Shattering the Glass Ceiling, Climbing One Mast at a Time : Q&A with Marine Surveyor Cecelia Potts

Set Sail Marine Survey
Cecelia Potts; surfer, sailor, surveyor extraordinaire. Photo Courtesy of Cecelia Potts.

I met Cecilia Potts, better known as Ceal, while I was working at the used marine store somewhere in northern Florida. In between polishing some brass I overheard her haggling sassily at the counter for chocks, or cleats, or was it a hawse pipe, or something to mount more solar panels.

I’m always interested in women who sail, but this lady seemed extra special. She was an electric sailboat engine dealer of sorts. Her boat was totally electric, completely refitted, refinished, and, she had done it all herself. From how she talked and looked I deemed her one those, has-her-shit-together-engineering-types.

One day during her lunch break from the solar company she worked for (where it turns out she was a marketing specialist, not an engineer), she came to visit me while I was working on my boat in the boatyard. She told me frankly, “I know you love this boat Emily, but you’ve outgrown it.”

She was right.

Now, Ceal is imparting that same knowledge she gave me to other boat owners and buyers through her new marine surveying business, Set Sail Marine Survey. She is one of only 24 women in the world wide Society of Accredited Marine Surveyors. She is, quite literally, the tits. Which is why I’ve decided to publish my entire interview with her as a Q&A piece.  I cried when I read her answers because they were so inspirational, and I can only hope to one day lead with such grace.

women who sail
Ceal Potts, far left, at the launch party of my late, great boat.

Tell me a little about your journey sailing, living aboard, and fixing up your own boat.

Boats have always sailed into my life with lines attached. They’ve always been owned by the person with whom I was in a relationship, and in the end I’ve always loved the boat more than its owner. The Catalina 28 was different. My name was on the official document. I’d never experienced that before. In all my past lives and love affairs, I was the keeper, the caregiver, the slave, and I’ve lost it all twice because of it. This time was different because she was mine and even though it was cockroach infested and stank like diesel and burned oil, s/v Wooden Shoe was my sanctuary. As soon as I could stand it (yes, there was still an occasional cockroach) I rolled out my sleeping bag in the v-berth, sans cushions and slept on the cold, hard gel coated fiberglass. My friend loaned me a cockpit cushion when he learned I was doing this, so I had about a 1-inch pad to sleep on for the first four months of ownership. You do these kinds of things when she’s yours. You’ll also pee in a Home Depot bucket, eat grocery store sushi and drink warm beer because she’s yours and you’re spending everything you can to get her refitted and restored. After a year and a half of major work, I had my floating condo and could sail it too. Was the Catalina like the Island Packets I had been part of in the past? Nope, but she also didn’t come with any drama, which made all that work 110% worth it.

Cecelia Potts
Ceal during the glory days of restoring her Catalina 28. Photo Courtesy of Cecelia Potts.

What were your experiences like working for a solar company, as well as on boats and in engineering?

I’ve had a career crush on engineering since middle school. But, like most crushes it was awkward and every time I got close to it, I weirded out and ran back to my comfort zone—writing. The opportunity to work at Solar Stik changed everything because it changed my mind. Here’s a company that’s totally been bootstrapped by its owners, providing hybrid electric solutions folks rely on in life and death situations that was started by someone with raw talent and a brain hardwired for engineering who does not have a degree in engineering! Solar Stik was born out of living on a boat. Think about that! All of us who call boat life home, know way, way, way more about power management, energy storage, and power generation than any of our grid-tied friends. Solar Stik pushed me to ask questions and apply my writing skills to help others better understand technical topics.

My affair with boats started when I was a kid and it evolved into this obsession I have with independence and self-sufficiency. The first time I remember seeing a sailboat was in the early 1980s in my hometown on Lake Michigan. The boats from the Queen’s Cup—an annual race across Lake Michigan from Milwaukee, Wis., to Michigan’s western shore—were all tied up along the waterfront in my town and all I could think about was that I had to get on one of those boats and do that. The first time I sailed was in Charlevoix, Mich., on a family member’s boat. Working on boats is what makes my inner being sing and dance, it’s spiritual. Right now, not having a boat feels like I’m walking down the aisle at a cathedral without pants.

electric sailboat conversion
Ceal & her electric engine. Photo courtesy of Cecelia Potts.

What made you decide to be a surveyor? And what was it like to actualize that goal? What sacrifices did you have to make?

In February 2018, I was sitting alone on a beach before dawn in Mexico starring up at the stars through my tears and asking out loud to no one what I’m supposed to do with my life. I was going through a rough patch with me. Though I loved Solar Stik dearly, I had an oil and water coexistence with my direct supervisor. It made me want to chew on tinfoil and eat glass more than go to work everyday. After the BC (big cry) on the beach, I paddled out at sunrise and caught wave after wave after wave. A lady paddled up to me at the end of my session and gave me a bracelet with a medal of St. Christopher on it and she said this is so you always get home. Home for me is the water and the independence I feel when I’m out there. That was the universe giving me a hug.  In May 2018, I had my boat surveyed by a surveyor so I could get insurance. I had just installed the electric motor and was sitting on the hard ready to go back into the water. He said it was one of the cleanest boat’s he’d ever seen…and the biggest finding he made was I didn’t have a Type IV throwable floatation device on board or flares. Easy fix. He told me I should look into being a surveyor.

