A new generation of female captains at Lahaina Harbor
Oliver, a grizzled seafaring pup, is headed straight for slip 94 at Lāhainā Harbor, no leash. The small, 13-year-old Lhasa Apso knows exactly where he’s going. Like his owner, Captain Susie, he’s sailed out of Lāhainā for years, and knows his way around the breakwalls and finger piers that make up the harbor. “When it’s windy and the sea gets rough, he gets a little nervous,” says Susie as she lifts Oliver onto the deck of One Eyed Jack, her sleek 36-foot monohull, “but he’s a sailor all right.”
Captain Susie’s last name is Grubler, but around the harbor “Susie” suffices. With a reputation as a trail-blazer, she was one of the first female captains to sail out of Lāhainā. And Oliver, with perhaps the most exclusive membership of all Lāhainā Harbor cliques, is the only male member of Susie’s crew.
Susie has always been “mostly interested in helping girls become captains.” Averse to the gender norms she observed as a kid—women resigned to housework and childcare—she’s thankful her parents raised her differently. “They said I could be anything I wanted. So, I had motorcycles. I went skydiving. I became an adventurer.”
She has sailed out of Lāhainā for three decades. And for 20 years of that time, she taught a US Coast Guard certified captains course in an effort to inspire other adventurers to live life on the water. Susie estimates she’s taught hundreds of captains how to sail, most of whom were young women. Her efforts have dramatically changed the culture and demographics of Lāhainā Harbor, which now has dozens of women captains.
“Early on, there weren’t many female captains in Lāhainā,” she recalls, “you had to convince an owner to give you a chance.” Susie talked herself onto a boat at a backyard barbeque. “I had to use my looks, and even after I was on a boat, I had owners telling me I couldn’t be a captain because I was a woman. So, I said fine, ‘I’ll show you.’ It was like that, you had to prove yourself,” she says.
For Susie, ever the free spirit with a rebellious streak, proving herself in a male-dominated world was nothing new. In 1973 she was one of the first women to join ROTC, and it wasn’t long before she started shaking things up. In the Air Force, she was determined to join the Arnold Air Society, which didn’t allow women at the time. “I raised a stink and they let me in. I was the first [woman]. I even played on the flag football team, not because I wanted to, but because they’d said I couldn’t,” she says laughing.
As a captain, Susie has sailed as far as Tahiti, Tonga and the Marquesas Islands, often alone. In 2003, she weathered a storm for over 24 hours, sailing in 50-knot winds 1,000 miles off the coast of New Zealand, with nothing but three broken ribs and a bottle of wine to keep her company. Now, in her course, she teaches other aspiring captains the survival skills that have kept her afloat and alive.
At first, she found teaching daunting, despite its mildness in comparison to the “gnarly stuff” she’s encountered at sea. “I probably don’t have the fear of water I should have, but I’ll prepare all day for a single lesson,” she says.
Over the years, she’s added increasingly more practical skills to her course, the kind that come in handy in dire straits. She teaches her proteges to find their center of effort and center of lateral resistance and how to manipulate both to sail correctly. “I want to prepare these girls for when they get caught 1,000 miles offshore and the weather changes before they’re ready,” she says.
Susie’s drive to train and prepare the next generation of female captains is not only important to the future, it’s bucking global trends. The International Maritime Organization (IMO), which began admitting women into its certification courses in 1988, found that women today represent only 1.28 percent of the entire seafaring workforce. Surprisingly, that small number still represents a 54% increase since 2015. The gist: female seafarers are a rarity, even today, and change has been slow.
Luckily, captains like Susie have put Lāhainā Harbor well ahead of the curve. Trilogy, the largest boating company in Lāhainā, currently employs 46% female boat captains, dwarfing the global average. Ultimate Whale Watch (UWW), a competitor of Trilogy, employs twice as many woman captains as male captains. According to Daynette Flores, interim Harbormaster for Lāhainā, this trend has only increased since 2012. “Unfortunately, there is no way to get the exact number of female captains that have come through the harbor,” says Flores, “but each individual company gives us an idea. It has been wonderful watching the amount of female captains working in the harbor continue to grow.”
Amy Venema—a contemporary of Susie’s who captains for UWW and sports a 25-year tenure at Lāhainā Harbor—had also noticed, “there are just simply more women captains in Lāhainā today. It’s the biggest change I’ve seen [in the harbor] in 25 years.”
