First female permanent captain of Cape May-Lewes Ferry sets course of history

Sharon Urban of Cape May, New Jersey, was recently named the first permanent captain of the Cape May-Lewes Ferry (Submitted photo)

LEWES — Sharon Urban first started working for the Cape-May Lewes Ferry in food service as a summer job in 1991. Almost two decades later, she was recently appointed the first permanent female captain in the ferry’s 56-year history.

“I just went there for a summer job basically, and I never left,” Capt. Urban said. “I found it interesting watching the rest of the crew so I ended up staying and collecting my sea time and just moving up each step of the way.”

Capt. Urban said she’s drawn to working on the water, as her father was a commercial fisherman in her youth. Her favorite part of being on the ferry is watching the dolphins.

“I love them,” Capt. Urban said. “It sounds simple, but really the view is great.”

At the ferry, she started from the bottom as an ordinary seaman, responsible for cleaning and safety measures. As she collected more time at sea, she graduated to an able-bodied seaman, then a permanent mate, and eventually becoming a permanent pilot before being appointed as captain.

Capt. Urban said the strong support she received from her crewmates inspired her to keep working.

“I saw other people ahead of me continuing on and getting permanent jobs and I just thought, the people here are great,” she said.

“I always loved the people. It’s kind of like a family there. They all pushed me and supported me in anything I wanted to do with moving up. So, it was definitely a place I wanted to stay.”

Port Capt. Derek Robinson said he first met Capt. Urban in 2017 when he began working for the ferry.

“When I first started in May of 2017, I came in completely new to the ferry,” he said. “She was working in the office on scheduling for the coming season. So, I sat with her quite a bit. She taught me a lot about our scheduling system, how we operate. … She taught me how all that worked. It was actually very helpful to me and very nice. We got along very well.”

Capt. Robinson spoke at length about Capt. Urban’s positive attributes as permanent captain.

“She makes a very good captain. She is good with her crew, number one. She has a good command authority. She most definitely can communicate with them and get them to do what she needs done,” Capt. Robinson said. “She is also an excellent boat handler. These boats are 300-feet long. They’re in shallow water, tight spaces,and usually surrounded by rocks. She does an excellent job of maneuvering and handling the vessel.”

He also emphasized her positive impact on passengers.

“The third part of that position that she has is dealing with our passengers, and she’s very good about that,” he said. “She very much looks out for her passengers. She cares that people are getting what they want. A lot of what we do is seasonal stuff, a lot of summertime running. So with whale announcements and all those things, she makes sure the passengers are having a good time.”

Becoming a permanent captain requires experience handling the ship like a captain would, a practice called “sailing up”.’In addition to her exhaustive training and years of sea time, Capt. Urban is also trained in marine firefighting, marine radio and radar operations and administering CPR.

She said when she was a pilot, she wanted to learn as much from the previous captains as she could.

Capt. Urban hopes her promotion as first permanent female captain can inspire people regardless of their gender.

“I wanted to have a lot of time before I reached the captain position, because it’s a big position. I take it very seriously,” She said. “I’m a very hands-on learning kind of person, and as pilot you get to learn how to ship handle, as the captain allows. That’s where I’ve learned everything from the captains before that have allowed me to handle the boat and shown me things I needed to know. I definitely appreciated that.”

Capt. Urban, 48, of Cape May, New Jersey, is the first permanent female captain, but she clarified that there are other women on the fleet, and they do fill in as temporary captain when needed, “sailing up” much like Capt. Urban would before she became permanent captain.

She said she hopes her promotion as first permanent female captain can inspire people regardless of their gender.

“I’m pretty much a wallflower, so all this fanfare is a lot for me. But I understand that this is a big deal for women, and a lot of women,” she said. “Man or woman, you can do this. Hopefully, this will inspire somebody else to want to do it as well.”

Capt. Robinson said the ferry has worked hard to promote from within over recent years, so he expects more female seafarers will follow in Capt. Urban’s footsteps in the future.

“My predecessor, his name is Captain Stan Hansen, he really began the process of promoting people from within. He made sure the training was available, and he pushed people, and (Capt. Urban) was one of them,” Capt. Robinson said.

“And that very much worked out for us. It’s become a model that we try to follow. There are a couple young women behind Capt. Urban who will more than likely follow the same steps.”