I met Meredith online through Facebook. She was posting these thoughtful and informative tips about boat engines on her business page and in sailing groups. I thought, ‘who is this badass woman mechanic?!?’ I instantly friended her and we’ve had a lot of awesome exchanges since then. She is super thoughtful, friendly and knows her shit. I knew I had to hear her story, and after learning more about her, I am stunned by her grit. As you read through her very impressive list of experience, training and skills, please keep in mind that Meredith is still under 30. She’s obviously smart, passionate and a damn hard worker. She’s also honest and generous, two qualities I have found difficult to find in mechanics of any kind. She recently started her own business, Meredith’s Marine Services, in Olympia and is serving folks all over the Puget Sound. I cannot recommend her enough.
The first curiosities I had were what got her into the marine trades and why does she love engines so much? She quickly said with amusement, “When I was 4 years old a close family friend handed me a carburetor. I loved taking things apart and putting them back together. I went to daycare and they gave me a telephone and VCR to take apart. When my parents came to pick me up, I threw a fit because I didn’t want to stop.”
This encouragement from family and friends all led to Meredith getting her first under the table gig working at an auto clinic at 13. At 14 she joined the Tacoma Sea Scouts. Through that group, she was able to tour with the Charles and Curtis ship. Meredith reminisced, “I went down to the engine room and was obsessed, it was the coolest thing ever. The full-sized manned engine room was all telegraph operated; you have to have lots of engineers. The kids ran the Curtis at the time and were protective of it. You had to work your way down to the engine room and I did. Because they were a charter, I got involved with the commercial side of the marine industry. Both boats we sailed for Tacoma Sea Scouts were inspected coast guard vessels. That was a good way to get my foot in the door because we were so involved with the port. At one point, someone said, ‘what do you want to do when you grow up? Are you going to be a marine engineer?’ I thought, ‘there is a way to do this as a grown up?’ I got nominated for Navy and Merchant Marine Academy and got in, but I have Type 1 diabetes, so they wouldn’t take me.”
Eventually she got into the officer candidate program at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, or MARGRAD. It is a US Coast Guard (USCG) program attached to the Maritime Academy, similar to ROTC for the Army. It was there she did boot camp. She explained how they were divided into groups and companies and that were a lot less women than men. In her company the ratio was 60:3. She spoke candidly about her experience, “You watch videos and you have a vision of military life. It was nothing like that. The least of my worries was physical. It was mentally challenging. My parents dropped me off, we had 5 min to say goodbye. We could hear the yelling already. My mom was worried. The first several weeks they yell. They want to tear you down so they can build you up in their own way. You had to speak in third person, ‘Sir this cadet candidate would like this sir.’ Then you graduate and go to school. You had to earn cadet. Within the first 6 months you are running a class, and you have to be precise.”
She shipped out with the USCG to finish sea time for her licenses and ended with a 3rd Assistant Engineers license, and a 100-ton Masters with a sailing and towing endorsement. Sadly, finances got in the way before she was able to complete her Mechanical Engineering Degree. MARGRAD was 40K a year and she took on a lot of loans. She received the training though and went back to the Charles and Curtis as an adult to work with that program for a while. Meredith has volunteered for the Coast Guard Academy sailing on the Eagle, an America’s tall ship. She has been on the 554ft long Kennedy with six decks to the engine room and the Virginia V, run by steam. She sailed on the charter Odyssey, and she was Captain for the Lady Washington this past year. It’s clear when you speak with her that she is real, salty as hell, and she LOVES boats.
Some people are truly a Jill of all trades, and I think Meredith is one of those people. After working for the Charles and Curtis, she went to Central Community College to become a paramedic. She said, “I went through EMT school and I was determined to get into the industry. I became a volunteer firefighter. Then I went to paramedic school. I worked for several private ambulances through Snohomish, King and Pierce counties. I was also a part time firefighter for North Whidbey part time. I was driving all over. My mom was like, ‘You are crazy but if this is what you want, cool.’ Sadly, my friends managing McDonalds made more money than I did. Then AMR bought rural metro, and everyone got laid everyone off. I thought, ‘I’m done with this bullshit.’”
