Most memorable moment on the job: for Susan Sharp, it was the day she looked out her “office” window to see humpback whales in all directions.
For Nadine Fraser, it was the time she and her crew resolved a critical mechanical problem without incident, and how proud she felt. For Tracy Fleming, it was flying into a seaside community for work and thinking, “How cool is this!”
There’s no doubt about it: being a captain at BC Ferries is exciting work, say five female captains at the helm of ferries on Southern Gulf Islands routes.
“I’ve been with BC Ferries for 28 years, and a captain since 2015,” says Fraser, a Master on the Mayne Queen. “It started as a summer job for me that just evolved once I made a decision to stay. I love my job. I really love it. How many people can say that?”
The Route to Master Mariner
Ferry captains are called master mariners. There are two main routes to that certification: Complete a four-year apprenticeship program at a marine institute offering the courses required by Transport Canada; or do what every one of the five women interviewed for this story did — take a job with BC Ferries and work your way up, meeting requirements over time for academic training and hours at sea.
That latter route takes a little longer — seven to 10 years, say the captains gathered around the table in a meeting room at Swartz Bay ferry terminal on this day for a conversation about their careers. But being able to work and go to school at the same time is a big plus when looking to develop your career without having to give up economic security, say the captains.
“I started back when the Earth was cooling,” jokes Lynn Steiner, the veteran of the group after 18 years as a ferry captain. “It wasn’t always an easy place for women in the early years. But things have changed so much since then.”
Steiner was the third female captain in BC Ferries history when she got her certification in 2001. Nadine Fraser and Michelle Le Tourneau, meanwhile, are both in their third year as captains. Susan Sharp has been a captain since 2012, and Tracy Fleming since 2010.
BC Ferries currently has six active female master mariners — a small percentage of the total 121 active captains who work for the company, but notable in an industry that, globally, is still in the early stages of placing women into command positions. (In the U.S., women couldn’t attend maritime academies until the late 1970s, and Canada’s navy didn’t see its first female commanding ship officer until 2003.)
The barriers to the top that once got in the way of women mariners have largely vanished in the last 10 to 15 years, say the five captains. Technology is changing the roles that once required brute strength, and shifting thinking at every level is taking care of the rest. Add in a worldwide shortage of certified personnel for maritime work, and the future is bright for women looking for a great career.
“What really stands out for me is that it’s possible to do your training while being employed, and you’re not spending vast amounts on education to do that,” says Fleming.
Schooling for other well-paid professions can leave people saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in student loans, but Fleming notes that her own studies 20 years ago to become a watchkeeping mate were much more affordable. It’s also possible to challenge some of the academic requirements by taking (and passing) specific exams, as both Fraser and Le Tourneau have done.
On the Job
A ship captain is essentially the manager of the vessel under her control, charged with finding that perfect balance between customer service, regulatory compliance, corporate policy and handling various weather demands.
The Skeena Queen — Susan Sharp’s vessel — has a crew of eight and carries as many as 450 passengers and 100 vehicles. She needs to be prepared for anything during her shift, from the occasional mechanical challenge to storms and rogue pleasure boats.
“There’s a long list of things that could go wrong when you’re responsible not just for cargo, but for walking, talking cargo,” says Nadine Fraser. “But that’s a major part of our training — not just how you respond in an emergency, but how you execute that crisis plan when needed.”
Is there a typical work day for a BC Ferries captain?
“No!” the group cries in unison.
“Each day is different, and there’s so much opportunity to try new things,” says Michelle Le Tourneau. “It’s a dynamic job.”
While they love their work, the captains acknowledge the weight of their roles.
“The degree of responsibility really resonated with me when I became a captain,” recalls Fraser when asked what first surprised her about the job.
Sharp agrees, remembering the day when she realized “I have 600 lives in my hands.” Teamwork is essential, with captains counting on the support of their on-board crew and colleagues on shore.
None of the women began their ferry careers with a vision of becoming captain. Lynn Steiner was a single mother looking to support her family. Tracy Fleming was working on a fishing boat and recognized there wasn’t “a huge future” in that industry. And Nadine Fraser recalls a “why not?” moment as she worked her way through ferry jobs that included serving food in the cafeteria and working in the terminals.
She credits those experiences with making her a better captain. “I know that were I to give the ship a lot of throttle, it’s going to rattle the cook,” Fraser says. “And you don’t want to rattle the cook.”
What will it take to bring more women into this profession? More awareness is needed, agrees the group. Women can start out in virtually any job with BC Ferries and work their way up to captain from there, says Fraser.
Some maritime careers involve weeks or months at a time at sea, but a ferry captain is home most nights, with many opportunities to switch jobs or locations.
And then there are the unexpected delights, like when Michelle Le Tourneau got to captain a newly built ferry through the Panama Canal and home to BC waters. “I never would have imagined that was something I’d get to do in my lifetime,” says Le Tourneau.
“There’s so much room in this company to progress,” says Fleming, who has now moved into a new career as an International Safety Management internal auditor with BC Ferries. “There has been a culture shift in the industry, and it’s very exciting to be part of that.”