Q&A with: Susan McKenna, merchant marine

She’s petite, a lover of books, a grandmother — and a sailor. It might sound unusual but, then again, nothing’s usual about Susan McKenna.

This 61-year-old grandmother of four is a chief officer with the U.S. Merchant Marines and pilots 950-foot-long ships through some of the most dangerous waters on the planet.

She’s also a survivor of heart disease that could have taken her life prematurely thousands of miles from home. We sat down with McKenna to learn about how she answered the call of the sea and a different call educating women about the heart health.

And yes, she has a tattoo, but no, she hasn’t seen any mermaids.

Q. How do the Merchant Marines differ from the Marines, the Coast Guard and the Navy?

A. The U.S. Merchant Marines is a civilian organization of mariners. We’re not affiliated with any military branch. The name might be a little misleading, but we’re merchant seamen.

We are the people that work on all the various types of vessels throughout the world, carrying all sorts of different cargo, passenger ships, oil tankers.

It’s a little bit convoluted, but basically, we’re the people who move stuff around the world.

Q. How did you come to this as a career choice?

A. I grew up in Rhode Island — I was always watching the ocean and having something to do with it all the time.

In the mid-‘80s, I met my husband Charles, and he introduced me to the maritime industry. We did maritime construction. We were building docks, barges. Then we got involved in towing and salvage work, which I did for a number of years with him.

We both started sailing deep sea in the late ‘80s. He went to the engineering side and I went to the deck side. So he became a chief engineer and I got my captain’s license.

It took a number of years. I started at the very bottom – I didn’t attend the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y.

Q. Was it difficult as woman to work your way up through the ranks?

A. It was very challenging. I started in the New York Harbor. I did some small tankers. That was very difficult in the ‘80s. The guys weren’t crazy about having women there. Nowadays, you really don’t find that going on, but in a male-dominated field, you do have that opposition. There are times when I’m the only female on the ship.

They can also be very protective. They’re very helpful usually.

When I worked on deck, especially not being an officer then, I found it hard. I felt I had to pull my own weight, and it was hard sometimes because of my size. I always had to find some kind of mechanical advantage because there were big bags of stuff that weighed more than I did.

Now there are quite a few women, but I think there’s still a fairly high attrition rate. They start off strong in the academies, then some make it and some don’t.

Q. What advice would you give young women looking into the Merchant Marines as a career?

A. I would say, “Go for it!” It’s exciting. You meet so many people. You get to travel the world. It builds character. It’s not like going to the office where you sit at a desk every day. I can’t even imagine doing that because I don’t think I could do it. You’re outside. You have a certain amount of freedom.

The schedules can be nice, too. I’ll work three months at a time — and I mean every day, with no time off. But then I’ll get off the ship on my vacation time, and I’m on vacation for three months. So that’s not a bad deal.

We do pretty well, the pay is pretty good. We have a union, so we are fairly well protected by that. There’s also security; I’ve never been without a job.

The hardest thing, I would say, is being away from your family. That was difficult, but my children were grown up at that point when I started.

Q. How much of an issue is piracy becoming?

A. Pirates are definitely a threat. On the ships that I’ve personally been on, depending on where they operate, will determine what kind of measures you have to take.

The security in general, especially for ships that carry military equipment, is extremely high. The officers take security courses. We have cypher locks and cameras. In many cases, it’s a secret or top-secret mission.

Certain areas of the world, the pirates are more prevalent. For instance, off the coast of Africa, East Africa and Somalia. Also in the South China Sea, Strait of Malaga, in the Singapore area.

When I have sailed through those areas, I have been on high alert for pirates.

On some ships, the deck is 100 feet off the water, so it’s very difficult for someone to get on board. But the tankers are usually more susceptible, especially when they’re full. They ride much lower in the water, making them more accessible.

We have recordings in different languages that we can play to tell them to stay away. We have various means of contacting authorities and sending emergency information and requests for aid.

Some of the measures I’ve seen are patrolling the decks, keeping all the lights on when you go through these areas, which is something you wouldn’t ordinarily do. Normally, you want it as dark as possible for your night vision.

We also lay out fire hoses and keep the fire main online. If someone’s trying to board, you can open that fire hose and they get a blast of water that’s 100 pounds of pressure.

Q. Some of these ships carry thousands of gallons of oil just to power themselves, let alone being a tanker. What are some of the environmental concerns you face?

