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Massachusetts native becomes Spirit’s first woman captain

Bermuda meet Karen McDonald ... the first female captain of the sail -training vessel Spirit of Bermuda.

The Clark University graduate took over the helm of the triple masted sloop from predecessor Scott Jackson last month and since then has made a “smooth transition” to her new role and surroundings.

“It’s always a challenge to learn a new ship, new waters and a new programme,” Ms McDonald told

The Royal Gazette. “Every time you board a new ship there’s a bit of a learning curve there so it’s been a challenge but a challenge that was fully expected coming here.”

Ms McDonald, 33, comes highly qualified for the job as she holds a USA Coast Guard 500 ton Ocean Masters License and has sailed professionally for more than a decade.

“I actually started out as a student on a ship with a programme called Sea Education Association when I was in college,” she recalled. “That was really my first introduction to this lifestyle and I fell in love with it so as soon as I graduated I started working on ships and worked my way up.”

During her time as a professional sailor the native of Plymouth, Massachusetts has sailed on a variety of traditional schooners, including the

Liberty Clipper,

Spirit of South Carolina and

Amistad.

Prior to coming on-board with Bermuda Sloop Foundation Ms McDonald, who also holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Marine Science which she obtained at the University of Carolina, served as captain of the modern sail training ship

Geronimo.

Asked how does it feel to be

Spirit of Bermuda’s first female captain, Ms McDonald replied: “It feels pretty good. I don’t like to be known just because I’m a female, but I’ll take it I guess. I’ve sailed with other great female captains as well so I don’t think it’s such a unique thing to see.”

She added: “It’s not common because we do work in a male dominated industry. But it’s not something that’s unheard of so I don’t really chalk it up as a huge thing. But I appreciate that people recognise that I’m the first female captain here.”

Ms McDonald, who will serve as

Spirit of Bermuda’s captain for the next three-years, says she has been “well received” by her fellow crew and students who have already joined her on-board for offshore voyages.

“I think I’ve had a very good reception overall ... my professional crew has been very accepting and if anything they’re excited to have a female captain,” she added. “And as far as the students go, I wasn’t quite sure how they would react to me but their response has been overwhelmingly positive.

“One student on the very first trip came up to me and said ‘its really great to see a woman captain’ and I was like ‘thanks’.”

Spirit of Bermuda is a purpose-built sail -training based on civilian Bermudian-type schooners built locally in the 1800s.

Since its launch in 2006, the sloop has provided an award winning character development programme for more than 2,600 young people and logged over 38,000 miles in overseas voyages.

Ms McDonald says development programmes such as this are vital to the community.

“I really think experiential education and offshore education is something that ‘s very valuable,” she added. “I like seeing the impact that you have directly on the children and what they take away from the experience while they are on-board.

“I think

Spirit of Bermuda is a great ship and just in the short time that I’ve been here I’ve really seen what a tremendous impact that the ship has on the children here.”

She added: “Obviously with my Master’s Degree I’m interested in broader social issues.

“But I think that particularly

Spirit of Bermuda really meets all my interests across the board both for sailing and for broader social impacts like with the Haiti voyage: bringing children down and getting them out of their normal comfortable environment and exposing them to different lifestyles and getting them outside of their comfort zones — which is what the ship does itself. But they are kind of moving beyond that and creating connections with other communities and cultures .

“That’s something I’m really interested in doing and have been interested in doing for a long time which is part of what drew me here. I think it’s a really great programme that’s run here and I’m really enjoying myself driving the boat.”

American Karen McDonald is the first female captain of the Spirit of Bermuda (Photo by Mark Tatem)

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Published January 31, 2013 at 8:00 am (Updated January 30, 2013 at 10:17 pm)

Massachusetts native becomes Spirit’s first woman captain

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