During her senior year of college, Margaret Handel was planning to apply to Ph.D. programs in economics when a chance conversation radically redirected her career path. She called her parents and told them she was joining the Merchant Marine—the corps of civilian sailors and commercial ships crisscrossing oceans and lakes delivering cargo and passengers. Today, she serves as a third mate for the Interlake Steamship Company on the Great Lakes. I spoke with Handel about choosing a career that is both intellectually challenging and concrete, the pleasure of observing the rhythms of the natural world, what it’s like to be the only woman on a ship, and learning to assess the small successes.
What do you do?
I am a third mate deck officer. I work for the Interlake Steamship Company. I was hired by them in early October 2020.
What does the Interlake Steamship Company do?
We serve a lot of steel mills around the Great Lakes in Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and sometimes Canada. We also serve coal fired power plants and providers of limestone, which is used in a lot of industrial applications. Sometimes we move niche products like salt to small towns for winter.
Everything I know about being a sailor comes from Popeye. What does the work of a third mate entail? And what does a normal workday look like for you?
I usually get up around 6:45 and try to be up in the pilot house (also called the wheelhouse, it’s at the top of the ship) between 7:30 and 7:35 a.m. to relieve the officer who is on watch, and then I’ll be on watch for four hours. In the afternoon, I may do some overtime work. Then I’ll be back up in the pilot house at 7:30 p.m., and I’ll be on watch again until 11:30. Then I go to bed and do it all again tomorrow.
What does it mean to be “on watch”?
Basically, it means I’m navigating the vessel. My job is to make sure that we’re going where we need to go at the speed we need to go there, keeping an eye on traffic, keeping an eye out for land, keeping an eye on the weather, and making sure that I’m communicating with other parts of the ship as needed.
On a beautiful day, if we’re in the middle of an open lake, it can be very peaceful. If we’re in a river, I will be piloting the vessel, which is really intense navigation down a small waterway. It involves me, a wheelsman, and the captain working as a team to get the vessel down the river safely. I like piloting, but that is way more stressful and challenging.
What led you to pursue a career in the Merchant Marine?
During my senior year at Hillsdale College, I was looking at options after graduation. I was thinking about graduate school, and a friend mentioned the Merchant Marine, which I’d never heard of. He told me it’s commercial shipping. I looked into it. Then I spent about two weeks researching and praying about the idea of joining the Merchant Marine before deciding to do it. I called my parents and basically said, “Hi, I’m not going to get a Ph.D. in economics like we talked about. I’m going to become an officer in the Merchant Marine.” My mom was on board immediately. My dad took a little while longer to wrap his head around this idea, but he’s super supportive of it now.
College is supposed to open up new doors for you. But it seems like it sometimes has the reverse effect of making other doors appear to be closed to you. If you grow up in a college town and everybody you know goes to college, careers that are traditionally considered “blue collar” or are off the four-year college track might seem out of bounds. How did you come to see that this was a career path you could choose?
I think in America we have created an unhealthy division between white collar and “blue collar” work and education that has hurt our blue-collar industries and robbed a lot of young people of opportunities that they may have preferred to pursue. There are so many awesome jobs that are fun, interesting, rewarding, and demanding that don’t require a college degree. When I was in high school, I never heard about them.
I’m glad I received a liberal arts education. But I’m also glad I chose not to go to graduate school. Working in a very natural environment—on a lake or the ocean—and working in challenging surroundings like a ship is very character forming, very interesting, and it can be very rewarding as well. If I had gone on to graduate school, I think I would have burned out eventually of that academic lifestyle. I like that I now get to deal with big concepts and abstractions, but also interact with the world in a very concrete way.
How did you become a sailor?
I went to a maritime academy and got a degree in maritime technology. But you don’t have to go to a maritime academy. Like in the military, where you can join as enlisted and work your way up to an officer rank, you can do the same thing in the Merchant Marine. You can join as an unlicensed worker, either with the deck or the engine department. Then you can work your way up and take the tests and get your license without going to school.
I did this three-year accelerated program, spending summers and some of my semesters working as a cadet on commercial vessels. Then I took my licensing exams last year. I also have Great Lakes pilotage (training in navigating the Great Lakes), so I took another set of exams to become a pilot, and that’s what helped me get the job that I have now.
What it’s like to be a woman in the Merchant Marine?
