Women changing the face of U.S. Merchant Marine

May 12, 1992|By Margo Harakas | Margo Harakas,Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel

Sharon Mazer, who went to sea in the wake of reading Joseph Conrad, could tell that ancient mariner a tale or two.

As in "Heart of Darkness," Ms. Mazer has sailed up the Congo, though not all the way. She has squeezed 1,000-foot ships through channels so constricted the Earth itself should have choked.

And she has been drugged and robbed in a life-follows-fiction incident in Manila.

Hi, ho, it has been a seaman's life for her.

Ms. Mazer, a rebel to the core, and Sheryl Dickinson, who thrives on the unusual, are among 185 women who have graduated from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, N.Y. The school began accepting women in 1974, the first of the five service academies to do so.

Of the one-third of female graduates who responded to a recent poll, 87 percent said they currently were working in the maritime industry, either on ships or ashore.

A handful, like Patricia Berger Dubois of Lighthouse Point, who graduated in '83, have abandoned ship for motherhood.

But the majority are preserving -- despite a limping industry -- some aspect of the U.S. maritime tradition.

They are engineers, towboat masters and finance managers of shipping lines. One is the first female harbor bar pilot in San Francisco Bay. Ms. Mazer (class of '84) sells ships through her own company and Ms. Dickinson (class of '85) practices admiralty law.

The irony is women are changing the face of the industry at a time when the U.S. Merchant Marine is in decline. Ninety-nine percent of U.S. foreign commerce still moves on water, yet only 4 percent is carried by U.S.-flagged ships.

"Everything nearly is government cargo today," says Ms. Mazer, of Davie, Fla.

The reasons for the decline of the U.S. Merchant Marine are many: Foreign shippers, using unlicensed and underpaid Third World crews, are monopolizing the ocean transport trade; American-owned vessels, to avoid costly federal regulations, are switching to foreign flags of convenience; and ships that are still part of the once-proud-and-premier U.S. fleet are sailing with fewer sailors.

With more mariners than available ships, wages have taken a beating. Gardiner Nealon, an academy graduate and Ms. Mazer's fiance, says that in 1984 he could average, with overtime and vacation pay, $11,000 a month as third mate. "That's for about an 18-hour day," he says. And that's seven days a week. But he didn't mind the extended hours as long as the rewards were great.

Today, a seaman in the same position would be lucky to draw $4,000 to $5,000 a month.

If he or she could get a berth.

"It's a cyclical business," says Ms. Dickinson, of Hollywood, Fla.

Despite the uncertainties, the draw of the sea on some is still as powerful as the pull of the moon on the tides. And as the women attest, the adventure is there.

"I got to sail around the world before I was 20," Ms. Dickinson says. "I've been to probably 50 different countries."

"I loved it," Ms. Mazer says. "Nothing is more exciting than being in a crowded ship channel with ships half a mile on either side and weaving in and out of them and steering around the stern."

Know that when talking about the momentum of 30,000 tons of thrashing steel, half a mile is but a hairbreadth.

Ms. Mazer remembers an adrenalin-surging pass through the English Channel once on the fastest cargo ship ever built. The captain ordered full tilt. "I was going 35 knots where the average ship was going 15 to 18. He wanted to show everybody how fast we could go."

Excitement defined experiences both on and off the ship. Ms. Mazer even laughs now about the time a young woman in Manila drugged her and cleared out her hotel room.

But there was also tranquillity: blazing, unobstructed sunrises and sunsets, and diamond-studded night skies that had no end. "It's beautiful. And very quiet," Ms. Mazer says.

So quiet and simple an existence that a psychic decompression is needed once back on shore.

Ms. Mazer and Ms. Dickinson sailed primarily as third mates on tankers and cargo ships. (Ms. Dickinson also did surveillance at sea for the military.) They were responsible for navigation, the safety of the ship, and loading and unloading cargo.

Ms. Mazer worked four months on and four months off. None of her jobs was permanent, so every four months she had to call the union hall to be put on a list to await another assignment. With the right company, she says, "I could make $4,000 a month."

The downside was being a lone woman on a ship of maybe 35 men who were not necessarily officers and gentlemen. The women tell of undergarments being run up flagpoles, of catcalls and sexual harassment.

"If I took people to court every time I was sexually harassed, I'd be in court the rest of my life," Ms. Mazer says. What Anita Hill said happened to her happened to Ms. Mazer every day aboard ship, she says.

"You've got to remember," Dickinson says, "you're dealing with people who rarely graduated from high school, who may or may not have criminal records. That's the difference between the licensed and unlicensed crewmen."

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