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‘Classic daddy’s girl’ now commands men twice her age through waters calm and rough

Plying the Puget Sound aboard the schooner Adventuress

Come aboard the schooner Adventuress, where captain Rachael Slattery sets a course for Tacoma Festival of Sail as the crew works the rigging while singing sea shanties.
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Come aboard the schooner Adventuress, where captain Rachael Slattery sets a course for Tacoma Festival of Sail as the crew works the rigging while singing sea shanties.

Captain Rachael Slattery cut the Adventuress’ engine Wednesday and immediately sent the two-masted schooner back in time.

The tall ship was now sailing only by wind, the dark green waters of Puget Sound slapping against her hull.

Never mind the gigantic auto carrier passing to port on a beeline to Tacoma. Or the luxury yacht cruising to starboard.

Wind snapped the sails above as a crew member sang a sea ballad.

The Adventuress is one of the ships gathering in Tacoma on Thursday for the Festival of Sail.

The event is expected to bring tens of thousands to view some 15 tall ships and a variety of other boats through Sunday. The festival began at 1 p.m. Thursday with a Parade of Sail.

CAPTAIN SLATTERY

“The ocean is the most powerful entity I’ve ever experienced,” Slattery said Wednesday. “It humbles me.”

When the 133-foot long Adventuress was built in 1913, it’s unlikely it had a female captain.

Over a century later, female captains now work across most of the maritime industry, Slattery said.

“It’s still definitely a male-dominated industry,” she said. “But in the 13 years that I’ve been doing it, it’s becoming more common, which is great.”

Slattery, 30, grew up in Jamestown, Rhode Island.

“I was the classic daddy’s girl and spent a lot of time with him on his fishing boat,” she said.

She went into the maritime industry immediately after high school and worked on cruise ships, yachts and finally tall ships.

Girls who come on board the Adventuress as part of the ship’s educational programs think a female captain is how it’s always been.

“It’s their norm — seeing me as captain,” Slattery said. “I might be the first sea captain they’ve come across. So why would I not be a woman?”

It’s older women who are usually amazed, she said.

Slattery commands a crew of up to 15. Some are men twice her age.

“It’s all about respect, respecting where your crew comes from,” she said. “They have things to teach and learn.”

As does Slattery.

“Even though I’m the commanding officer I have things to learn from them,” she said.

One of the keys to good leadership is being true to yourself and finding your own way, she said.

“I’m never going to be a gray-bearded 60-year-old man yelling while smoking a pipe,” she said, describing the Hollywood stereotype of the sea captain.

“To be an authentic leader you have to find authenticity.”

SHIPBOARD LIFE

The Adventuress has electricity, flush toilets and a good stash of Oreo cookies.

But squint a little and it’s not hard to go back 104 years.

Especially when the crew is raising the 5,478 square feet of sails it carries.

“Hands to set the mains’l,” the first mate shouted Wednesday afternoon.

“Are you ready on the throat halyard?” he shouted again.

Both times the crew shouted back a response.

“On the throat haul away.”

Using nothing but muscle, the crew raised the sails nearly 100 feet into the air.

Slattery stood behind and just to the side of the wheel as she steered the ship south to Tacoma from Seattle’s Shilshole Bay Marina. There is no wheelhouse.

Good weather or foul, day and night, she or another crew member are always at the helm when the ship is underway.

Over the years, she’s come to see the sea as giving and sharing, she said. She tells stories about schools of dolphins glowing in bioluminescent plankton and whales following the ship’s wake.

But she also knows the sea does not suffer fools.

“If you don’t respect the ocean you won’t last long in the maritime world.”

The Adventuress is used by the nonprofit Sound Experience to teach good stewardship of the ocean. It’s not a dock queen.

“We’re out there sailing seven days a week,” Slattery said. “We push her respectfully hard.”

Slattery likes tall ship festivals for the camaraderie and chance to see other boats. She likes them for another reason as well.

“It’s the closest you can come to imagining what it was like to be on the water in the age of sail,” she said while looking at ferries, motor boats, barges and freighters ply Puget Sound.

“That all used to be done by tall ships, by sailing vessels,” she said.

Those days are gone.

But not yet on the Adventuress.

“She has my heart,” Slattery said, one hand firmly gripping the wheel.

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541, @crsailor

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