Rycraft stands in front of the Denise Foss after the tug’s christening in April 2016
Megan Rycraft’s parents moved from California to the Hamakua Coast outside of Hilo, Hawaii when she was just a year old. Her father, a new minister, had accepted a position in Honomu. Though her parents separated soon after the move, both decided to remain in Hawaii, and Rycraft’s mother began flying her to Canada to spend the summer months with her maternal grandparents on Lasqueti Island in British Columbia.
“My grandma would garden and can all summer to fill the root cellar for the winter,” she said. “My grandpa would always be tinkering in his shop. The island was completely off the grid and required a lot of day-to-day work. My grandparents were really big on ‘adventuring.’ We were constantly out and about – exploring, fishing, camping, building fires.”
When Rycraft was 10, her father relocated to Kalaupapa on the island of Molokai – a Hansen’s Disease (Leprosy) settlement. At 16, she began spending part of her summers volunteering for the National Park on Molokai.
“I think growing up a bit ‘all over the place’ has made me love being on the move, but it’s also made me really value my family and the time I get to spend with them.”
And a future career as a mariner wasn’t on her mind.
“I didn’t have a clear idea of I wanted to be,” she said. “It ran the gamut from hairdresser to teacher, and by high school I had landed on marine biology. But when I learned about the maritime academies and careers at sea, I was sold.”
Rycraft credits a high school teacher for introducing her to the industry and for teaching her to think critically.
“He ran a program called ‘Ho’olokahi’ that allowed high school students to sail on the Polynesian Voyaging Canoe, Makali’i. We studied non-instrumental navigation, but it was so much more than that. I really feel the program instilled some core values that I’ve taken with me through life.”
Rycraft graduated from Hilo High School and then moved to Castine, Maine to attend the Maine Maritime Academy. Her first job out of school was on a double-hull tanker on a run between Valdez and Nikiski, Alaska.
“We would also sometimes take refined products down to Washington and California,” she explained. “I sailed as an (Able Bodied Seaman), and then as Third Mate. It was a great training platform because it was a busy run with quick turnarounds and lots of tank washing. It got me ready for cold Alaskan winters.”
Rycraft currently sails as Chief Mate on Foss’s tug Iver Foss serving Red Dog Mine, a zinc and lead mine in Alaska’s northwest Arctic region.
“Tugboats provide a sense of community, family, and teamwork that I haven’t found anywhere else in the industry,” she said. “The camaraderie is bar-none the best part of my job, but I also like the diversity of my days. We might be on our third barge movement of the day – which might seem repetitive and routine – but there are always variables that keep it fun.”
“As a female mariner, I have to say that I find it a mark of pride to work for a prominent maritime company that was started in the 1800s by a woman.”
Rycraft worked previously on the Denise Foss built in the company’s Rainier Shipyard in Oregon.
Rycraft with Denise Tabbutt, the namesake of the Denise Foss Arctic Class Tug built at Rainier Shipyard.
“It felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she said. “I’d never worked on a vessel while it was still being built, and I certainly hadn’t worked on one during the outfitting process. It was so incredibly satisfying to see the Denise Foss move from ‘unfinished’ to ‘polished and ready to go.’”
And while shipbuilding in general is on the decline, Rycraft said the Rainier Shipyard is still producing beautiful vessels.
“After working in the yard for a few weeks, you start to realize that you know most of the faces there – it’s a small yard producing large results. It’s very impressive.”
Rycraft said her greatest career challenge thus far has been navigating the industry’s options: everything from career paths to employers.
“I’ve really had to trust my gut and the timing of opportunities,” she said. “Working at Foss isn’t something I envisioned, but it’s been hands-down one of the best turns my career has taken. Thea Foss – what a lady. As a female mariner, I have to say that I find it a mark of pride to work for a prominent maritime company that was started in the 1800s by a woman.”
As for the future, Rycraft is looking to continue improving her skills set on tugboats.
“Shifting from deep-sea shipping to tug-and-tow has meant that my skill set isn’t perfectly geared towards my current position,” she said. “I’m working on getting up to speed – the fresh challenge has been good.”
Rycraft and crew that first sailed the Denise FossAlso a challenge, she said, was making past the “tough parts” of her career so far.
“I’d find myself on a tough ship, where maybe I didn’t fit in very well or wasn’t jiving with the crew, and I’d always try to make the best of things,” she said. “I think there easily could have been times when I hung up my hat and moved into a shoreside position. If I’d done that I wouldn’t be where I am now – and that’d be a shame, because I’m having a blast.”
Rycraft describes herself as “a little boring.” When she disembarks, she heads home to Hilo.
“I love fixing up my house and putzing around in the yard. I love my hometown, and I try not to miss the Farmer’s Market. I spend a lot of time with my family and friends, and I make sure I get in some beach barbecues before it’s time to go back to work.”
But there’s always time for the occasional ambitious trip:
“My biggest hobby is probably traveling,” she concluded. “A little adventuring is always good for the soul.”