Coast Guard women in pursuit of discovery, exploration and sailing on the open seas

Lt. Cmdr. Michelle Schallip, commanding officer of the Coast Guard Cutter SPAR, a 225-foot buoy tender moored in Kodiak, Alaska, stands next to the bulkhead of the ship commemorating the SPARs, a group of women who volunteered in the Coast Guard in WWII to support the war effort, in Kodiak, Alaska, March 18, 2014. This is Schallip,Äôs fourth afloat tour in the Coast Guard and second tour as a commanding officer. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Klingenberg.

Lt. Cmdr. Michelle Schallip, commanding officer of the Coast Guard Cutter SPAR, a 225-foot buoy tender moored in Kodiak, Alaska, stands next to the bulkhead of the ship commemorating the SPARs, a group of women who volunteered in the Coast Guard in WWII to support the war effort, in Kodiak, Alaska, March 18, 2014. This is Schallip’s fourth afloat tour in the Coast Guard and second tour as a commanding officer. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Klingenberg.

March marks the month that the Coast Guard recognizes women of character who dedicate their time to the service. One such woman, Lt. Cmdr. Michele Schallip, commanding officer of the Coast Guard Cutter SPAR, a 225-foot buoy tender in Kodiak, Alaska, has traveled the world serving the Coast Guard in the pursuit of discovery, exploration and sailing on the open seas.

Raised on Neebish Island, Mich., Schallip attended Officer Candidate School after graduating from Central Michigan University. Schallip’s interest in the Coast Guard and the maritime community stem from summer work she did to help pay for college.

“While in college during the summers, I worked on passenger ferries in the Great Lakes,” Schallip said. “That’s how I earned college money, and when I was getting ready to graduate I didn’t know what I wanted to do post-college. I didn’t want to go to grad-school yet and I really liked being on ships, so someone suggested to me that I look at the Coast Guard as a career.”

A seasoned mariner, Schallip is now on her fourth afloat tour in the Coast Guard, but this is not her first command.

Schallip first served as a deck watch officer aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Boutwell, a 378-foot high-endurance vessel based in Alameda, Calif., from 1998 to 1999.

“From there I served as commanding officer and one of the plank owners aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Cobia in Mobile, Ala.,” Schallip said.

A plank owner is the title given to the first crew of a newly commissioned ship or unit.

“When I became a lieutenant, I was offered the opportunity to come into the black hull fleet, and I loved it,” said Schallip.

Maggie, the mascot aboard the Coast Guard Cutter SPAR, stands watch aboard the bridge of the ship while departing Womens Bay near Kodiak, Alaska, May 8, 2013. The SPAR was underway to work buoys in the vicinity of Kodiak Island. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Ashley Sloan.

Maggie, the mascot aboard the Coast Guard Cutter SPAR, stands watch aboard the bridge of the ship while departing Womens Bay near Kodiak, Alaska, May 8, 2013. The SPAR was underway to work buoys in the vicinity of Kodiak Island. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Ashley Sloan.

In 2004 and after a couple of tours on land, Schallip returned to the sea as the executive officer aboard her first aids to navigation unit, the Coast Guard Cutter Maple a 225-foot buoy tender like SPAR. These cutters specialize in the service and installment of many of the buoys and channel markers found in the coastal and intercoastal waterways around the United States that aid mariners in safe navigation.

“After the Maple, I had to return back to the beach for a couple of tours,” Schallip said. “But then, I was finally given the wonderful opportunity to become the captain of the SPAR in 2011.”

Most of Schallip’s active duty years were spent alongside her canine companion and sailing partner, Maggie. Although Maggie passed away in 2013 after 14 years of active service with Schallip, Maggie has been added to the Coast Guard Historian’s website under Coast Guard mascots where she will be remembered forever.

Schallip explained that one of her major drives in the Coast Guard doesn’t come so much from the prospect of being a commanding officer, but more from sailing on the open sea.

“As a commanding officer, I get to be actively involved in navigation, which I love,” said Schallip. “Everything from celestial navigation to charts and the whole history of the sea-going part of our service.”

Historically, there are many men and women in the Coast Guard that Schallip looks up to, but one female captain she admires in particular she met while still in high school and stranded in the ice of the Great Lakes.

“I lived on an island and the ferry we traveled back and fourth on got stuck in the ice,” Schallip explained. “And then, [at the time] Lt. Stosz and her crew came by with the Katmai Bay [a 140-foot Coast Guard ice breaking tug]), and they were able to break the ice enough so that we could get home.”

Lt. Sandra Stosz was the first female officer to captain a Coast Guard cutter in the Great Lakes and has since risen to the rank of rear admiral where she was also the first woman to take the helm of the United States Coast Guard Academy.

The SPARs, a group of women who volunteered in the Coast Guard during WWII and whom the Coast Guard Cutter SPAR, Schallip’s current command, is named after, is another group of women Schallip looks up to.

“The SPARs were amazing women,” said Schallip. “They basically took jobs that freed men to go to war.

The crew of the Coast Guard Cutter SPAR sails in below freezing conditions near Kodiak, Alaska, Thursday, Dec. 06, 2012. During this Patrol, the crew of the SPAR completed working local aids to navigation and brough present to the children of Old Harbor. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Klingenberg.

The crew of the Coast Guard Cutter SPAR sails in below freezing conditions near Kodiak, Alaska, Thursday, Dec. 06, 2012. During this Patrol, the crew of the SPAR completed working local aids to navigation and brough present to the children of Old Harbor. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Klingenberg.

They left their families and all of their traditional roles, and when the war was over, they were thanked for their service, paid for six more months and then returned home to their normal lives, Schallip explained.

“They were not formally recognized until much later on,” Schallip said, “So, it is a great honor to be commanding a ship named after them.”

Schallip says that after her career in the Coast Guard is complete she might use the public administration master’s degree she earned in college to work in local government or somehow stay on the open waterways she loves with the 1.600 ton master’s license she holds. Until then she will continue to set a positive example for those around her in the Coast Guard, men and women, and ensure the safety of America’s waterways.

A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for, Schallip said, quoting John A. Shedd, an American author and professor.

“There is a quote by Mark Twain that reminds me of why I love what I do,” said Schallip. “He said, ‘Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.’”

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