Tampa harbor pilot is one of few women in the industry

TAMPA

The bigger the boat the better for Capt. Carolyn Kurtz.

Not simply because the Port of Tampa harbor pilot thrives on navigating 100-foot wide ships through a 500-foot wide channel.

But because the woman guiding the gigantic vessels gets seasick on small crafts.

"So, no I don't own a boat," Kurtz said.

She's one of 23 pilots working for the Tampa Bay Pilots Association — and the only woman. She and a female pilot in Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale make two in Florida. Kurtz estimates 30 women do her job nationwide, out of 1,200 harbor pilots.

Two weeks a month, Kurtz works 24-hour shifts moving ships from berth to sea or vice versa. Preventing collisions and groundings requires familiarity with the Tampa Bay coastline, weather and tides, as well as various ships' propulsion systems, rudders, radar, GPS and hull designs.

"It's very empowering," said Kurtz, 47, who holds an Unlimited Tonnage Master's License to captain any size ship. "It's a very dynamic place to drive a ship."

Kurtz graduated New York's noted Stuyvesant High School where she says she excelled at math. ("Navigation is all math," she says.) She earned a congressional appointment to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. The class of 1986 was 10 percent female, which helped prepare her to be the sole woman during months at sea, including in the Persian Gulf in 1987-88 during the Iran-Iraq War.

The Homeland Security Department acknowledged her skill with an appointment to its Navigation Safety Advisory Council, made up of civilian maritime professionals. Kurtz attended her first NAVSAC meeting in April and has reapplied for another two-year stint.

The first trick to piloting an inbound vessel is boarding it. A small pilot boat taxis Kurtz from Fort De Soto where they pull alongside a moving ship.

"Nothing stops," Kurtz said. She grabs a rope ladder hanging from the side and climbs 10 to 30 feet to the deck. It was quite a feat during her pregnancy 11 years ago, she adds.

Last month, Tropical Storm Debby made it too risky for pilots to board in high seas. Several petroleum vessels were kept at anchor offshore until the storm passed the bay area.

Once Kurtz reaches the command center on the bridge, she takes charge. Briefed on the ship's particulars, she issues steering and engine orders regulating the speed for the 43-mile ride from the sea buoy into the port. Kurtz alerts other traffic in the area to the ship's movement.

"A lot happens when two ships pass each other," she said. "Start a turn 10 seconds too late or misjudge the wind and the consequences are that you may not be able to recover."

The next challenge: berthing the ship in a tightly confined area. "Gently, gently," she says, or risk costly damage to the dock or vessel.

High stress is the only constant. It's also the appeal for the self-described nonconformist. A resident of Tampa's Hyde Park neighborhood since 1993, she turns to yoga, biking and jewelrymaking to unwind.

In addition to physical and mental fatigue, there may also be male chauvinism to deal with. It's rare, after 17 years on the job, Kurtz said. "Sometimes I have to raise my voice to a skeptical captain, but I have a very low tolerance for that."

Much more worrisome is a sudden summer squall.

"It can start out sunny and blow up a blinding rain. The wind can make it hard to control a ship and fog makes it really hard to see."

One ship she hasn't forgotten became a crime scene when dead stowaways were found locked in a cargo hold. "I don't know how they evaded the routine search," she said, recalling a "nasty downwind."

The New York native first ventured to sea at age 4 on a freighter with her mother, Sara Kurtz, and sister Debbie, arranged by her father, a Navy veteran and ship broker. The longest voyage took them to Glasgow to see her maternal grandparents.

"Other than the engine room, we had the run of the ship," she said.

A single parent, Kurtz has taken her son Jack, 11, to work with her a few times.

Perhaps he inherited her love of the sea?

Not really. "He's a Tampa Bay Rays fan," she said.

He wants to play rightfield."

About this series

Our community revolves around a diversity of jobs, some more unusual than others. Throughout the summer, we're introducing readers to a variety of creative, hardworking people who have made interesting, some might say quirky, career choices. Suggestions welcome; email ascherzer@tampabay.com or call (813) 226-3332.

Tampa harbor pilot is one of few women in the industry 07/12/12 [Last modified: Thursday, July 12, 2012 4:30am]

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