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  • Writer's pictureRachel Lout

At the Helm: Portrait of a Tugboat Pilot

This is my sixth feature in my portrait series 100 Years Strong. Commemorating the 100 year anniversary of the passing of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote, this series of portraits is a celebration of strength, victory and beauty featuring fierce, fearless women in Deep East Texas.

Maritime history is filled with tales of great sailing ships, traversing the massive oceans of the world, run by rugged, swaggering, masculine sailors. Sailors tend to be more superstitious than the rest of us, and in fact, an old nautical superstition held that women on ships or boats were very bad luck. Historically women were forbidden from sailing on military or merchant ships because the captains believed their presence would anger the sea gods, who would cause rough waves and violent weather. At the very least, a woman would be considered “distracting” to the all-male crew. Today the maritime industry remains a male-dominated industry, however more and more women are pursuing their dreams, honing their skills and making a living in maritime industries.

Ashley comes from a long-line of seadogs going back at least 4 generations. She dreamt of working on the sea from a young age and worked hard to make that a reality. Now 26, almost 27, Ashley works as a mate in the Galveston, Houston and Texas City ports where she works 4 days on and 4 days off. She is a wife and mother and somehow finds a way to balance it all.

I understand that you are a tugboat pilot. This seems like an unusual career choice for a woman. Can you tell me how you got started in this field? Since I was 10 years old all I can remember was wanting a career as a push boat captain and to work offshore. I became interested in that career field because my great-grandfather worked on the Houston Ship Channel as a captain of his own boat which was a dredge. My grandfather worked for him. My father is also a captain who still works on push boats.

I knew that I would not be able to achieve what I wanted to be without attending college. There are only a few colleges in the country in the country that offer the maritime transportation degree so I enrolled in the Texas Maritime Academy at Texas A&M at Galveston in Texas. One of the requirements was to be in the A&M Corps of Cadets. That was a very challenging first year. I attended college for 3 and a half years and during those years we were required to get sea time aboard ships each summer. My sophomore year was aboard the M/V General Rudder and we putted around the gulf. My junior year I worked for Kirby offshore as an intern. We went from Delaware City to New Haven, Connecticut with a stop in the New York Harbor on July 4th, where there was a beautiful fireworks display. For my senior cruise I sailed with California Maritime Academy aboard the M/V Golden Bear; I started in Hawaii and then we traveled to Saipan, Guam, then back to Hawaii, a stop in San Diego with us ending at the California Maritime Academy.

Did you face any challenges getting into this industry, particularly as a woman? Can you tell me more about what you do? After graduation I went to work for a push boat company and I worked 20 days on and 10 days off. This was at first a very hard adjustment. A lot of the men I worked with had never worked with a woman before me, which made it to where I had to work harder to prove myself and get respect from the men who had worked on the deck and were now in the wheelhouse. I have pushed barges from Corpus, TX all the way to Alabama. Many companies only have about 2-10 women working on their boats. Some companies don't hire women at all for the boats. I worked for that push boat company for about 5 years before making the jump to tug boats. I currently work 4 days on and 4 days off. With this job I no longer push barges. Now I assist ships on and off dock in the Houston, Galveston and Texas City ports. I am currently working on upgrading my license.

What’s your typical day like? My day usually consists of dockings and sailings. With my job I had to adjust to being in charge of a watch and knowing that I am responsible for all the lives on this vessel. I am also responsible for this million dollar piece of equipment. I have training in fire fighting as well as CPR and basic medical. We run drills to make sure the crew is ready for any emergency such as a man overboard or a fire. Our days consist of daily maintenance such as chipping and painting, cleaning and keeping up with the charts.

“Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than those you did. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from safe harbor. Catch the wind in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” ― Mark Twain

Any memorable days? The best days on the boat were the few times I passed my dad on the inter-coastal waterway. We would always wave like crazy.

What’s the best part of the job? The best part of the job are the views. The sunrises and the sunsets. The sense of adventure. The adrenaline rush when you're coming alongside a ship.

Describe your experience working as a female in a predominantly male industry. I feel like the only hard part about working with only men was proving that I could work just as hard as any of the other men. I can throw lines. I can hook up hoses. I can dock the boat.

How do you stay motivated on the job? Praying and having a great support system at home, with a husband who takes care of our daughter and being able to talk to them daily.

What are your long-term goals? Working my way up to a captain.

What advice would you give other women trying to break into your industry? Go to college and study hard. Work on ships. Leave the guys alone. The rest comes with time and hard work. Believe in yourself.

I am looking for more fierce, fearless women to participate in this portrait study. If you or someone you know would be interested in sharing your story, please contact me. You can learn more about my project here -

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