Sailing Ladies: Meet the Grand Traverse region’s female captains


Photo: Lily Heyns on board the Manitou


By Sandra Serra Bradshaw

Sun contributor

“To desire nothing beyond what you have is surely happiness. Aboard a boat, it is frequently possible to achieve just that. That is why sailing is a way of life, one of the finest of lives.” — Carleton Mitchell (1910-2007)

In the Grand Traverse region, being on a boat is almost second nature to many, both men and women. It is interesting to note that the relationship with sailing — worldwide — has changed radically over the last few centuries. Women’s roles continue to change with it. Where once women stayed at home, working domestic chores onshore, as they waited patiently for their men to return from the sea; today, there is a growing cadre of ladies involved in a variety of maritime occupations.

This runs the gamut from all-women’s crews in professional sailing through racing and being captains on cruise ships, to being members of the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard. Women are truly, and successfully, contributing to our modern-day maritime way of life. No longer considered an exclusively “all male domain,” even here in the Grand Traverse region women make their own mark captaining boats of all sizes.

Captain Rebecca Hancock sails at the Tall Ship Festival in Cleveland

Yet, just a hundred years ago, women were taboo on board. Many thought it would bring “bad luck” to sailors, or thought that “mythical monsters with female forms,” such as “mermaids and sirens,” would lure sailors to their doom. The only female presence on a ship to be found would be that of a carved wooden figurehead often found below a ships’ bowsprit. Even today, women make up only an estimated 2% of the world’s maritime workforce. They work mainly in the cruise and ferry sector, often for Flags of Convenience (FOC) vessels.

May 18 marked the first International Day for Women in Maritime, adopted by a resolution of the United Nations International Maritime Organization (IMO). This commemoration is to highlight and celebrate the role of women of all ages in the historically male-dominated maritime industry, and to identify areas where there is gender balance. “Let’s take this opportunity to celebrate the many women who are contributing to the future of maritime: maintaining an engine on a ship, running a company, drawing up a contract, surveying a vessel, or chairing an IMO committee meeting,” said IMO Secretary-General Lim in a May 11 video message. “While there is much to celebrate, there is also the need for more progress to be made.”

“There is still a gender imbalance in maritime—but times are changing,” IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim noted. “It is recognized that diversity in maritime benefits the entire sector. Women in maritime are working everywhere to support the transition to a decarbonized, digitalized and more sustainable future.”

Most captains and other marine officers traditionally came from sea bordering countries such as Greece, Italy, England and Norway. This was home to decades of maritime tradition and held to by the same standard in world-renowned maritime academies. Women were not allowed – let alone welcomed – until the last quarter-century or so to participate. Since then, the industry has come a long way. A perfect example of this change can be seen in England, where women weren’t permitted to attend maritime academies until the 1980s (perhaps the “Women’s Liberation Movement” helped change that?).

While these history-making women have made amazing achievements in becoming ships’ captains and taking other responsible positions onboard, they didn’t walk straight from the academy classroom and onto the ship. The process of encouraging women to become captains starts with encouraging women to join the industry, and giving them the opportunities to work their way up to captaincy.

Captain Stephanie Watkins

“One of the greatest things I like to hear is young women wanting to captain a ship,” said Lily Heyns, Relief Captain on both the Tall Ships Inland Seas and Manitou (more about that later). “On a sail while aboard the schooner Manitou a few years ago, a young girl asked her mom if the captain of the schooner would be a girl,” she fondly explained. “No!” the Mom retorted abruptly. Well, the little girl just totally lost it when she found out that indeed there was a ‘female captain,’and it was me!”

Positive change is being made, yet there are still obstacles to women entering the marine industry, and awareness is a major factor. Even many women still have the view that the marine industry is a “men’s world,” not a welcoming place for women ambitious enough to join the professional maritime ranks. Although the industry has a long way to go to redress the gender imbalance, bold steps are being made towards a future where women make up more and more members of a ship’s command.

