This makeshift family really pulls together. “We’re a team but it’s also like a family here,” tug master Andrea MacDonald said of the non-traditional, allwoman crew who work the bridge, engine room and deck of the Atlantic Willow as it chugs and tugs around Halifax Harbour and beyond.
“It’s going well,” MacDonald, 50, said of her newly assembled tugboat crew of engineer Kelsie MacLean, 23, and deckhand Jocelyn Smith, 29.
“We live together. This is home. It’s more comfortable, if you need to get up in the middle of the night, to have all women on board. We were really excited to have the three of us on board. We were all a little curious, even I was thinking, 'Wow, this is going to be different.’ Three women, OK, this has never been done before.
“We are getting along very well, the jobs are all getting done, everything is working fine.”
Even a makeshift family that works one of the four harbour tugs operated by Atlantic Towing requires a modicum of structure.
“I’m like the boat mom,” said MacDonald.
Like any mom, she shares tidbits of little-known information about her crew.
“On Saturday morning, we brought in a tanker in the middle of a thunder and lightning storm. Jocelyn doesn’t like lightning. She was not happy.”
And what about Kelsie, the newest family member brought into the fold just last week?
“Even though Kelsie’s only been here a week, I can already tell you some of her idiosyncrasies. I’m starting to learn what she’s like first thing in the morning, in the middle of the night. She’s not a morning person. If you were here at six this morning to see her rolling out, I
said ‘good morning’ because I am a morning person. She knows that. She just went ‘mmmm.’” Mornings might not be her thing but MacLean said she has sea salt in her blood.
“I could not imagine living anywhere that is not near water,” said MacLean, who grew up in Marion Bridge on the Mira River in Cape Breton. “My grandfather is a fisherman out of Gabarus. My great-grandfather, I can remember his whole dining room was filled with model ships. That was my favourite place to go, in that little room, but I was little and my mother always scooted me out because she didn’t want me to break them.”
Having studied at the Nautical Institute in Port Hawkesbury, MacLean is now more into fixing things, including the two 16-cylinder marine diesel engines that she monitors in the engine room of the 95-foot Willow.
“Fixing everything that breaks, running the engines, doing the maintenance on all the engines and every system we have on the boat, including our domestic systems, like our sewage and our pot water,” MacLean said of her duties. “Literally everything.”
The tug has an unmanned engine room and alarm panels warn MacLean to immediately go below if anything demands her attention. In the interim, she helps Smith on deck.
“When we come back in, most of the time we go up with Andrea and have a chat, see the nice views if it is not too foggy,” MacLean said. “There's lots of coffee on board.”
Smith, who lives in Dartmouth, started working in construction but was looking for lighter work.
“I like manual labour so this is good for me,” said Smith. “My father is an engineer on one of the other tugs. He got me involved in this.”
The Willow works the harbour primarily but it also makes some long trips to Sheet Harbour.
“Six hours there, six hours back and the time to do the job,” said Smith.
The crew works a 14-day rotation, living on the boat and ready 24-7 to chug into action in rain, snow, sleet or freezing weather.
“We were looking like a Popsicle after one of those (winter) Sheet Harbour trips,” Smith said.
Smith said her duties include maintaining the tug, putting the line out for ship assist, releasing all the mooring lines, and doing the bulk of the cooking, cleaning and painting.
The all-female tugboat no doubt looks cleaner and smells fresher than her sister tugs manned by males.
Sitting in the Willow’s control room at the Woodside dock in Dartmouth, MacDonald repeats a company suggestion that the all-female tugboat crew might be the first of its kind anywhere.
“This is very much a maledominated industry,” she said. “This type of work is not for the faint of heart. It’s rough. It’s very technical. There is a lot of strain on these lines. We’re just a small boat going alongside these huge moving ships, sometimes at a considerable speed. We’ve got to get in there and get lines on them. It’s quite a job and it’s not something a lot of women think of doing for a career, but it’s certainly very doable.”
MacDonald grew up in Purcells Cove, attained two degrees from Dalhousie and worked for many years in the insurance business before putting her mind to what she loves — the water and working on boats. She’s heard men dismiss her as inferior because of her gender.
“I just smile and say, ‘I’m sorry you feel that way.’ As time goes on and there are more of us coming into the industry and as we stay in the industry, I’m finding that the men are starting to change their minds and they are being much more accepting of women on these boats. And even encouraging.”
She likens her control centre to a video game, with three screens — a chart plotter, radar and engine information — and two joysticks that control the Z-drives, or azimuth thrusters, propeller pods that can rotate 360 degrees, allowing for rapid changes in speed and direction.
Pushing and pulling gigantic ships into port and through narrow channels, the female crew pulls closer together as a family each day. MacDonald said it’s the Irving-owned towing company’s decision as to whether the crew stays together.
“We certainly hope that we will stay together because it’s a good thing and it’s really cool. Fingers are crossed that we all stay together.”