By Sarah Burford (Military Sealift Command Pacific) – On April 3, Military Sealift Command will bid “Fair Winds and Following Seas” to one of its most recognizable employees, Capt. Emigdia Esqueda, or Capt. Amy as most know her. A 36-year employee of MSC, Esqueda pioneered the way for female mariners and became a mentor and role model for many people who sailed with her. She is most notably recognized as the first female Master at MSC, but her career is long and storied, and during this Women’s History Month, is reflective of the long strides women have taken in the fight for equality.
Esqueda’s career as a mariner began at Texas A&M University in Galveston, Texas, where, following several years in community college, she studied marine biology. One day she noticed a group of students dressed in khakis looking up at the night sky and curiosity got the best of her. Conversations with the students revealed they were cadets from the Texas A&M Maritime Academy. After a little research into the Merchant Marine, Esqueda was hooked, and even though it meant an extra year in school, she applied and was accepted into the program.
“I loved the idea of being a marine biologist, but they didn’t make very much money in those days,” explained Esqueda. “Since I was helping support my family, I needed a career that really paid, and the Merchant Marine was paying almost twice what marine biologists made. I’d love to say I got into this from a love for the sea or travel or something, but at the time it was out of necessity.”
People who have worked with Esqueda throughout her career are quick to point out her strong work ethic, something that could have begun while in college. Coming from simple means, she worked steadily throughout school, sometimes at three jobs, where she did everything from translating documents from Spanish to English (her parents were of Mexican descent), to waiting tables, working at hotels and anything else she could fit around her studies.
During her junior year, Esqueda was promoted from the student training ship to a position on a merchant ship. This she attributes to her good grades and lack of demerits. It was here she learned about MSC and its opportunities for newly licensed mariners. At the end of her senior year, she applied for her first MSC job and was one of the lucky cadets to get one of the seven positions offered that year.
“People in school laughed at the people who went to MSC. None of them wanted the long times at sea you had with MSC,” said Esqueda. “When the oil industry bottomed out in the early Eighties, everyone was suddenly fighting for MSC jobs. I was really happy to get one of the seven positions that year, because, I wasn’t just ending up at MSC, I had always wanted to work for MSC.”
In 1982, when Esqueda accepted her first position at MSC, women were still an uncommon sight on merchant ships. As a newly licensed 3rd Mate on USNS Ponchatoula (T-AO 148), she found herself facing daily challenges of being a woman in a man’s world as well as learning her job and how to lead.
“It was really hard in the beginning. The men weren’t very responsive to me as a woman,” explained Esqueda. “Giving an order to a man was really hard, but I learned how to stand my ground and do it, and to sometimes, do it with humor and wit that eventually won them over. I have very strong aunts and I learned about tough from them.”
Realizing confidence came from not only toughness, but a deep understanding of every part of sailing and working on a ship, Esqueda not only stood her watches and performed the duties of a 3rd Mate, but also stepped into the role of Able Seaman, where she learned seamanship from the bottom up, often with only 2-3 hours of sleep between watches.
“I would tell the men I worked with, ‘You have the work knowledge and I have the book knowledge. Let’s get together and make it work.”’
As time progressed Esqueda’s confidence built and so did the crew’s trust in her and her abilities. She credits several captains who encouraged her, challenged her and taught her how to be a Merchant Marine officer and to lead people.
“To dock your own ship for the first time is absolutely euphoric,” exclaimed Esqueda. “Then the crew says, ‘Good job!’ and you realize they noticed what you just did. OH…it’s better than anything!”
As the years went by, Esqueda transferred to ships throughout MSC, working her way up one position at a time on various MSC ships including fleet replenishment oilers, ammunition ships and scientific research ships. In 1995, she took command of USNS Effective (T-AGOS 21), becoming MSC’s first female Master. As a Master, the bulk of her career was in command of MSC’s two ocean tugboats, USNS Navajo (T-ATF 169) and USNS Sioux (T-ATF 171). From 1995 to the present, Esqueda and her crews participated in salvage and recovery missions to retrieve aircraft, sunken vessels, and helicopters from the ocean floors around the world, and towed 42 ships and submarines. Her most notable mission came on March 2, 2014 on Sioux when she and her crew rescued the Canadian tanker HMCS Protecteur who had sustained massive damage from an engine room fire at sea. When the Navy ship USS Chosin (CG 65) couldn’t complete the tow, Sioux sailed 325 nautical miles through extremely high winds and seas and towed the ship, with 298 sailors onboard, safely back to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
“I have been a part of a lot of recovery missions over the years,” said Esqueda. “Getting the 298 people on Protecteur safely to Hawaii is something I will never forget. That was the mission the Navy couldn’t do; that we weren’t supposed to be able to do, but did. That mission was a great example of how good planning and teamwork can equal success. To this day I am so proud of that crew and the good work we did on that mission.”
When asked about the success of her career, Esqueda over and over again credited the people she worked for and the crews that served under her.
“I always tried to give the very best I had and to be as good to my crew as I could be.”
This philosophy seemed to have carried through to former members of Esqueda’s crews who remembered serving with her as master.
“It was very special serving with Capt. Amy on Sioux,” said Paige Johnston, a former 3rd Mate. “She really understood that the tug was a way different platform from an oiler or a bigger ship. There are certain skill sets needed on the tugs and the crew needed to be happy and to want to stay onboard, so we could keep those skills with the ship. Capt. Amy understood this. She treated us like a family, and cared about our lives both on and off the ship. She trusted us and our skills in handling the ship, sometimes in difficult situations.”
Paul Torres, a former 2nd Mate on Sioux, credits Esqueda with his advancement to Chief Mate. “Capt. Amy was always very patient and let the officers under her really do their jobs, but wasn’t afraid to step in if she needed to,” he said. “I remember her letting me dock the ship for the first time. There are a lot of captains who will let you handle their ship, but they look over your shoulder the whole time. Capt. Amy didn’t do that. She put us in control. For a captain to let someone else step in and take control, especially when docking, is something special and it shows her level of trust in us as a crew. You didn’t see that on other ships.”
While it may sound like she has led a charmed life, Esqueda has endured many challenges. She has lost family members, including her sister, mother and father. She survived cancer. She has spent long periods of time away from her husband and family due to her shipboard assignments. She says her secret is, “putting your mind to something, pressing on and keeping the faith no matter how bleak the present might be.”
To many people, Esqueda is a role model, and they aren’t afraid to look to her for advice. She feels a particular connection to the young women mariners who are beginning their careers. After 36 years of service, you would expect her guidance to be vast and wide. Instead, it is a few simple ideas: “Stand-up tall. Be professional, and always try to be better than you have to be.”
As she looks forward to her retirement, in true Esqueda fashion, she won’t be sitting idle. Splitting her time between her homes in Oxnard, Calif., and San Antonio, Texas; working in her garden, being more involved in her church and her Star Trek club, volunteering and charity work and spending time with her husband and family are just a few of the things she is looking forward to doing.
“I’m learning how to be a housewife after all these years away at sea,” she laughed.
With her experiences and adventures tucked into her scrapbooks, Esqueda ends her career with her favorite prayer; the 107th Psalm.
“Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the great waters; the saw the deeds of the Lord, his wondrous works in the deep.”
Source: Military Sealift Command