SHIPPING | Challenging the gender barrier in high seas

Harvey Rice | Houston Chronicle | 2010.11.05

High school counselors in the Dallas suburb of Granbury were dumbfounded when Brittany Truss told them she wanted to pursue a career on the high seas. A handful of women pirates like the notorious Anne Bonny and a few women who disguised themselves as men went to sea, but a woman on board a vessel was traditionally regarded as bad luck.

Truss scoured the Internet for a sailing school and found the Maritime Academy at Texas A&M Galveston.

Now 23 and a junior in the academy, Truss knows she has chosen a career that is one of the last frontiers for women.

“I’m definitely nervous about it,” she said about the likelihood that she could be the only woman aboard a merchant ship hundreds of miles at sea.

Because women can still expect to find themselves the lone female aboard a merchant ship, the Women on the Water conference was begun four years ago to support women mariners. This year 80 cadets and 160 women mariners attended the two-day conference that began Friday at Texas A&M Galveston, said Donna Lang, school assistant vice president.

Of the 300 cadets at the Maritime Academy, only 30 are women, Lang said. “The maritime industry historically was and is still a male-dominated industry,” said Anne Wehde, director of the federal Office of Maritime Workforce Development, which is sponsoring the conference.

Can be profitable

The U.S. Coast Guard doesn’t record the sex of those issued merchant mariner credentials, Wehde said, adding, however, that the number of women is increasing.

Women who choose a career at sea can find it profitable. Cadets like Latoosa Jensen, 21, a senior from Austin, can expect to earn as much as $100,000 a year and with six months off if they land a berth on a deep sea tanker or freighter . That’s if they can endure the hazing and other hurdles that await them.

Jensen, who also is majoring in marine biology, never considered a career as a mariner until she took her first voyage on the academy ship. “I fell in love with it,” Jensen said. “I love going out to sea.”

Jensen and other cadets will be relying on experienced women mariners like Deborah Dempsey, 61, for advice about how to cope with the adversity that often confronts a woman at sea. Dempsey was the first woman to graduate from one of the seven U.S. maritime academies in 1976.

Her fellow cadets resented the media attention she received and tried to make her life miserable. Rocks were thrown through her dormitory window and bags of feces were left in front of her door. Undaunted, she graduated valedictorian.

“Was it hard? Sure,” Dempsey said. Her drive to learn what she needed to be a mariner saw her through. “What saved it, I was learning what I wanted to learn,” she said.

After graduation she went to work as an officer on a cargo ship, where she again had to prove herself. She was assaulted twice, although she didn’t go into details, but handled herself well and gained respect for doing her job well. “Everybody gets tested by seasoned sailors,” Dempsey said.

Now she is a pilot, the top of her profession. “It’s very heartening to see 200 people sitting in this auditorium 34 years later,” Dempsey said about the conference.

Worst job was first one

Another veteran mariner offering advice is Ann Sanborn, 56, who became the first woman to captain a U.S. ship in 150 years when she became master of the Texas A&M Maritime Academy ship in 1988.

Sanborn came from three generations of seafarers. She entered the second academy class to accept women at Texas A&M in 1975, one of 12 women. There were three women in the class ahead. Male cadets reacted badly. “They went into hypershock at first,” Sanborn recalled.

But her worst experience came on her first job as an officer on a tanker. “The captain tried to make my having sex part of my job,” Sanborn said. The captain was fired within a week.

“Nobody should have to go through a trial by fire like that,” she said. “But all that came out of it is that you were a whole lot tougher than you thought you were.”

Such experiences are the exception, Sanborn said.

“The normal experience for women at sea is like being at sea with 32 big brothers,” she said.


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