#MeToo in the Marine Industry

Melanie Neale, a certified USCG captain, licensed yacht broker, and published nautical writer was sexually assaulted as a teenager by a visiting yachtsman, while living on her parents 47-foot-ketch. This is her story.

#MeToo, sexism in the marine industry, sexism in sailing
Nautical writer, boat kid, and USCG Captain Melanie Neale, as a teenager onboard a visiting yacht.

It was 1995, the first year we ventured north of the Chesapeake Bay on the Gulfstar 47 that my family and I lived aboard. Or maybe it was 1994. I don’t really remember. I was 14 or 15. You see, sometimes we remember the essence of things without remembering the exact details. This is something that I’ve stressed in every memoir writing class I’ve taught and in every memoir I’ve edited (including mine). The devil may be in the details, but the what remember is how the event made us feel.

Whatever year it was, we were docked at the Trump Marina in Atlantic City. Oh, how appropriate that seems now! We’d run into bad weather on the stretch from the Delaware Bay to New York, and had made an unplanned stop. We usually didn’t stay at marinas, but there’s really no place good to anchor in Atlantic City, so Mr. Trump got our money.

It was the first time I’d seen the inside of a casino: the dramatic overstimulation of flashing lights, the withered men and women whose hands were stained from the quarters they continuously dropped in the slot machines.

I don’t remember the year. Does it matter?

I walked with my dad past the shiny yachts on the way to pay our bill for dockage. “I want to get my captain’s license,” I told him. It was the first time I’d really ever expressed my desire for a future in the marine industry. The uniformed captains and crew on all the yachts we saw on a daily basis seemed so healthy and happy and vivacious.

“You don’t want to do that. The only way women make it in the marine industry is to sleep their way to the top,” my dad said. My dad, boating magazine guru, leader of the starry-eyed cruisers who gathered to hear him speak at boat shows, saw no future for me in the industry. Unless I slept my way to the top.

You think of all the comebacks years later. All the things you should have said. You imagine different interpretations—maybe it was a warning about the rampant sexism in the industry. Maybe he intended for it to be a way of protecting me from what he believed would be a difficult future. But he said what he said and I may not remember all the details, but I remember.

A few years later, I was working on a beautiful 78’ wooden schooner for the summer, taking tourists out for day sails around Narragansett Bay. It was the perfect summer job. I could get sea time towards my captain’s license. I was outdoors and physically active. The money was great. I learned that my tips were better if I wore shorter shorts and really jumped and heaved when I was pulling the heavy gaff-rigged sails up. Jump, brace feet on the mast, heave. Jump, brace, heave. Could I tell you what shoes I was wearing or what the captain’s name was? No. But I remember the jump, brace, heave…and the overflowing tip jar.

A charming captain came into town aboard a large Oyster. He was British and oh, the accent! He wore crisp white shirts with the boat’s name embroidered on the breast. He paid attention to me. Once he had his crew drop him off aboard the schooner while we were fully under sail, chasing us down in the center-console inflatable so he could do a flying leap aboard the schooner and spend the afternoon with me. The grandiosity of it!

Did I want to sleep with him? Of course I did. Did I really understand what he wanted? Of course I didn’t.

I went to a party that night on his (or his owner’s) boat. There were blonde and wind-tousled sailors from New Zealand, South Africa, and all over the place. There was free-flowing wine and a dinner professionally prepared by the chef of another yacht nearby.

At some point in the night, I was given a shirt with the vessel’s name embroidered on the breast. I have a photo of this night—the shirt, the blonde British guy, the sunshiney faces of the young sailors. I was given the shirt, but only on the condition that I swap my own shirt out for it while sitting right there at the salon table. So I did. I was ballsy and brave and drunk on both the wine and the attention of the captain. If you look at the photo, see the booze on the table, and read my body language, I was certainly asking for it.

I don’t remember what happened after the photo was taken. I woke up naked in a small berth with the captain on top of me. Someone opened the door. I think someone took a photo. I will never know.

I still lived at home. Aboard. I took the dinghy home from the party and climbed into the cockpit of my parents’ boat. Disheveled, missing my bra, with the shirt on inside-out. And just like many other details, I don’t remember what was said when my parents greeted me at the companionway. But I remember the essence of it: blame and guilt.

A few days later, I mustered up the guts to dinghy up to the captain’s boat to ask for my bra. He promptly handed it to me across the lifelines, saying, “I don’t know what you think, but I don’t have time for a relationship.” Not only had he assaulted me, he then turned it around to make me seem like I wanted something more.

I saw him a few years later when I was working in a nautical book and chart store in Ft. Lauderdale. Anger boiled in my belly and rose up to my face, which I’m sure was red when I said, “Hello, how are you?” like nothing had happened and he replied politely like nothing had happened.

Like Dr. Ford, I don’t remember the details. I couldn’t tell you even what month it was. But that doesn’t make it any less meaningful. I was drunk. I changed shirts in the middle of the salon. Maybe I was even subconsciously trying to “sleep my way to the top.” But that doesn’t make what happened right.

I truly believe that this happens in the marine industry much more often than it does in other industries. A friend told me about someone who was sexually assaulted by the owner of a boat she was crewing aboard. Halfway across the Atlantic Ocean. Where was she to go?

Think about it. This industry is still primarily dominated by men. There are lots and lots of good men, and there are lots and lots of women who lie, and lots of good women and lots of men who lie. But in an industry where female crew are still commonly referred to as “stewardesses” and are often quite literally stuck at sea with their male counterparts, it’s no surprise that #metoo at sea is a Pandora’s Box that’s about to explode all over the place. We need women to come out with their stories.

My dad may have been aware of the increased risk of assault when he warned me that women in the marine industry often “slept their way to the top.” It may have been his way of warning me not to “put myself” in a position where assault was more likely. But it was, in every aspect, the wrong way to communicate, since it took all responsibility away from the men (quid pro quo, anyone?) and laid all of the responsibility on women.

I’m angry. I’m angry a lot of things. I’m angry that this happened to me and angry that the same thing, and worse, has happened to so many of my sailing sisters. I’m angry that I’ve allowed other people to mess with my psyche for so long. I’m angry that I’m almost 40 and I’m still hurt almost every day by this experience.

I also have mad respect for many of the men and women I know in the marine industry. Men who would never rape, and women who achieved their stations through integrity and hard work. The majority of people fall into these categories. The majority of people are good.

Women don’t come out with their stories because we have spent our lives wondering what people will think of us. Will we be called sluts? Will we be told that we brought it on ourselves? It’s no wonder that these stories stay buried within us. We are raised to believe that our value is based on what other people think of us. This is the single most harmful belief that women (and men) have. It goes far beyond sexual assault. It finds its way into all of our choices—whether we go to college, what we go to college for, whether we overextend ourselves financially by buying the house, whether we are good or bad parents, whether or not we have chosen appropriate partners. We care too much about what other people think, and we often make decisions that are extremely destructive to ourselves by going along with what we think other people want. Like not telling our stories and letting them grow so big inside of us that they take over who we are. We become angry. We become victims. We lash out.

Please tell your stories. They are vehicles for change. Tell us what happened, how it shaped you, and how you overcame it. Tell potential predators that they are no longer safe. Please join us in the #MarineIndustryMeToo movement.

By Melanie Neale