Once a rarity in the marine industry, women now often play a central role, whether that’s at the wheelhouse, in the galley, or at the helm of the entire operation. Some arrived at their position via family, others through serendipity or determination, but they are all passionate about their boating careers.
From age 12, Stephanie was sailing single-handed dinghies and racing competitively along the Welsh coast. Rolling her boat during a Winter Frostbite Series resulted in broken ribs, but even that only kept her off the water for three and a half weeks.
Her first real taste of the sea came when she helped a local man and his crew sail to the Isle of Man in the British Isles. A bad storm in the Irish Sea damaged the rigging so badly that their voyage turned into a camping trip, and they slept in tents while repairs were done.
Stephanie signed up to the Merchant Navy at age 18. After basic training, she spent four years on 262 foot platform supply vessels in the North Sea while also attending Warsash Maritime Academy. Her own words belie how tough those years must have been: “It was a very harsh environment and I never once had the company of a female. I only ever had male crews.”
After obtaining her Office of the Watch, she joined a 394 foot/6,500GT Marine Aggregate Dredger. As the vessel emerged from the English Channel, the captain gave a happy “Cheerio!” and went below to his cabin, leaving second mate Westbury alone on the bridge, solely in charge of the watch for the first time ever. She says she is glad she did not run over any swimmers in the channel.
After years of hard work, Stephanie turned to yachts. “I was told by an agency that it was ‘extremely unlikely’ I would get an officer’s job onboard a yacht. I walked away more determined than dejected, because it wasn’t the first time in my career I had been told I wouldn’t be able to do something. I am sometimes a rather stubborn ‘prove them wrong’ kind of girl.”
Before her 24th birthday, she was chief mate on a 141 foot yacht in the Caribbean, later second officer aboard a 302 foot yacht in the final stages of her build. Stephanie says, “Right now I am feeding my passion for travel and adventure, but of course keeping my ears open for a whisper of work on another yacht! I intend to continue progressing up the ranks in the future. I can’t say that I have seen many women in similar positions — it is still a male-dominated career — but there is nothing to say that can’t or won’t change.” Who would bet against a “prove them wrong kind” of girl making that happen?
Brenda High Wilmoth
Owner, Baltimore Boating Center
When Brenda was four, her parents James and Doris bought Baltimore Boating Center. She and her siblings did odd jobs for ice cream, and handed out flyers at boat shows. At 17, Brenda became parts manager. Customers couldn’t believe that a 4 feet, 11 inches, blue-eyed blonde knew anything about parts. They were truly mistaken.
After the family business was sold, Brenda spent 20 years in marine finance. In 2007, she and her siblings took over the marina. The industry was in recession, and Brenda realized “there was nowhere to go but up.” She and her brother Jim rebuilt the marina, decided against selling new boats, and grew their brokerage.
In the last decade, Brenda has seen more and more women making the initial contact about a new family boat purchase. She is thrilled that she has helped introduce so many new folks to boating over the years — she estimates more than 5,000! At the same time, she is saddened by listings coming in from aging boaters reluctantly giving up their family boating lifestyle.
Brenda and Jim have been active in the industry, contributing to the Chesapeake Bay Powerboat Association, the Marine Trades Association of Baltimore County, the Middle River Dinghy Poker Run, and the Middle River Parade of Lighted Boats.
Going forward, Brenda would like to grow the business so she can take more time off to spend on the water. That sounds a bit like an oxymoron, but if anyone can do it, this little lady will.
President, Bennett Brothers Yachts
Patricia assumed full responsibility at Bennett Brothers Yachts and Cape Fear Marina in Wilmington, North Carolina, when her husband and partner, Paul Bennett, passed away in 2007.
Tricia is used to preparing for hurricanes, but nothing could have prepared her for the recession that swept the industry in 2008. Conservative by nature, she was able to survive and grow, and is optimistic about the current uptick in the marine industry. Customers aren’t just doing necessary mechanical repairs but are now redoing their hulls. Recent projects include repainting a 72-foot Marlow Explorer and the Wilmington Fire Department fireboat.
Tricia has no plans to slow down. She labels herself a “demanding leader” who expects 110 percent from employees because, “I give 110 percent every day.” Two of her four children are interested in helping her further develop and enhance the marina and boatyard, located in one of the fastest growing areas in the country. No doubt, this energetic woman will keep pace with the growth of her surroundings.
Yacht Chef and Author
Chef and author Victoria’s tag line, “I follow my stomach around the globe in search of cuisine,” is earned through visits to 45 countries in the last 14 years. Instead of checking them off her bucket list, she says she just keeps adding more countries to it.
Classically trained as a chef, Victoria worked in Calgary restaurants for 10 years. A friend suggested that she should try working a winter season in the Caribbean. On her second day on the job, she met Patrick Ferrell, first mate on a yacht tied up in the next slip. For the next four years — prior to cell phones — they bounced around separately, looking for each other in each new port. Since they married, they’ve worked on the same crews — currently he is the captain and she is the chef on the same yacht.
She sees the makeup of crews changing. Once “inside” as cook, cleaner, or stewardess, women are steadily moving into “outside” crew positions. More crew agencies and owners ask specifically for women.
Victoria has yet to find a port she doesn’t like. She loves asking market locals what to buy and how to fix it. She says she has learned more that way than she ever has from a cookbook. She has written about her floating culinary odyssey through Europe, the Caribbean, Nepal, Vietnam, Africa, and the South Pacific in her travel memoir, Sea Fare: A Chef ’s Journey Across the Ocean and her travel adventure, SEAsoned: A Chef ’s Journey with Her Captain.
Captain Sally didn’t set a goal early on to become a yacht captain — it was just the natural progression of her career. She grew up boating on the English Channel. After she left home, she managed a dive shop on Turks & Caicos. Four years after getting her captain’s license in 1994, she began to work on yachts.
Sally travelled all over the world during the 11 years she worked for one owner. She finds it very exciting to go somewhere that’s inaccessible except by boat. She has been to places such as those in Alaska and the Caribbean that few people ever get to see.
During her career, Sally has captained a variety of yachts — the largest was 200 feet. One port captain in France was very surprised to discover that the captain was a woman, but was immediately apologetic and polite. Sally has never felt any resistance in her career, and thinks that, as women, we are only “held back by ourselves.”
Now the mother of a toddler, Sally is doing short-term charter, relief, and freelance work so that she can be away for shorter periods and remain closer to home. Looking forward, Sally is keeping her options open, but is considering management. As much as she enjoys the ocean, it’s certain she will be at sea as often as possible.
Although these women have unique stories, they share a genuine love of the water and several similar characteristics. Sally Wilkins says, “It’s scary being out in bad weather, so you try to avoid it.” But what they couldn’t avoid, they have weathered — storms, recessions, hurricanes, and personal hardships, and they have adapted in order to survive. They are all straight-forward, optimistic, forceful, upbeat women, and most of all, they each have a great sense of humor. In the words of Captain Sally, “You can either drive a boat, or you can’t.”