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Charlotte Amalie
Monday, May 27, 2024


"Who are you? Where's the captain?" asked the Puerto Rican crew members as they pulled alongside the MV Amazing Grace where Jane Immel stood alone at the helm.
"You're looking at her," smiled Jane.
Such is the lot of a female captain, and especially a tugboat captain.
Jane is the only female tugboat captain in the Virgin Islands and, possibly, the Caribbean. According to Petty Officer Wayne Canwell of the U.S. Coast Guard in Miami, many more women today are applying for licenses to run the larger vessels. But this wasn't always the case.
Most little girls don't catch their mother unawares one day by announcing, "I'm going to be a tug-boat captain when I grow up," and neither did Jane.
"I really wanted to be a race-car driver," she said, but this was before women's lib got into full swing, and she contented herself with a bit of drag-racing in Richmond, Va., where girls grew up to be belles, not race-car drivers, and certainly not captains on the high seas.
When she was scarcely out of her teens, Jane took up with Jerry Immel and soon they were married and set upon a marine career on the Chesapeake Bay. Jane quickly became first mate as they ran their salvage and rescue operation along with raising their two children.
Since, under Jerry's expert instruction, Jane was becoming very savvy at running their boat, she decided to apply for a captain's license for herself. With the license firmly in hand, she set out for greener, or should we say bluer, pastures.
"We were driving by the local airstrip one day when I told Jerry I'd love to get my pilot's license," she recalled.
With that, Jerry turned in to the airport and Jane was signed up for flying lessons.
Before long she was piloting a single-engine Cessna. This turned out to have been an invaluable move at the time for surveying prospective salvage jobs from the air, thus saving precious hours of their time, said Jane, who professes a fear of heights except when inside a plane. And it provided fun for the family on impromptu vacations.
Having raised their family (both daughter and son hold captain's licenses though they haven't pursued marine careers), Jane and Jerry set out in the Amazing Grace for a new career in the Caribbean. This was in 1983 where the now well-known Amazing Grace served as their live-aboard home for their salvage/rescue operation.
Life aboard the boat has never proved dull. One of the more memorable rescues came when the Hugga Bunch Carnival troupe, celebrating to the tunes of Imaginations Brass on the glass-bottom Virgin Mermaid, became stranded when the boat ran aground on a reef on St. Thomas's Buck Island.
The Coast Guard first heard of the mishap about 3 in the morning, but by then the 62-foot Amazing Grace was already on the scene.
"About 2 a.m. we learned they had bumped into something. We got a crew together and got there around 2:30," said Jerry.
At about 6:45 a.m. they had finally transported the almost 300 revelers back to the Coast Guard dock. And without incident, everyone delivered safe and dry.
"But I wouldn't like to do it over again!" Jerry said.
The Immels became aware of the pressing need for a powerful ship-assist tug in the St. Thomas harbor where none existed for all the marine traffic -– cruise ships and container ships -– plying the waters every day. They headed for the states to buy such a craft but that proved not easy.
Ultimately, Jerry decided to build his own. He was no stranger to boat-building, having constructed the steel-beamed Amazing Grace himself.
They found a 150-foot fishing vessel and salvaged the hull. Then they constructed their own shipyard in Louisiana in which to build the boat.
The result of all this labor, which took just over 13 months, is the bright orange Lady Salvor which today sits proudly in her Crown Bay berth.
As Jane is relating all this sitting in her favorite Frenchtown coffee shop, she is fielding calls on the marine radio. Shaking her blonde head, she announces her main interest today is not the marine business, but her 18-month-old grandson, Lejend, who "will certainly grow up to be a tugboat captain."
And one is inclined to believe that he, indeed, will. Retirement for the two appears right around the corner, with the Lady Salvor currently on the market.
"I've always been a bit of a gambler," Jane admitted, which must account for her flying and sea-going instincts, "and I'm lucky."
You can read that as smart.
When the two captains officially "retire," they are moving to live aboard their fishing trawler which sits in Crown Bay and is named, you guessed it, "Jane's Tug."

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