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Captain Molly Kool

by Allison Brewer | November 7, 2000

Long before the Hollywood movie The Perfect Storm, and the adventures of the men on the Andrea Gail, women had begun to make an impact on life on the sea. Given the seafaring traditions of the Atlantic Provinces of Canada, it is perhaps fitting that the first North American woman to be a ticketed sea captain came from a small New Brunswick village in the Bay of Fundy.

Captain Gunderson of the Norwegian steamship, Salamis, had no idea what lay ahead that summer afternoon in 1938 as he steamed up the Petitcodiac River to the public wharf at Moncton. He wanted a berth before low tide forced him back down river, and the crusty old Norseman was accustomed to getting his way. A single bellow from the powerful whistle of his steamer was enough to send one of the two vessels docked at the wharf on its way. But the other, a small scow named the Jean K, her decks piled high with lumber, stood her ground. She was there first and there she intended to stay.

The steamer closed in and two sailors jumped aboard the Jean K intending to cast off her lines and be done with it. To their astonishment, they were met by a woman brandishing a stout piece of lumber, ordering them off the scow. The woman meant business, and the young men were sent scurrying back to their ship.

Although they didn’t know it then, it turned out the seamen had tangled with Molly Kool, first mate on her father’s scow and soon to be the first registered woman sea captain in North America; second in the world (the first was a woman from Russia who was ticketed just a few months before Molly).

Molly’s story began in Alma, one of the small villages that line the coast on the New Brunswick side of the Bay of Fundy. It was there on April 19, 1939, that she received a telegram from the navigation school at Yarmouth, Nova Scotia containing the news she had passed the exam for her master’s ticket, an accomplishment that would give her a certificate of competency as a master mariner. Her new status entitled her to command a steam or motor propelled vessel anywhere on the coast of North America. At the time, there were no provisions to reflect that women might ever acquire the experience and ability to command such a vessel, so the shipping laws of Canada had to be rewritten to include them.

Indeed, her wish to become a master mariner caused an uproar a the time. It was considered a joke that a woman would want to study navigation. The laughter, however, subsided when it became clear Molly was among the best students in the class.

Molly was born February 23, 1916, the daughter of Myrtle Anderson and Paul Kool. She was the second of five children – four girls and a boy. Her father came to Canada from Holland in 1912 and settled in Alma, where he built a small coastal freighter christened the Jean K, after his eldest daughter. But it was Molly who adapted the best to life on the bay; a life aptly described by Francis Bowker at a dinner in Molly’s honour in 1979:

The world she faced was a world of ships and men and a hard life of freighting lumber, logs, gravel or such freight as could earn a living on the cold waters of the Bay of Fundy, in fog and snow, in gales and calms, ploughing through drift ice, fighting and working the greatest tides in the world and struggling to stay alongside a ship in rough weather as lumber was loaded aboard for other parts.

It was Molly’s father who taught her the ways of the sea. Paul Kool was a stern but gentle father who never felt the need to go over the same lesson twice. Molly learned to do everything on the scow. She could repair the engine, run the winch, handle the lines and set the sails, but she was equally handy at cooking, sewing canvas or splicing rope as needed.

Working a scow on the Bay of Fundy, one of the most unpredictable bodies of water in the world, could be treacherous. One time, the Jean K was run down by a steamer in dense fog. Molly, thrown overboard, then sucked under by thrashing propellers, managed to narrowly escape death by grabbing onto a floating timber. While passengers and crew on the steamer rained life rings around her, Molly yelled: “I’m already floating. Stop throwing useless stuff at me and send a boat!”

It was no wonder Molly captured the attention, if not the imagination, of the media during the 1940s, and they followed her career with some interest. Still, while newspaper accounts at the time portrayed her as pretty and frivolous, a girl adrift in a man’s work, her action revealed she was a woman of courage, endurance and tenacity.

That is what the men on the Salamis found out. It seemed Captain Gunderson thought he could win a berth at the Moncton wharf by further bullying the small scow, so he used the force of his vessel to pry the Jean K loose. Molly and her deck mate jumped to safety just in time, and the Jean K drifted onto a mud flat. But Molly was still unwilling to back down, and after her lawyers finished with the hapless Captain Gunderson, the Jean K had be rewarded financially for her trouble and Molly’s reputation as a force to be reckoned with was secure.

Molly sailed as a sea captain for five years before getting married to Ray Blaisdell of Bucksport, Maine, in 1944. She never went back to work on the sea, even though she would have qualified for any number of jobs aboard boats both Canadian and international. Blaisdell died, and she married John Carney of Orrington, Maine. They bought a boat to sail for pleasure. But Molly always worked, among other things selling Singer sewing machines for a living.

resources for this story
  • No Easy Road: women in Canada 1920s to 1960s, by BETH LIGHT and RUTH ROACH PIERSON, eds., ISBN 0919940242
  • The New Day Recalled; Lives of Girls and Women in English Canada, 1919–1939, by VERONICA STRONG-BOAG, ISBN 0773053581

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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