By Isabella Klar
Before she began working on boats, Wendy Umla worked for a big corporation where women can go as high as they desire. She was an executive, traveling for her company, staying in luxury hotels.
When she moved to yachting as a deck/stew, she felt humbled cleaning people’s rooms. But she worked her way to the top, becoming a yacht captain. Capt. Umla said she still tries to be accepted as a female captain today.
“You’re one of a few in the room,” said Capt. Umla, who has been in yachting about 15 years. “You are the one standing out, no matter what you do.”
Being one of only a few women captains, it is difficult to find jobs, she said.
“Traditionally, this role has always been filled by males,” Capt. Umla said. “It’s hard to open owners up to the possibility of hiring a female captain. It’s a new concept.”
Women in yachting are still proving that they can be in the wheelhouse. Even now, she still hears comments over the radio like “Is this a lady?”
Capt. Umla was born in New York. By that summer, the January baby was already in the water. Before yachting was in her life, she was the international development manager for the country’s third-largest vitamin and supplement company.
At about the same time, she quit her job and split up with her fiance, leaving her wondering what to do next. Then a friend invited her to “decompress” with him in Ft. Lauderdale on the yacht he worked on. That was the first time she knew that the boating industry would be in her future.
It wasn’t long before she had relaxed and noticed the industry around her. A second visit a few months later confirmed it.
“People don’t know yachting exists,” Capt. Umla said. “People can be around boats, but it doesn’t occur to you that it’s a profession and people do it for a living.”
So she met some crew placement agents and landed her first job, deck/stew on the 118-foot Delta M/Y Rainbow. She did that job for two and a half months, and knew interior was not for her.
“I didn’t know if I was going to stay or how resilient I was going to be,” she said. “It was really hard. As a female 10-15 years ago, you got the worst jobs, the jobs nobody else wanted. But I took them, and I took every chance I could to increase my license, get sea time, and I pushed.”
She’s earned her U.S. Coast Guard 3,000-ton master’s license, with equivalencies from the Cayman Islands, Marshall Islands and the Virgin Islands. Eventually, she was able to pick and choose her jobs, and is now looking for the perfect owner.
“It’s a lot of work,” she said of being a yacht captain. “We sacrifice a lot in our personal lives for yachting. It’s a choice we make but it’s important to have a good owner to work for who respects that.”
Her advice to young crew is to take an active role in landing jobs.
“You get out and walk the dock, socialize, talk to people, tell them you’re looking for a job,” she said. “Captains expect it; we rely on it.”
Captains and first officers often review the week’s work on Friday afternoon and realize they will need dayworkers for the following week. That’s the best time to look for work.
“Everybody walks the dock Monday morning,” she said. “You want to be the one doing something different.”
Isabella Klar was a student intern with The Triton this spring. Comments on this story are welcome below.