Venema sails Wiki Wahine out of Lāhainā, a fast and nimble 28-foot whale-spotting vessel she says, “cuts through waves and drives like a Ferrari.” When Maui’s whale season is over, Venema migrates to Alaska’s North Slope where she is one of only 2 female captains working to ferry equipment and supplies to offshore oil rigs. Venema prefers sailing on days when the waves are so big she can see whales surfing above her, and she’s going so fast she’s forced to hit reverse going down the face of each wave. “That’s when it gets fun,” she says.
Old-timers will remember the names Maui Nui, Navitek II, and Ocean Riders—all Lāhainā classics. Venema crewed them all. When she became a captain in Lāhainā in 1991, she was one of just two women in her captains course, and one of the very few women working in the harbor.
“I had one captain who drove with a lot of testosterone,” Venema laughed, “he told me he would never hire female captains because they’re too small! I knew this guy wouldn’t last, so I stayed quiet and just let my skill do the talking. Good sailing proves that size and gender are irrelevant.”
Venema has a theory as to why so many women gravitate toward Lāhainā Harbor. Herself a former teacher, Venema credits skilled instructors like Susie for sparking the culture change. “It’s simple,” she says, “women captains bring in other women. There’s always education happening on a boat and it’s just easier for women sailors to learn from women captains. There’s more patience there.”
One recent graduate of Susie’s course, Captain Heidi Speedie, credits Susie for promoting a sense of equity in her class, “I’m not sure how it was in the old days,” she says, “but with Susie, we were all exactly the same, no one thought about male or female. We were all just boat people.”
Speedie inherited her father’s boating business after he passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2016. Fifteen years into raising her own family at the time, she had no plans of becoming a captain. Now, she is the captain of the harbor’s most cumbersome but loveable vessel, Reefdancer. “Reefdancer is like a fun mom,” says Speedie with a laugh, “complete with mom jeans, corny dance moves, and snacks for everyone.”
The boat is a heavy, glass-bottomed 57-foot semi-submarine. It’s an observation vessel where passengers of all ages can nestle themselves in her iron hull and gaze at the reef below. The design makes for a great passenger experience, but isn’t great for maneuvering. Even Susie says Reefdancer is an impressive vessel to handle. “It is by far the hardest boat in the harbor to drive,” she says, “but Heidi has really stepped up.”
Like Susie, Speedie often sails with an all-female crew, and people notice. “Sometimes women will raise a fist and say ‘right on!’ We drive a 37-ton-vessel and to have four petite girls handling the passengers, the weather, and the boat. People are impressed.”
Speedie’s biggest challenge wasn’t harbor discrimination, as it had been for Susie, it was learning boat mechanics. She remembers her father teaching himself to fix Reefdancer on his own in the ‘90s, and now she’s found herself doing the same, looking up the nitty gritty on repairing diesel engines. She recalls her (societally-encouraged) indifference to mechanics as a girl, “My eyes would glaze over when a boat mechanic would talk to my dad. Now, when a mechanic is talking—I’m taking notes. You won’t see too many other female captains working on their own engines,” she says.
Recently, Reefdancer’s steering rod broke mid-voyage, putting Speedie’s newfound mechanical skills to the test. “We were rocking,” she recalls. “The engines were on, people were down in the hull and I thought, ‘Heidi, you’re gonna have to go back there and fix this.’” She grabbed some nuts and bolts and suddenly it dawned on her, “oh my god, I know what size this is. I can tell that is a 7/16. I can tell that is a 3/8. I know I need a lock nut here and I know I need a deep socket wrench there to reach that area. And I knew to turn this and that to the starboard and suddenly—I fixed it,” she says. Covered in grease, Speedie called her mom to tell her about her breakthrough.
The next time she thought to get a manicure, she realized the point was moot, with the hydraulic grease, “which never comes off,” still clinging to her worn and torn hands. “I don’t even bother with nail polish anymore,” she says.
Susie, Speedie and Venema all agree that the best captains, male and female, are those who stay calm in perilous situations. But that said, each used the same word to describe the unique approach to sailing that a female captain brings: Finesse. “Put it this way,” says Venema, “women know to use the wind, not just the throttle.” However, Susie points out that aspiring female captains need something extra: the gumption to go against the gender grain. “What young girls need is determination. You need to have attitude. ‘I’ll show you’—that’s the attitude women must have to get into fields that are dominated by men.”
Speedie, adding an afterthought to her lamented goodbye to polished fingernails, says with her own air of hard-earned gumption, “you know, I may not get to wear nail polish anymore, but I can wear it on my toes—and—I can fix an engine.”