Trailblazer of the Great Lakes

March 2019

Captain Sarah Lewis is no push over. After all, the responsibilities of a ‘tugboat’ captain are numerous to say the least and an error in judgment has the potential of being catastrophic. For Lewis, the hazards and dangers of operating a tugboat, is a constant reminder, that the health and safety of her crew are fundamental to her profession. Entrusted to her, is ensuring the safe docking and undocking of massive ships that frequent the Port of Thunder Bay. The diminutive and cherubic looking mariner is all business and her appearance belies the importance of her position in a male dominated industry. Sarah Lewis is a trailblazer – a young lady who has followed a road less travelled. This is her story.

With a constant eye on innovation and the competitive edge required to operate a successful tugboat business, Capt. Gerry Dawson, Co-owner and President of Thunder Bay Tug Services Limited, decided to take a chance and hire Lewis. That was five years ago, and he is not disappointed by the gamble by any stretch of the imagination. “Sarah sent us a resume in the winter of 2014 and kept calling and emailing the office…my wife Sharon, asked her to come in for an interview and we decided that Sarah would be a good addition to our company” Dawson said.

“During the interview, Sarah was very enthusiastic and genuinely interested. She had obviously done some research on our company, so we decided to give her the opportunity to see if she liked ‘tugboating’ and the hours associated with the work” said Dawson. Lewis’s resume spoke volumes. She worked a couple of seasons with Algoma Marine as a mate which convinced the Dawsons that she was determined to stay in the industry. “In order to excel and be a cadet in this business, she would have to be tough skinned and put up with demanding superiors on board ships…she obviously proved herself” added Dawson.

In a demanding industry, where long hours, a disruptive family life and bad weather often takes its toll, the life of a tugboat crew is an extraordinary mix of excitement and sheer boredom. In peak shipping cycles, usually beginning in late March and ending in mid January, it is common that crews virtually live on their tugboats. To their credit, Capt. Sarah Lewis and her crew have remarkably grown accustomed to the hardships of this line of work.

“There aren’t very many women who hold officers positions on the Great Lakes and as far as I know I’m the first female tugboat captain here in Thunder Bay.

My advice to young women entering the marine industry is to get as much experience as you can in as many different fields as you can. If you’re interested in something besides the laker trade there are lots of opportunities for ship handling, search and rescue, scientific research or tug boats and find some place that you really excel. Learn as much as you can any project no matter how big or small is worth the experience.

What I love most about being a tugboat captain, aside from having the most beautiful view of any office anywhere, is just the feeling that with the right move in the right position with the right amount of power you can do amazing things with a small tugboat. You literally feel like you’re moving the ship with your own hands” said Sarah.

With the ardor, dedication and enthusiasm Capt. Sarah Lewis has exhibited, it is safe to say that the maritime industry is certainly better off and in good hands with the women who will follow in her footsteps. A trailblazer indeed.

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