Women Seafarers: Captain Alexandra Hagerty

Around one-third of people who work in the agriculture commodity supply chain are women, but few are seafarers.

Jan Dieleman, President of Cargill’s Ocean Transportation business, told me that females make up only 2-3 per cent of the global ship workforce. He explained that Cargill tries to increase that percentage, “but it’s a complex issue. Ships’ facilities can be basic, and crews can be away from home for extended periods, which makes things more challenging.”

A 2021 survey by the IMO (International Maritime Organization) found that the percentage of women in the shipping industry is 29 per cent worldwide, but nearly all are on land.

Maryana Yarmolenko Stober, the President of the Swiss Chapter of WISTA (Women in International Shipping and Trading), told me that a quarter of the women in the agricultural supply chain in Switzerland hold senior leadership positions.  Being a landlocked country, however, none of those positions are aboard ships.

In the US, in 2020, there were 15,465 females in a total shipborne workforce of 210,000 merchant mariners – just above 7 per cent of the total. Unfortunately, very few held leadership positions.  Among those 15,465 female merchant mariners, 4,729 had a credential endorsed as “Master”, and only 149 held a certification endorsed as “Master Unlimited Any gross tons”, effectively certified to command ships of any size globally.

In short, in 2020, only 149 US female captains could command a ship globally out of a US merchant marine workforce of 210,000.

I managed to track down one of them: Captain Alexandra Hagerty, who has spent the last 13 years as a mariner.

In a 2021 interview posted on her website, Captain Hagerty explained why she took to the seas.

“I fell in love with sailing when I worked as a sailing instructor for physically disabled children when I was nineteen. It was an amazing experience getting them on the water, some of them for the first time. I realized how exciting it was to be on the water, with its inherent sense of adventure and a means to travel the globe. I wanted to experience more.”

Being a mariner involves sacrifice.

“Some of the greatest challenges in this career are the sacrifices you make. You miss special engagements, ceremonies, conferences, and many family and friends events. Sometimes, you are forgotten and lose touch with the communities and networks you once had on shore because you are gone for months. You come back ashore and realize that you have changed so much; your perspective has changed as you have navigated around the globe. It takes time to re-enter yourself into a community that has been continuing without you.

“Loneliness is a huge challenge, and this industry is not for everyone. You must have grit and integrity to wake up every day, work 12-15 hour days for months, and realize you will reap the rewards upon signing off. This lifestyle is premised upon delayed gratification. If you can’t play the “long game” shipping out for months at a time, this isn’t for you!

“I have been challenged in the past as a woman. However, being physically active and motivated helps break some of these stigmas. I also am not afraid to speak up and over someone if they are trying to cut me off in a conversation or confront someone if there is an issue.”

There are significant rewards.

“Sometimes the greatest reward, strangely enough, is having the regular comforts you expect to have daily on land taken away from you for an extended period, and when you come back from sea, you appreciate them so much more.

“On some ships, you are constantly moving and working. However, the hard work pays you back in vacation time. What 21-year-old graduating with a four-year degree can make six figures in six months of work and have six months of vacation a year while obtaining excellent medical and retirement benefits? An American Merchant Marine Officer!”

Money is not the only reward.

“I will never forget seeing the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) coming out in Iceland, and it felt like it was engulfing our vessel in a greenish spiritual light. It was stunning, and the pictures from that evening of the Arctic Circle will never do justice to watching its movement across the sky.

“I also remember watching flying fish fly the length of a swimming pool off the coast of the Northern Marianas Islands and blue-footed boobies landing on the vessel while transiting through the Panama Canal. It was amazing talking to a Panama Canal Pilot and fellow graduate from our school who brought local coffee and Panama Canal Pilot hats to my crew as we transited the canal, talking with him about local customs.

“Meeting a 75-year-old Japanese pilot in the Naikai Sea (Inland Sea) who told me that age is just a number. He started his career as a pilot at 55 after working 20 years as a Ship Captain. He was so inspirational and kind.”

Charity Work

Captain Hagerty has sailed and commanded many types of vessels, including MV Africa Mercy with Mercy ships. I asked her over Skype what had prompted her to volunteer and what she learned.

“I realized there was an opportunity for people in seagoing professions to give back – pro bono work. I had heard of doctors and lawyers doing pro bono work, but I didn’t know I could volunteer as a captain and give back to the world. It was like, wow, there’s an opportunity to take my skill sets to a different level and give back.

I was also attracted by the challenge of getting a ship underway that hadn’t moved in two years due to COVID.

“The ship had to leave Africa in 2019 due to the COVID pandemic, and thousands of Africans held on to their ID cards, hoping and praying every day that the ship would return. It was a fantastic experience to be the captain of a ship that brought 14 pallets of medical supplies and 450 crew from around the world to Africa.

“The weather was perfect; we didn’t encounter any storms. It was strange. It was as if the seas were ready for us, and everything was meant to be. I was so happy to be asked to be the first female captain of this hospital ship. It was the only job where I wasn’t paid, but it was the best job I have ever had.”

Captains Without Borders

It was during this voyage that Captain Hagerty had the idea of Captains Without Borders, when she started thinking about how she could help seafarers while at the same time alleviating the shortage of them. She realized that with women making up less than one per cent of ship’s officers, the sector was not tapping into 50 per cent of the world population.

“If you look back 100 years,” she told me, “people never imagined that women could become professional lawyers and doctors, but 50 per cent of doctors and lawyers are now women.

“My idea was to break down barriers and give young people from disadvantaged backgrounds – women or people from different castes, societies, or countries where seafaring is not a typical job or career – the opportunity to go to school and join the maritime industry.

“We’re now seeing a huge change where doors are finally opening for a new plethora of people to enter the sector. I see more young women getting into it than ever before.

“I also thought about the war in Ukraine. I was a Vice President of the American Council of Master Mariners and IFSMA, the International Federation of Shipmasters Association. With ISMA, we worked with the Ukrainian Seafarers Union to help Ukrainian seafarers stranded worldwide. Some of them ended up being on my ship.

We also gave seven scholarships to young cadets at the Ukrainian Maritime Academy to finish their studies. They started crying when we told them; they were so happy and excited to have a scholarship. Half of them were women.

Finally, in the 2021 interview, the interviewer asked Captain Hagerty the same question I always ask interviewees: what advice would she give to a young person contemplating a career in the maritime industry, especially a girl? She replied,

“This career is not for the faint of heart or someone that wants to stay home or local. This career is for someone who is flexible, ready to be delayed on the other side of the world because of possibly international relations or a pandemic and can handle the consequences.

“High school girls interested in this career must be okay with being physically active 10-12 hours a day.

“This will never be the 9-5 job unless you want something shoreside. Most graduates work on average for 3-5 years at sea and then move shoreside. However, for those who want to move up the ladder, I encourage them because there is a big difference in responsibility from Second Mate to Chief Mate and from Chief Mate to Captain.

“Responsibilities change and gain complexity, and your day-to-day problem-solving skills must grow and adapt as you advance in rank and position.”

Captain Hagerty was VP of international relations at CAMM (Council of American Master Mariners). She is now a maritime expert witness pursuing an executive MBA at MIT.; you can contact her through her website.

This is a brief extract from my upcoming book, Commodity Professionals – The People Behind the Trade.

© Commodity Conversations ® 2023

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