I’ve written previously about the steep wave that women navigate to create respected, lucrative, and sustainable careers in seafaring roles, particularly as boat captains. Readers may remember being introduced to four women who shared their experiences as a cohort of mutually supportive captains in a male-dominated field.
Marina Maze is one such role model who’d recently acquired her license. Nine months later, you’ll now find Maze captaining aboard a woman-owned and operated business in Moss Landing named Monterey Bay Eco Tours, skillfully maneuvering an electric 37-foot catamaran that tours the Elkhorn Slough. I caught up with Monterey Bay Eco Tours owner, Wendy Kitchell, a captain in her own right who holds a 500 ton masters license.
Kitchell, who started in the maritime industry when she was 18 as a new transplant to Key West, Florida, landed a gig on a charter boat with her brother Joe and noticed an immediate “intuitive feel” in her role in spite of never having worked on boats previously. “We were taking people out on snorkeling tours to the third largest coral reef in the world off the Florida Keys,” says Kitchell. She continues, “I started working on other boats and doing more offshore sailing and adventuring. I got my 100 ton master’s at the age of 22 as by then I’d decided I didn’t want to return to conventional schooling and wanted to make a career on the water. I went on to drive Tall ships, private yachts and racing sailboats.”
Throughout her explorations, Kitchell found herself returning to the keys often as a home base, especially when she was broke and seeking work. When she did, she’d witness increasing degradation of the coral reef ecosystem. “I was watching a barrier reef die. The beautiful vibrant colors were bleached white. The fish were dramatically down in numbers. I wanted to find a way to help instead of just taking from the ocean,” says Kitchell. “I always felt this drive to find a way to give back to the ocean that had given me so much.”
Kitchell’s brother Joe, also a captain, transitioned into the boat building sector and developed an epoxy infusion process of building that reduces weight and waste. As the Kitchell siblings considered designing their own boat, Joe set up shop at Moss Landing Boat Works, introducing Wendy to the stunning beauty and diverse wildlife of the region. “Due to my previous experience in the charter boat sector, I wanted to make a difference with my approach in Elkhorn Slough.”
Monterey Bay Eco Tour’s boat, the custom built “El Cat,” is powered with a 48-volt battery bank at 450 amp hours, and runs completely on electric power, the only one of its kind and the first U.S. Coast Guard inspected fully electric catamaran on the west coast. “We built this boat to show the charter industry that going electric and sustainable is not only viable but necessary as we face challenges such as climate change, habitat destruction, and other problems that come with a large human population,” says Wendy Kitchell.
She continues, “We came up with the idea of going electric because battery technology has caught up with the electric motor. We designed the boat specifically for touring Elkhorn Slough and to keep within the guidelines of the organizations that work diligently to protect the fragile waters. With Joe’s ability to build with his proprietary process that creates lasting, lightweight, and incredibly efficient boats, we were able to certify the El Cat as a 32-passenger approved and inspected vessel.”
The Kitchell’s efforts have paid off. “Our passengers are blown away by how quiet El Cat is, and how it doesn’t have the vibration that a gas or diesel powered vessel has. It doesn’t have the fumes, noxious exhaust, or risk of spills. These are all aspects that are pleasing to our customers, but much more importantly, I believe that the wildlife in Elkhorn Slough can tell the difference as well,” says Wendy Kitchell. “We glide through the water quietly and cleanly. The combined charter and yachting experience of more than 50 years between my brother and I, and the cutting edge technology that this boat brings to our Elkhorn Slough visitors and habitats, make our family proud to offer a unique, sustainability-oriented experience for passengers.”
In terms of creating a supportive workplace for up-and-coming women captains, Wendy Kitchell tells me that “Working in the maritime industry as a woman has had its challenges. Sexual harassment wasn’t even considered ‘a thing’ when I started. The industry is still rife with it to this day. Young women trying to work on boats still have to deal with this, which is frustrating.”
“As a woman in the industry, I’ve always had to outwork the men to prove myself. I had to be tougher, if not physically stronger, then mentally. As a woman driving a boat, everyone is watching you, waiting for you to make a mistake,” says Kitchell. Reminiscing on a former role as captain, she says “My favorite part of boat driving was letting people steer the boat, especially kids. As we were sailing, little girls would shyly come back to take the wheel. It felt as though I was making a difference.”
“I love working with Marina, as she has this same fortitude,” Kitchell tells me of her hiring of Maze. “There are advantages to being a woman and hiring women in the industry; the ability to compromise, work as a team, forgo the ego for the greater good, and possess a sense of compassion, all seem to be more prevalent traits in women than men. This makes for a better boating experience, where you’re often in close quarters for extended amounts of time.”
In the future, Monterey Bay Eco Tours hopes to expand its fleet with “new, innovative technology that will make wildlife viewing less invasive to the amazing creatures in Monterey Bay,” says Wendy. To book a trip on El Cat, visit, montereybayecotours.com. For information about the electric motor company that partnered in creating the catamaran, visit elcomotoryachts.com.
Rachel Kippen is an ocean educator and sustainability advocate in Santa Cruz County and can be reached at email@example.com.