A Pilot Pioneer

For some, the Chesapeake is a tantalizing view from an office window. For others, the waterway represents a livelihood. For the lucky and dedicated, like Maryland Pilot Alison Buckler, the Bay is at once an office, a passion and an opportunity to blaze a trail (dare we say create a wake?). While much of Buckler’s education and career has been in a relative boys’ club, she has busted through preconceived notions about women in the maritime industry, and she hopes to encourage others to join the ranks of those who don’t hold back and aren’t held back in the profession.

Buckler is the daughter of a secret service agent in Northern Virginia and a 2002 graduate of United States Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point where she was the regimental commander, the highest rank for a midshipman. Her first gig out of school was on a Delaware River tug working for the MariTrans shipping company. Later, a job offer came in from the Alaska Tanker Company. The tug captain she was working for told her she would be an idiot not to take the job. So, even though she loved what she was doing, she said yes to spending the next two years (three months on and three months off) on an oil tanker running crude between Valdez and various ports along the U.S. West Coast and across the Pacific for refit work. 

In 2004, Buckler returned to Maryland and joined the Association of Maryland Pilots. While working as a Bay pilot she realized how Annapolis was home to many maritime professionals, shipping brokers, business owners, pilots and the like, and with a maritime neighbor Brian Houst formed the Annapolis Maritime Society in 2013. The group gets together regularly for happy hours and the holidays to talk shop and have fun. 

Buckler holds an Unlimited Tonnage Masters License and has first class pilotage certification for the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. These days, she alternates between piloting ships in and out of Baltimore and spending quality time at home with her husband, Jesse, who is also a Bay pilot, and their six-year-old daughter, Sophia. The Bucklers try to work on the same schedule so the family can be together more often
than not. 

Navigating 200,000 tons of ship through the diverse seascape of the Chesapeake can be a formidable task. “The Bay is unique because of the sheer amount of area that it covers. We have everything,” Buckler says. “There’s so much to understand and know about the Bay. It’s so different from day to day.” Buckler’s job is to safely pilot a vessel into or out of the Port of Baltimore, which can be downright challenging, especially through heavily trafficked areas. “The Bay is a lot bigger for someone on a powerboat or a sailboat than it is for me on a ship,” she says. While the average pleasure cruiser on the Bay may see open water while studying a chart, it’s not quite so for Buckler and her ship. Using the center span of the Bay Bridge as an example, Buckler notes that a solitary boater bobbing in the channel can quickly complicate things. A ship needs a wide berth. “It’s fabulous that we have a bay that so many people enjoy. It’s important to enjoy it in a safe way. The Bay is a lot of things for a lot of people, but it’s also a commercial waterway,” she says. 

One might wonder if spending the majority of her educational and professional life in male-dominant environments has been tough for Buckler. “It’s all I’ve known. It’s what’s always been a part of my life since I graduated high school,” she says. She adds that although certain points in time have been challenging, the fact that she’s a female pilot hasn’t been. Buckler doesn’t have blinders on to what being a woman in her profession may mean to some, but it’s pretty clear that her confidence and laser- focus on the work have left little opportunity for her to go anywhere but up. “Being a female in this job, I have the unique platform of saying that females can do anything. It is possible,” she says. “I don’t feel like there’s a glass ceiling in my industry. Or, if there is a glass ceiling, I’m not aware of it. The maritime industry needs more women and, contrary to popular perception, it’s a great career option for women.” 

Among her professional acquaintances, Buckler’s captaining reputation has nothing to do with her gender and everything to do with her robust skill set and attitude. Captain John Colgan, Vice President of the Association of Maryland Pilots, has known Buckler since she was an apprentice. “It is a privilege to work alongside a person like Alison; she is always professional in her manner and ability. There are many times when piloting requires a cool head and decisive action. Alison has always had that,” he says. Captain Bill Smith, who was a year behind Buckler at Kings Point, has worked with her for the past decade. “She’s a great partner, and a great pilot,” he says. “Not only do I have to be proficient and very skilled in handling my ship correctly, you’ve got to be able to trust the other pilot that’s meeting you on another ship, in the dark, in the fog, in a real small channel,” Smith says. “She’s definitely got the trust and the confidence. I would never even question whether I’d meet her in a certain area.” 

Smith says Buckler is a pioneer within her generation of Maryland pilots, which includes “some of most well-trained pilots in the country, if not the world, due to the length of the Bay and the many different types of piloting that we have to do on one trip.” Of the extensive training required, Smith says Buckler was “one of the first to go through that program, and we all followed suit, and now she’s leading the way.” 

And as she sets the course, Buckler’s also setting the bar high for anyone—male or female—who
is up for showing what can be accomplished with plenty of confidence, character and a deep appreciation of the Chesapeake.

—Laura Boycourt

Mike Ogar