the job delivering yachts that she left to attend MMA and culminating with her current work as a Columbia River Bar Pilot. After 18 years at sea, since 1994 she has guided 1,000-foot container ships and giant log ships and tankers through some of the most hazardous waters on Earth.

When pushed to hire some minority pilots, the all-male pilot’s association actively recruited Dempsey for the job because she had sailed for five years as a captain for the Lykes Lines. She was the first woman to sail as a master on international voyages in the U.S. fleet. Despite her qualifications, “many captains are still surprised to have a woman pilot,” Dempsey said.

Currently, there are 1,300 licensed pilots guiding ships in and out of U.S. ports, but only 18 of them are women, Dempsey said. Despite statistics such as that throughout the maritime industry, Dempsey advised the audience members not to be deterred from pursuing a maritime career.

“Once you realize what your niche is, there’s no stopping you,” she told he rapt audience.

As she rose through the ranks of MMA cadets and the world of commercial shipping, Dempsey said, she learned that a woman seafarer “can’t be one of the boys, and doesn’t need to be.”

Despite that advice, Dempsey described a life that would make most “boys” quail. As a pilot, she is often forced to board and leave ships in ferociously rough weather. Sometimes she is deposited on a ship’s deck, or snatched from a deck cargo of slippery logs, by helicopter. Sometimes she climbs as much as 100 feet from a tossing pilot boat up a ladder hanging from the side of a moving ship. Those experiences can be frightening but, Dempsey said, “experience allows you to confront fear.”

Dempsey contrasted her early days at MMA with the experiences of young women now attending maritime academies. When Dempsey first came to Castine, she said, she was a minority of one who often had to go it alone. Now, she said, young women in the academies have many resources to turn to for advice, including women like her, Krepps and dozens of others who have achieved successful maritime industry careers.

The availability of those mentors, Dempsey said, represents “the flip side of success — the obligation and responsibility of all of us to enable the dreams of others.”

Dempsey said her time as the only female student at MMA was difficult not just for her, but for the institution as well.

“I was successful because it was what I wanted to do,” she said.

“When you figure out what you want to do,” she told the young women, “you will succeed.”

Dempsey’s rousing remarks introduced two days of seminars exploring issues as diverse as seafaring government job opportunities, maritime policy and piracy. While in Castine, conference participants also had the opportunity to tour MMA’s facilities and to sail on the academy’s Arctic exploration schooner, Bowdoin.

For more maritime news, pick up a copy of The Ellsworth American.




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