By Lucy Chabot Reed
Capt. Kelly Gordon and her crew aboard the 75-Sunseeker M/Y Corporate Retreat had just come the long way around from Florida to Chicago. Thanks to COVID-19, closed borders and closed locks, the traditional run to the Great Lakes for a boat that size instead took two weeks around the tip of Florida, through the Gulf of Mexico and up the inland river system of America’s heartland.
The trip was full of emotions: the highs of a good crew that clicked, the pride of compliments and smiling faces at every port, the tension of navigating alongside enormous river barges, the stress of dodging floating debris in the swift spring current.
Capt. Gordon, First Mate Gianna Mesi and delivery crew Shane Hughes made the trip without incident, and then were asked to immediately do it again.
“We ran the rivers twice this season, once to bring this boat, and again to help a broker deliver his boat,” Capt. Gordon said. “It was pretty amazing.”
Capt. Gordon and Mesi are in the second year with the owner of M/Y Corporate Retreat. This vessel was delivered to South Florida in January and needed to get to its cruising grounds for the start of the season, COVID or not.
“With COVID, can you believe they deemed the Erie Canal and its workers non-essential?” Capt. Gordon said. Necessary work on eight locks was halted when the pandemic hit. Usually open in mid-Spring, the locks weren’t expected to open until July 4, and even that was questionable. The St. Lawrence route was out when Canada closed its borders, so the only way to salvage the summer cruising season was down, around and up.
“I’ve spent all my time on the East Coast, New England and Florida, and the Bahamas and Cuba, when that was still allowed,” said Capt. Gordon, who has earned her USCG 500-ton ticket working on yachts up to 132 feet for the past 10 years as a mate, engineer and captain. “My first fresh water was last summer up here in the Great Lakes.”
First Mate Mesi has spent her whole life in the Great Lakes. When she was about 12, she helped her dad take delivery of his new 60-foot Sunseeker in New Jersey and they drove it to Detroit. Her yacht captain brother helped her land her first yachting job about four years ago, which ended up being a perfect beginning.
“That first boat was a great experience,” Mesi said. “I had never done anything so official before.” The yacht had a chef and ran trips with 20 guests who were served seven-course meals. “I definitely learned how to do things right, right off the bat.”
This year’s trips up the rivers with Capt. Gordon have left an impression.
“They were amazing,” she said. “I learned so much in such a short amount of time.”
They waited until mid-May for the spring rains to die down a bit before setting off.
“When you hit the Mississippi, you gotta put your big boy pants on,” Capt. Gordon said. “It’s definitely bucket-list worthy. I did all my research so I knew where I was going and where I was staying, but I didn’t know what to expect in terms of what I’d see.”
Most notable was the amount of commercial traffic, especially tugs and barges. Her best piece of advice for anyone running that route: be polite.
“The big thing is be respectful of commercial traffic,” she said “Don’t do a fly by. Call them on the radio, request a pass, and ask when is a good time and what side. If you are nice to them, they will help you. They’ll tell you there’s a shallow coming up or there’s more water on this side. Then give them a nice, slow pass.”
She noted that though recreational boaters stop at night, much of the commercial traffic doesn’t, “so the next morning, you see them again.” And that will go much better if yesterday’s encounter didn’t leave them with a wet deck.
While she was prepared for the trip operationally, she wasn’t prepared for how often people were surprised to find a woman at the helm.
“On the trip, pulling in, the marina people or people walking the dock would automatically go to him,” she said of Hughes, who joined the vessel for the delivery. “He’d always laugh and say, I’m third in line; those two girls run it. You have to ask them.”
People were always surprised to find two women running the boat.
“For me and her, it’s something we never think about,” Mesi said of working with a female captain. “But no matter where we stopped, someone would always have a comment about it, either surprised and supportive or questioning if we could do it. I always like to prove the doubters wrong.”
In Chicago last summer, they quickly became known as “the girl-run boat.”
“Women are underrepresented in yachting, especially captains,” Capt. Gordon said. “Day to day, it’s just me and my female mate. It’s cool that we get the job done.”
Being a woman in yachting has helped her, but it’s also hindered her, she said. She knows she’s missed out on jobs because she was a woman, but also acknowledges that it likely had less to do with her abilities than it did with the owner’s wife or girlfriend.
This job and her previous one — where she worked with the owners eight years — she said her bosses preferred a woman.
“Both said to me, if you want to get something done, ask a woman,” she said. “But I’ve also not gotten jobs because of it. On one job, when the wife met me, she said no. That had nothing to do with me, I know. But it still happens.”
Her advice to women working their way through yachting on deck: stay determined, don’t doubt your ability and what you know, and find a mentor.
“My mentor is Dan Meggitt,” Capt. Gordon said. “He provided me with such a good foundation to build upon and was/is instrumental in me achieving the success that I have in this industry. Almost every day when handing a boat or making a decision, I think back to all of what I learned through him. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be where I am today. He was always teaching me and pushing me to grow. He was an amazing support and still is.”
She didn’t really intend for M/Y Corporate Retreat to be the girl-run boat.
“When I got to Chicago last summer and needed a mate, I asked around and heard about her, that she was really good,” Capt. Gordon said of Mesi. “It just happened. I never thought anything about it. I’m just doing my job and getting it done for the owner.”
Mesi, too, admits it shouldn’t be so unusual. What she likes best about the arrangement is being able to learn from Capt. Gordon.
“She’s been a huge influence on me,” Mesi said. “She has been doing this a while and has a lot of knowledge. She’s been all over the East Coast and the Bahamas, places I hope to get to someday. And she’s shared a lot of her knowledge with me. … Working with guys, sometimes they kind of, like, put me down for asking questions. With Kelly, she brings herself down to my level to make sure I understand.”
Both women agreed that their first trip up the river system was one of those memorable trips that stays with a mariner. The high point was the trip itself: the tough navigating and newness of the place combined with a drama-free crew made. The low point: when it all ended.
“When we tied up in Chicago and they left, I cried, because I had such an amazing time with them,” Capt. Gordon said. “There were no ego issues, there was no ‘this is my job, that’s your job’. We were all doing the delivery together. Yes, I was the captain, but that never had to be said. We all just worked together and we never had any drama. Going through that for a week, and then we get there and they scram. Yeah, that was the low point.”
“It was very clear that the end was a low point for her,” Mesi said. “She was crying 15 minutes before we got to the dock. But that first trip couldn’t have gone any better. It was a low point, certainly, having it all end. But it was a high point, too. It was so accomplishing.”
And then they turned around and did it all again when Ron Silvia, a broker and vice president of sales at Michigan-based Jefferson Beach Yacht Sales, called. He runs the Chicago office and needed a yacht delivered from New Jersey for a client. He has known Mesi for years and met Capt. Gordon last summer.
“She just has a calm, cool, collected, confident personality about her that’s really special,” he said of Capt. Gordon. “She works well with any client. Gianna is the same way. I love them. They’re outstanding. They can hold [my clients’] hands in a way no other captain and crew can.”
The boss gave them the time to make that second delivery, and this time, they were prepared for the surprised looks as they pulled into ports along the way.
“That’s when we smile and are proud of what we do,” Capt. Gordon said. “I love my job.”
Lucy Chabot Reed is editor and publisher of The Triton. Comments are welcome below.