Cape May-Lewes Ferry: Women on the Water

Maritime Activity Reports, Inc.

August 27, 2019

  • Captain Sharon Urban
  • Heath Gehrke, Director of Operations for the Cape May-Lewes Ferry
  • Captain Meghan Palmer
  • Melissa Velli
  • Captain Sharon Urban Captain Sharon Urban
  • Heath Gehrke, Director of Operations for the Cape May-Lewes Ferry Heath Gehrke, Director of Operations for the Cape May-Lewes Ferry
  • Captain Meghan Palmer Captain Meghan Palmer
  • Melissa Velli Melissa Velli

Women make up only an estimated two percent of the global maritime industry. In the U.S., the statistics are a little better, with less than eight percent of ship and boat captain operator roles held by women.

Still, for a female to have the opportunity to train up to ship captain is considered “unique.” However, as predictions are being made that there will be a shortage of more than 140,000 deck or ship officers worldwide by 2025 (BIMCO/ICS), we will see more accomplished women take the helm and lead the industry forward. In fact, that’s already happening.

In the past year alone, the Cape May-Lewes Ferry made history by promoting three women: Meghan D. Palmer of North Cape May, and Melissa Velli and Sharon Lyn Urban, both residents of Cape May, to rank of Captain in the Marine Department. These three female Captains are doing more for the industry than just oversee the safe navigation and operation of the vessel; they serve as a symbol that the role of piloting a ship is a female-friendly role with ample opportunity for those looking for a long-term, stable and rewarding career path.

As Captains, Palmer, Velli, and Urban have earned all the requirements and qualifications to lead the entire vessel and crew, with each possessing a United States Coast Guard (USCG) Inland Masters License of unlimited tonnage and USCG First Class Pilot upon the Delaware Bay License of unlimited tonnage. Both Urban and Velli joined the Cape May–Lewes Ferry marine department as Ordinary Seamen in 1997 and 2003, respectively. They rose through the ranks – up the hawsepipe – serving as Able-bodied Seaman and Mate prior to their recent promotions. A graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, Ms. Palmer was hired at the Ferry in November 2011 as a seasonal Able-Bodied Seaman. In addition to a Bachelor of Science degree in Logistics and Intermodal Transportation, Ms. Palmer also earned an Ocean’s Unlimited Tonnage Third Mate’s License during her time at the Academy. In April of last year, Ferry history was made with the first all-female bridge crew navigating across the Delaware Bay with Captain Sharon Urban and with Melissa Velli serving as Pilot, and Helmsman Paulette Nickels.

According to Heath Gehrke, Director of Operations for the Cape May-Lewes Ferry, women are breaking barriers in the maritime industry. He explains, “They can have a successful career in seafaring while living a lifestyle that allows them to have a family and be home at night. As the industry experiences a large portion of the workforce approaching retirement, and local hires become more difficult to find, we must welcome this new talent with open arms.” And, Cape May-Lewes Ferry has done just that.

This article first appeared in the August MN100 2019 print edition of MarineNews magazine, our annual look at the very best firms, individuals and stakeholders in the brown water, inland, shallow draft and workboat industries.  

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