By November 2018, I was truly miserable at work. It took every thread of my resistance to not reach across the boardroom table and choke my boss. My negativity was affecting others and it was hurting my relationship. My partner and I were driving south to go kite surfing on a Friday (we worked 4/10s at the time) and after a 45-minute silence I said, “I think I’m going to look into the surveying thing.” He agreed and said check it out. Ten minutes later I had Google-searched Chapman School of Seamanship, called the number and made the $150 deposit to secure my spot in the March 2019, six-week course. I’ve never felt so much relief in my life…for like 24 hours, and then I started asking myself, “oh my god, what have I done?” I had an exit strategy and things just started falling into place. My finances have always been precarious (probably because I love boats), and I had to be very careful to not let anyone know I was planning on leaving my very secure J-O-B.

I put a countdown timer on my phone and called it, “Operation Pull The Rip Cord.” I told a couple people I could trust, and my nickname became the flying squirrel. Pride was one of the biggest sacrifices I had to make, and also selling my boat. Chapman School ain’t cheap and I had to borrow money from my dad (which I will pay back) and ask my partner to give me a break on the cohabitation bills for awhile, which he was most willing to do. When I finished school, I had ZERO cash flow and realized the only way to build my empire was to sell my boat. I cried when I let her go, but she went to awesome people who I know will do great things with her.

What do you know about women in this part of the industry? Are there many female surveyors?

I cannot tell you how many female surveyors there are total, but as far as SAMS [Society of Marine Credited Surveyors] members, there are 24 female surveyors that are SAMS members worldwide…and there are 836 SAMS surveyors total. Of the 24 females, five are located in Florida, and I’m one of those five.

Ceal Potts, Set Sail Marine Survey
Ceal on the job, one of only five women in the world-wide Society of Accredited Marine Surveyors. Photo Courtesy of Cecelia Potts

What kind of training did you undergo?

That’s a tricky question because 20 years of my experience came from my involvement in boats, which I drew on—heavily—to get to where I am. The formal schooling I received was six weeks full time classroom (8 a.m. to 3 p.m.) with exams and tests at the Chapman School of Seamanship. The amount of studying I did in that six weeks made my undergraduate studying (20 years ago) look like a joke. I did end up as co-valedictorian of my class, though, which was very validating. I also tested and passed as a Certified Standards Technician with the American Boating & Yacht Council (ABYC). To become a member of the Society of Accredited Marine Surveyors (SAMS), you have to apply, take and exam, submit a formal survey report, and then be interviewed. From the time I submitted my application to the time I was accepted into SAMS, it was 12 weeks…and this was after my 6 weeks of school at Chapmans. There are two levels of surveyor membership in SAMS. Essentially level 1 is called a Surveyor Associate, and that’s what I am. The next level is Accredited Marine Surveyor (AMS). To become an AMS you have to complete continuing education credits (which also are required for my level of Surveyor Associate), work as a Surveyor Associate for 5 years, and then sit for an intense AMS exam. If you don’t pass the AMS exam after two tries, you get kicked out of SAMS. You’re done. I was accepted into SAMS as a Surveyor Associate with two years of service credit, which means in three years, I have to take the AMS exam. I am already studying.  For my continuing education, I am going to focus on electrical. Sometime this fall I will take the ABYC Electrical Standards Exam and then take the corrosion class. Next year I hope to attend the Level 1 course through the Institute of Infrared Thermography.

Was the training program primarily men?

Yes. I was the only female in my cohort at Champan. Incidentally I have been invited to be an instructor for the surveying program in November. At least once a week, or more if there’s a full moon, I am greeted with “I didn’t know there were female surveyors,” or “I’ve never had/heard of a woman surveyor,” or my personal favorite, “Are you sure you know how to use all those tools in your bag?”

Did you experience any sexism in your trainings or beginning of your work? What about in general in the marine industry?

Yes, without a doubt. Instead of meeting that small minded thinking on the same plane, I use it as a teachable moment. I stay centered and don’t lose my cool and bristle because I don’t want to give anyone more daggers than they already have. Behavioral correction is more effective when offered without a slap. My first solo survey was on a make and model of a boat I was extremely familiar with. This was the survey client who greeted me with the “you know how to use all those tools in your bag?” To be honest, throat punching him did cross my mind, but instead I said “absolutely! And I can’t wait to see what stories they’re going to help your prospective boat tell me.” At the end of the survey, my client bought two rounds of beers and handed me a cash tip with a heartfelt apology. I accepted the beers, cash and apology. We all learned something that day. There’s another story I’d love to share, but it’s still a little raw. Suffice to say it was the first time I ever stood up to a bully in my life personally and professionally and he knew he was dead wrong—there were witnesses.

Set Sail Marine Survey
Photo Courtesy of Cecelia Potts

What advice do you have to women who want to make their mark in the male dominated marine industry?

View yourself as an equal and treat others that way. Don’t get defensive and feisty when a male automatically assumes that you don’t know anything about boats. Take a look at it from his prospective, you’re a unicorn and in his world he’s probably never crossed paths with a unicorn. Know your strengths and train your weaknesses. READ. Know as much about the subject matter your working on/talking about as possible. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, either. I ask a lot of questions. Today I learned about MBRF fuses and how to stack battery chargers for hybridizing electric propulsion systems for boats 30 feet and longer. Brilliant!

Consider Ceal for all your marine surveying needs!

Lastly (and most important)! Tell me about your business.

My survey business is Set Sail Marine Survey and I can be reached at 386-319-4848

I offer the following survey services:

Pre-purchase ($22/foot LOA)

Insurance (Condition & Value) ($20/foot LOA)

Damage (varies)

Appraisal ($20/foot LOA)

Absentee Buyer Inspection ($10/foot LOA)

I’ll fly anywhere in the world. Most recently clients have flown me to the Bahamas, Montana, and Texas. Travel fees are negotiated on a case-by-case basis.