AMSEA’s marine safety education workshop focused on teaching women the skills they need to boat on their own. (KCAW/Kwong)

In a place where the water is more useful for getting around than the road, marine safety matters. Knowing how to pull a line or balance weight on a skiff can make or break a fishing trip or ride to the hot springs. And while women spend plenty of time on boats in Southeast Alaska, it isn’t always easy to take the helm. That was the focus of a recent class at Alaska Marine Safety Education Association called ‘Boating Without the Boys.’

Pat Kehoe has lived in Sitka for thirty-nine years. She has spent almost all of that time on the water, and much of it living on an island, where she raised her family. So she knows her way around a boat — and the ocean. But it wasn’t always easy.

When Kehoe first started, she remembers making all kinds of mistakes. She wants to help other women develop the comfort and ease to go out on the water and avoid some of those errors. 

Kehoe co-taught a workshop with Phyllis Hackett on Saturday to help build that confidence. The class provides a safe space for women to be upfront and honest about their concerns, fears, and experiences. It’s also a way for women on the water to meet one another. But why ‘boating without the boys’? 

“When my husband and I get in the car and drive places, he drives,” Kehoe said. “it’s just automatic that the man gets behind the wheel.” And that tendency — for men to take the lead — is even more prominent with boats. Kehoe and Hackett don’t think that needs to be the case. 

“I’m single, so if I didn’t boat without the boys, I wouldn’t be boating,” Hackett said. She didn’t want to lose the opportunity to get out on the water, which meant learning about boat safety for herself. She wants to see other women develop the same confidence and independence that she feels on the water. But there can be barriers to doing that, Kehoe says.

“Initially, I went boating without the boys, really?” Kehoe says. “[But] I think having that group of women to support one another is really valuable.” In part, that’s because in driving situations, men tend to take charge, she says. The class gives women a freedom to commiserate with one another and to enrich their knowledge and share experiences.  

The workshop starts with a frank conversation about what the women fear. Recognizing that risk on the water is real – but need not be insurmountable – is what Kehoe and Hackett are all about. They say safety begins with being realistic about what can happen out on the water.

“A lot of it starts with us feeling like we’re invincible and like we can just hop in the boat and go out,” Hackett said. “[But] it’s a big ocean out there and it’s cold water and the weather comes up.”  

Hackett and Kehoe know those dangers first hand. Kehoe started commercial fishing soon after she arrived in Sitka. In one of those early years, she knew twenty-four people that died. “Not closely,” she says, “But I knew them.”

But knowing the risk need not keep people, especially women on their own, from getting on the water. 

“Getting on the water here is a wonderful thing,” Hackett says. “I’d just like to see that opened up to more people.”

Hackett and Kehoe want to see more women comfortable with the challenges and difficulties of boating — something they’ve built over several years of experience calling the shots. And the biggest lesson they hope to teach is preparation and prevention. 

“You need, as a woman, to be able to look at a boat and go: that’s not good enough,” Kehoe says. “I need to fix that before we go, I need to check this before we go.”

Most of that means building confidence through getting familiar with a host of things: float plans, how to read buoys, how to tie a variety of knots, how to use a VHF radio, what the depth of water can tell you about location…and more. And hopefully, that will leave everyone more confident that they can enjoy the water on their own terms.