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Women at the Helm: USVI’s Captain Kelsey Dunn

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Captain Kelsey Dunn
Captain Kelsey Dunn

A long-time love of the water, chance to work side-by-side with her husband and the prospect of seeing and learning something new every day is what led Kelsey Dunn to obtain her 100-ton captain’s license and run term yacht charters. What’s impressive is that Dunn wasn’t born with a silver tiller in her hand nor did it take something superhuman for her to reach this successful stage in her career. Rather, Dunn’s voyage to becoming one of a minority of women charter captains is something that provides inspiration for young women who would like to follow in her wake.

“I was always on and around the water while growing up,” says Dunn, a Vermont, USA-native, who, with husband Tyler co-captain and crew the Lagoon 56, Playtime. “Swimming was second nature, and I learned about the same time as I learned to walk. When I was eight, I started sailing with my best friend and her family on their sail boat on Lake Champlain at first, then Long Island Sound. My friend’s grandfather showed us the lines and how the sails worked with the wind rather than against it. We kept sailing together all through college. Some of my fondest memories are of the silly and wonderful adventures we had out there.”

Kelsey is also a SCUBA instructor
Kelsey is also a SCUBA instructor

Dunn attended Queen’s University, located on Lake Ontario, Canada, where she studied Environmental Science and fell in love with scuba diving. After graduation, and with a desire to find warmer water, she accepted an internship in Key Largo, Florida, to become a scuba instructor. It was here she realized that she enjoyed working on and around boats as much as she did diving. That led Dunn to start cataloging her sea time and slowly build up the hours required for a U.S. Coast Guard captain’s license.

“I met my husband during my Key Largo internship and we both shared a love of diving and sailing. We moved together to St. John and I started working on the big catamarans that ran day trips in the U.S. and British Virgin Islands out of the Westin St. John, Caneel Bay Resort and Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas.”

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The Dunns soon realized that they were both working 16-hour-plus days, but often on different schedules such that they hardly saw each other. That’s when they decided to swap day chartering for term chartering and spend 24 hours a day together. It’s a situation that works because of the couple’s cardinal rule. That is, they split all duties, everything from cooking and cleaning to driving and fixing generators at 3:00am. Dunn says it’s a nice balance and the variety keeps them both fresh and upbeat.

Kelsey and Tyler
Kelsey and Tyler

“I like that my job incorporates everything I love to do even when I’m not working. That is, sailing and diving. Plus, being able to make a living doing something that is challenging as well as rewarding feels like a blessing. Every day is an adventure and the ‘office’ has a different view every day,” she says.

Dunn sees opportunities for female captains in the Caribbean and world.

“People really like to see strong women who know what they are doing. I know a lot of companies and employers who are actively seeking out female captains to even out the dynamics of crews,” she says.

Finally, what recommendations does Dunn offer future female captains?

“Keep learning. All the time. Every time something goes wrong or something breaks is an opportunity to learn how to fix it. The more knowledge you have, the more self-sufficient you are. Many times, there is no one to turn to but yourself and the more information and training you have makes you better able to handle all types of situations,” she says.

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Carol M. Bareuther, RD, is a St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands based marine writer and registered dietitian.

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