American ShipperFreightWaves FlashbackMaritime

FreightWaves Flashback: Deborah Dempsey charts a course as pioneering female mariner

1985: Kings Point has graduated 102 women since 1978, but Deborah Dempsey was first to earn her unlimited master’s license and hopes someday to be master of her own ship. Her husband, Jack Dempsey, already is

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The many industries that make up the world of freight have undergone tremendous change over the past several decades. Each week, FreightWaves explores the archives of American Shipper’s nearly 70-year-old collection of shipping and maritime publications to showcase interesting freight stories of long ago.

This edition of FreightWaves Flashback celebrates women in maritime history as part of Women’s History Month. The following article is from the March 1985 issue of American Shipper (Virtual Page 44).

Chief mate Deborah Dempsey

Deborah Dempsey doesn’t consider herself a “flag-waver” for women’s liberation. But feminists can still count her among pioneers. Dempsey, chief mate on Lykes Bros. Steamship Company’s containership Adabelle Lykes, was the first woman ever accepted at a maritime academy, first ever hired as an officer aboard a U.S.-flag commercial ship and first to earn a license as master, unlimited tonnage.

“I’m doing it for myself,” she declared during a recent interview aboard ship at the Port of San Francisco, “and if it helps the [feminist] cause, that’s fine.”

Women in maritime

Just how many women are in the nation’s seagoing workforce is open to conjecture.

What’s more, the opportunities for women might even be less now than they were a few years ago.

The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, New York, has graduated about 102 women since 1978, estimates public affairs officer Martin Skrocki, and they constitute about 8% of the total number of graduates since that time.

As of last September, he said, 85% of the academy’s female graduates had found employment; however, only 27 of those 85 were in seagoing jobs, while the others were working shoreside. Some were in the military and the remainder had gone on to graduate school.

“Just about all [the woman graduates] were placed those first two or three years,” Skrocki said, “but then the opportunities diminished. A lot of companies recruited them because they wanted women in the workforce.”

What he did not mention is that maritime job opportunities for both sexes have declined as carriers have sought cost-efficiency through crew-size reductions and the trend toward larger ships.

Lykes, which hired Dempsey in 1977, has 36 women seafarers.

A love of water

That Dempsey should opt for a maritime career is understandable. She grew up around water, namely the mouth of the Connecticut River. The only traffic on the river is small boats, but one thing led to another.

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Vermont in 1971, Dempsey worked for a few years in yacht delivery.

“When I first thought of going to maritime school,” she said, “I was just going for the minimal license.” This would have qualified her to take passengers on charter and pleasure boats.

But a friend at the Maine Maritime Academy, which she had entered in January 1974, convinced her to complete the training that would qualify her to serve as a desk officer on a merchant ship. In fact, she completed the four-year program in slightly more than two years by “doubling up on semesters and going to summer school. I made sure I took every professional course required,” she said.

No bid obstacles

Dempsey encountered “no roadblocks” to entering the academy. Officials there “knew they were going to have to accept a woman sooner or later,” she observed. As the first woman student there, she said, she did draw some stares from classmates and, if fact, her presence “was a source of friction” with some of them.

Predictably, the local news media also paid her some attention. At the same time, she “had the full support of the faculty and the administration, as well as from most of her classmates,” she said.

She has had no problems on the ship, she said. “They respect the license. I haven’t heard anyone complain about working for a female. They may talk behind my back — I don’t know,” she added with a laugh. The novelty of a female on a merchant ship is peculiar to the United States, she added.

Dempsey’s family has been supportive.

“When I applied [to the academy], I don’t think my mother believed I’d really do it,” she recounted. But her whole family was “excited” for her, she said, and their interest in the maritime “has increased tenfold.”

Seagoing experience

Dempsey’s first taste of merchant-ship life was a two-month stint aboard the academy’s training ship, State of Maine, in summer 1974. The following summer, she spent two months aboard that vessel and then two more aboard a Lykes ship. This completed the six months’ cadet experience required by the academy.

At the time she graduated, “the union wasn’t taking any new members,” so she sailed with Exxon Corp. until being hired by Lykes.

If Dempsey eventually raises a family, it won’t be surprising if her children develop a similar interest for seafaring. Her husband, Jack, also is a Lykes ship officer. The two sailed together between 1979 and 1983.

Her ship is in the Pacific-Far East trade. He is captain of the Ruth Lykes, which is in the U.S.-South African trade.

Even though she has chosen a career at sea, Dempsey finds her chemistry schooling extremely useful. As ship medical officer, she finds it helpful to know about the contents of what she prescribes.

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