This story originally appeard on Sept 11, 2005 in the Portland Press Herald.
Six miles off Portland Head Light, Susan Clark prepares to scale a wood-and-rope ladder, up the red-hued hull of the Elbrus, a 46,000-ton tanker carrying fuel to the ExxonMobil terminal in South Portland.
Over the next hour, she will direct the 600-foot-long ship through the channels of Casco Bay, past Cushing Island and Spring Point, to the entrance to Portland Harbor. A tug operation will take it from there.
A Maine Maritime Academy graduate, Clark has piloted larger boats. Some tankers stretch nearly 1,000 feet, weigh 160,000 tons and, with their bellies full, pass three feet from the ocean floor.
So it makes sense that Clark had to draw the entire harbor from memory, noting its varying depths and many buoys, during a two-day test for her federal pilot’s license.
She is well aware of her responsibility, no matter how big the boat.
“You have to have a healthy respect for this, ” Clark says, her expression suddenly serious as she steps off the deck of the pilot’s boat and grabs the ladder of the Elbrus.
This blond, wiry woman pilots some of the biggest vessels in the bay, and she’s the latest to take up the torch of ship captains who have called Portland Harbor home for more than two centuries.
Clark, 40, is the harbor’s first woman pilot, and the first woman to join the Portland Marine Society, a group founded by ship captains in 1796 for “the promotion of the knowledge of navigation and seamanship” and “the relief of decayed and disabled seamen and the widows and orphans of deceased seamen.”
Clark joined the society not to be the first or to prove a point, but because she loves her job and the centuries of tradition behind it.
“The pride in joining the society was how willingly they accepted me, ” Clark says. “I know they didn’t let me in because I’m a woman. They let me in because I’m qualified.”
Clark was inducted in May, at a monthly meeting at the society’s home in the Portland Harbor Museum at Spring Point, on the campus of Southern Maine Community College. The evening featured the usual vat of homemade haddock chowder, pilot crackers and bread-and-butter pickles.
Society members voted on Clark’s petition as they would have 209 years ago. They passed around a small, wooden box containing white and black balls. One black ball would have ended her bid. Several members had campaigned for her, including her fellow pilots. In the end, there were no black balls.
“Everybody thought it was terrific that she wanted to join, ” says David Fenderson, 71, society president and fellow Maine Maritime Academy graduate. Fenderson, who lives in Cumberland, served in the Navy for four years and was a district manager for Texaco for 15 years before starting an oil distribution company.
The society’s early membership list includes prominent Portland residents such as Eliot Deering, John McLellan and Lemuel Moody. The group provided a much-needed forum where ship captains traded charts and tips on how to navigate foreign ports. And long before life insurance and retirement funds became the norm, it kept many old seamen and their families from living in poverty.
Today, modern navigational equipment and lucrative pensions have made the society nearly obsolete. Still, it has 135 members, 50 of them active. They come together each month to hear the latest stories from members who still make a living at sea, and hear tales from others of how it used to be.
“People come for the tradition of it and to be able to sit down with people they may have sailed with, ” Fenderson says.
The society also invests time and money preserving Portland’s maritime heritage, including documents and artifacts on display at the museum. And instead of helping old seamen, the society gives four to six $1,000 scholarships to Maine Maritime Academy students each year.
“Decayed seamen today are making $250,000 a year, ” Fenderson says. “So we coordinate with Maine Maritime Academy to provide scholarships to students who need a little help.”
All of which is quite endearing to Susan Clark.
FINDING HER CALLING
She grew up in Norridgewock, where her parents operated a plumbing and heating company. She decided to attend the maritime academy because she was good at math and science and she thought it would provide travel opportunities. Indeed, her early career as a ship’s officer took her around the world, including trips through the Panama and Suez canals.
Clark worked for Exxon for several years, then went to law school. She practiced a few years at Verrill & Dana in Portland before realizing that sitting behind a desk wasn’t for her. She returned to Exxon, going to sea for two-month stints, and started training to be a harbor pilot in 1997.
Clark received her pilot’s license in 2001. She admits that being a woman in a mostly male field has its challenges. She recalls the Croatian captain who was surprised to see her climb aboard his ship a few months back.
“You get paid as much as the men?” he asked.
“Yes, ” she answered.
“Only in America!” he said, raising his arms in disbelief. “Only in America!”
This fall, in fact, Clark is positioned to become an owner of Portland Pilots Inc., when one of the other pilots retires.
Today, Clark works 10-day stretches, guiding ships into Portland Harbor at the whim of the tides and the weather. Some days she’s at the helm at 3 a.m., then again at noon. When she’s at work, her husband, Glenn, a geologist with regular hours, and a baby sitter take care of her sons, ages 2 and 4. Then she’s off for 15 days (five of them on call), when her focus shifts to her home in Cape Elizabeth.
Whenever she can, Clark attends society meetings, which are held on the third Tuesday of each month. She enjoys taking part in something that celebrates Portland’s seafaring heritage and its future, which may include others like her. She looks forward to the day when she has enough standing in the group to make the chowder, using the society’s century-old recipe.
“That’s a privilege, ” Clark says. “I don’t know if my hair is white enough for me to make the chowder.”
Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: