was the first female to graduate from Maine Maritime Academy. Born and raised in Connecticut, she went to the University of Vermont where she worked for a yacht delivery company. Later she decided to further her education at the Maine Maritime Academy in Castine, where she was at the top of her class.
After first getting a BA from the University of Vermont, Captain Dempsey received a BS from Maine Maritime Academy. In 1994, she was awarded an honorary PhD from the Academy for her extraordinary achievements.
The men at the Academy treated her as an equal. She was not the only women on campus for long. Shortly after she came to Maine Maritime other women followed. When she graduated, valedictorian of her class, she was the first women to graduate from any maritime academy in the United States. Also she was the first woman to receive a merchant marine unlimited masters license, and she would be the first woman to sail as a master. See at 1974 news clip assessing Dempsey’s impact on the Academy, from WABI-TV in Bangor and the Northeast Historic Film archives.
She started her career at the Exxon Company as a third mate and later moved to Lykes Brothers S..S. Company. where she was an advanced Master Mariner. She became the first American woman to command a cargo ship on international voyages. When at Lykes she was under pressure to hire other women as captains.
Dempsey was the first woman to become a regular member of the Council of American Master Mariners. She ended up working for the company for seventeen years.
Dempsey rescued a dead ship that had drifted and was going to crash onto North Carolina’s Frying Pan Shoals. As a result of this daring deed, Captain Dempsey and her crew received the United Seaman’s Service AOTOS Honored Seamen Award, The Seaman’s Church Institute Lifesaving Award, and the American Merchant Marines Seamanship Trophy. They also received a letter of commendation from President Clinton.
During the Persian Gulf Was, she became the only woman caption to earn a U.S. Navy Meritorious Public Service Award. Caption Dempsey is a strong woman with a sharp tongue. Her crew knew that they were to address her as captain and not as Debbie. Being captain was something that she found to be an honor and wanted her crew to respect her. In 1998 she published a book about her experiences.
In 2006 the Maine Maritime Academy presented her with its Wall of Honor membership, reserved for distinguished alumni. In 2007 Captain Dempsey was a Columbia River Bar Pilot.
Dempsey, Deborah and Joanne Reckler Foster. The Captain’s a Woman: Tales of a Merchant Mariner. Annapolis, MD. Naval Institute Press. 1998.
“Three Added to Wall of Honor.” Mariner: The Alumni Magazine of Maine Maritime Academy. Winter 20062007. p. 9
Contributed by Nicole Brassard, Bath, Maine, 2008.