From there she went to a truck shop to work on diesel engines. “I’m glad I did that because being a mechanic vs marine engineer is a big difference. Cars and trucks are so much more advanced than boats. A Volvo truck has 17 computers on it, you go in with laptop and program the injectors. That opened my eyes to turning wrenches, working under a time crunch. I wanted to go back to boats, but I stuck with trucks for a while. Three years later, I saw a Craigslist ad for a yard hiring in Anacortes looking for a diesel mechanic. I was working for Cummins at the time, but decided it was time for a change.”
I had to ask her what it was like training and working in such male dominated industries. “It’s always men. I’ve only had two women I’ve ever worked with. Most places don’t have trained mechanics, just back yard mechanics. Both with truck shops and boat yards I had a lot of respect because I was their only fully trained diesel mechanic. The biggest rule in the industry is either you keep up or you don’t. With men, if they give you a hard time it’s because they like you. I’m not afraid to hear a lot of things except for dissing on other women or being unprofessional to customers. Honestly, a lot of guys were really protective of me. Some truckers would come in and say, ‘that’s super sexy, you working on my truck.’ The men I worked with would tell them to cut it out and let me do my job. Truck drivers would doubt me, but the guys in the shop would clear it up and say I’m qualified. A lot of people have curiosity around how I learned, they assume it was from my Dad. I did not learn mechanics from my Dad, he knows enough to be dangerous, and that’s about it. A lot of women in auto shops have a harder time. I think I didn’t because I am an engineer. They think, ‘she’s serious about this and put energy into it.’ That’s not about sex necessarily, that respect is just about effort and work ethic. I met the right people when I was younger, and they guided me into the industry.”
I felt like this hit on so many points I have tried to explore in my blog series An Enlightened Man’s Guide to Sailing with Women. Meredith certainly has gotten her fair share of assumptions and sexist comments, and through her own hard work, her results have earned her respect. However, the men in her life stuck up for her in situations where she was trying to do her job. To combat sexism in male dominated industries we first need more opportunities and encouragement for women to step up into roles where they can show how badass they are. We also need a cultural shift where men stand up to other men for sexist behaviors instead of women fighting their way through or taking it. That takes the pressure and heat off women, so they are not seen as either a target or a bitch. This makes room for the work to get done. With that said, there is also a standard where women tend to have to work harder to earn the same respect as their male counterparts have. I think that will change with greater numbers of women going into the trades and male dominated fields, but until then, we do need to acknowledge that dynamic and to be aware of how we might feed into it. Look out for the women on your crews and make sure they are taking breaks and not over working. Also, pay them the same as the men. It is a well-known fact that women make 80% of what men do in general, stop that shit! If men shared their salaries and helped advocate in workplaces for women to get equal compensation that would be a huge shift.
It was during the time that Meredith worked with Cummins and then in Anacortes that she started having Grand Mal Seizures. Between that and her Type 1 Diabetes, she had to take quite a bit of time off work to care for her health. She moved from one boat yard to Marine Service Center in Anacortes. Between student loans, health care costs and lost workdays Meredith was living out of her car. She started saving money to buy a boat to liveaboard.
“I am always afraid I will lose a job because of my health. I was working on boats on the side, I was learning a lot and I liked it. I had no intention of starting my own business yet. I was living in my car; the police would wake me up to make me move. I did this for a while but was really tired of living in the car. I found a Catalina 27 in Seattle for sale by Sarah Scott. A friend went with me and we found it to be a sound boat, and I bought it. I called Swantown in Olympia, they had openings for a liveaboard, and I got the boat down there a week later. I love living on a boat. It’s everything I thought it would be. I was worried I would not like it, but it’s great! So, after settling aboard I finally started my own business this year. I am so busy, I have so many customers. I have also been teaching marine diesel classes for 3 years. I renewed my 100-ton masters with Flagship Marine, and they hosted me first. Now the Olympic yacht club and others have hosted me. It’s super fun to teach. A lot of students take the class then want me to go through their own engine with them. I draw out packets for class so people can use them and color them in. I don’t know how to self-publish or I would do that. With my teaching, I put stickers on engine parts. I try to make it visual and experiential.”
