It would be nothing short of a prodigious understatement to say Kathryn Whittaker has an office with a view. Likewise, her current stature is an epic voyage distant from a summer job hostessing aboard a tour boat in Toronto harbour.
On March 10 of 2018, the former St. Thomas resident was promoted to captain of the Sea Cloud II, a magnificent 94-passenger tall ship built in Spain in 2000 and operated by Sea Cloud Cruises of Germany.
The firm notes she is the first female Canadian captain of a passenger cruise ship and the first female captain for Sea Cloud.
Whittaker just completed a trip from the Caribbean back to Spain on April 18 and we caught up with her Friday (April 20) at her Ottawa home.
Recounting her career path from the foot of Bay Street in Toronto to life spent on open waters should commence with tales of her early years in a sea-faring family.
However, nothing could be further from the truth.
No one in her family, including her four brothers, ever dreamed of sailing in their future and so, for Whittaker – who attended Wellington Street School and graduated from Central Elgin Collegiate Institute – it wasn’t a case of living the dream.
“It was completely accidental,” she recalled. “I was in Toronto at Ryerson and my brother had a restaurant in town and he sold it and that was going to be my summer job.
“One of the girls I was going to school with said she just got a job on a tour boat and they need more crew. And I said, ‘what’s crew?’
“I went down and filled out a resume and they said be there today at four o’clock. I was just a hostess picking up plates, but it was pretty fantastic and I got the bug pretty early.”
She was 19 at the time and never anticipated that modest introduction would wend its way to a career.
“It was my summer job when I was in Toronto. I went sailing on Sea Cloud as a deck hand in 1996. I was just taking two years off to go sailing. It seemed like an interesting way to go see the world. And one thing led to another and here I am.”
It’s a voyage that brought her to, of all places, Port Stanley one summer aboard the brigantine Fair Jeanne, based out of Ottawa.
“Things just kept happening. One led to another. I never made a conscious decision. I want to enjoy what I do in life and I enjoy sailing and I enjoy being at sea.”
After a half-dozen years as the chief officer on Sea Cloud II, Whittaker felt she was perhaps a year or two away from rising to captain and so the March announcement just altered her course somewhat.
“It was a little overwhelming at first. I had been studying for my captain’s licence for a few years. I got it a year ago. It was in the plans for the next few years. It just happened a little sooner than anticipated.
“There were a lot of butterflies, but I had been on board the ship for the previous four months so I knew a lot of what was going on. I had a week with the captain on board to go over things and get a good hand over.”
And that first trip as captain, responsible for 94 passengers and a crew of more than 60?
“It’s certainly a different feeling. As chief officer I was in charge of the maintenance of the ship, the deck crew and that side of things. As captain, I have a more overall view of all of the departments and everything going on.
“Having all the eyes looking to me was certainly a bit of a different feeling. Every so often a question would come up and I would say I can go ask the captain . . . oh, no,” she laughed.
In addition, the crew is international, so at any given moment there are anywhere from 10 to 15 different nationalities she deals with.
Aboard a ship that relies on sail power for much of the time. That includes a main mast that rises 57 metres from the waterline.
“We have two good-sized engines on board. We use the engines a lot to position ourselves so we can go sailing during the daytime with the passengers.
“If it’s possible we will sail overnight if we have good steady winds and we can make our destination. We have ETAs (estimated time of arrivals) to make.
It’s very spectacular to see. We still set the sails in a traditional way,
which means the crew are climbing aloft to prepare everything. It’s a bit of a show for the passengers to see and watch it all happen.”
For Whittaker, it’s a case of been there, done that.
“When I was starting out I was part of the deck crew so I would climb rigging. I was a deck hand many years ago on the Sea Cloud, every day we were climbing rigging.
“And as chief officer, I was doing inspections so I would still climb the rigging. It’s fantastic to see everything. The view is beautiful. I’m not quite as fast as I used to be going up there now.”
For the passengers, it’s not just about sailing, it’s in sharp contrast to the massive cruise ships with a passenger complement the size of a small town.
“A lot of the passengers like the smaller ships. It is much more of an intimate atmosphere, and you do get more connection. We have an open bridge policy, so the passengers are allowed come up and speak with the officers and captain and have a look at the equipment.”
She hasn’t quite sailed to the four corners of the world, but her travel log is still impressive with trips that can last as long as 18 days.
“I haven’t done a lot of sailing in the Pacific Ocean. Most of my sailing has been North America, the northern part of South America, Europe and I’ve done Atlantic crossings.”
Which can put her face to face with whatever weather is served up and how, as captain, she intends to deal with the possibilities.
“We rely a lot on the internet to get weather. You have to watch carefully and see what the weather is doing and try to get around it if you can. When you’re out in the middle of the ocean, you’ve got no place to hide.”
Obviously, the powers-to-be were impressed with her decision-making abilities.
“When the opportunity arose for our crewing manager to promote Whittaker, who conveys dedication and love for her job, to captain the decision was easy,” managing director of Sea Cloud Cruises, Daniel Schäfer, told Cruise Industry News.
“In a very male-dominated industry, we are thrilled to have a very qualified woman for the highest position on a ship,” he added.”
Whittaker returns home to Ottawa every three months or so and still makes the jaunt to St. Thomas to visit family.
Although, she confides, her brothers still don’t fully comprehend the life she leads.
“None of them quite understand what I do. They enjoy hearing the stories when I come back and all the nieces and nephews are following what I do.”
And what if one of those youngsters wants to follow in her footsteps?
“You have to get in there and give it a try,” counsels Whittaker. “It seems like a pretty fantastic and romantic world to get in to. But there is a lot of work.
“Get in there, give it a try and work your way up. This is a very different lifestyle. It’s not for everybody. But if you don’t give it a try, you’ll never know.”
Most important, you never stop learning. A good piece of advice we could all benefit from.
“Every day, 10 times a day, I say every day is a school day. We’re learning all the time on board. And we have to keep on learning.”
BY THE NUMBERS
Interesting comparison piece issued this week by St. Thomas Police Chief Chris Herridge illustrating how the city’s policing stacks up against national standards.
According to data collected and compiled by Police Resources in Canada 2017 Statistics Canada, last year was the sixth consecutive year in which police strength across the country declined.
In 2017, the average across Canada was 188 officers per 100,000 population. That’s down from 190 in 2016, with Ontario averaging 187 officers per 100,000.
How does that translate locally?
Based on policing resource statistics, with a population of roughly 40,000, the city should have about 75 officers in the service.
According to Herridge, the current complement is 70.
That lower number can be due to several factors, including differences in policing priorities, policies, procedures, enforcement practices and availability of resources.
Turning to operational costs, in 2016/17 the average per capita cost across Canada was $315. St. Thomas compares very favourably at $286.47.
Herridge notes, “Our department remains mindful of the costs involved in providing policing to our residents and strives to deliver exceptional service while maintaining the resources to do so.”
Where the city lags slightly is in the number of female officers. Across the country, 21 per cent of officers are female. In itself, that is an embarrassingly low number.
The St. Thomas Police Service employs 13 female officers, 19 per cent of sworn members.
Herridge notes one female cadet will be attending the Ontario Police College next month, bringing the figure to 20 per cent.
“We aim to increase that percentage even higher in the near future,” adds Herridge. Another six women are employed as Special Constables in Court Services.”
No mention of Aboriginal or visible minority representation, either nationally or in the city’s police service.
WILL HEALTH UNIT MERGER RESULT IN COST EFFICIENCIES?
The health units in Elgin/St. Thomas and Oxford officially become Southwestern Public Health on May 1. The aim of the new body – to serve approximately 204,000 residents – “is to enhance programs and services by pooling resources, allowing public health to better respond to the unique needs of their small urban and large rural communities,” according to a release from Tommasina Conte at Oxford County Public Health.
Local membership on the board of directors will be composed of St. Thomas Mayor Heather Jackson, County of Elgin Warden Dave Marr, West Elgin Mayor Bernie Wiehle and St. Thomas Coun. Steve Wookey.
A new chairperson will be announced at the May 1 board meeting.
With senior executive retirements in Oxford, Elgin St. Thomas Public Health CEO Cynthia St. John will assume the same position at the merged body while
Dr. Joyce Lock from the local health unit will become the medical officer of health at Southwestern Public Health.
No word on the $1.7 million request to the Ministry of Health & Long-Term Care for provincial one-time funding to support the planning and implementation costs of the merger over the next 12 to 18 months.
Back in January, Oxford County Warden David Mayberry noted “as councillors and board members, we are taking a great deal of care, consideration and due diligence so that we can be confident we are offering our communities a better future for public health services.”
But, no mention anywhere of cost efficiencies and a possible cost benefit analysis, as proposed by Dutton Dunwich Mayor Cameron McWilliam at the April 10 meeting of Elgin county council.
At that same meeting, Wiehle advised any savings will not be immediate, but will be benefits in the long term.
He was hoping to have a report available for the next county council meeting April 24.
Health unit collaboration augurs new direction for healthcare in Elgin and Oxford
WE’RE NOT LOVIN’ IT
With the focus of late on the terrible toll plastic litter is inflicting on the environment, it comes as a shock at least one McDonald’s franchise in London is saying screw recycling, it’s not worth the bother.
A visit to the outlet at 1033 Wonderland South at Southdale for a coffee yesterday provided stark proof recycling isn’t on the menu at this particular venue.
When looking for a place to deposit the recyclable plastic lids, a staffer said they no longer sort the garbage because customers don’t take the time to recycle.
On many visits to the Golden Arches I have witnessed staff picking up cups and other refuse and disposing of it, not the customers.
Is this a corporate decision or a move by the franchisee to cut corners in light of the minimum wage hike Jan. 1?
On their website is this warm and fuzzy declaration.
“That’s why we work directly with our suppliers who are committed to doing business responsibly in their own supply chains and making sure that they meet our requirements for ethics, environmental responsibility and economic viability – what we call the Three Es.
Well, one of the Es is missing at 1033 Wonderland.
Whatever the case, it is not the sign of a good corporate neighbour. More so, as at the nearby Tim Hortons – and most that I have visited – the customers clearly take the time to separate recyclables from the garbage stream.
What’s the situation at the McDonald’s you frequent? Is recycling a priority? Check it out on your next visit and let us know.
THE ‘MO’ IN BMO STANDS FOR MOVE
Loyal customers of another St. Thomas bank branch will soon experience a case of the withdrawal blues as the BMO branch on Elm Street is about to be shuttered.
In this case, there is a downtown BMO branch, although any hint of customer convenience being a priority for the big banks is clearly a non-starter in St. Thomas with four branches closing of late.
It’s all about consolidation, don’t you know. How else do you guarantee record profits for shareholders?
In any event, at least one customer is p’d off, based on his comments sent our way.
“Open for decades, this branch has a loyal following — many of them seniors — for its pleasant and knowledgeable staff who personally know most of the customers,” he writes.
“The bank is easily assessable to a wide area of parking, banking machines, and offices. Night time customers to the bank machines feel safe in the well-lit, open exposure.
“Bank staff, many long-term employees at the location, have been told they will be transferred — many to the Talbot Street branch and others to area locations,” continues our well-informed bank informant.
“There is a caveat to the ‘transfer’ however. Hours will be shortened for some, time will be also spent bouncing to various area branches such as Aylmer, with no reciprocal costs for time travel and fuel.
“Banking customers are disgruntled, to say the least, that no public consultation was sought, no reasons given for the abandonment, no concern for its customers/staff, and the move is to a lesser quality uptown establishment.
“The Talbot Street branch, they point out, has cramped parking, its banking machines are in the rear and possibly unsafe at night, and its offices/tellers are more difficult to reach.
“Just an example of a corporate giant, that reaps millions in profits annually, flexing its ‘I-don’t-give-a-damn’ muscles by bullying its unappreciated customers, who they feel must comply or go elsewhere.
Elsewhere may well be where many will be heading. Talbot Street East banking establishments are attracting attention and conversation from many at the First and Elm branch.
“Time will tell!!!”
Do the above two items leave you feeling the new universal corporate mantra is, ‘Where the customer comes first . . . when it’s convenient for us.’
Questions and comments may be emailed to: City Scope
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