Few women take command of an entire yacht. Captain Kelly Gordon (40) is one of them. Born in the US, she spends most of her time on the Caribbean - more precisely, on the Bahamas - on Freddy, a Sanlorenzo yacht of over 32 m length. On this vessel, she takes her guests on itineraries through the exotic Bahamas landscape. The scenery however is far from being the only thing about her job that appeals to her. In this interview, she reveals that her favorite place is actually the yacht’s engine room and tells us why she loves it and often envies her chief engineer.
How often are you on the Bahamas?
We actually spend most of our time on the Bahamas. Right now, the Exumas are the Bahamas hotspot. That's where you find the swimming pigs. But we also go to other locations such as Harbor Island, which is very popular.
That must be fabulous.
It really is. I'm not going to lie, I love my job.
You've had an exciting journey so far. You were previously a college professor who made a U-turn and became a captain.
That´s right. I love teaching and sometimes I miss it. But interacting with my crew members is in a way a balance to teaching. They are so inquisitive, and I really enjoy answering their questions. Sometimes maybe even a little too thoroughly!
But working on a yacht fulfills me personally much more than teaching did. Although I enjoy teaching, I need something that constantly challenges me and teaches me new things. My duties as a captain fit all those criteria perfectly.
What made you wish to become a captain?
The first time I set foot on a yacht, I knew right away it was the place where I belong. I instantly said to myself - and I actually said it out loud: I can drive this thing.
I didn't know then how much I would love it and how hard it would be at the same time. But I knew right away that it was exactly what I wanted to do.
How important to you is the yacht engine? Do you notice differences between engines when you’re navigating?
Absolutely! We all have our favorite engines. For me, it's definitely the mtu-engines. You can see the difference in the efficiency and handling of the yacht.
Engines are the be-all and end-all. Which engine to install in a new vessel is one of the first questions discussed before it’s built.
If there is a problem in the engine room, do you take care of it yourself or do you have an engineer on board?
I have a qualified engineer on board who is very accomblished. Before he joined our crew, however, I took care of all the engineering myself. Of course, I don't have the same knowledge as a trained engineer, but my technical skills are sufficient to diagnose faults or problems and also to solve them.
My on-board engineer is engaged at a much more detailed and advanced level than I am. But we are in daily contact, discussing what’s happening on board, which projects we have, what needs to be repaired and how things are going in general.
Having grown up on a farm and tinkered with tractors from a young age, you quickly realized you could handle a yacht engine as well. Have you always been interested in everything that happens in an engine room?
Yes! The engine room is one of my favorite places on board the vessel - next to my wheelhouse. Before I hired our current engineer, the engine room was my space. But now it’s his domain, and I have to admit that sometimes it's hard for me to leave it to him. I'm very interested in mechanics. I'm sure that's because I grew up on a farm and was interested in technical things from a very young age. I love fixing things and understanding their mechanical functions.
What does a typical workday look like for you - if there is such a day?
It’s true that there’s no typical workday in this industry. You go to bed and have a rough plan for the next day but in the morning, circumstances can be completely different.
Since we’re a charter boat, I can still tell you a little about our structure on board. We usually get up at around five or six in the morning. Each crew member has their own area of responsibility and I’m in constant communication with all of them. I do the basic planning for the day’s itinerary and also check which technical jobs have to be done.
After breakfast we usually go out on our first excursion. This can be to the swimming pigs, the sharks, the Lazy River or some other place. Then after lunch the guests can either do water sports, go swimming or go with us on another excursion.
I interact with everyone on board to make sure everything is running smoothly. I talk to the guests and make sure they are happy. But I also look out for my team. We do what we do because we love it, and I want to make sure they're doing well, too.
What do you like most about your job?
What I love most about my job are the relationships I have with my crew members. We are like a little family and we`ve created an environment on board in which everyone feels comfortable.
Often, people even approach me wanting to know if I have a vacancy on the yacht. That´s quite a compliment for me. You don´t always see the camaraderie that we have on other vessels. It took me a long time to create such an environment, but the fact that we have it means a great deal to me.
On the one hand, my crew can sometimes be the most difficult part of my job. But on the other hand, the relationships I have with my crew are the most rewarding part of my job.
It’s never easy to deal with different people and personalities.
Exactly. Different personalities, backgrounds and age groups come together and that doesn't always make it easy to get along.
Another thing I love about my job is navigation and handling the yacht. I love maneuvering through a new area, studying charts and making plans. Navigation is very rewarding for me.
I also love all the trappings that come with being on a charter boat.On a busy charter boat like ours, there is always a lot to do. You're in constant touch with crew management off the boat, supplier management, managers or the owner of the yacht, as well as with prospective charter guests. Not to mention everything that needs to be taken care of mechanically on the boat itself.
During your work, you probably visit many beautiful places: Which of these places fascinates you the most?
I love Cuba because the people there are incredible. But the Bahamas is my home away from home. Some people here have become family to me. A few months ago I had an emergency at sea where my mate broke his hand. We were pretty far out in the outer islands where there is no medical help.
But five different locals helped me get him off the yacht and onto a plane so he could have surgery in the States. The relationships I've built here are just incredible.When I called about an emergency, they dropped everything and were there for me immediately. It's not the landscape that makes a place, but rather the people who live in it.
Navigationally, the Bahamas are also a challenge for me because it’s difficult to navigate the waters surrounding them.
In what way?
The water is very shallow and there are many uncharted coral heads, which can be a little tricky. As a rule, we don't go at night unless it really can't be avoided. But a lot of it is charted and I know my routes and the obstacles in those areas pretty well. Still, as a captain, you have to set your routes in advance and then find out what difficulties are along the way.
Do you have many female colleagues in your crew, or do you know other women captains?
Both of my deck stewards are female. So my crew is well balanced – with three men and three women.
What advice would you give to women who work in the maritime industry or would like to work there?
It’s difficult to find the right words. Women just as much as men owe it to themselves to pursue their dreams. No matter whether you’re talking about the maritime or a completely different industry. Once you find something you're passionate about, the rest will fall into place. Don't give up on yourself.
If you’re attacked by self-doubt: Keep going anyway and don't give up. Sometimes it helps to look outside for a cheerleader who can support and strengthen you. I pursued my dream and went through some rough patches along the way. Getting to where I am now wasn't an easy road. But I’m as happy as I’ve ever been!