Captain Molly Kool was the first-ever female captain in Canada, earning her master mariner’s certificate for cargo steamships in 1939. Grilled for days, Kool got 100% in her exams but she had to get the law changed so she could be awarded the title of captain. At 23, she was only the second-ever woman sea captain in the world; Russia’s Anna Ivanovna Shchetinina had earned her papers just before Cool did.
Like most mariners of his day, Captain Bob Bartlett, for whom this blog is named, wasn’t terribly fond of women at sea. The climate at sea was still chilly, at best, for women in the first half of the 20th century. It hadn’t changed much when, many years later, I was in the Canadian navy — now, with the rest of the Canadian Armed Forces, the object of an ongoing class action lawsuit.
Myrtle Greta Kool, nicknamed Molly, grew up in Alma, New Brunswick as a daredevil, jumping in icy waters and diving off cliffs. Molly’s dad was a Dutch sailor who brought his daughter onboard the Jean K, his small coastal freighter, where she helped him transport pulp and paper in the Bay of Fundy. Molly learned a great deal on the Jean K, everything from navigation to boat repairs.
Captain Kool’s sea-going career was short after she got her papers. For five years, she sailed between Boston and the Bay of Fundy. At one point she survived a fire at sea, caused by a gas explosion, with only the clothes on her back, everything else gone. Then she married, leaving her career as middle class women did almost automatically in the late 1940s and ’50s. In a short time Captain Kool was a widow but she married again, her second husband was from Maine, like her first.
The fire wasn’t Captain Kool’s first disaster at sea. As Alison Brewer wrote in section15.ca, “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!”
Captain Kool had been something of a media darling, portrayed as a ‘girl’ in a man’s world, plucky but taking space in a place she didn’t belong. Captain Kool was obviously determined and courageous. She deserved admiration.
Captain Kool died in 2007 two days after her 93rd birthday and, like Bob Bartlett’s, her obituary ran in the New York Times. She has not been forgotten. In 2019, a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker was named after her in a ceremony in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, the ship’s home base. Happily, Captain Kool’s sister, Martha Miller, was at the event, as was Governor General Julie Payette. The CCGS Molly Kool has a crew of 19 and can maintain a speed of three knots through ice up to one metre thick.
It’s a move in the right direction that Captain Kool has been recognized in such an appropriate way. If she were alive, I’d love to sit down and chat with her. I have many questions I’d ask–about her adventures at sea, her love for the water, her reasons for leaving her singular career, and whether or not she had regrets about her departure.
I trained in navigation and was one of the first women in the Canadian navy to do so. Prior to the 1980s, women were not allowed at sea; when the rules were finally changed, there were a couple of dozen of us in training. I was 18 when I joined but I stayed only for two years after qualifying as a sub-lieutenant, because of the stress of working among relentless sexism and in a highly sexualized atmosphere. As an example, I was once pushed into a dark room where my male colleagues were watching a porn movie; they laughed heartily at my appearance and tossed out a few phrases I won’t repeat here.
Other women left because they’d been discriminated against in ways that crippled their budding naval careers; still other women were sexually assaulted. At 20, I could see things weren’t going to get better; there were so much hostility towards us; there were so few women in the navy; and we had no senior officers advocating for us that I knew off. In addition, the culture was so ingrained that even gender-based crimes passed for normal or were blamed on the alleged promiscuity of women.
Watch the Canadian news for updates on the class action lawsuit. I think I can guess what most male mariners of Bartlett’s and Kool’s overlapping time would say about this development, this attempt at justice for women who went somewhere they were not always welcome. But I’d love to know Captain Kool’s thoughts.
This blog is written by Maura Hanrahan; I’m a retired Sub-lieutenant (NCS) and former member of HMCS Cabot. I am also the author of Unchained Man: The Arctic Life and Times of Captain Robert Abram Bartlett. You are invited to subscribe to the blog by going to the Contact page, clicking the bars in the top right corner, and then clicking the small blue bar that says “following.” Then you’ll get an entry every couple of weeks or so delivered right to your inbox.
Sources: “Icebreaker Named After Captain Molly Kool A Perfect Fit, Says Sister,” VOCM; Captain Molly Kool, Allison Brewer, November 7, 2000, section15.ca; “Molly Kool, 93, a Pioneer of the Coastal Waters, Dies,” Margalit Fox, New York Times, March 3, 2009; North America’s first female ship captain Molly Kool dies at 93, GoDutch.com; “CCGS Captain Molly Kool officially joins Canadian Coast Guard, navaltoday.com; “Captain Molly Kool icebreaker named for pioneering seafarer,” May 30, 2019, CBC NL. Photo credits: CBC; VOCM; New York Times.