Sheila Clogg

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (WOMENSENEWS)–It doesn’t bother Sheila Clogg that she’s the only woman on a Great Lakes freighter with 25 other male crew members. She’s just happy to be doing something she loves.

“I like the hands-on aspect, I like working with the machinery, I like getting dirty,” says Clogg, an engineer aboard the Buckeye, a 698-foot freighter in the Oglebay Norton Company fleet.

It doesn’t hurt that starting pay for skilled mariners is $45,000. Or that they work just 180 days a year, receive full benefits and can retire after 20 years. Not bad, if–like Clogg–you don’t mind being in the extreme minority.

Job Definitions for Women Have Expanded in Recent Years

Despite the troubled economic waters of late, employment in the shipping industry is wide open. More women are getting on board, but times have changed. Whereas women were relegated to cooking and cleaning on the big vessels until as recently as the mid-twentieth century, now they’re more likely to be found swabbing decks or servicing the mammoth steam turbines below, just like their male counterparts.

More women started taking jobs aboard ships in the 1980s, according to Glen Nekvasil, a spokesman for the Lake Carriers’ Association, a group of 12 American companies operating 57 boats on the Great Lakes. “It’s a very unusual lifestyle and you’ve got to be kind of an adventure-seeker to do it,” he says.

Clogg, 25, began her career in 1998 at the Great Lakes Maritime Academy, a division of Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City. The academy is one of seven maritime schools in the United States that trains women and men to become officers, who work on deck as captains, first mates, second mates or in engineering. They supervise non-officer employees–such as deck hands, oilers and wheelmen, positions that do not require formal training.

Clogg admits she got a few looks at first, but that didn’t last long.

“In the first few weeks, I rowed a lifeboat at 5 a.m., threaded pipe, cut a gasket, and donned a survival suit,” Clogg remembers. “The guys realized that I was working as hard as they were and picking it up just as fast.”

Clogg took classes in steam and diesel engineering, hydraulics and pneumatics, refrigeration, drafting, machining and welding. A highlight of her three-year training included 138 days aboard the M/V Oglebay Norton, a coal freighter running between Superior, Wis., and St. Clair, Mich. As an engineering cadet, Clogg was responsible for fixing “anything that broke down,” she says. “One day, we went from working on the main engines to fixing the coffee pot in the galley,” she quips.

The fact that she was a female on a ship with 30 male crew members was not an issue, she says. “Obviously, they realized I was a girl cadet, but when I was down in the engine room doing the work, I was just ‘the cadet,'” she says. “They were very fair. They didn’t treat me differently because of it.”

Clogg adds that having the right attitude is a big part of making it as a woman mariner. “You’ve got to be pretty sure of yourself to not let negative people get to you,” she says. “And you’ve got to learn how not to step on toes. The guy who’s been on the boat for three months without a vacation is a little easier to tick off than other people. It’s all in interpersonal relationships: You’ve got to know how to deal with people.”

Ample Job Opportunities for Skilled Mariners

According to Rear Admiral John Tanner, superintendent of the Great Lakes Maritime Academy, skilled mariners are in demand like never before. “Anybody who graduates from the academy can be working aboard a ship within a week or two,” he says. “Even with all the bad news about the economy right now, our placement is very good.”

Many graduates find jobs through the Cleveland-based Lake Carriers’ Association, which includes 12 American companies operating 57 boats on the Great Lakes. Carrying cargoes of iron ore, coal, limestone, cement, salt or grain, the freighters–some up to 1,000 feet long–crisscross the Great Lakes from early spring to December and are staffed by crews of 25 to 30 people.

Other graduates work aboard tugs, ocean vessels, or the government’s merchant fleet servicing naval ships worldwide. Starting salary for deck and engineering personnel is about $45,000, while chief engineers and captains earn upwards of $100,000.

Crew members generally work 60 days, are home for 30, and have winters off. But that schedule can be challenging, especially for women with families. “All of the women I know who’ve started a family have come ashore,” Tanner says. “But depending on where they live, some have found shore-side maritime positions.”

Seven women are enrolled now in the Maritime Academy. They don’t need to go through the academy to work in the shipping industry, but to become officers, they must either go through the program at the academy or work their way up through the ranks.

While the women make up a small percentage of the academy’s 100 students, the number of female students–mainly in the engineering program–has been growing over the past decade. It’s not clear what percentage of the industry’s workers are women.

“I think it takes a certain amount of guts to be in this industry in the first place, but the girls do tremendously,” notes Judy Rokos, the academy’s office manager. “When they set foot on a vessel, they know they’re going to be in the minority and they’re pushing the whole way. Most of the females hit the deck running and move up the ladder very quickly.”

Third-year student Rebecca Hancock will soon graduate with a “Third Mate Near Coastal of Any Tonnage” license, which will allow her to supervise deck hands and handle administrative paperwork. Like Clogg, she isn’t deterred by the fact that she’s in the minority.

“I certainly think about it, because I can’t change the fact that I’m female,” Hancock says. “But I don’t expect to be treated differently just because I’m a woman.”

Then again, she doesn’t walk around looking for problems either. “If you prove yourself as a person, it shouldn’t matter,” she says. “If you go out there and make people feel like you’re there to learn something, they’re going to respond to you in a positive way.”

In fact, Hancock advises women interested in a career like hers to “go for it,” she says. “It’s an absolutely obtainable goal.”

Jane Louise Boursaw is a writer in Traverse City, Mich.

For more information:

Great Lakes Maritime Academy:

Lake Carriers’ Association: