March 17, 2023

Captain on deck

Alexandra Hagerty ’07(right) and Chief MateEmily Bull wave to the crowd after dockingthe MercyShips vesselin Africa.

Alexandra Hagerty ’07 is a ship captain on a mission to help others.

As one of only 150 women holding the title of master mariner of unlimited tonnage in the United States, Alexandra Hagerty ’07 is an outlier in the records kept by the U.S. Coast Guard. Less than 1 percent of master mariners are women. In a 2021 interview, maritime executive Basil Karatzas compared Hagerty’s advancement in the profession to that of women who become astronauts or run as candidates for the President of the United States.

“Talk about a glass ceiling,” Karatzas said.

Now in her 10th year and at the top of her craft, Hagerty has become a globally recognized voice in the industry and a champion for seafarers from underrepresented backgrounds.

“It took me 10 years to become a captain,” Hagerty said. She is a master mariner, also known as ship captains or captains of unlimited tonnage, the highest licensure that commercial boat captains can attain. They are licensed to navigate any ship of any size in any part of the globe.

“A lot of people told me I was never going to make it,” she said. “They said women don’t belong in this industry. I said, ‘Watch me, baby!’”

And now she’s doing what she can to help others. Hagerty is the founder of Captains Without Borders, a maritime scholarship charity made up of ship captains and engineers who share her passion. The nonprofit celebrated the end of 2022 by announcing their first scholarship recipient, a woman from Kenya with aspirations to work on icebreaker vessels in the Arctic.

“The recruitment and advancement of women is happening at a much higher rate in other professions, but in the maritime industry it’s still dismal, with less than .6 percent of women being licensed deck or engine officers,” Hagerty said. “We’re using our partnerships with shipping companies to get cadets placed on ships in order to obtain their required sea time to sit for their license exams.”

Her organization seeks candidates who need financial assistance or help breaking down other barriers.

“Sometimes it’s hard for young women to even get a placement on a ship,” she said. “Maybe their country of origin isn’t really open to women working in the areas of shipping. We’ll help anyone from any country in the world as long as they’re enrolled in an accredited maritime academy. We just want to know your story and share your success story to empower other young individuals to choose a career at sea.”

‘Engage the World’

While Hagerty didn’t rig any sails while at land-locked Earlham, her alma mater encouraged her adventuresome spirit.

“The College’s slogan at the time was ‘Engage the World’ and that’s just what I did,” Hagerty remembered. “I was a really shy student, but I blossomed at Earlham and I came out of my shell. I could just be myself and be with people from all over the world.”

Hagerty presents a thank-you speech in French to World Health Organization representatives, ministers and distinguished guests of Senegal.
Hagerty presents a thank-you speech in French to World Health Organization representatives, ministers and distinguished guests of Senegal. The speech was also televised.

She studied French and international relations and participated in Earlham’s semester programs in Spain and India. She spent a summer in Morocco studying languages with Amideast, an organization that works to increase understanding between Americans and people of the Middle East and North Africa. Today she can speak five languages fluently, including Spanish, Italian, French, Danish and English.

“All these different opportunities kept coming just from being at Earlham,” she said. “Some of my friends at Ivy League schools were shocked and impressed that Earlham gave me more opportunities to travel and work with top industry professionals than they had.”

After graduating from Earlham, she accepted a position working with a French cruise firm to market their sailing opportunities while also helping sail the vessels. The opportunity took her to Denmark to continue sailing on Jens Krogh, a 100-year-old schooner, which further strengthened her love for being on the water. She continued working on sailboats while earning a master’s in cognitive semiotics at Aarhus University in Denmark, but she wasn’t earning a steady paycheck.

She needed a professional license to make her love of sailing into a career. After investigating her opportunities, she found a school in the States where she could obtain a deck officer’s unlimited tonnage license paired with a master’s degree—and then be paid to sail the world after graduating.

Hagerty enrolled at New York Maritime and earned a degree in international transportation management with a third mate’s unlimited tonnage license. She started working on a newly built drillship in South Korea that sailed to Singapore, Namibia, around the Cape of Good Hope to Curacao and eventually the Gulf of Mexico. She later joined American Maritime Officers Union and worked on different vessels around the globe from survey vessels to car carriers to government vessels carrying containers.

At 27, license in hand, she was sailing around the world and loving it.

A career of firsts

From December 2021 to March 2022, Hagerty became the first woman to captain a Mercy Ships expedition in the organization’s 44-year history. She managed 450 crew members from 60 nationalities, sailing to Senegal to provide life-changing surgeries for underserved communities. Hagerty worked with a shoreside country engagement team, built diplomatic relations with embassies and provided oversight for COVID mitigation and safety training for the crew while aboard the ship. Once Hagerty had docked, she gave a speech to the World Health Organization and local distinguished guests in French.

“To be able to give that speech in French, to say how thankful we were to be there, it was just amazing,” Hagerty said.

The ship carried 14 pallets of medical supplies and welcomed a rotating team of physicians who arrived on the ship from around the globe. It would be an understatement to say it was rewarding to watch the doctors work. Hagerty recalls witnessing a man regain his ability to talk and chew food for the first time in 32 years after receiving a surgery performed on the ship.

“I had never watched a surgery before, let alone on a ship,” she said. “It was amazing to see someone’s quality of life completely change after that one surgery.”

Hagerty and onboard accountant Moise Njiphuep from Cameroon arrive in Senegal.
Hagerty and onboard accountant Moise Njiphuep from Cameroon arrive in Senegal.

Earlier this winter, Hagerty became the first woman to run for the position of vice president at American Maritime Officers Union, an organization with a history dating back to 1949.

Most recently, Hagerty was captain of the USNS Invincible, a 224-foot-long ocean surveillance vessel that was originally used by the U.S. Navy to patrol the oceans. In November, she docked the vessel for the last time at Warwick Shipyard in Virginia.

The Invincible is undergoing repairs before being transformed into a cadet training ship. Hagerty, meanwhile, boarded a flight to London to be a panelist at the 2022 Seatrade Maritime Salvage and Wreck Conference, the latest of her international tour of speaking engagements that has taken her to six countries and three continents. This time, the topic was seafarer recruitment and retention.

“Math and science is a big part of navigating a ship or any kind of career on the engineering side of things,” Hagerty said. “Cadets are being recruited by high-tech companies and they have options. How do we keep them interested in working on ships and living far away from their friends and families?”

Her answer is always the same.

“What’s better than shipping, making a decent living and navigating the world?” she said. “That’s what’s so exciting about what I do.

“And it doesn’t hurt that for every two to three months I work, I get another two to three months off for vacation. The equal time off and on is very appealing as you can use your time off to pursue other hobbies, go on vacation in exotic destinations or continue your education.”

She hopes Earlhamites consider her career path, too.

“The cool thing about Earlham is you can get your bachelor’s degree in anything and then get a master’s degree and a professional license at a maritime academy. You can study anything in your undergraduate years and still end up becoming a captain or an engineer down the road with time. It all depends on what you want to do. You have to invest time and have the right grit and integrity to pursue this career, but it opens many doors down the road. Once you obtain that unlimited license, you will always be highly employable from maritime shipping companies around the globe to offshore positions on ships, to shoreside positions that include chartering, marine operations, management, yachting, to an expert for maritime law firms.”

When Hagerty isn’t on the water, she is based in Aspen, Colorado. Her time there allows her to ramp up her nonprofit work, helping others advance their seafaring careers. Hagerty knows the rewards of maritime life and wants to help others sail to the same horizon.

What comes next for her? Hard to say. She’s looking for her next assignment at sea—but she won’t stay on land for long.

“I never expected this life,” Hagerty said, acknowledging both her gratitude and the odd turns of her career. She expects the same of her future and wouldn’t have it any other way.

Story written by Brian Zimmerman. Photos provided by Alexandra Hagerty ’07.

For Good.
Spark good—
For Good.