SOMEWHERE IN THE MEDITERRANEAN – When Samantha Hanson patrols the engine room of the State of Maine, there’s a good chance she’s the only female around.
Similarly, Heather Swan usually finds herself in a similar scenario, outnumbered when she’s on the bridge of the Maine Maritime Academy training vessel.
Neither seems to mind.
“I don’t get treated any differently,” Hanson said Thursday while transferring oily waste from the engine into a holding tank. “Everyone treats me like just another person trying to learn.”
“I’m used to it,” Swan said from the chart room off the bridge. “I actually prefer the company of sailors.”
Hanson, of Rockland, and Swan, of Washington, D.C., are two of only nine female students aboard the State of Maine this year, one of the lowest numbers in recent memory, according to Commandant Jeff Loustaunau.
“Ideally, we’d like to have 15 to 20, so there’s more of a critical mass. That way, they are less likely to stand out,” he said.
While the maritime industry historically has been a man’s world, the women on this particular ship blend in like camouflage in a jungle.
Margaret Brandon, a deck training officer and the highest-ranking female on board, said that after more than 25 years in the field she doesn’t even notice the discrepancy anymore.
“It’s always been an industry that’s not full of women and I recognize that, but I don’t ever think of it that way,” she said. “I don’t find it difficult. I’ve had a blast and I’ve just been sort of following my nose.”
In 1976, MMA became the first maritime school to have a woman cadet graduate from its licensing program, so the school has always been a trailblazer in that regard.
But while the school has seen its general enrollment – about 15 percent female – go up significantly over the last 10 years, the integration hasn’t necessarily translated to students who are seeking a 3rd mate or 3rd assistant engineer license.
Aside from Swan, who was technically a junior before she joined MMA last year and is in an accelerated program, there are only three female junior cadets.
Vanessa McPhail of Perry is the only junior deck major on board.
“I don’t really worry about that,” she said Thursday from the cadet navigation lab, where a group of students was preparing the ship’s navigational course from its next port, Split, Croatia, to the Strait of Gibraltar. “The thing about being with all these guys is you have to know how to give it back. And I’ve learned.”
“Are you kidding? She’s better than all of us,” Tyler Eads, a junior from Belfast, interjected from across the room.
The male cadets in her company even gave McPhail a nickname, and although it’s not appropriate for print, it’s a sign she has earned their trust.
Alex Butler, a deck training officer, said that, all kidding aside, McPhail is one of the hardest workers he has seen.
“You can always tell who the workers are, and she’s a worker,” he said.
While the women on board said they feel at home, they do notice subtleties from time to time.
“I get treated OK,” said Jennifer Maffioli, a freshman deck major from Puerto Rico. “Sometimes they talk behind my back, I think, but I just ignore it.”
“Any curiosity or doubt doesn’t come from other students. I think they look up to me,” Swan said. “But some of the older school officers think a woman should be barefoot in the kitchen. I would say they are accepting, but biased.”
Brandon said she has seen a shift in attitudes among old-school types, but that there will always be some reluctance.
“It’s interesting. The industry is cutting-edge on one hand but it’s very traditional at the same time, and I think that’s where women get singled out,” she said.
Aside from the living arrangements, women aboard the State of Maine don’t get any special treatment.
“The only time we feel isolated is when we’re assigned to different living quarters,” Hanson said. “Then all the guys will tell us how easy we get it, but that’s not our choice.”
The segregated living environment allows the women to bond, though, and Hanson said that has been crucial.
“We’re all very close, but we really don’t have a choice. We’ve been through everything together,” she said. “It takes a certain type of person to make it here. You have to be persistent. You have to be willing to work hard.”
Some of the cadets’ friends outside MMA may find that attitude hard to understand.
“They think I’m crazy,” McPhail said. “But at least I won’t be stuck in an office when I graduate.”
“All my friends will be laughing when I end up working half the year and making more money than they do,” Hanson added.