I found myself mesmerized by Meredith’s knowledge and generosity in wanting to share what she knows. I want her damn engine coloring book!! I also found myself heart broken at parts of her story. Living with chronic illness myself, I know it’s a hard road. The illnesses that she lives with are manageable, but very serious. They take time, care and money to maintenance. It’s clear that part of her story is living in a broken system. She has tried to do everything right; she has worked damn hard and achieved so much. Through no fault of her own, our culture has let her down. I hear stories like this all the time, people making great sacrifices in their lives to afford housing, health care, and education. Luckily, Meredith has a loving family and a shit ton of resiliency and resourcefulness to see her through. I am also self-employed for the flexibility it gives me with my schedule to care for my body. However, health care is more expensive, and no one pays my sick leave. I wish it were easier for all of us out there trying to make it work. Vote wisely my US friends, we need systemic change desperately.
Meredith talking about teaching classes led to me to ask, is there is a difference with women and men? “Yes, I think so. Most men are genuinely curious and want to learn. But there is always one that comes in and knows everything and starts trying to teach the class, especially the ladies. I have to tell them not to, so they don’t teach them the wrong things and bad habits. The other students, women or men, don’t know any better and start listening to these guys. So, there is always some guy that wants to take over and I have to remind him and the class that I am the teacher. I never get that from women. Some women are hesitant to get hands on with tools. In advance classes we tear down things. Some women will jump right in, some sit back and need more encouragement. They don’t want to be embarrassed in front of a bunch of guys. I remind everyone that it’s a classroom it’s okay not to know, you are expected not to know. Then they get so excited to work on it, women are often very enthusiastic. For anyone, the biggest thing is to not be afraid to jump in in the first place. Women, especially women who are married, need to know about engines and boats. If your husband falls overboard you need to know how to get the boat back to dock. I have noticed an age thing as well as gender. Mostly with older people, husbands tend to hold their wives back. The man always does the technical stuff. Some men want that to be the case so it doesn’t hurt their pride, they worry it makes him less of a man if his wife can do it. Wives think it’s easier not to get in his way, they defer to him. Younger women and partners who I have taught are different. Two ladies or a husband and wife tear into it together. They both have hands on it, there are more YouTube videos that are the same. There is a change happening with millennials. They both jump in together; they want to learn together and are totally into it. To me, it’s good seamanship, and a smart idea to both know what things are.”
I could not agree more. Ultimately, I don’t look at boat work as gendered. I look at it as being a good mariner. To be a good mariner you should know enough to trouble shoot all your systems if not work on them yourself outright. There should always be redundancy, even in training, for safety. There is no reason that Eric shouldn’t take on galley duties or me change the oil or vice versa. Luckily, even though Eric is an old fart now, he’s very progressive and loves it when I do mechanical stuff. He’s learning to cook, that sadly might take longer than my engine learning curve.
The last question I asked Meredith was what should people look out for when choosing a marine mechanic? “Find a mechanic who teaches. Most mechanics get people off the boat to work on it. I am a people person, I have seen a lot of people get taken advantage of, I want to teach people how to ask the right questions and to do some of the work on their own. A lot of people the first time they do something they want to hire me to be there. Most of the time they just don’t know the order of things. I explain, ‘if it’s in your way take it off.’ When we are done, they can do it themselves. Most boat yards don’t have trained engineers or mechanics. They tend to want to repower, or throw a lot of parts at a problem. You need someone who can do a proper diagnostic. When you look for someone ask for and check their credentials, a lot of people out there are fake mechanics.”
It seems similar to home contracting, boat work can be tricky to find good help. I hear horror stories all the time of work being done then needing to be redone. Reputation is an important factor, but training and certifications are as well. Even if going to a boat yard, know who is doing the work and what their background is. Personally, if Eric and I can’t figure it out I know who I’m going to call. Meredith’s Marine Services, she can do phone consults from just about anywhere, she does house calls for a very reasonable hourly rate plus travel and accommodations. Get on her waitlist folks, spring is coming!
May we all sail in peace.