By William Hryb

Captain Sarah Lewis is no pushover. After all, the responsibilities of a tugboat captain are numerous, to say the least, and an error in judgment has the potential of being catastrophic. For Lewis, the hazards and dangers of operating a tugboat is a constant reminder that the health and safety of her crew is fundamental to her profession. Entrusted to her is the safe docking and undocking of massive ships that frequent the port of Thunder Bay. The diminutive and cherubic looking mariner is all business and her appearance belies the importance of her position in a male dominated industry. Sarah Lewis is a trailblazer – a young woman who has followed a road less travelled. This is her story.

With a constant eye on innovation and the competitive edge required to operate a successful l tugboat business, Capt. Gerry Dawson, co-owner and President of Thunder Bay Tug Services Limited, decided to take a chance, and hired Lewis. That was five years ago, and he is not disappointed by the gamble by any stretch of the imagination. “Sarah sent us a resume in the winter of 2014 and kept calling and emailing the office… my wife Sharon asked her to come in for an interview and we decided that Sarah would be a good addition to our company” Dawson said. “During the interview, Sarah was very enthusiastic and genuinely interested … she had obviously done some research on our company, so we decided to give her the opportunity to see if she liked ‘tugboating’ and the hours associated with the work” said Dawson.

Lewis’s resume spoke volumes.  She worked a couple of seasons with Algoma Marine as a mate which convinced the Dawsons that she was determined to stay in the industry. “In order to excel and be a cadet in this business, she would have to be tough-skinned and put up with demanding superiors onboard ships… she obviously proved herself”, added Dawson.

In a demanding industry, where long hours, a disruptive family life and bad weather often take their toll, the life of a tugboat crew is an extraordinary mix of excitement and sheer boredom. In peak season, usually beginning in late March and ending in mid-January, it is common that crews virtually live on their boats. To their credit, Capt. Sarah Lewis and her crew have grown remarkably accustomed to the hardships of this line of work. Canadian Sailings had the opportunity to sit down with Sarah and talk about her exceptional career.

C.S.: What motivated you to pursue a maritime career?

Capt. Lewis: “What started out as just a curiosity turned into a three year program at Georgian College, almost 5 years of working on the Great Lakes as a third and second mate and now a full-time job with Thunder Bay Tug Services Limited.  I completed my honours degree in English at the University of Guelph and I knew there was something more than academics I could do. I started looking into trade schools in Ontario and I came across the program from Georgian College. I thought it would be an amazing opportunity to learn a variety of hands-on trade skills, as well as travel across the country and have the honour to hold an officer’s position. I was fascinated to learn how ships behave in different weather conditions, how they are constructed and the kind of cohesive structure that exists on vessels between the Captain, engineers and deck workers. I’ve always loved being on the water, and I’ve always loved working with my hands and I just couldn’t resist the opportunity to try something completely new and challenging.”

C.S. In a male dominated industry… what are the challenges women face in this profession?

Capt. Lewis: “I found over the years that the marine industry is a male-dominated industry and there aren’t very many women who hold officer’s positions on the Great Lakes and as far as I know, I’m the first female tugboat captain here in Thunder Bay. When I started on the Great Lakes, half of the crews I worked with treated me like a delicate flower, a nuisance or a distraction. Many didn’t want an officer who was both young and female to be in charge of the watch.

On every ship that I worked I had to work twice or three times as hard to prove that I deserved to be there. I found that it was also a very lonely life because any type of friendships between men and women or shore socialization was deeply frowned upon. Over the years, as my reputation moved ahead of me, it became easier as people knew that I would do the job well and I wouldn’t complain no matter how dirty or how hard it was. Over time I gained the respect and the appreciation from my fellow crew members. The main challenge working in a male-dominated history is just being valued as an equal crew member and I’m happy to say that I found that working with Thunder Bay Tug Services. From the very first day I started with the company, there’s never been any resistance or apprehension for me being here. As a small company and very hands-on workplace we all work closely together and there’s no job too big or too small I won’t be a part of.”

C.S.: Give us an idea what a typical day is like on the waterfront (e.g.) mobilizing for a ‘Ship Move’?

