Author: Nancy Taylor Robson
Year Published: Original 1985 – Republished 2022
“Nerdection Must Read”
A tugboat worker bound to his first marriage is a rare find. To find a woman active in the industry in the mid to late ‘70s was rarer still. In an effort to beat the odds, Nancy is invited onto the tug captained by her husband, Gary. Her initial skepticism gives way to an unshakable addiction to the physically demanding, gritty and unpredictable nature of a mariner’s lifestyle.
Woman in the Wheelhouse tells a story of a pioneer. Nancy, a woman with steel resolve, navigates a career in the overwhelmingly male-dominated field of tug boating. Brought onto the boat with her initial assignment as part-time crew chef, sussing out the dynamic of the five person team is Nancy’s main priority.
Unaccustomed to having a feminine presence onboard the boat with them, discomfort hung heavy in the air, mingling with the industrial smell of their metallic living quarters.
Soon, Progress—a vessel repurposed into a tugboat from its original use as a World War Two watercraft—and everyone aboard starts to feel like home. The nuanced personality traits of the people on Nancy’s team and the quirky, sometimes temperamental disposition of the equipment become predictable enough to be accounted for before and during any action Nancy takes. They settle into a comfortable, yet labor intensive routine intermittently disrupted by unexpected tasks, foul weather and changes in their itinerary.
As we come to learn, life on the water isn’t always a bed of roses. Personality clashes, meddlesome accidents and the inescapable pressures of bureaucracy rear their ugly heads every so often. Her gender, considered an aberration by those confident enough to vocalize it, causes Nancy to stick out as brightly a constantly glowing beacon against the darkest of skies. In a field where most occupants’ opinions of women are heavily steeped with misogynistic sentiment, securing long term work is reliant upon the kindness—if not pliability—of a somewhat progressive minority.
Daring to venture further afield from the routes she cut her teeth on, Nancy is ripped out of her comfort zone and flung far out into the waters of the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico. Different rules apply in territories where corrupt officials claim sovereignty. Obtaining the necessary tugboat license allowing her to seek out work as a mate is a stab at taking fate into her own hands. Armed with the correct documentation, Nancy is left to face the daunting prospect of what the next chapters of her life have to offer.
My Take on Woman in the Wheelhouse
This book is a crash course in tugboat operations. Aside from its extremely high entertainment value, it serves as a useful guide to anyone with even the slightest of curiosities in the inner workings of this specific maritime industry. Nancy’s personification of the machinery in her surroundings, particularly when describing the tug and the movements of the barges are especially resonant. To go as far as assigning human characteristics to inanimate objects is an expression of unbridled passion from the writer.
As I read on, and as my familiarity with certain parts and processes increased, affection for an activity, a vocation so vastly removed from those most often considered, rubbed off on me. The orthographic dissection carried out between the pages puts the anatomy of a tugboat on full display. Through the power of our imagination, we’re made to wander into the cramped corners of Progress, feel the shuddering of the engine beneath the metal deck or hear the loud complaints of the capstan as several lengths of rope place it under incredible strain.
This may not have been the intention of the author but she may have unwittingly lured a fair few readers into researching more about tugboating, giving it a serious amount of consideration. So immersive was the experience that our real world perceptions towards a niche industry have been altered in an irreversible way.
Obscure emotions included in this story are narrated in such an affecting way, further strengthening the bond created in the first few chapters of this autobiography. The world we exist in today overwhelms through overstimulation and the crippling effects of the overchoice phenomenon. Take, for example, the scenes describing Nancy’s first navigation down the Hudson River and her brief explanation of the repetitive, almost meditative qualities of quotidian life aboard a tugboat. Her method of delivery strikes accord with people who wish for a similar, simplified lifestyle; where actions are imperative, dictated by necessity and are carried out with enough focus to eventually achieve mental clarity as there is no room for much else. Or in the case of the journey down the Hudson, a similar experience of having at some point felt like an observer watching a scene from a distance.
Woman in the Wheelhouse gives us truthful storytelling. Oftentimes in autobiographies, protagonists tend to embellish their positions, injecting grandiosity into a multitude of trivial acts. I’ve noticed recounts that do not accurately align with well documented, sometimes historical events in literature I’ve read within the same genre. Emotions some may consider to be negative—fear, embarrassment, humiliation—are amended with witty retorts or scrubbed completely from the final draft. In this book, they are left intact. The trips, the falls, the insults received, the silly misunderstandings, all of it. The self awareness Nancy has is refreshing. Readers, like myself, appreciate authenticity. Even in stories where the deception cannot be proved, it is felt. And when authenticity is absent, it is sorely missed.
In closing, Woman in the Wheelhouse is a book I could see myself returning to year after year for the guaranteed enjoyment it will bring me. Exploring the remaining titles in Nancy Taylor Robson’s catalog has made its way onto my agenda.
Mentions of prostitution, violence, battery and sexually explicit material. Misogynistic and racist themes are included in this book.
16 years and above
About The Author Of Woman in the Wheelhouse
Nancy Taylor Robson is one of the first women in the country to earn a US Coast Guard license to run coastal tugboats. She came to the water naturally. She grew up sailing and building boats with her father on the Chesapeake Bay. She worked as a housepainter, desk clerk and yacht maintenance person while in college. After earning a degree in history from University of Maryland, she married and went to work alongside her husband as cook/deckhand on an 85-foot tugboat built during WWII. She earned her license while running tugs and barges the length of the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, including one two-month stretch on a supply boat in the Gulf of Mexico’s Campeche oil fields. Her first book, Woman in The Wheelhouse (Tidewater Publishers) is a memoir of the six years she worked at sea until the birth of her first child.
Her second book, Course of the Waterman (River City Publishing), the novel of a young Eastern Shore waterman, won the Fred Bonnie award in 2003 and a bronze award from ForeWord for Novel of The Year in 2004. Her third book, second novel, A Love Like No Other: Abigail and John Adams, A Modern Love Story, (Head to Wind Publishing) takes readers into the lives of the new nation’s strong-willed second First Lady and her stubborn, irascible, often-absent and adored husband. Her fourth book, OK Now What? A Caregiver’s Guide to What Matters (Head to Wind Publishing) was written in collaboration with Sue Collins, RN, and longtime hospice nurse.
In addition to the books, Robson has been a freelance writer for many years. She has written personal essays, features, maritime reporting and analysis, travel, garden and more for such places as The Washington Post, Yachting, House Beautiful, The Baltimore Sun, the Christian Science Monitor, Southern Living, Sailing, Woodenboat and more. For three years, she was the senior editor of The Chestertown Spy, for which she also wrote weekly garden and food columns. She is also a University of Maryland Master Gardener, who grows and cans the family’s fruits and vegetables and blogs occasionally for the university’s Grow It Eat It blog. She writes, sails, races sailboats (occasionally), walks the husky, and cooks for family and friends.