Photo by Jill Johnson

“A fairy tale starts, ‘Once upon a time…’ A sea story starts, ‘This is no shit.’”

A Woman’s Path: Deborah Doane Dempsey, Marine Bar Pilot

Debbie’s story is of a shy, inhibited girl who grew up to become a sea captain giving orders and autographs. In the shipping industry Deborah Doane Dempsey is a legend: the first woman to graduate from a maritime academy, ’76; the first American woman captain of a merchant vessel on an international voyage, ’89; the first woman captain of a vessel in wartime, ’90; the first woman Columbia River bar pilot, ’94. On a rainy day, with the fog almost obscuring our view of the Columbia River, Debbie vacillates between laughter and tears as she tells her dramatic and difficult story.

I like to make sure everyone knows the difference between a fairy tale and a sea story. A fairy tale starts, “Once upon a time …”

A sea story starts, “This is no shit.”

My mother doesn’t think I should talk in that vein. But I don’t hold back. I’m very direct. I get my hands dirty.

I’ve always loved the water and messin’ about in boats. I was raised in Essex, Connecticut, at the mouth of the Connecticut River. It’s an active sailing community, a place where everybody boats. From the time I was ten and my sister, Linda, was thirteen, we’d take off for weekends-sailing a thirteen-and-a-half-foot Blue Jay and camping along the banks. Once we were headed for Martha’s Vineyard on a twenty-seven-foot Tartan. There was fog, eight- to ten-foot ocean swells, and we ran off our chart. All we had left to use was a Texaco road map. And I guarantee that a road map doesn’t show much of Rhode Island Sound. We pulled into Vineyard Haven after dark. That was cool! We did that!

Having to make do on the water is an incredible discipline. I have this dream of a sailing school. My school would be: load the boat up with twelve-and thirteen-year-olds and go out to sea for five days. Don’t go anywhere. Just go to sea, combat the elements, and come back. You have to produce or you’re not going to survive.

My dad certainly expected that one of his five kids would take over his pharmacy. Much to the disappointment of my parents I got sick of the physical sciences. After I graduated [University of Vermont] I became a bum — delivering yachts and teaching skiing. A friend of my dad’s, he’d been watching me, suggested that I go up to the Maine Maritime Academy and learn what he knew I wanted to know.

Until this person, who’d graduated from Maine Maritime, made me aware that maritime schools existed, I hadn’t known about them. I’d been working at the Essex Machine Works, a propeller and shaft foundry. I didn’t want to work there the rest of my life, and there wasn’t much security in delivering yachts. Plus, I was tired of living at my parents’. I felt the need for direction, and his suggestion was very intriguing.

There was only one woman at any of the seven maritime academies. I sent in my application to Maine Maritime, was interviewed on a Tuesday [October ‘73], and that Thursday they admitted me. Because I’d already graduated from college, I entered as a second-semester sophomore, so I didn’t have to go through that grueling year of being a mug and the ten days of indoctrination where you’re doin’ triple­time up the hill in Castine.

My parents drove me to school and they didn’t think I’d last two weeks because of the pseudo-military environment. You have to wear a uniform, polish your shoes, stand for inspection. The first couple of weeks were total chaos because of the publicity and the fact that the student body didn’t want me there. I was forced to eat meals in the dining hall. I’d be sitting there, alone, with mashed potatoes hitting me from one side, gravy from the other, and I’d be ducking when a plate came over­head. I was spat on at morning formation. My classmates left bags of choice items outside my door. It never let up. During senior finals an ice ball with a rock in it was thrown through my dorm window.

I dealt with it by going AWOL to Commander Sawyer’s residence. He taught nautical science, had a daughter about my age, and was building a cabin on the waterfront. I helped him. That was my escape.

I’d been a good student at college but at the Academy I was an excellent student because I loved what I was learning. Celestial navigation. There’s nothing better than learning celestial navigation and using a sextant.

It’s such a wonderful feeling to know what you want to do and to be following up on it.

It all fell into place. Castine, Maine, is a beautiful, small, seacoast port. We had this 535-foot training ship, tugboats, sailing boats. It was fantastic. I was surrounded 360 degrees by this environment -messin’ about in boats-and I was doing it on that scale. A 535-foot ship. It was such a relief, and I wouldn’t have to worry about my next job.

I knew what I was getting into but it’s astonishing to me, even with the group I work with today, that there are males who are threatened because a woman’s doing the same job a man’s doing. I was a speaker at a confer­ence on Women in Shipping. I was serving on a panel with Captain Lynn Korwatch, the first woman to sail a commercial vessel on an unlimited Master’s license (she was eight months pregnant at the time), and Elizabeth Mulcahy, who runs a ship charter service out of New Jersey. A commissioner on the Board of the Maritime Pilots, probably one of two males out of a couple hundred people in the auditorium, commented to the panelists about swinging off a rope in sixty-knot winds and twenty-foot seas. He asked if we’d address the physical requirements of a woman doing a man’s job. I jumped right in and said, “That’s where we differ. We don’t see it as women doing a man’s job.” I got a standing ovation.

One of my favorite stories concerns my first job as sec­ond mate. Now you’re considered the navigator of the ship. You’re up there messin’ with the charts, all the equipment on the bridge, laying out the courses as the Captain wants it done, using that sextant to take morning star sights and evening star sights.

I was nervous as all get out as I pulled up to the Andry Street levee in New Orleans. The Captain, who was leaning on the railing, watched me lift my seabag out of the trunk, and told one of the third mates, “Go help the cadet with her luggage.” Afterward, the third mate told the Captain, “That’s no cadet. That’s your second mate.”The Captain said, “Like hell!” He called the Lykes Shipping office and asked, “Whatcha doin’ puttin’ a woman on my ship?”Their response was, “Make a trip with her. You’ll like her.”

We sailed from Houston in pea-soup fog. I relieved the twelve-four watch after we’d already taken departure from Galveston. There are safety fairways through a horrendous number of oil rigs and I asked the third mate, “Where’s the Captain? Don’t you think he ought to be here in pea-soup fog? And where are we?” He said, “I think-””What do you mean, you think!” I started piecing together oil rig forma­tions, matching them with the chart. Our vessel, the Aimee Lykes, was as long as two football fields, was on the wrong side of the fairway, and there was incoming traffic. By then Captain Dempsey was on the bridge, checking the radar, and he was not saying anything. Finally, I said, “What do you think about hauling right?”Total silence. About thirty sec­onds later, he said, “Yup,” and hauled ninety degrees right. Later he told me he thought, No damn female’s gonna tell me what to do.

Halfway through the South Atlantic on the way to Cape Town, it changed from “What’s the matter now, second mate?” to “Good mornin’, second mate.”Two months into the sail on the east African coast, we fell in love. I called home from Mombasa, and all Mom said was, “You’re not going to get married before you get home, are you?”We had a wonderful, spectacular trip. We wound up spending a week in Mtwara, Tanzania, where the original Blue Lagoon was
filmed. Jack and I were the only ones who had a good time, because there was nothing to do there while the ship dis­charged flour.

Jack was my role model. He didn’t go to one of these fancy-dancy academies where you graduate third mate. He worked his way up by total experience and never forgot what it was like to sail mate. He taught me the confidence it takes to be a Master and a Chief Mate. 
When we got back we faced quite a battle at Lykes. Jack told ’em, “You guys are right. I like her so much I’ m gonna marry her.”The pencil Captain Hendrix was holding snapped in two. He said, “She’ll never sail Chief Mate for this outfit and you two will never sail together again, if you get married.”

That was August and we got married four months later, December ’78. Immediately Jack was yanked from his ship, the ship to which he’d been permanently assigned. For the next six months we fought Lykes in arbitrations and hearings in New York City. We were fighting for the ability to sail and work together on the same ship. A decision was never ren­dered by the arbitrator, but we won because the union [the International Organization of Masters Mates and Pilots] forced them to concede and reinstate Jack, and Vice President Hendrix was asked to retire.

Another six months later Lykes did a 180 and tried to get me on Jack’s ship on a permanent basis, but I didn’t have the union seniority to hold the job. I’d catch a job with him whenever I could. Our happiest times were when we were on a ship, working together. We’d solved the age-old mariner’s problem of how to continue sailing and maintain a normal married life. We shared a cabin, which was no problem for anybody on the ship, and we enjoyed the foreign ports together. Izmir … Civita Vecchia … Singapore … there’s a lot of romance in those foreign ports.

