News: Female ferry captain a first for Essex County

Windsor Star - Aug 26, 2014

When the sparkling new white MV Jiimaan ferry pushed through dark waters to dock in Kingsville late one night in 1992, Emma Nolan, then a ticket agent, never imagined she’d one day be its captain.

But more than 20 years later, she’s the one wearing the crisp white uniform with four gold stripes.

Nolan is the only female captain on a large ship in the Great Lakes, certified as a Master, Near Coastal with Transport Canada. She got the job in May.

She’s the second woman known to have captained a large vessel that travels regularly in the Great Lakes, but she doesn’t expect to be the only one for much longer.

“It’s nice to see it’s easier to come up; it’s easier to get through the system,” she said.

When Nolan started her path toward the job she has now, she said it took time to prove she was there to stay.

“They thought I was this lost girl searching for my path in life or something,” Nolan said. She was the only woman in a class of about 20 students in marine navigation at Georgian College. By the time she graduated, all but six had dropped out.

“They wanted to pat me on my head and send me on my way but once it was clear I was here to stay it changed,” she said.

That didn’t mean it was easy. When she came back for her second year, one teacher told her he was shocked. He’d thought she was there for the “Mrs.” program: to find a husband.

When she earned high grades – which she did often – classmates would insult her and write her name on the bathroom stall.

But Nolan said she’s always had a personality of pushing through.

When she was trying to decide what post-secondary education to pursue, she remembers her mother and guidance counsellor talking about her in another room. She saw an ad for a coast guard program in the maritimes on the back of a magazine, and stormed into the room to tell them what she planned to do.

“If people say, ‘You can’t do it. You can’t do it,’ then I kind of stomp my feet and say I can do it,” she said.

Nolan stands at the helm, listening to her hand radio while checking passenger counts and keeping an eye on traffic in the shipping lane.

When she gets the confirmation from her crew, she turns a nob that bellows a loud sound, and starts navigating the ferry out of the Kingsville dock. Sometimes she lets cadet Deanna Pedoniquotte do the steering, keeping a close eye and giving tips like “give it some slack” to be sure it goes smoothly. The opportunity is one most cadets don’t get.

Her colleagues all agree Nolan’s one of the best at navigating the ship through narrow channels and heavy winds. Those are the biggest challenge with a ferry like the Jiimaan. It’s tall and wide, which means high winds can push it quickly.

In October 2012, it ran aground on a shallow sand bar when wind blew it even further off a deviated course.

Nolan says working on the Jiimaan is a captain’s dream. The route is familiar, but always challenging as they change course to allow larger ships through or navigate around fishermen who try to catch the fish stirred up in the waters as the ferry goes by.

When the ferry docks in Pelee Island for the night, most of the crew sleep on board.

Nolan shares a cabin with the ferry’s other captain, who works the days she’s off. The small cabin has a television and a pile of books, and an adjoining office where Nolan does payroll and files paperwork.

But she says she spends most of her time out with the crew: working long hours on the bridge and on breaks lounging in the back of the cafeteria where the crew eat their lunch or greeting passengers travelling with them.

She works one week on, one week off, giving her ample time to spend with her two sons.

Her husband Ben Stover, also in marine navigation, works on a laker — a freighter that travels the waters of the Great Lakes — that takes him out for a few months at a time. The couple rely on their mothers to look after the boys when they’re both away.

“There are no boundaries,” Nolan said of her two boys. “They’re going to grow up thinking that it’s totally normal for a woman to be a captain.”

Lillian Kluka, who was the first female captain on the Great Lakes, said she’s tickled pink to see another woman take on the role.

“There should be more of them,” she said. “I’m baffled because it’s a great job. There are lots of girls who graduate from the marine academies here in Canada.”

Kluka said years ago when Nolan was still a student, they drove together to a conference for women in the marine industry. When she learned it was Nolan who got the job to be captain of the Jiimaan, she was thrilled and proud.

“It’s like every job. You have people who don’t like you simply because of who you are, but you can’t really waste any time thinking about it,” Kluka said.

Hanging in the cabin Nolan shares with the Jiimaan’s other captain is a sign put up by a previous captain that reads: “I am the captain of this ship and I have my wife’s permission to say so…”

Nolan shakes her head and laughs. She’s not going to take it down. She says with a chuckle that it just shows women have always been the ones in charge.

Read more, click here.