Thirteen is a lucky number for Capt. Kelly Gordon since it’s how many years she’s been a yacht captain. Before that, she was a chemistry professor at a local junior college.
As evidenced from her career path, yachting was not her dream job initially, particularly since she grew up in central Indiana and had always wanted to be a veterinarian (which is why she earned a chemistry degree).
“I need to use my voice to encourage other women to chase their dreams, whether it be a captain or whether it be some other industry completely.”
As she was finishing her graduate degree in Wilmington, North Carolina, Gordon got hired as a chemistry professor. During that time, she went to a party on an 80-foot Sanlorenzo. Once there, she looked at the captain and said, “I can do this.” At the time, she didn’t even know the difference between starboard and port. “[The captain said], ‘Well, if you think you can do this, come back tomorrow and see me.’” Gordon did so, and he took her under his wing and taught her everything he knew. They worked together on that boat for eight years.
At the end of her time there, Capt. Gordon decided that while longevity in the industry is important, “you’re only learning one style and one way of doing things by staying on one boat for so long. So we decided it was time for me to spread my wings,” she says, adding that her former colleague also wanted to get out of the charter industry so he could get his boat back to himself.
For the next several years after the captain retired, Gordon freelanced on more boats, moving up in size and also in licenses. Having already earned her 500-ton license, she is currently working her way up to the 3,000-ton.
In a full-circle moment, she took charge of a 106-foot Sanlorenzo on June 19 for five days. “I took command and was on for just a few days. And then they were like, ‘Oh hey, we have a charter,’” she laughs. “And it went really, really well. They thought that we had all been working on the boat together for a really long time. And I was like, well, then I’ve done my job right if it looks like this was all so seamless, you know?” she says.
Prior to this, Gordon was able to balance teaching and being a captain for six years since she had summers off, took sabbaticals, and had the flexibility to put her courses fully online. “And it worked, and I was kind of allowed to double dip and do both for a while. But it got really busy eventually.”
Once there, she looked at the captain and said, “I can do this.” At the time, she didn’t even know the difference between starboard and port.
Despite leaving her position as a professor, she still loves to teach and inspire crew, especially aspiring and green female crewmembers. “I realized the challenges that I have encountered to get to where I am,” Gordon says, adding that she’s hugely passionate about using her platform to inspire other young women that are interested in becoming a part of the deck department and going as far in the deck department as they want.
“It’s so easy for them to become a part of the interior because it seems like they put the girls on the inside and the guys on the outside. But I know [there] are so many women that would love to do what I’m doing, but they’re afraid of it, or they have something else that they would want to do. And maybe not even becoming a captain, but maybe some totally different industry that’s male-dominated.”
For the female captain, every job she’s had has been male dominated. “I grew up on a farm. I mean, being a woman in science is male-dominated, being captain is male-dominated. And really, I just felt like I have a moral and an ethical responsibility to help and to share and to encourage as many women to chase their dreams,” she says, adding that this is probably her proudest achievement: excelling as a captain in this industry and getting as far as she has as a woman. “And while there have been challenges, I have to say, the men in this industry have been my biggest cheerleaders. There have been some buttheads along the way, but I ignore them. But I have to say, it’s the guys in this industry that have kept me going and kept me chasing.”
"It’s so easy for them to become a part of the interior because it seems like they put the girls on the inside and the guys on the outside."
She recalls one of her biggest lightbulb moments: “[I] didn’t really realize the impact that I had until I was on one particular delivery, running up the Mississippi River in the middle of America. And a girl said to me, I want to do what you’re doing, but there’s no way. I just live on a river. And I said, well, I grew up in the middle of a cornfield. So if I can do it, you can do it. And when I had that brief exchange with her, and I saw how excited and giddy that she got running down the dock when she heard there’s a female coming into the marina, I was like, you know what? I have a voice. I love to talk. I love to share. I love to teach,” she says. “I need to use my voice to encourage other women to chase their dreams, whether it be a captain or whether it be some other industry completely.”
This column is taken from the August 2021 issue of Dockwalk.