Charting the Course

JEDSALLKirby’s Edsall trains future merchant marine sailors

By Rod Evans

From the moment the call of the sea first began whispering in her ears as a child growing up in northern California, Julie Edsall knew where she was headed: to the ocean.

Edsall, the training manager for Kirby Inland Marine, the Channelview-based company that operates the nation’s largest fleet of inland tank barges and tow vessels, didn’t know exactly how to make it happen, but she was certain a career in the merchant marine industry was the goal she needed to work toward.

“I thought it sounded exciting,” Edsall, 29, said. “I’d heard you could make a lot of money and work a certain amount of days and have a certain amount of days off. I always loved traveling, so I figured I would have time and money to travel around the world.”

While in high school, Edsall began focusing her energies on attending the prestigious U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kingspoint, New York, where she would graduate with a bachelor’s degree in logistics in 2006. Courses in subjects like navigation, cargo handling and naval architecture formed the foundation of her education at the academy, but it was the time spent on the water that cemented in her mind her desire to pursue a position aboard ship.

“Students at the academy spent at least one year at sea. I served on a ship that went to Alaska, Japan, Korea and China. It was a fantastic experience,” she said.

Armed with her degree, which earned her an unlimited Coast Guard third mate’s license, Edsall headed to Houston where she accepted a position with Kirby as a steersman pilot in training. After spending nine to 10 months in the position, which gave her the opportunity to gain experience on various waterways, she became a push boat pilot.

“They basically said, ‘here ya go. Drive the boat and try not to hit anything,” she chuckles.

Serving as a pilot on the Big Al, a 1,000 hp push boat, Edsall got her first taste of professional merchant marine life guiding the boat as it pushed barges through the intracoastal waterway from the Houston Ship Channel to Corpus Christi to Florida and all points in between. She worked a schedule that called for her to work 12-hour days for 20 days and be off duty for 10 days.

She was soon promoted to relief captain and assumed the title of acting captain after the captain she served under was forced from the position due to a family illness. She served as acting captain for about a year before she was elevated to the captain’s position.

“As a pilot, you learn how to navigate and make the best choices to stay out of trouble. As a captain, driving the boat is the easiest thing you do. Most of your time is spent doing things like making sure your budget is right and taking care of crew changes and making sure you have the right people in the right places and that everybody knows where they’re supposed to be,” Edsall said.

At the time of her promotion to captain, Edsall says Kirby employed five or six female captains, but despite working in a male-dominated industry, she did not encounter much trouble winning acceptance from her crew members and fellow captains.

“I expected I would have some problems, but I never encountered any trouble with anyone working for Kirby,” she said. “I always had great support from the men on my boat, but if somebody from another company said something stupid, you had to remind them how stupid they sounded.”

But even while she enjoyed being at sea, Edsall began to long for a more stable home life in which she didn’t have to spend long stretches away from home, so she expressed an interest in working at a shore side position in Houston, which led to her being named port captain in 2011.

“The position basically included all the work and none of the fun of working on a boat,” she laughs. “I had to do paperwork on 10 boats, but I didn’t get to drive any of them. I did get to drive home every night and my plants didn’t die and wither away.”

Edsall managed a fleet of 10 boats that at any given time could be working at dozens of sites around the gulf coast. A typical day for her began by checking to see if any incidents involving the fleet occurred the night before and getting updates on where the boats were operating and what they were doing. Much of her time was spent reviewing safety regulations, including ensuring that all crew members were using the appropriate personal protection equipment and that they were trained in the proper use of the potentially life saving devices.

She also led the effort to develop a navigation guide for Kirby’s boat captains that serves as a “cheat sheet” of sorts with information on tricky-to-navigate areas in the gulf or sites where incidents or near misses have occurred.

“The fact that there were so many different things going on with so many boats scattered around the gulf coast was one of the main challenges of the job. If anybody had a gripe, I had to work to fix it, and in the event of an incident, we had to investigate to see what went wrong,” she said.

In January of this year, Edsall was promoted to manager of the Kirby Training Center, where she manages all of the classroom training for Kirby’s inland and offshore divisions. The training center is dedicated to training new hires before they go out to sea. Anyone hired without previous maritime experience is afforded the opportunity to get hands-on experience aboard a boat and then given extensive classroom training.

“Most wheelmen are brought up organically through the ranks,” Edsall says. “People can start working at Kirby at age 18 and within a few years achieve tankerman status. After that they can get a recommendation to go into the steersman training program and after a couple of years earn their pilot’s license.”

Edsall points out that attending a maritime academy as she did isn’t the only path to a good paying career—pilot salaries average in the six figure range, while captains can make in excess of $150,000 per year—in the merchant marine industry.

“It’s important for young people to know that they can get into the industry as long as they have a high school diploma or GED. Within a few years they can be making decent money; more money than many people make right out of college. They should realize that if college is not for them they don’t have to be stuck in a job where they have to worry about money forever,” she said.

Edsall says she would be pleased to see more women join the field and adds that there are currently two women enrolled in Kirby’s deck hand class who have an eye toward serving aboard ship in the near future.

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