My most dangerous assignment was the rescue of the Lyra. I was assigned Captain to theLyra in June ’89, and had made six trips in and out of the Persian Gulf crisis [Operation Desert Shield]. After the Persian Gulf War, the U.S. govern­ment bought the ship from Lykes. Lykes thought they could save some money towing it from Baltimore to New Orleans rather than recrewing it. In fifty-knot winds and twenty-foot seas the Lyra, a 634-foot vessel, eighty-nine feet wide, broke her tow off of Cape Fear [January 26, 1993]. With 387,000 gallons of fuel, no power, and no crew, the dead ship was drifting onto Frying Pan Shoals. There was no way to stop her.

I’d just gotten home to Virginia, hadn’t unpacked from leaving the ship in Baltimore, and my boss asked me to fly out to the ship and attempt to anchor her.

That’s another case of Jack being my mentor. He deliv­ered me to the airport, where I was to take a helicopter to the ship. I was anxious about attempting to anchor the ship. I’d never in my life anchored a ship with two anchors. In weather like that you don’t anchor-you heave to or steam back and forth. Jack was telling me what he’d do because he’d used two anchors, but he’d never been lowered by helicopter onto a dead ship — no one had. That was the very worst part-being lowered onto the deck of a ship doing thirty-five-degree snap-rolls.

Four crew members were lowered onto the deck.

There’s nothing blacker than a ship dead in the water in a storm at night.

After we managed to drop the first anchor, the emer­gency generator failed. We had to let down the second with­out any power from the ship. Eight hours later the first anchor dug into the bottom. This rescue received every maritime award, and a banquet was held to honor the entire crew. Jack was there but he didn’t share the podium. He considered it my show. He was a unique man.

In 1994 the Columbia River Bar Pilots recruited me. They had the state on their back to produce with affirmative action. All ports and harbors around the world have pilots who are important because they have local knowledge. A ship arrives at the Columbia River Bar, which Lloyd’s of London rated as the most dangerous bar in the world. (A bar is the sand bar across the entrance to the mouth of a river where the ocean shoals up to meet it.) Without that local knowl­edge it’s too difficult to bring in the ship, so you hire a pilot to bring you safely across the bar.

A pilot boards the ship from an eighty-seven-foot pilot boat, which runs alongside. Negotiating onto the Jacob’s lad­der, which can hang up to thirty feet down the side of the ship, is the most dangerous part of the job, especially since most of the work at the Columbia River Bar is done at night. Then a pilot goes up to the bridge and, since the pilot knows the depths, knows the channel, knows the bar condi­tions, the pilot advises the Captain what to do.

The best part about being a pilot is that you spend all your time maneuvering the ship. On a ten-day crossing of the Atlantic, you’re never changing speed, doing anything, as far as ship handling. Also, with piloting, you’re no longer leaving on a foreign voyage, 50 to 120 days-you’re on an hour-and-a-half transit in the harbor. So, not only are you doing what you love, but every day you’re home.

I could now be with Jack on a daily basis. In our eighteen years of marriage there were times when we wouldn’t see each other for six months. Last summer, it was all falling into place, it was comfortable for both of us, and we bought this house. I always looked at this as our doing it together. It wasn’t just me. Then Jack was diagnosed. That was awful. He died four months later of lung cancer [June 1996].

I don’t have any answers right now. I’ m scared of what’s ahead or not ahead. What’s real unattractive is coming back to this empty house. Before, whenever Jack and I weren’t together, we were by ourselves, but we were never alone. Now I’m not only by myself but I’m very much alone. That’s something altogether different.

I had something none of the other pilots had. I had Jack, who knew and understood every aspect of the work, and that was fun, sharing every job with someone who could advise me, support me.

After I’d been in shipping for a while, I attended an alumnae gathering at the Williams School, a day school for girls where I’d gone to high school. Everyone was listening to my sea stories, and the headmistress com­mented, “Deb, when you were in school here you were so shy you couldn’t speak at all. Now you’re nonstop!”

I told her it was because I’d found my niche, that I’m very satisfied and quite proficient at what I do. It’s such a wonderful feeling to find your niche. Male or female, until you find your niche, life’s difficult.


At this historic time when the country is on the brink of electing our first woman President, my book A Woman’s Path resonates even more today than when it was published in 1998. In profiles of 30 incredible woman who are doing interesting work, the women answer the question: How do you get to do that? I want to share these fascinating stories of women in the workplace.

Deborah’s story was originally printed in A Woman’s Path by Jo Giese, copyright 1998

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