CASTINE, Maine — Capt. Susan Clark was a woman of many firsts. She graduated first in her class at Skowhegan Area High School and Maine Maritime Academy.
She was the first female to sail as captain for SeaRiver Maritime Inc., the successor company to Exxon Shipping Co., and the first woman to join Portland’s Marine Society, an exclusive social club of sea captains that was established in 1796. She also was the first female harbor pilot in Maine, a job that she held until just before she died of cancer last year at age 48.
Now Maine Maritime Academy has named a navigation training ship in her honor — the first time it has done so for a woman.
By all accounts, Clark was not one to boast about her many accomplishments, nor did she gripe about being one of few women in her field.
“Because she got into a male-dominated field, she focused on whatever she did and she did it well,” said Glenn Daukas, Clark’s husband. “By doing everything 110 percent, she didn’t allow anyone to confirm their prejudices.”
To friends and family, the dedication of the twin-engine utility boat, which is used as a training vessel, was appropriate.
“It’s something that’s hands-on,” Daukas said. “It’s teaching how to navigate. It’s helping others and that’s what she did.”
As a captain with Portland Pilots Inc., Clark helped large ships navigate into Portland Harbor. When an oil tanker approached the harbor, Clark would board the ship and, using her local knowledge of the winds and currents, give commands to the ship’s captain and crew to get the vessel safely docked. Clark guided ships that were up to 1,000 feet long and 165 feet wide.
“It’s like turning KeyBank on its side and driving it into the harbor,” said Mark Klopp, president of Portland Pilots.
Clark learned her trade at MMA, from which she graduated in 1985, and was a trustee from 2002 to 2007.
Her brother Joe Clark went to MMA ahead of her and initially was against the idea of his younger sister following in his footsteps.
“To put it in context, there were about 15 female students at the time and they weren’t always treated that well,” he said.
But his sister was stubborn and did not let that stop her.
“There were like five or six females [in her class],” Joe Clark said. “They did better than the males. The belief is that they really changed the attitude.”
Dave Gelinas, who attended MMA with Susan Clark, said she “excelled because she was an exceptional mariner, not because she was an exceptional woman mariner. She wasn’t out to prove anything.”
After graduating, Clark worked as a watch officer and then captain for SeaRiver Maritime. Between those two posts she graduated from Seton Hall University Law School in New Jersey, according to her obituary. Though she did well and got a job with Verrill Dana, a Portland law firm, she eventually returned to the shipping industry.
“The sea was calling her, I think,” Marlene Clark, her mother, said.
In 2005, Susan Clark was admitted into the Portland Marine Society in a unanimous decision by the other club members.
She held her post at Portland Pilots until 3½ months before she died, Klopp said.
The 70-foot ship that now carries the name Capt. Susan J. Clark is used to teach MMA students how to navigate. Classes go out on this boat day and night for several hours at a time and students learn how to use computerized navigation instruments, radar and charts, according to school officials.
John Worth, an MMA instructor, helped choose the name for the ship, which used to be called Ned.
“A lot of us thought that was really not a good enough name for such an important vessel,” Worth said.
Worth felt that Clark was an excellent role model for his students, and others agreed, so the name was changed.
MMA President Bill Brennan, Gelinas and Joe Clark spoke at the dedication ceremony at MMA on Sept. 21, two days after Susan Clark would have turned 50. Her family, including her two sons, attended the event.
At the end of the ceremony, two female cadets lifted a curtain off the stern of the ship, revealing the new name, while the rest of the vessels in the fleet sounded their horns.