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Molly Kool, 1st woman licensed as ship's captain in N. America

Molly Kool in 1939, the year she qualified as a captain at age 23. Molly Kool in 1939, the year she qualified as a captain at age 23.
By Margalit Fox
New York Times / March 6, 2009
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NEW YORK - Molly Kool, who in the 1930s and '40s plied the lashing waters of the Bay of Fundy as the first woman in North America to be a licensed ship's captain, died Feb. 25 at her home in Bangor, two days after her 93d birthday.

The death was confirmed by Ken Kelly, a longtime friend.

A native of the Canadian province of New Brunswick, Ms. Kool was known familiarly throughout her life as Captain Molly. She qualified as a captain at age 23, and she spent the next five years in command of the Jean K, her father's 70-foot engine- and sail-driven scow. In 2006, she was officially recognized by the Canadian government as the first woman to hold captain's papers.

Hauling cargo up and down the Bay of Fundy and as far afield as Boston, Ms. Kool faced rain and fog, fire and ice, and the violent tides for which the bay is known. She also earned the disbelief, disdain, and, eventually, respect of her rough-hewn male colleagues.

Her work made her a curiosity. Ms. Kool appeared on the radio on "Ripley's Believe It or Not!" and was profiled often in the Canadian press.

One news account from the period described her this way: "Her eyebrows are shaped and arched, her lips lightly rouged, her blonde hair up in feminine curls. That's Miss Molly Kool ashore . . . but in her barge . . . she knows no fear . . . and she'll give orders if she marries, and hubby holds only a mate's ticket."

Ms. Kool was called New Brunswick's first feminist, but in 1939, when she got her captain's papers, she scarcely thought about making history. She simply wanted to be on the water.

Myrtle Kool, always called Molly, was born on in Alma, New Brunswick, a small fishing village on the Bay of Fundy. She abhorred the name Myrtle and legally changed it to Molly in the 1940s, a friend, Jonni-Anne Carlisle, said in a telephone interview on Monday.

The sea was in Ms. Kool's blood. Her father, Paul, was a Dutch sailor who settled in New Brunswick, where he captained the Jean K, named for his eldest daughter. The second of five children, Ms. Molly Kool spent much of her childhood aboard the scow, which took cargo from ships anchored in deep water to ports along the bay.

Hoping to become her father's first mate, Ms. Kool applied to the Merchant Marine School in St. John, New Brunswick. She was turned down at first, but persevered, earning a mate's certificate there in 1937. Two years later, at the Merchant Marine Institute in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, she earned a coastal master's certificate, entitling her to work as a captain in coastal waters. Her father handed over the Jean K, which she captained for the next five years.

Ms. Kool was nothing if not pragmatic. On one widely reported occasion, the Jean K collided with a ship in a dense fog and sent her hurtling overboard, where she risked being sucked under by the ship's propeller. A piece of timber floated by and she grabbed it, as the ship's passengers hurled life preservers down at her. "I'm already floating," Ms. Kool hollered up at them. "Stop throwing useless stuff at me and send a boat!"

In 1944, a gas explosion and fire destroyed much of the Jean K. Ms. Kool planned to return to the water once it was rebuilt, but that year she married Ray Blaisdell, moved with him to Maine, and found she enjoyed living on land. She worked for many years selling Singer sewing machines.

Blaisdell died in the early 1960s. In the mid-'60s, Ms. Kool married John Carney and was known in private life as Molly Kool Carney. Carney predeceased her. A sister, Martha Miller, is Ms. Kool's only immediate survivor.

Led by Kelly, the president of the Fundy Beautification and Historical Society, an effort is currently underway to preserve Ms. Kool's childhood home, and move it to Fundy National Park.

Though Ms. Kool received many tributes over the years, perhaps the best summation of what she achieved came in her own words. In 1939, after she passed the three long, written tests and the arduous harbor exam needed to get her master's certificate, she wired her family back in Alma.

"You can call me captain from now on," the telegram said.

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