By Carl Nolte
Excerpt from The Sea Newsletter, Fall 2018 # 77
Women had to overcome strong headwinds and generations of sea tradition.
Three women in particular stand out as pioneers in the maritime industry. All three of them have roots on San Francisco Bay and all three were the first women in their jobs.
NANCY WAGNER is easy going and pleasant to talk to. She likes good talk and she likes to laugh. But underneath that is a steely determination to succeed. She gets what she wants.
She grew up on the east coast. She came from a maritime family. But that career path was closed. “You know how it was,’’ she said, “Girls don’t do that.’’ She was young, slim and athletic—she even considered a career as a professional dancer.
But in 1974 she saw a newspaper story that said the federal maritime academy at Kings Point, N.Y, was about to admit women. “I saw my chance,’’ she said “And I took it.”
She showed up for her first day at the academy in a miniskirt wearing her hair long, like any other young woman on her first day in college.
But Kings Point wasn’t just any college. Other plebes, as they are called in military academies, stood around and stared. Her picture ran in New York Newsday. “All eyes were on Nancy Wagner’’ the caption said.
When Wagner graduated, four years later her picture, this time in dress white uniform lifting her diplo-ma in triumph, was on page one of the New York Times. She was in the first class of women to graduate from a federal service academy.
She served as a deck officer on tankers. She did good work but had a hard time “I’ve had men, other officers tell me I wasn’t qualified. I’ve had people tell me I was taking a job away from a man with a family,’’ she said. But she was determined She got her master’s license in 1985, the first female Kings Point graduate to get the master’s ticket.
In 1990 she became a ship pilot on San Francisco Bay. She was the first female ship pilot in the United States, a pioneer.
She also had a commission in the U.S. Navy reserve. But when she went on active duty, she was not allowed to serve on a Navy ship. So Captain Wagner, who could pilot a ship of any tonnage could not even set foot on a warship. She worked instead at the Pentagon, “it was top secret work, too,’’ she said. She laughed. “If I told you what I did, I’d have to kill you,’’ she said.
Captain Wagner retired after 25 years as a pilot on San Francisco Bay in 2015. Last spring she returned to Kings Point to receive a distinguished alumni award and delivered a speech to the graduating class of 2018 “Live your dream,’’ she said.
LYNN KORWATCH was a pioneer on the opposite coast. While Nancy Wagner was at the federal maritime academy, Korwatch was at the California Maritime Academy in Vallejo.She was part of the first class at Cal Maritime to admit women. She graduated in l976 with a third mate’s license and went to sea.
She sailed as a deck officer mostly with Matson Navigation, sailing out of San Francisco Bay. She got her master’s license and a good berth as chief mate on a Matson ship. She was married to Lawrence Korwatch, a ship’s engineer, and life was good.
In 1988, she got her big break. She was offered command of the Matson container ship Maui across the Pacific, Oakland to Hawaii and back again. There was only one problem: Korwatch was more than eight months pregnant. And merchant ships do not carry doctors.
“I learned one thing,’’ she said. “Never pass up an opportunity. Here was my chance to be a captain. I didn’t care how pregnant I was.’’
Lynn Korwatch made history. She was the first woman to command a merchant ship under the American flag.
Her son Kent, was born a week after the ship returned to Oakland. Captain Korwatch later became man-ager of marine operations for Matson Navigation Company.
She later joined the Marine Exchange of the San Francisco Bay Region and serves as executive director. The Marine Exchange, founded in 1849, is the second oldest corporation in California after the San Francisco Bar Pilots.
MARINA SECCHITANO had a little different career path. She is a native San Franciscan, and like a lot of people raised in the city, was al-ways interested in the salt water. She got a job selling tickets at the Lark-spur ferry terminal on Dec. 9, 1976. It was a red letter day for her—it was the first day Golden Gate Ferry’s Larkspur service started, and it was her first job as a member of the Inland Boatman’s Union.
Secchitano got interested in the union and became convinced that its mission—to get better pay and conditions for ferry and tugboat workers—was a good one. She was involved in two strikes, one of them 104 days long, and Richard Estrada, then the IBU’s regional director, recruited her to join the union’s staff.
In 1989, Estrada died on the job after a massive heart attack and Secchitano replaced him as regional director. Her area was mostly in the Bay Area. As many people remember the Loma Prieta earthquake damaged the Bay Bridge, and ferries carried thousands of commuters. Suddenly it began to be clear that a revival and expansion of ferry service was in the works.
This meant jobs for ferry sailors but it also led to the formation of a public government authority to run the ferry system and Secchitano had a key role in forming what became the Water Emergency Transportation Authority, Secchitano has a reputation as a strong advocate for the members she represents. “She is tough,’’ said one industry figure who did not want his name used because he has to negotiate with her.
In 2917, Secchitano ran against two men for the job of intenational president of the Inland Boatman’s Union of the Pacific, which represents ferry, tug, and boat workers from Alaska to California. There are 6,000 members with a long history of militancy. Waterfront unions are not known as branches of the Sunday school businesss. Secchitano campaigned hard and won with 52 percent of the vote.
She is a pioneer, too, the first female president of an international maritime union.
There are many other women in positions of authority in maritime: among them Elaine Forbes executive director of the port of San Francisco, and Jeanne Pinto pilot of the San Francisco fireboat and Tuuli Messer Bookman, a professor at Cal Mari-time. But Wagner, Korwatch and Secchitano, each in their own way, led the way.