Ocean Discoveries: 2012 Nancy Foster Mapping Mission/Day 4 – Women on the Ship

By Antares Ramos Álvarez

Dr. Nancy Foster was a leader and pioneer in the field of science for NOAA, so it is appropriate and refreshing the number of amazing women currently working on the NOAA ship Nancy Foster. For a variety of reasons, the maritime industry is typically a male dominated profession.  Today, we want to share with you the stories of five women who have chosen a life at sea..  They all have very different stories to tell, but have one common quality:  their passion for adventure and the sea.  Thank you ladies for allowing me the opportunity to get to know you better and to be able to write about your life experiences.  I have learned a lot talking to you, and feel honored to have had the opportunity.  You’re all an inspiration and hopefully your experiences will encourage the next generation of female sailors.

Women on the ship: Front row- LCDR Holly Jablonski, ENS Kelsey Jeffers. Back row – Kerri Curtin, Samantha Allen, Sabrina Tarabolletti. Credit: NOAA/CRCP

Holly on the port side controls. Credit: NOAA/CRCP

LCDR Holly Jablonski, Incoming Commanding Officer
Holly is currently the Chief of Officer Recruiting Branch for the NOAA Corps and has been with the Corps for thirteen years. She will become the Commanding Officer (CO) of the R/V Nancy Foster in two weeks (after this cruise is over). Each ship has a CO, and they report to the CO of the Marine Operation Center of their ocean (either Atlantic or Pacific), who’s responsible for the fleet on that coast.  When I asked Holly how she felt about being the incoming CO for the Foster, with great sentiment she said that she’s “Honored that they have the confidence in her to be given the opportunity”.  However, the position of CO comes with a great responsibility for the safety of all onboard, the ship, and getting projects done.

So how did Holly end up as the Incoming CO of the Nancy Foster?

She was in her junior year of mechanical engineering at Purdue University, when she still unsure of what she wanted to do after graduation.  Most of her classmates already had a clear vision of what they’d end up doing, but Holly was still in the search.  She started thinking about joining the military, US Navy or the USCG.  During a career fair on-campus she ran into a NOAA Corps recruiting officer, in his white uniform that from a distance looked like an officer from the Navy.  She mischievously admits that all other booths had a line and there was just one person at the NOAA Corps booth.  Not knowing what it was all about, she started approaching cautiously and started eavesdropping to see what this gentleman in white was all about. Eventually she decided to talk to the recruiter, and the more he talked the more interested she became.  She would stop by during each break of class to keep on chatting with the recruiter, and became so interested that she asked for a formal interview.  The recruiter told her to show up for an informational session that was taking place that night, and if she was still interested, she could submit her request for a formal interview.  She went that night and it reinforced her desire to join the Corps.  She says that she felt so exhilarated about finally knowing what she wanted to do, that she ran 8 miles that night with that feeling of “I found it!”  She was interviewed the next day, and submitted the application.  So she could be considered for the upcoming class, she accelerated her Purdue classes during summer so she could graduate earlier.  When her admission letter came, she found out that she was chosen as an alternate (place on waiting list in the case that someone ended up not attending).  In the end, she did not get into that class.

During college she worked in restaurant management and after graduation worked as an environmental and engineering consultant.  Two and a half years later, she reapplied, and with her added maturity and extra professional experience, got selected to be part of the new NOAA Corps class.

The basic training program of 4 months – which she describes that it was like “drinking from a fire hose”, due to the steep learning curve. She had  to learn about basic officer protocol and maritime skills, working as a team, learn how to operate the vessel safely, and have your collateral duties.  As an officer, there is an alternation every two years, from sea to land back to sea, so on and so forth.  Her first two years were spent on the Whiting, a163’survey ship, where she assisted with hydrographic surveys (charting) around the Atlantic (New Hampshire, Dry Tortugas in Florida, St. Thomas, Guayanilla in PR and Ponce, PR –where she was in charge of the survey) the first two years.  On the Whiting, all officers are scientists in addition to some permanent civilian survey personnel, but there are no guest scientists that come onboard (like in the Foster).

