Houston Ship Channel Pilot Talks of Opportunities for Women


Ship Channel pilot encourages kids to follow in her wake

By Andrea Rumbaugh


Capt. Kristi Taylor watches the approaching ship from the bridge of the Pamisos, an oil tanker 750 feet long and 138 feet wide. She lets the giant vessels go bow-to-bow until they’re six-tenths of a mile apart. The crew awaits her orders.

It’s a maneuver both commonplace and potentially catastrophic. Taylor has met and passed thousands of ships without incident. But she knows just one wrong move could cost millions or even billions of dollars in damages, spill oil into the channel or risk the lives of those onboard. The captain and crew know this, too, and don’t hesitate to follow orders through Houston’s especially narrow channel.

At this point on the Pamisos, with the ships side by side, Taylor increases the urgency of her commands.

“Starboard 20,” she says to the helmsman, who moves the rudder 20 degrees to the right. But she can still feel the Pamisos being pulled into the passing ship’s wake.

“Hard to starboard,” she says to counteract the pull, “full ahead.” The increased speed does the trick, and the two vessels continue down the Houston Ship Channel without incident. She begins to guide the Pamisos back to the center of the channel. “Ease to 20 … ease to 10 … midship … .”

With another successful maneuver behind her, Taylor looks at the differential GPS displayed on her laptop to see when and where the Pamisos will greet its next vessel. She returns her attention to the path ahead.

Ships cannot enter or leave the Houston Ship Channel without guidance from Taylor or one of her 96 colleagues, who have memorized every nook and cranny of the waterway and undergone years of training. They’re trusted to avoid shallow spots along the channel, maneuver around other vessels and not anchor on pipelines during the especially bad bouts of fog that Houston is prone to getting.

The coveted positions require years of experience and, like the maritime industry overall, have long been dominated by men. Taylor is one of four women in the Houston Pilots Association.

To educate the next, more diverse generation of pilots, Taylor will be featured in the television show “So You Want To Be?” The program introduces children to potential careers, and Taylor recently watched a preview of her episode.

“I hope it will inspire kids who might not know there’s that opportunity,” she said.

Piquing girls’ interest at a young age could help boost the number of women at sea – a number that remains low.

“Because shipping is so global and it’s the engine of world trade, women ought to have a role to play,” said Cleopatra Doumbia-Henry, president of the World Maritime University.

“And there is a place for women.”

Seeing the world

Taylor stumbled into her career at sea. Growing up in Colorado, she first went to a traditional college and considered becoming a teacher. But her love of travel, coupled with her father’s wishes that she not follow in his footsteps as a math teacher, pushed her to look for other options.

She graduated from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in 1995 with a bachelor of science degree in marine transportation and a third-mate license – the hierarchy goes captain, chief mate, second mate and then third mate – and began seeing the world. She’s traveled to Japan, Hong Kong, Australia, India, Hawaii and Mexico, to name a few destinations.

It was rare to be the only woman on board, but there were never more than five on any given ship. Crediting her predecessors as the trailblazers, Taylor said discrimination wasn’t really an issue.

“Since I wasn’t the first wave,” she said, “by the time I got to shipping we were just old news.”

Fellow pilot Capt. Sherri Hickman, who graduated from the Maine Maritime Academy in 1985, recalled it was common to be the only woman on board during her nine years on oil tankers. An additional challenge was overcoming historical superstition about women on ships being bad luck.

But after a few days, she said, she would prove to the other sailors that she knew the job and there weren’t any issues. The converts included one captain, she added, who initially had complained he didn’t want a woman serving as second officer. She won him over, too, and he eventually helped her earn a captain’s ranking.

Hickman became a pilot in 1994.

“It’s not such an eye-opener to them anymore,” Hickman said. “It’s just accepted.”

Now Hickman’s daughter, Coronado, is joining the next wave of women at sea. She graduated from Maine Maritime last May, making them the first mother-daughter pair to complete the school’s cadet program and is sailing as third officer on a container ship.