In the Grand Traverse waters there are many women who match — perhaps in some cases even surpass — men as competent sailors captaining boats. “Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than those you did. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from safe harbor. Catch the wind in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover,” wrote the well-known American writer, Mark Twain.

Following is a brief synopsis of a few local women who follow such a path and pursue professional maritime careers. Each of them, in their own way, encourages any young women who are interested in the maritime life to consider it as a possible career goal. There are many other capable sea-women here on our local waters, but sadly, lack of space prevents us in including more of them. The words, penned by world-adventured sailor, Michelle Segrest apply to each and every one of them: “Learning to sail is a lifetime commitment and not just a one-course seminar.”

Lily Heyns, USCG 100-Ton Master Captain’s License, Traverse Tall Ship Company

Captain Heyns has earned her 100-ton Captain’s license, no easy feat whether male or female. She’s the Relief Captain at the schooner Manitou and Relief Captain on the schooner Inland Seas. Lily Heyns grew up in Maine and recollects fondly walking alongside her dad at the fishing docks and telling him she wanted to be a deckhand like the guys there on the salty, ocean sprayed wharf when she grew up. “No,” he dad flat out told her. “It is not a job for a girl!” Despite those words, Heyns has sailed professionally in many seas the world over. Her first job was as a deckhand in Maine. Then she sailed in Eastern Canada in the Canadian Maritime, and even on to Greenland.

“I was going to the Great Lakes Maritime Academy (at Northwestern Michigan College), and looking for a job,” Heyns said. “Through the grapevine, Dave McGinnis, [owner and Senior Captain of the Traverse Tall Ship Company in Greilickville], heard I was looking for a job, found me, and ultimately hired me as deckhand. I balked at first,” she stated. “No way was I going to work on the Great Lakes in freshwater… I work on the Atlantic…I am a salt-water sailor,” she exclaimed. “Dave McGinnis sold me pretty hard, and he was quite right,” she added.

“Captain Dave and working on the Manitou is how I was able to earn my Captain’s license,” she explained. “There is so much more to it than people realize. Size doesn’t matter. What matters is the right kind of confidence you have within yourself,” explained Heyns. A big part of her job also involves education, and a lot of it related not just to sailing, but also to maritime history.

“Michigan Department of Attorney General Dana Nessel stopped by our campus today! We were able to share our mission and vision with her as we toured the facility and campus,” Heyns wrote excitedly on her Facebook page. “Thanks to John, Pat, Sue, and Kathy for communicating the important role ISEA plays in protecting the Great Lakes by sharing their experiences.”

And of her dad’s thoughts today? “My Dad is extremely proud of where I am at, and of my maritime experience.” For Heyns it’s life-long commitment, whether in fresh-water or salt-water seas, and she is extremely happy with her decision. “It’s empowering for young women,” she emphatically stated.

Heather Jankens, Executive Coordinator at Maritime Heritage Alliance

Heather Jankens is the one to ask if anyone needs an answer about something going on around MHA’s boats and related topics to running the organization. She was born in New Gloucester, Maine, and is a life-long sailor with the skills that match the knowledge she has acquired over the years. Ever willing to share her backlog of expertise, she does it with unsurpassed humility.

In her spare time (“What’s that?!” she asks), Jankens is out on the water, if not aboard the schooner Madeline, then on her own boat Echo moored nearby. Besides her position as Executive Coordinator at the MHA office, she volunteers on MHA’s Small Boat Committee. Jankens sailed in the Kraken Cup, “The experience during that race really led me to think; ‘What’s next?’ I’m not a die-hard racer, but I love traveling by water, and I do like a challenge.” The Kraken Cup has evolved over the years into a crazy adventure race of what many say, amounts to “unparalleled insanity.” Participants sail across the Indian ocean on a mango log with two outriggers and a sail.