She spent three years on the The Bay Hydrographer, a 56’survey ship, also working on hydrographic surveys, mapping the Chesapeake Bay.  She also assisted on outreach and public relations, as well as in testing new equipment such as ROV, AUV (autonomous underwater vehicle), GPS track-tide buoy.  To this day, this has been her best assignment, but she is pretty sure this one coming up will top it.  I asked her why it had been her favorite assignment, and she said that it was very independent style of working, with just two permanent folk on board and the boss in Silver Spring.  She also loved the public relations aspect of it.  .

Back on land, she worked at Headquarters in Silver Spring as staff assistant at NOAA’s Hydrographic Survey’s Division (Office of Coast Survey) for under 2 yrs.  Her primary job was working on revisions (updating) of field procedures manual.  It was nice time in her life to off a ship and settle down a bit (even got a house), and found it very rewarding since it was a task that that needed to be done, and felt like she made a difference (which is one of her biggest drives in life, that of making a difference).

Her next rotation at sea was on the Rude (pronounced roo-dee), , a 90’survey ship,  as Executive Officer (XO) in charge of the ship’s administrative duties (personnel, payroll, logistics). This time around, the surveying took place around the Lower Chesapeake and Port Canaveral, FL (near where NASA launches spaceships).  She even saw a NOAA Satellite launching. The ship was decommissioned before her two year sea tour was up.  To finish the two year cycle, she spent four months on the Miller Freeman on the west coast, working in the Pacific coast from Alaska (Dutch Harbor) in the Bearing Sea to San Francisco.

Back on land, she became the Chief of Officer Recruiting Branch, in NOAA HQ in Silver Spring, and has been carrying out that role for the last three and a half years.  She jokes that she hopes that she picked good officers while she was recruiting since she’ll be working with them now.   Two of the officers on the Foster where actually recruits of her: ENS Jaime Park (Navigation Officer) and ENS Kelsey Jeffers (Junior Officer, who we’ll learn more about today).  People don’t realize how hard recruiters work and the responsibility involved.  Making a difference in improving processes and improving the Corps: many people don’t know about the NOAA Corps and she’s been working strong on changing that.  She’s very confident that her replacement will continue the great work and put in as much energy into it.

On being a sea woman…

Any challenges? 
Overall Holly has been respected for her capabilities; “if you’re doing your job and doing it well, you win other’s respect”.  She has never felt discriminated for being a woman, and hasn’t taken advantage of being a woman: if there’s a task that might be more challenging to a woman than to a man, it’s about figuring out how to get it done (wit) and not expecting special treatment. It’s about doing your job and doing it well. She’s worked as a NOAA working diver, has been in charge of a small boat (not common for a woman to be in command, an SRV 56’) and will now become CO of the Foster.

How about family life?
Holly married later in life (not planned, she just didn’t find any suitors), and has never seen herself as a mom.  She now has three step daughters that are in their 20’s.  Her hubby (as she very lovingly calls him) is older and is currently working as a maritime instructor, retiring as a second mate (license).  Being a sea man himself, he is very understanding of her going to sea.  He’s about to retire and she’s at the height of where she wants to go, so she could not ask for better support.  She explains to me how the person on shore has to take care of business, and his support makes a difference in dealing with the separation and ensuring the relationship thrives.

Anything you want to say to other women interested in the sea?
“It’s a great adventure. Don’t be intimidated by the fact that you’re a woman!”

What is the NOAA Corps?
The NOAA Corps is a uniformed service, appointed by the President of the USA.  They work similar to military service but it is not a weaponed force (they do not go to combat).  Ranks are similar to any water-based military service (USCG and Navy) and they do not have enlisted or reserve officers.  When fully staffed, there is a maximum of 321 officers authorized by Congress (making the Corps the smallest uniformed service in the US).

The roots of NOAA Corps go back to 1807 when President Thomas Jefferson decided we needed to carry out survey on the coast and created the Coastal and Geodetic Survey (NOAA’s predecessor), which counted with a commissioned officer core.  You can learn more about the history of the Corps at: http://www.noaacorps.noaa.gov/about/history1.html

Kerri getting reading to lift the ROV into the water. Credit: NOAA/CRCP

KERRI CURTIN, Able Seaman
She’s new on board, with just two weeks of being on the Foster.  She’s been with NOAA for five years now, has been in fisheries and hydrographic survey ships around the Gulf of Alaska (Bering Sea), Gulf of Mexico, Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.  Overall, she has been working 10 years on ships.  So how did she become part of this maritime world?