Capt. Lewis: “On a typical day, we arrive at the dock to warm up the engines, test our navigation instruments and start the paperwork. Depending on the weather and time of year, we depart to standby outside the breakwall of the elevator where the ship will be docking. Typically, in the early spring and winter, we leave a little bit earlier to clear the dock of ice if there is any. We establish communication with the approaching ship by radio and discuss where on the ship we will be landing to assist with the docking. I check wind conditions and currents, as well as dock conditions, and note any suggestions the pilot may have. Typically, about one nautical mile off the breakwall one or two tugs will make the approach and turn alongside the ship, and fasten our tug lines on different fairleads across the deck so that we are able to tug and push the ship into position. When the ship approaches the dock, the tugs are asked by the vessel captain or pilot to steer by pushing and pulling on certain pivot points to help regulate the speed of  the vessel, until they are satisfied with their position. Ship handling at this point is very fine and precise as we’re assisting her to steer into a certain position and often we will be running from the bow to the quarter to the other side of the bow, back to the quarter, so we’re doing a lot of quick movements in a small space. When the ship has been secured alongside the dock, we take our lines back onto the tug  and depart.”

C.S.: What advice would you give to young women who are thinking about entering a maritime career?

Capt. Lewis: “My advice to young women entering the marine industry is to get as much experience as you can in as many different fields as you can. If you’re interested in something besides the laker trade, there are lots of opportunities for ship handling, search and rescue, scientific research or tugboats and find some place where you excel. Learn as much as you can about any project no matter how big or small – it’s worth the experience. “I would also suggest being very aware of your surroundings and putting your trust in the people who offer you help and not be afraid to ask questions.  Above all, be proud of where you are and the position that you’ve earned. It won’t always be easy but in the end when you look back at what you’ve accomplished, it really is something to be proud of.”

C.S.: What do you most like and dislike about your job as a tug-boat captain?

Capt. Lewis: “What I love most about being a tugboat captain, aside from having the most beautiful view of any office anywhere, is just the feeling that with the right move in the right position with the right amount of power, you can do amazing things with a small tugboat. You literally feel like you’re moving the ship with your own hands. Ship handling is something that I never dreamed I would love so much. The thing I dislike the most about being a tugboat captain is probably the coffee. We do have days and nights that are long but, as a small company, we all work together  knowing that  when we leave the dock, we are putting our best foot forward every time so that we all return home safe and sound”.

C.S.: As you know, the marine industry is finding it difficult to attract qualified personnel to its ranks… what do you think the industry needs to do, to engage those potential maritime candidates especially women ?

Capt. Lewis: “I think the marine industry really needs to focus on upgrading the training of their employees in different fields. When you have second or third mates that are showing a lot of curiosity, a lot of promise and a lot of skills, it is important to encourage these individuals, and suggest they take the pilot program in order to gain valuable experience. The most important thing the industry can do is encourage people to further their training. There are a lot of unlicensed personnel that would make incredible engineers or captains… they just need the motivation and support from their company. There isn’t really much of a draw for young people to get into the marine industry, but I do think that encouraging people to sign up for more training, and supporting them financially and personally will make a big difference in years to come. No matter where a young mariner ends up, either in a shore job or away from home , if you appreciate the opportunity that you have been given, the knowledge and understanding that you have gained, and the beautiful places you get to travel to, it’s really rewarding in and of itself. Every day is different in the marine industry and you’re constantly challenging yourself to do more and learn more as you go.”

C.S.: Being a tug-boat captain is certainly a unique occupation… are there any individuals that you can talk about that were instrumental in putting you on this career path?

Capt. Lewis: “I never dreamed ten years ago that I would be where I am now. My parents always encouraged my sister and I to go for something that brings us joy in our lives, to step outside of our comfort zones and pursue careers that are meaningful to us. My family has always been my biggest supporter in that regard.

My time working on the Great Lakes wasn’t always easy and I considered leaving and quitting several times. I have been subject to aggressive and dismissive behaviour by some crew members. I didn’t think I was meant for that world – I didn’t think I could do it. I had one Captain in particular, Captain Peter Carpenter who really stood out for me. He really supported me to keep going, pushed me to focus on the things that I excelled at, and take the time to learn the things that I wasn’t so great at. He was a great inspiration to me, and his message continued to resonate with me even years after I left his vessel.

I can’t thank The Dawson family enough for giving me an opportunity to step inside the family and be a part of this world. My mentor at the company, Capt. Stan Dawson, took me under his wing and has shown me everything that he knows and has led me to really appreciate how special and how rewarding this job can be”.

With the ardour, dedication and enthusiasm Capt. Lewis has exhibited, it is safe to say that the marine industry is in good hands with the women who will follow in her footsteps.  A trailblazer indeed.