Hamilton’s ‘harbour master’ among the women paving the way for others in the marine industry

Estimated read time 4 min read

When Vicki Gruber was a kid growing up in Stoney Creek, she loved to watch the cargo ships pass from Lake Ontario to the Hamilton Harbour through the Burlington Canal.

Now, as Hamilton’s harbour master, she’s in charge of making sure such vessels transit safely — and as one of only two women in Canada to hold that title, she’s also paving the way for other women in the marine industry.

Gruber, who has worked at the Hamilton port for 18 years, started out as a port patrol officer. She was the first woman in that role at the port as well, and recalls that her presence came as a shock to a few people.

“A co-worker was talking to one of the ship captains and they asked if the new [person] had started.… They responded, ‘She’s right beside me,’ and the captain was like, ‘A she?'”

Now, she manages an all-male staff of seven port patrol officers who direct ships and monitor the waterways and port-owned lands in Hamilton and Oshawa, both managed by the Hamilton-Oshawa Port Authority. According to HOPA, Hamilton is the busiest port on the Great Lakes, visited by more than 700 vessels every year. 

“It’s like we’re air-traffic controllers for ships,” she says. “Every day is different. I can not say that a groundhog day exists in this job.”

Gruber is the port’s point person when any emergencies go down — she’d dealt with trespassers, fires, workplace injuries among the port’s more than 120 tenants, suicides and “ship versus ship” navigational incidents. 

“Every day is different,” she says. “I absolutely love this job.”

‘Still very much a male-dominated industry’

As of 2021, women comprised 25 per cent of marine transportation workers, Transport Canada numbers show. Canada’s other female harbour master is Melissa Williams in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

Significant efforts are being made to recruit more women to the industry to fill worker shortages, according to the Canadian Marine Careers Foundation

“Companies recognize the many benefits that come from having a more diverse workforce,” says the organization on its website. “Studies show that companies with more diverse workforces are more innovative, have better financial performance, and are better able to attract and retain top talent.”

Having role models to look to makes a big difference when trying to recruit more women to the marine industry, says Gina Delle Rose-Ash, HOPA’s supply chain and strategic innovation lead. 

A person with long dark hair is standing outside
Having role models to look to makes a big difference when trying to recruit more women to the marine industry, says Gina Delle Rose-Ash, supply chain and strategic innovation lead at the Hamilton-Oshawa Port Authority. (Submitted by Hamilton-Oshawa Port Authority)

She “fell into” the marine world somewhat by chance — “like most people in the industry,” she says — but quickly found her place in logistics, a role full of complexity and problem-solving she finds challenging and empowering.

“I work more with the shipping lines and the marine community, looking for solutions where we could take trucks off the road,” she explained. “The Great Lakes seaway is only sitting at 50 per cent capacity.”

Delle Rose-Ash loves the work so much that she allocates time to visit colleges and universities to encourage more women to consider it. She says it helps when they see her there, and she can describe her success — and when she tells them about the decent salaries and international opportunities available.

“You’re not limited to Ontario and Canada in this industry,” she says.

She’s encouraged by the change she’s seen over her years in marine logistics. Seven years ago, she started an annual networking event for people working in Great Lakes shipping called Women in Logistics, and 20 people came. At this year’s event, there were more than 100 women present.

“You kind of feel inspired to see more and more women joining the industry,” she says. “But it’s still very much a male-dominated industry.”

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