She used to work as a purser and bartender on river boats out of New Orleans (navigating through all the major rivers in the area) and fell in love with life on the ship.  She became interested in ship life but since it was men oriented, shied away from it.

She contacted the Sea Farer’s International Union and got sea training through them.  For the basic training you’re on a ship for 90 days working in monthly rotations around the three departments: deck (which she ended up choosing), engine and galley.  After her training she worked in commercial ships out of Japan as an Ordinary Seaman for 6 months, returned to the US and after further schooling became an Able Seaman.  She later worked on a container ship on the Persian Gulf (of which she says was “Very interesting… very eye opening.  It was during the war and we were moving government cargo into Iraq.  It was quite scary since we had no way to defend ourselves”).  After her Gulf experience, she went on land for a while and eventually started working for NOAA.  As an Able Seaman, her main roles are deck maintenance, docking and undocking the ship, driving small boats, cleaning, standing on bridge and port watches, and serving as a helmsman (steering the ship).  After getting some sea time and 1000 days at sea, she wanted more of a challenge and recently achieved her 3rd mate license (and is currently looking for a 3rd mate job).  A Third Mate licensed officer stands on the bridge and operates equipment, watching for traffic and operating instruments.

On being a sea woman…

Any challenges? 
On commercial ships she experienced more of a resistance on having women around, but in NOAA it’s more welcoming, since there are more women on ships.  She has a no nonsense policy and that tends to win people over, and also takes the precaution of  not getting involved with anyone onboard.  Most men she sails with become like their brothers and she still keeps in touch with many of them.  It’s only been a few men that have just not wanted to have women around.

How about family life?
Kerri is a free spirit.  She loves being an aunt but has never desired to have children of her own. She’s single, since she simply hasn’t been blown away by anyone.

Anything you want to say to other women interested in the sea?
“As long as you do your job and get things accomplished, you’re good to go!”

Sam with the CTD instrument (used to measure sound velocity) after a night cast. Credit: NOAA/CRCP

SAMANTHA ALLEN, Senior Survey Technician
As a Geology undergraduate student, Samantha worked on a research cruise in the south Pacific Ocean.  After graduating she had two other jobs that she really didn’t enjoy.  When thinking what she wanted to do in her life, that first experience on the research cruise was the only thing she really liked.  She can’t stand being in the office, and likes being the field.  Working as a scientist on a research vessel is as much as being in the field as you can possibly get.

Sam has been working with NOAA for five years now.  The worked on the Rainier in Alaska for over a year, and has been onboard the Foster for the last four years.  She first worked as a Survey Technician, but has been the Senior Survey Technician for the last year and a half.  The Survey Technician position on the Foster is currently vacant, so she’s running solo.

On being a sea woman…

Any challenges?
Maybe back in the day there were significant challenges, but now it’s fairly equal.  She has never come across any challenges working on NOAA ships.  She has heard that the case can be different for women working on merchant ships.

How about family life?
Sam got married this past January and she’s one of the few that does not have to wait to be on port since her husband works on the ship (Keith Martin, Electronic Technician).  They met in a previous research group in a university vessel (UNOLS).  She says she feels extremely lucky, since she otherwise can’t see how you can have family life.  In terms of having children, “it would definitely be hard on this job”, it’s not something she’s thinking about right now.  Her father also works as an ET in Norfolk, but she has never worked with him.

Anything you want to say to other women interested in the sea?
“It’s an even playing field, if the sea is your passion, follow your dream!”

Sabrina in the engine control cabin. Credit: NOAA/CRCP

SABRINA TARABOLLETTI, First Assistant Engineer
Sabrina lived 45 years as man before deciding to live the rest of her life as a woman.  Up until 2002 she was married with a family, house in suburbs (FL, Cape Canaveral), two cars.  She had been struggling with being transgender all her life.  Divorced in 2003 and a year later decided to transition (surgery).  She announced it to her 20 year employer where she was an engineer, and six weeks later was dismissed (upon my surprised reaction, she told me that this is quite common for those who transition).

