“Don’t think twice — do it!” That is the advice of Captain Jennifer Brokaw, who in 2011 became the first woman in the past ten years to reach the level of captain in the special mission division at Maersk Line, Limited (MLL), a marine contractor with the Department of Defense. Young women today seeking a career on water should not be afraid to take it on, said the 1995 graduate of Newtown High School.
“It’s a rewarding career, not only monetarily, but in the experiences you get that you wouldn’t get anywhere else,” said Capt Brokaw. Learning life skills and making friends all over the world are only two reasons that she has made a naval career her career of choice since graduating from the Maine Maritime Academy in 1999 with a BS in nautical science.
“This was an adventure,” she said of her decision to attend Maine Maritime Academy. Growing up in Sandy Hook, she had traveled with her family to vacation spots on or near the water, but had no real sea experience. “I figured if I didn’t like it, I could go elsewhere. But 14 years went by pretty quickly,” she said.
While she had no female role models as a student at Maine Marine Academy, she has since met many women who have accomplished “great things” in this field, said Capt Brokaw. She has met the scant number of other female ship captains at the Annual Women on the Water conferences at various academies. “The conferences introduce people to and educate people on the many options in this field, including ones on shore,” she said.
On August 5 she will end a four-month leave and fly to Saseto, Japan, where she will once again take command of her 281-foot ocean surveillance ship, the USNS Impeccable.
According to information provided by Capt Brokaw, the Impeccable is a ship “built to tow a surveillance towed array sensor system.” What that means, she explained, is that her ship is not the typical narrow-bowed ship most people imagine. “It is more like a box,” she said, a design that keeps the ship from turning over in high seas, and which makes it more stable when towing equipment.
As captain of the vessel, she is in charge of the safety of nearly 50 crewmembers. Sometimes, Capt Brokaw is the only woman aboard; on other missions, there may be up to a half dozen other women sailing with her. The imbalance between male and female crewmembers or of a female captain has never been an issue, however, for her.
“I think I’m lucky,” she said. Although she had heard horror stories as an undergrad student at Maine Marine Academy, she has not encountered sexism in the years she has served on board or commanded a ship.
Meeting The Challenge
As a new graduate, there was some apprehension as to whether women could physically and emotionally handle a job that entailed long times at sea and long stretches off. “But those are challenges that men face, as well,” she pointed out. “By the time I was promoted to captain, there were no concerns, I think,” said Capt Brokaw. Her training, preparation, and experience prepared her well, she said.
She began her career with MLL as a third mate, and was rehired and promoted to second mate. In 2006, Capt Brokaw was promoted to chief officer. After receiving recommendations from both of her captains, on July 23, 2011, she walked off one ship as chief officer and boarded a new one as a captain.
“I’ve been on this ship since 2001,” she said, with only one mission out on board the USNS Victorious, when she was first commissioned as a captain. “The men know me. I’ve come up through the ranks and earned their respect, so they react respectfully,” Capt Brokaw said.
As the new captain of a new crew, on a new mission, aboard the Victorious in 2011, she was not 100 percent sure what the reaction would be, though. “I was waiting to hear, ‘We’ve always done it this way…’ but that didn’t happen,” she said. It was on that trip that a crewmember became so ill that a med-evac by helicopter seemed necessary. There was no airlift available, however. Instead, Capt Brokaw had to arrange to pull into Subic Bay, Philippines, at the last minute, where the crewmember was able to receive treatment at a local hospital. Seeing her take charge, take care of the crewmember, and carry out those details showed the rest of her crew that she was capable of doing what had to be done, she said, and gave her the boost in confidence she needed.
The typical day aboard the Impeccable is rather mundane, she said, when all is going well. Up before 6 am, she visits the bridge for a cup of coffee and to catch up on any news of the night or any issues she may need to address that day. The personal conversation, or “sampling the waters,” as Capt Brokaw calls it, with crew is important in setting the mood for the day. Back to her cabin, she spends the bulk of time checking e-mails, including Navy classified e-mails, and makes sure that payroll is ready. Walk-about breaks throughout the day make her available to the crew.
“There’s a lot of ‘not knowing’ with this job,” she said. “I hope, of course, that someone calls me when needed. There is a lot of trust I have to put in people.”
When days are going smoothly, Capt Brokaw may have time to work out with a small group in the exercise room, read, or play cards. When storms threaten or problems arise, she has to be ready. She has encountered storms at sea that leave the crew sloshing inches-deep in water, and on one mission lost power to a propulsion motor, delaying the ship’s exit out of the storm. “There are periods of time where I might get to sleep only two or three hours a night. That lack of sleep can be demanding,” she said. “Part of my daily routine is to check the weather, too, and that can be nonstop when it is storming,” said Capt Brokaw.
Much of commanding a ship and crew is mental, said Capt Brokaw. A mission will take her out to sea for four months, during which she will not have a day off. “Once I step on board, I work 24/7, until my next leave,” she said. Leaving friends and family for months at a time can be difficult, and does play havoc with trying to maintain a romantic relationship. She has to deal with crewmembers who may have brought personal baggage aboard along with their duffel bags, and there are periods of time when e-mail contact is cut off. And, because the Impeccable is a surveillance ship, it can be dangerous.
The passive and active low frequency sonar arrays towed by the Impeccable are meant to detect underwater threats. The missions directly supports the US Navy, and while the Impeccable does not engage threats, there remains a possibility that unfriendly vessels could choose to engage the Impeccable. As a surveillance ship, the Impeccable’s crew could be construed as spies. It is not a situation any captain wishes to find her or himself in, she said.
What draws her back, mission after mission, though are the quiet days at sea, when all is well. “That can be very restful. And I enjoy the travel. In December, for instance, when I get off, I’m toying this year with the idea of backpacking in Japan.”
In the meantime, she is enjoying her last bit of time with friends and family, and packing plenty of memories to get her through the next months at sea.