She has sailed onboard the Draken Harald Hårfagre, a 114 ft. Viking ship built for modern times, and with a notable 3,200 square foot sail made of pure silk, and often referred to as Ambassador for Ocean Science and Innovation. The vessel is named after Harald Fairhair (ca. 865 – ca. 933), the king who unified Norway into a single kingdom. Heather and her small team are preparing for the race to Alaska in 2023.

Rebecca Hancock, USCG 100-Ton Master Captain’s License, Inland Seas Education Association (ISEA)

Rebecca Hancock has seawater running in her veins. She grew up in Poughkeepsie, New York, the “Queen City of the Hudson.” In 2000, Hancock moved to Traverse City to attend the Great Lakes Maritime Academy, as did many of her peers. She earned through much hard work and hours on the lake, her 100 -Ton Captain’s License. Prior to coming to Michigan, Hancock had 12 long years working on freighters under her sea belt. It was only a natural step for her, with her background, to end up as First Mate on Inland Seas.

Prior to coming to Michigan and attending school at the Maritime Academy, she also worked aboard the 106-foot sloop Clearwater. This was when the folk music legend and environmental activist Pete Seeger, despondent over the pollution of his beloved Hudson River, announced plans that he was going to “build a boat to save the river.” The Clearwater, built in 1996, became a flagship of sorts for the many environmental working groups with ships that would follow her path. This includes ISEA ‘s schooner, Inland Seas, and many other groups with their boats, hard at work today to educate on ways to protect our waterways. Protecting our waters has become a worldwide effort.

“Working on a Tall Ship is so much more in that it is affecting you in a physical sense. You are out there on the deck – exposed to the elements – no wheelhouse to protect you (such as on a freighter),” she explained. “I look at it as you are a person performing a duty, it doesn’t matter what gender you are!” Then she carefully added, “Everyone is going to be afraid at one point or another. It is how you react. It is courage, it’s staying with it,” Hancock emphasized.

Hancock recently attended the Tall Ship Festival with the Inland Seas (July 7-10), in Cleveland Ohio. Inland Seas was joined by six other ships (both replica and restored) from the United States, Canada, and Spain. These included: Pride of Baltimore II, U.S. Brig Niagara, Empire Sandy, St. Lawrence II, NAO Trinidad, and Appledore IV. “Events like this helps us bring a lot of separate entities to get together to trade stories, and exchange our thoughts and knowledge,” she shared. “Sometimes you sort of can feel like you alone are on an ‘island’ [as the ship]. It helps us to interact together as a connecting community.”


Stephanie Watkins, USCG 100-Ton Master Captain’s License, ASA Sailing Instructor, MHA Captain

At around age six or seven, Steph Watkins recalls the freighters traveling in the Detroit River just like the neighbors next door. “I can remember walking to the river with my Dad,” reminisces Watkins. “We would stand there together, him holding my hand, and we would watch those freighters slowly sail past us…” Captain Watkins was born in Wyandotte, Michigan, and grew up in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

“When sailing shuts down here, I keep sailing during the winter months,” said Watkins. “I work as a sailing instructor in the US/British Virgin Islands, and on the Sea of Cortez.” Before moving to Traverse City, Watkins spent seven years running a youth sailing program for the Key West Sailing Club and taught adults for J World during the winter.

Captain Watkins is the founder of She Sails, a concept she started in Key West, Florida. In 2014, while teaching the adult learn-to-sail program for Traverse Area Community Sailing (TACS), she brought She Sails to our local women for the big boat experience. “She Sails has opened up unique opportunities for women to experience big boat sailing in a supportive, stress-free environment while keeping the atmosphere fun and positive,” says Watkins. “I am very happy to see more and more women become part of the sailing world here since my arrival. I currently spend the summer months helping our community youth experience tall ship style sailing on the MHA’s boat, CHAMPION; a 52′ 1968 wooden gaff-rigged cutter. Getting people out experiencing Mother Nature through sailing is what I love to do.”

Editor’s note: The July 14 print version of this story misspelled Rebecca Hancock’s first name. We regret the error.