After surgery, she decided to start a recovery center for others having the transsexual surgery and moved to Trinidad, Colorado where she bought a house and fixed it (you can learn all about her life on the documentary: Trinidad the movie).  After a while in Colorado, she moved back to Florida and had a hard time getting a job in her field.  With the economy so bad, she decided her only hope was to renew her merchant mariners license (which she had first attained in her college years, in SUNY Maritime College where she graduated in 1982).   She spent 3-4 months retraining, and landed her first job at Scripps Institute of Oceanography as a Third Engineer on a research vessel.  After Scripps, she worked at the University of Hawaii on their research vessel as Second Engineer. Later on applied to NOAA and sat for her Chief’s license.  Worked on five different NOAA ships for NOAA and became the First Engineer for Nancy Foster last week.  Working on research vessels have been what she has enjoyed the most since you get to meet new people (scientists and guests) and also gets to know different ports.  On research vessels, she’s been to Taiwan, Tahiti, and all over Pacific.

On being a sea woman…

Any challenges? 
The traditional male empowerment, find it hard for men to take orders from a woman.  Others are more modern, and come to you for advice and counsel.  There are not many head engineers that are women, so it’s even harder.  Since she’s so new on being a woman, she does not have the tool set that those that have been women all their lives have.  She was raised to deal with men as a man, not as a woman. Emotionally and psychologically it can be challenging.  It’s been seven years from her transition, and if you ask me, she’s doing great!

Anything you want to say to other women interested in the sea?
“Travel! It breaks down your prejudices.  Simply by being in new cultures and being taken in”.

Kelsey on the bridge. Credit: NOAA/CRCP

ENS KELSEY JEFFERS, Junior Officer
With a BA in chemistry, she always had a passion for the sea and knew that was the direction she wanted to take. After college she worked in the Newfound Harbor Marine Institute in Big Pine Key, FL teaching marine biology to kids.  She also worked piloting boats and also worked for a water taxi company in Alexandria, VA.  Realizing how much she likes ship lifestyle, sailing and marine biology, she decided to apply for NOAA Corps.

She joined the NOAA Corps in and started her four months training.  When I asked her to tell me a bit about the training she told me “It’s very intense.  They integrate aspects similar to the USCG in terms of the military aspect.  But since we are a uniform service, it’s important we learn the proper protocol.” They also learn ship handling skills, living aboard a ship, and firefighting.  She’s the ship’s Safety Medical Officer (Medical Person in Charge—MPIC), for which she’s trained in EMS and over the counter medication, as well as the  ship’s Environmental Compliance Person (dealing with oilspills if there’s a leak, making sure all hazardous materials are disposed of correctly).

Kelsey joined the Nancy Foster in December and it’s her first assignment, and her first mission, it being the Foster’s first mission in 2012.  I asked her what she thinks of the experience thus far and admits she’s enjoying herself.  She likes that on a research vessel you have to have good ship handling skills and it’s always fun to see what the scientist are doing.

When I asked her to explain to me about how the ship life works when in port, she told me that in port the ship pretty much becomes like an office building.  Many crew members have their homes in port, so they get to home after work and on the weekends.  For those that home is not on port, they live and stay onboard.  As a platform ship (where others come on board) you get a flavor of different tasks, and it’s a great way to meet a lot of people.  It’s hard work but it’s worth it.

On being a sea woman…

Any challenges?
She really likes that compared to other services the NOAA Corps has the most percentage of women.  “It’s nice that there’s usually at least two women officers in addition to a few women crew members”.  NOAA Corps has 25% of officers as women (which is a pretty high rate for a uniformed service).

How about family life?
She recognizes that it can be difficult due to the rotations which alternate every two years between being on land or at sea.  In general, most people join right after college, “so starting families can be challenging”.  The Corps, however, is very supportive for women who want to grow a family.

Anything you want to say to other women interested in the sea?
“It’s fun!  It’s great to feel that you’re part of groundbreaking work.”

To see the the Nancy Foster throughout the 2012 mapping mission, visit the NOAA ship tracker site and click on “Enter NOAA’s Ship Tracker link, then scroll down to “NF – Nancy Foster” in the box on the upper right of the screen to see where she is at any given time!

Be sure to visit this blog often for field updates, pictures and videos posted by members of the science team.

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This entry was posted in Benthic Mapping, Biogeography Branch, Caribbean, Caribbean Research, Center for Coastal Monitoring and Assessment, Coral Reef Conservation Program, General, Marine Regional Planning, Nancy Foster Exploration, National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, NOAA Marine Protected Areas, NOAA's National Ocean Service, Ocean Exploration, Ocean Field Work, Ocean Research and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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