A. I do want to say this — we are so absolutely careful, almost to the point of being paranoid, about the environment. Nothing goes overboard, not one thing. When we’re way, way out at sea, we’re allowed by law to throw paper and cardboard out, and certain other things. Never oil. Never any kind of pollutant like that. This is all highly regulated.

I’ve gone out on 75-day missions, and we’ve just held everything onboard. We come back into port with nets just full of garbage.

Q. What’s your favorite place that you’ve visited?

A. I like Europe. The people there are very friendly, they’re very nice. They’re very professional.

I’ve sailed both coasts of South America. I really enjoyed that. In Japan, the people are beautiful and so organized.

Africa and the Middle East have been more challenging, especially being a woman. Women there are not well thought of.

Q. What’s the scariest situation you’ve been in?

A. I’ve been in the North Atlantic in the winter and it’s not nice. You get some really high seas. The ship is rolling and pitching, and it’s generally miserable. You really don’t feel much like eating.

We go through a lot of classes about survival at sea. We learn as much as we can about it. We’re not going to give up the ship until it’s absolutely necessary. I’ve never gotten to the point where that’s even been a remote possibility.

I have been on some ships where there have been fires. That’s really scary. There’s fuel lines running through a ship, there’s electricity, high voltage.

Q. Recently, you were honored as a heart disease survivor at the 2008 Go Red for Women gala luncheon. Tell us about your experience.

A. It was April 2007. We were coming through the Singapore Strait, we were heading for Kuwait. It was about 2 o’clock in the morning. I was awakened with this tight feeling in my chest. My first thought was that I was having a heart attack. Then I talked myself out of it.

Then I went into complete denial. I convinced myself it was some sort of gastric issue. I didn’t say anything. That was the stupidest thing.

We got to Kuwait a few weeks later. I had a couple more episodes. I knew we were stopping in the United Arab Emirates to get fuel and supplies. I decided that if I had another episode, I’ll say something.

Well, I did. I saw a doctor there who did an EKG and all the other vitals and they didn’t see anything strange. So, the doctor had me see a cardiologist in a town called Sharjah. He was very compassionate. He did a stress test and some blood work, but he didn’t see anything conclusive.

I didn’t get back to the States and off the ship until June, so I was dealing with this for almost two months.

I went to CMC and had an echocardiogram and stress test done. It turns out it was angina. I wasn’t having a heart attack.

I went in then for a catherization. Then Dr. Blakely said, “Well, Susan, I have good news and bad news. The good news is you have a really strong heart, the heart of a 25-year-old. But the bad news is it’s kind of clogged up.”

They couldn’t put a stent in because I had a 70 percent blockage in the left vessel. I also had one that was 80 percent blocked, and two at 60 percent. They didn’t let me go home. That was Friday and that following Monday, I had a quadruple bypass.

Q. What was your recovery like?

A. That’s the hardest part — it’s painful.

I’m just incredulous with myself because I went in such denial about this. I’m a very independent, strong-minded person. I should have just left the ship in the UAE and flown home, but hindsight it always 20-20.

The message I’d like to get out there is, if your body does start sending out these signals, don’t ignore them. I didn’t have the luxury of dialing 911 or walking into a facility. I was very fortunate. Don’t ignore your body. It’s better to be wrong than dead.

I also want to raise awareness for women because so many women don’t really appreciate how deadly heart disease is for us.

Q. What do you do for fun when you’re finally on land?

A. I do a lot of hiking. I love books, I love to read. You can usually find me hanging out in a bookstore somewhere. I enjoy spending time with my friends, my family. I like to be outdoors, in the woods, just communing with nature. I like to travel.

Q. You must have a lot of amazing stories based on your travels. Can you share one?

A. There was the time I went to the brothel in Peru. I had gone into the marketplace in Callao, Peru, to look for this beautiful wood-carved trunk. I went with the boatswain and his girlfriend, who was fluent in Spanish.

Our driver took us back to a bar. It looked like an ordinary American bar. So now this driver is introducing me to all these girls.

I was thinking to myself, “Now, this is kind of strange.” They’re just regular women; they don’t have signs on them or anything. They were all asking me if I knew so-and-so from an other ship and asking my about all the guys.

I ended up buying a round of drinks for the prostitutes.

Cindy Kibbe can be reached at ckibbe@nhbr.com.