Still, the numbers show there’s room for growth.

A 2003 report from the International Labour Organization found that women represent between 1 percent and 2 percent of the world’s 1.25 million seafarers, and most of them worked as hotel personnel on cruise ships.

Doumbia-Henry said this figure was confirmed in a 2013 report from that organization. She likewise cited estimates from two other global shipping groups, BIMCO and the International Chamber of Shipping, showing there are currently 16,500 women out of the 1.6 million seafarers on merchant ships.

Barriers include gender discrimination and the difficulty of attracting women to a career at sea or enrolling them in maritime academic institutions, Doumbia-Henry said. Traditional stereotypes also play a role.

Overcoming hurdles

She hopes advances in technology and regulation can help overcome such hurdles. New technology makes it easier to stay in touch while at sea, she said, and more efficient shipping creates shorter stints away from home.

On the regulatory front, Doumbia-Henry said the International Labour Organization’s Maritime Labour Convention has gender-sensitive language, contains strong anti-discrimination provisions and includes requirements for new ships to have separate sleeping areas for women. Amendments adopted in 2016 provide a zero-tolerance policy for bullying and harassment.

Some signs suggest more women will move into leadership positions. Doumbia-Henry said 48 women are enrolled to earn their Master of Science in maritime affairs at the World Maritime University. That’s 37.2 percent of the 2016-2017 class.

Maritime and shipowners’ associations now have women on their boards or in senior management positions, said Karin Orsel, president of the Women’s International Shipping & Trading Association. That was not the case 10 to 15 years ago.

Roughly 40 women work as pilots in the U.S., said Capt. Robert Shearon, presiding officer for the Houston Pilots. The local association also has two African-American pilots, one Indian, one American Indian and three Hispanics.

“I think the whole industry is diversifying,” he said.

Reaching a younger audience

To educate the next generation of seafarers, the local pilots group works with local high schools, San Jacinto College and Texas A&M University at Galveston. Taylor’s video, complete with animations and vocabulary lessons, will reach a younger audience. The episode is likely to air in the fall.

But becoming a pilot is no easy feat. Jobs become available only when someone retires or activity increases at the port. Applicants generally have 10 to 20 years of maritime experience.

“For a long time, I didn’t think that I would ever be accepted,” Taylor said, “so I didn’t even think about applying.”

She eventually submitted an application, which was accepted four years later. At the time, she had 14 years of sailing experience and an MBA in supply chain management and finance.

Before beginning her three-year apprenticeship, Taylor had to draw from memory detailed charts of the Houston Ship Channel, including buoys and beacons, underwater obstructions and fathom curves that indicate the contour of the channel floor. That took about three months.

“Within a pencil width,” Taylor said. “It’s got to be exact.”

After that, she spent six months shadowing other pilots before she was allowed to guide ships herself. Pilots don’t actually steer the ships but instead direct the helmsman on how to steer. Taylor became a full-fledged pilot in 2014.

Shearon, declining to elaborate on salaries, said pilots are “adequately compensated for the amount of risk we assume.” Each year, about one pilot in the U.S. dies while working, and several others are severely injured. He said the most dangerous part is transferring between the pilot’s boat and the ship; using a ladder on the side of the vessel.

Pilots work as independent contractors bonded together by an association. They evenly split expenses, such as hiring pilot boat captains or dispatchers, and the money earned from guiding ships in and out of the port.

Taylor said the different weather patterns, traffic scenarios and ship characteristics keep her job interesting and provide opportunities to improve.

Some seafarers have been surprised to meet a woman pilot, she said, but none have been intentionally rude. They just struggle with the terminology.

“They don’t know what to call you,” Taylor said. “They’ll call you ‘Mrs. Pilot’ or ‘lady pilot.'”

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Source: Houston Chronicle


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