Brenda Thomas was working at a bank when she was invited to take an overnight trip on a schooner.
“My connection with windjamming was instantaneous. It was magical,” she says.
She quit her job at the bank and signed on as a crewmember on that schooner. She first became involved with the Isaac H. Evans in 1995, when she went aboard as mess mate, eventually working as cook and then first mate until the schooner was put up for sale in 1998. She bought it in 1999, even though she didn’t yet have her captain’s license.
Since then, Thomas has been captaining the 99-foot overall Evans, which will turn 126 years old this summer and is an official National Historic Landmark. She and her crew offer up to 22 guests at a time single-night and multi-night seasonal sailing excursions out of Rockland.
Her love of adventure started early, she says. Her parents instilled in her a fondness of outdoor activities and nature.
“We always packed into the car and went camping, or fishing, or panning for gold or mining for tourmaline. We canoed the Allagash for two weeks,” she says. “Our trips weren’t fancy or elaborate, but they were fun and I learned a lot through those experiences. I am so grateful for that. My theory is that if I had sailed as a kid, the trip that brought me to where I am today would have been just another trip on a sailboat and not the amazing life-changing experience that it was.”
In addition to sailing her windjammer in and around Penobscot Bay, Thomas has sailed in the Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race several times, sailed throughout the Caribbean from Trinidad to St. Thomas, through the Panama Canal, and up the West Coast to Los Angeles.
A schooner captain is responsible for more than just the sailing, Thomas says. “Essentially, I have several jobs – electrician, carpenter, plumber, janitor, teacher, painter, camp counselor and businesswoman.”
Thomas, 42, is the mother of a 14-month-old and is expecting a baby daughter this August. She and her husband and child live in Rockland.
What do you think are the top characteristics of an innovator – a woman who breaks the mold?
I feel the top characteristics of an innovator, regardless of gender, are all the things you might suspect: intelligence, creativity, organization, perseverence, versatility, honesty, being driven. But I think the most important attributes are the ability to solve problems, not get frustrated or overwhelmed easily, a sense of humor, and a willingness and ability to work hard and go with the flow. I want to add fearless, but then I think that it’s healthy to be warned by that instinctual gut reaction. The key with that one is honoring it and not just bulling ahead regardless. Sometimes it’s hard, especially for women, to honor the head more than the heart, and that’s something I struggle with sometimes – balancing what I know with what I feel.
Innovative women turn obstacles into opportunities. I’m always looking for new ways to improve what I do. I’m not satisfied with “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” People change and ideas evolve and innovators constantly adapt to those changes.
Who are your role models?
I know it’s cliche, but my parents are truly my role models. My dad is a linear thinker who has made a lot out of a little through careful planning, and my mom is an artist who shared and supported those plans through creative approaches. They are still married after 46 years and they are a balanced team. They always supported my interests, never told me that I couldn’t do something I had identified as a goal, and nurtured who I was.
Whether it was a science fair project, softball games, a school dance, or the desire for a drum instead of piano lessons, they let me explore.
I also admire Ernest Shackleton, Robert Ballard, Amelia Earhart, Ellen DeGeneres, Rosa Parks, and so many others. I think I tend toward role models that test the boundaries and explore possibilities. I don’t think someone has to be perfect to be a role model.
Sometimes, being a good role model means admitting your mistakes and allowing others to learn from them.
Do you or have you had a mentor, and how significant has this person been in helping you achieve your goals?
I’ve never applied the title of mentor to this person before, but he truly was instrumental in helping me achieve my goals. Capt. Ed Glaser, the captain I worked for aboard the Evans before buying the boat, is the closest thing I’ve had to a mentor. He taught me a lot about sailing and about how to be a captain (although I didn’t really realize it at the time). I’ve sailed with several different captains and all seem to have a slightly different style. His style was very relaxed, to a point that it felt like I was doing all the work and he was just sitting back by the wheel talking to guests. I had no idea what he was really doing until I was the one responsible for it all and that’s what I aspire to now, doing all the things it is necessary for a captain to do without people, including the crew, realizing all of what is happening. I can be an effective captain without yelling at the crew, and I do my best to lead by example. I like to establish an environment of mutual respect rather than barking orders. I don’t mind washing dishes or cleaning the heads. I will never ask a crewmember to do something I haven’t done or am not willing to do myself. Capt. Glaser is now the Rockland harbormaster and continues to be a significant support for me – just a phone call or an email away.
Have you been thwarted by sexism at any point?
Unfortunately, yes. I’ve been approached by a harbormaster who wanted to congratulate the captain on the entrance to a small harbor one afternoon, and when he learned that I was the captain he said, in disbelief, “You did that?” I’ve been to marine supply shows where the distributors either didn’t talk to me at all or talked to me like I didn’t know anything about their products. I’ve been aboard the boat at the dock just checking on things and had a man approach to ask some questions and he started with, “You must be the cook.” I’ve struggled to establish my place in the fleet of male captains. I’m preparing for my 14th season as captain of the Evans and each year I get better at letting go of the sense that I have to “prove myself.” My guests, family, and friends all know who I am and what my abilities are and I can rest peacefully at night knowing that I am supported and loved while being the best captain I can be. My accomplishments stand on their own. I am physically and mentally strong and most often accomplish what I set out to do, and the bottom line is that it doesn’t matter that I happen to be a woman.
What can mothers do to encourage breaking-the-mold thinking in their daughters?
The best thing that mother can do to encourage breaking-the-mold thinking in their daughters is modeling behavior that does not subscribe to gender stereotypes. Teaching a girl that it’s OK to get her hands dirty. So often we hear, “That’s pretty good, for a woman.” I think eliminating the gender comparison is so important – “good” and “great” should stand on its own without the qualifier. Encouraging girls to move beyond their comfort zones, pursue a passion and solve problems on their own are all things moms can do. We hear all the time that a family has decided to sail with us because they want their kids (boys and girls, but especially girls) to see a woman running the boat. We specialize in family trips, so striving to be a strong role model for those kids is really important.
And now as a mom to our 14-month-old son, Kai, and with a daughter on the way in early August, that role is becoming even more important to me.