Why Tugboats?

People always ask me “so what got you interested in doing this?” and I usually try starting out with “well I always loved tugboats and I really wanted to work on them”. They stand there expectantly, nodding their heads, as a shadow of confusion flickers across their face; I can see them thinking this answer isn’t good enough, it doesn’t make sense, there must be something more to it. At this point, to dispel the awkwardness, I usually reach into my back pocket and add “and my dad and grandfather were both ship captains so… yeah.” Of course! Their faces brighten. This must be the reason I got interested in working in the maritime industry. Because why would I get the idea all on my own?

I’ve said it before: my dad wanted me to have no part in going to sea; he shared nothing about his work with me when I was a child. We went to Cal Maritime reunions in the fall and rode on the BayDelta tugs to watch the air shows during Fleet Week; one year dad piloted the USS Jeremiah O’Brien for the Fleet Week festivities, I believe when I was a sophomore in high school, which was fun but at that point I think I was only just starting to understand what my father actually did to make money. I think he wanted to protect me from the parts that hurt you, like the emotional loneliness of going away to sea and the physical dangers of actually doing the work of moving cargo. When I was in middle school I liked the idea of being a marine biologist after visiting the marine sanctuaries at the Marin Headlands, and later in high school and then college, I vacillated between my interest in economics, then linguistics, and for about 3 seconds I even considered working for the Foreign Service when I chose my major in the Jackson School of International Studies. But eventually I turned my attention to shipping. I was on the rowing team at the University of Washington and I saw tugs pushing gravel barges through Lake Union on a daily basis. I had always loved being on the water, and it made sense after college to explore my options along the waterfront when I went home to Napa.

I got a job as a ship agent within a few months of graduation and was boarding cargo ships and handling the many needs of the owners and shippers and crew; when the ships arrived or departed the dock, the beautiful tractor tugs were always there, their masts peeking above the main deck; I’d wave at the operator in the wheelhouse and look over the edge down at the deck hand tending to the tag lines and hawsers. I longed to be there. I told my dad, and he was horrified. One night I told my two closest girlfriends while we were out at a bar in the East Bay that I wanted to be a deck hand on a tugboat. My boyfriend at the time literally turned to me, shook his head, and said “I don’t want you to do that” (you can probably imagine just how that went over). My girlfriends thought it was great, even my mother thought it was a great idea, but just as many others thought it was crazy. Half the world seemed to be saying this isn’t for you, forget it.

But I had made friends in the industry, and a core group of mentors encouraged me and fully enabled me to figure out how to get ready to take off on this adventure. The biggest obstacle had been the simple fact that I did not know it was possible; I had been led to believe that the process of getting what I wanted was not attainable to me. With a TWIC and MMC in hand, I interviewed and got a job and that was it – pretty simple, really. Once dad saw me go, he accepted and then embraced my decision. Yes, my connection to the history of the maritime industry is linked through my dad and granddad Simenstad (and my mother’s father was a merchant mariner, a chief mate from Serbia who worked on a Yugoslavian-flagged ship which was blockaded into Shanghai harbor during and after the second World War, where he met my grandmother – that’s another story entirely) but can’t I be allowed to do it just because I love it?

3 thoughts on “Why Tugboats?

  1. Yes. Of course, with no \”can't-I-be-allowed\” necessary. At the moment, doing this is your choice and you love it, even with the danger and loneliness inherent in this choice. Be careful, I have to say! And know that you are very brave; as I see it, you are \”daring greatly.\” See/read the New York Times Bestseller, Daring Greatly, by Brene Brown, PhD, a social researcher. She has a TEDx talk. I really enjoyed reading your post!


  2. That question is always the big, fat elephant in the room, until I give them an answer that will satisfy. I think it's difficult to convey to people who have never thought anything more about shipping than romantic ocean liners going down at tradgedy of an iceberg or rock. Shipping has been around for thousands of years and so sailors have been needed. Of course there was the mystery of the unknown on the spice route or searching for a new land, but it was a steady job.We have skills and knowledge that can only be taught on the job and experience. Out jobs are protected by laws because without us the U.S. Knows we would be vulnerable to outside forces. There is a huge responsibility, and I love the challenge.I remember being terrified, in high school, that after college I wouldn't find a job. I set out trying to think of jobs I knew of that were needed, nurse, lawyer, etc, but nothing that struck me as something I would be passionate about. I met a Columbia River Pilot when I was 18, and he told me he had always had a job working on the water since he was 19 years old. To me that sounded like enough, but when he told me there has never been a woman tug captain on the Columbia- it set the challenge. I've been going after this dream since then: yes, it's hard, and yes, there are many people that would love to see you give up because of the hard ships this job has, but there is something satisfying about doing something on your own and supported by the people who matter. I don't know if it's fair to ever answer completely why you do what you do. There are so many factors and the things that make me want my job one day could make me scorned the next. It's a pretty personal decision, I think, because it is always deeper than because you are related to or met someone, it's never as simple as that, but I wish sometimes that's the answer they would accept.


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