Jessica Ryals comes to Cal Maritime with superb credentials and some serious geography. She grew up in North Texas, attended the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in New York State where she graduated with a 3rd Mate’s License, and went on to Officer Candidate School at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut, where she received her commission. Since then, she’s lived in Texas, Alabama, and Tennessee, while working a rotational schedule on deepwater drillships in the Gulf of Mexico and around the world and performing ship and facility inspections with the USCG. During her time working offshore, Ryals has upgraded her license from 3rd Mate to Unlimited Master, and gone back to school for her Master’s degree in International Transportation Management at SUNY Maritime. In January of this year, she and her husband Kent, along with their dog and cat, moved across the country and settled in Crockett, just across the Carquinez Bridge from Cal Maritime. She’s now the Chief Mate on the TS Golden Bear, and will soon head off on its two summer training cruises. 

You’ve been on the job for a few months now. How has your start been, and how has the pandemic affected it? 

It’s been great but challenging at the same time. This was a huge career transition for me, shifting gears from the offshore oilfield to a ship like the Golden Bear.  Joining a new organization amid a global pandemic is a special kind of challenge, with the cadets starting the semester late and with so many colleagues working remotely. Even so, I have felt so welcomed to the Cal Maritime campus by everyone I’ve worked with thus far. I enjoy the hands-on aspect of my position, and I jumped in at a very busy time for the Golden Bear, right as we begin ramping up for summer sea training, and all the boxes that need to be checked prior to that happening successfully.

What motivated you to enter this business? There must be plenty of people who don’t follow through on a childhood dream of becoming a ship captain? 

I actually didn’t -- I wanted to be an airplane captain, like my Dad. I knew I wanted to attend a service academy, and I chose the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy for the options it offers graduates: a license as a 3rd Mate or 3rd Assistant Engineer, and a commission into any branch of the military on active duty or reserve. During my time at school, I ended up deciding that I wanted to sail for my career rather than fly, and I chose to enter the industry after graduation and went to work on deepwater drillships in the Gulf of Mexico. I had some exciting experiences during that time, I was part of a crew that brought a drillship from the Black Sea to the Gulf of Mexico, and I was a plankowner (an original crew member) of my last ship, which I helped to navigate from South Korea to the Gulf of Mexico.  

Now though, I do have a dream of becoming a ship captain. I have the license for it, I’m just building the experience to “take the conn” someday. 

Do you have to explain to a lot of people exactly what a “chief mate” does? 

I sure do! I’m from land-locked Dallas, Texas, where people don’t have the exposure to ships and the maritime industry the way they do around here. So, I often rely on the airline industry, and point out how an airplane has a Captain and a First Officer, and that a ship operates much the same way, I’m the First Officer. 

The First Officer, or Chief Mate, is second in command of a ship underway, and is traditionally responsible for cargo operations, ship’s stability, and for being the on-scene commander in a firefighting or lifesaving emergency. The Mate takes charge of the bow during mooring and anchoring operations and is responsible for all the maintenance and upkeep of the ship’s decks equipment, like lifeboats and firefighting equipment.  

It’s a very hands-on position, and I love the role here at Cal Maritime because I get to do all those things, plus interacting with the cadets on a day-to-day basis.  

How important is if for you to model this career for women? 

I consider modeling this career for women to be one of the most important things I do. Representation matters, and for young women entering this industry, being able to look up the chain of command and see women at the top is strong encouragement for staying in what can be a challenging career path. On my first ship as a cadet, the Chief Mate was a woman who had “hawsepiped” her way up, and she inspired me to think that I could hold that job someday myself. Now I consider it part of my role to mentor women entering the maritime industry and be part of closing the gender gap.  

Are you excited about training cruise this summer? 

I really am! It’s going to be different than sea training in the past, but I plan to go on both training cruises, and I am absolutely looking forward to it. There’s nothing like being underway on a ship, where it’s just sea and sky as far as the eye can see. I'm looking forward to working with the cadets and teaching them what I know. I’m also looking forward to the chance to disconnect, turn off my cell phone, and catch up on reading, maybe learning how to knit, and enjoying the awesome new gym on the ship! 

What’s your impression of Cal Maritime cadets so far? 

So many people I have met on campus tell me they’ve worked here for 10, 20, 30 years, and that the cadets are the reason they have stayed. In my couple months here so far, I can absolutely understand that thinking. The cadets have been great to engage with, and I feel like I will be a better mariner and person for my interactions with them. My dad always said that if you learn something well enough to teach it, then you’ve mastered the subject. Answering the cadet’s questions keeps my mind working, and I love seeing them have a passion for the ship and for learning everything they can about the maritime industry.

Established in 1929, California State University Maritime Academy is the only degree-granting maritime academy on the West Coast. Located in Vallejo, California, the campus offers undergraduate degrees that prepare students for careers in engineering, transportation, international relations, business, and global logistics. Cal Maritime also offers a master’s degree in Transportation and Engineering Management, as well as a number of extended learning programs and courses.