Women Who Work At The Ferry
Women's Job Opportunities At The Cape May-Lewes Ferry
Women play an integral role at the Cape May-Lewes Ferry from marine operations and crew to customer service, engineering and administration. Even those in more traditional fields at the Ferry such as marketing, food & retail, and customer service find themselves challenged to work in new ways from learning the lingo, sometimes gaining sea legs, and reimagining how to apply skill sets learned in other industries to new careers in marine transportation.
The achievements of these women at the Ferry is impressive because both the maritime industry and transportation field have historically been male dominated and not welcoming to women. This has included women not accepted into formal training programs, being hazed when finally admitted into academies, and having to challenge themselves to learn their new careers while on the job.
The Traditional Path
Many men drawn to sailing at the Ferry first gained their experience in the Navy or US Coast Guard. The Navy, however did not formally admit women as regular members of the armed forces until 1948. Women were first accepted into the Navy in traditional nursing roles and as volunteers or clerics. Captain Joy Hancock, born in Wildwood, NJ and now dubbed the First Lady of the Navy, gained her first experience at Naval Air Station Cape May during World War 1. After a long career in various capacities, she was instrumental in crafting and gaining passage of the Women's Armed Services Act of 1948.
Coast Guard assimilation took longer with the first women admitted as part of the regular Guard on Dec. 7, 1973. Today, all Coast Guard trainees -- men and women -- get their initial training together at the national TRACEN (training center) base in Cape May. Many first come to bootcamp on a ferry ride northbound, and many are seen celebrating with family upon graduation as they travel to first posts again on the ferry.
In 1974, one year after the Coast Guard opened its doors to women, Marine Academies started admitting women to their training classes. The Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, NY on the North Shore of Long Island was the first to admit women, but the first female graduate was Ensign Deborah Duane in May 1976 from the Maine Maritime Academy. She entered the school as a second semester sophomore with a background in chemistry to become the top student in her graduating class of 104 trainees.
Several current Cape May-Lewes Ferry personnel are maritime graduates from as far away as the State Maritime Academy of Texas. One of our captains, Captain Meghan Palmer, graduated from the Federal Maritime Academy of Kings Point. Even during her more modern academy tenure, there are tales of women having their heads shaved and undergoing some acceptance rituals that tested their determination to fit in and succeed at the then still men's game.
Today, academy rules have eased with more allowances for women to retain some basic gender norms such as longer hair while still fully participating in marine training. Now, Captain Palmer is one of three women who serve as Bridge Captains and recently welcomed her second daughter to the Ferry and Cape May communities.
Hospitality to Hawsepiping
Many women come to the Ferry first to work on the hospitality side of the business in either customer service or food and retail. Two of our current permanent full-time captains, Captain Sharon Urban and Captain Melissa Velli, started at the Ferry on landside food operations. They soon transferred to vessel food operations and, while interacting with marine team members during ferry crossings, learned of opportunities to transfer to the marine side as Ordinary Seamen. They both subsequently worked their way up the ranks and, today, are senior bridge officers.
In marine operations, someone who works their way through all the positions on a boat to rise to the officer level without academy training is called a hawsepiper, a loose marine term for learning on the job while gaining needed sea time and certifications. The beauty of ferry work is it allows people who may have never considered a maritime career the opportunity to start as deck hands and casual seasonal workers to determine if they have an interest in work on the water. Currently five women are working their way up the ranks -- some with academy training and some not -- as Able-bodied Seamen and Mates.
More Than Mariners
In addition to the marine crew career ladders, women at the Ferry are finding opportunities in other aspects of marine management. In 2012, Jennifer Shivers came to the Ferry with a background in hospitality services to start as one of several Customer Service Supervisors. She soon became the Customer Service Manager working on vessel departure schedules and business operations synergies with the Operations teams. Five years later, she was promoted to Assistant Director of Business Operations and, by 2019, was again promoted to Assistant Director of Ferry Operations, the second highest administrative office in the system.
Marine Engineers, Mechanics, and More
Jaimie Sullivan is currently a full-time Mechanic Assistant with the DRBA, but her career didn't start there. Jaimie joined as a Galley Supervisor, moved to the Marine Crew in 2019, and became an assistant engineer with the DRBA after she received a grant with the Passenger Vessel Association through the DRBA to upgrade her credentials to a QMED/Oiler for the engine department.
The Appeal of Ferry Work
In most beach communities, jobs are largely seasonal and limited to hotel, hospitality and catering work. When full-time work is available, it tends to be in the more traditional fields of education and health care. Working at the ferry gives women and men broader choices for technical, operations and specialized work with stronger pay, benefits and career growth potential than they might have otherwise. For instance, Dawn Zaccaria serves as the Ferry's first Cape May Terminal manager, and in Lewes, Lieutenant Jody Hauck serves as the second female Troop Leader in the DRBA's law enforcement division at the Ferry.
Within marine operations, the hours at the ferry are closer to normal business hours, allowing team members to be at home at night for family. The work/life balance available at the Cape May-Lewes Ferry is unusual in an industry known for longer sea-going voyages where crew can be away from home for weeks or month at a time.
"No one is saying we're where we need to be yet," states Jennifer Shivers, "but we're on the right path. I, myself, could never have imagined this career, but once I started at the Ferry, I was encouraged to walk through new doors as they opened. Meanwhile, I was able to participate in tuition reimbursement programs and gain educational degrees that will serve me for years to come."