It’s similar to being a male merchant mariner—with the added dimension of sometimes being the only woman on a boat full of men. I’ve had really positive experiences with all the men that I’ve sailed with. I’ve never felt uncomfortable or unsafe in any way. But that’s not a universal experience. I know many women who, as cadets and sailors, have dealt with harassment in many different forms, and the industry is definitely working to improve that. But there is a long way to go.
Even with supportive male coworkers, I would imagine it could be challenging not to have female friends or even acquaintances for long stretches of time.
When I got my job in October, I was the only woman on the ship for 70 days straight. (Women make up, I believe, about two percent of the Merchant Marine industry in the United States.) And it wasn’t a bad experience. But there were days when I wished I could sit down with a woman and just have a little bit of that common language, that common currency of understanding. I’ve had that on other ships, which was really rewarding.
There are networks in place for professional women sailors. For example, at my academy there is a branch of the Women on the Water student group that hosts a conference every year bringing together female cadets from all the academies and female sailors from all over the world. I have met so many phenomenal women there. It is truly sustaining me in many ways, just the knowledge that there are so many awesome women out there.
Are there any other parts of sailing that you find particularly rewarding?
I appreciate the routine. Because you’re working at the exact same times every day, you start seeing the sunrise at the same time; you see the sun come up earlier and earlier or later and later; you see the phase of the moon change; and you see the stars of the zodiac move through the sky over the course of a couple of months. I’ve found it really meaningful to have a sense of the rhythms of the world around you.
Is there anything you’ve found particularly challenging?
It’s been a challenge to accept that it takes time to become highly skilled and highly competent at this job. You should always do your best, but your best is not going to be that awesome for a while, and that’s okay. You’re going to make wrong decisions, and you have to live with the consequences of them. You’re going to get yelled at once in a while for doing something stupid.
It’s also been a challenge learning to define success differently, which sounds very Instagram worthy. But it’s true. When you’re used to receiving grades and other clear indicators of success—other people telling you that you did a good job—it’s a culture shock when you enter an environment where no one says, “Good job.”
Compared to the older officers on the vessel, my best was nothing. They were highly skilled sailors; they’re not impressed by me. So, I’ve had to learn to evaluate my own progress internally and to acknowledge my own successes when I have them. If I do something very well, I can say, “I did that really well. I did it better than I did it yesterday. That’s a success. I will do it better tomorrow and the day after and the day after.”
What are some of your goals for the next five years?
The next step in the career would be becoming a second mate. The Coast Guard will automatically upgrade my license to second mate after I have sailed for a year as a third mate.
Within five years, I would like to become a first mate or at least to have taken my chief mate (first mate) exams. That exam also qualifies you to be a captain; it’s called the Master/Chief Mate Exam. But being hired as a captain requires a ship that needs a captain. And there are way more people that have master’s licenses than there are ships that need captains. So, I don’t know if or when that will ever happen. But I think there’s a good chance that in the next five years I will be able to get my chief mate license and sail as chief mate.
Are there any particular routes or ships on your “to sail” bucket list?
I would like to sail on a 1000-footer on the lakes. That’ll probably happen because the company I work for has several of those. I want to do that because they’re really big, and they’re kind of cool.
Someday I would like to sail on a research vessel for fun. Those are smaller ships that can go anywhere in the world. They survey the ocean floor, sample wildlife. Usually, you’re working with a university that has the ship, and you take researchers and students to different parts of the world. It also would be cool to be part of a crew on a sailboat someday.
What sort of interest or passions might lead a woman into this career?
Definitely an interest in a non-traditional or unconventional lifestyle. Also, if you’re interested in acquiring a hard skill that will take you a long time to get good at, if you have a craftsmanship attitude toward your work, this could be for you.
If you’re interested in leadership, this is a job where you are given a really meaningful leadership role right out of the gate. You go straight from being a college student—if you’re hired right out of school, like me—to being an officer on a vessel now. That can be really scary, but it also can be really rewarding. And it teaches you to be a good leader.
At Verily, we love our “Daily Doses”—quotes or phrases that motivate or inspire us. Do you have a mantra or phrase that you love or live by?
It’s by Frederick Buechner. He says, “Here’s the world, beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”
I love that, because it’s an invitation to adventure. It’s an acknowledgment of the consequences of going out into the world. Because there are consequences for adventure. Beautiful things will happen, but so will terrible things. But don’t be afraid. The implication being that the beauty is worth all the struggle to get it. The key to living a really free and adventurous life is to not be afraid.