The first all-female charter boat crew out of Nantucket is making history this summer down on Straight Wharf.
Captain Erika Flaig, along with mate Ellie Mercer and biologist Starr Rivard make up the three-woman crew operating the Monomoy, the well-established charter boat owned by Josh Eldridge. Together they run the popular Critter Cruise for kids and families in the mornings and then head out for traditional fishing charters during the afternoons. They’re friends on and off the boat, and the significance of what they’re doing this summer in the island’s male-dominated charter boat industry is not lost on them.
“I’m so honored,” Flaig said. “I’m a little shocked too. It’s overdue. I can’t believe we’re the first. It’s 2023!”
Starr Rivard has been working on the Monomoy the longest - nearly 10 years - and for a time she was the only female member of the crew.
“It’s been amazing to see the transformation of this boat with an all-girl crew,” Rivard said.
All three members of the crew remarked on some of the women in leadership positions on the Nantucket waterfront who served as inspirations for them, especially Harbormaster Sheila Lucey and Nantucket Boat Basin director of marina operations Christina Martin.
“Most of the population doesn’t always see them because they’re behind the scenes, but I do think that helps pave the way,” Flaig said. “That’s why a lot of the charter boat guys on the dock, they didn’t think anything of it. It’s super special on Straight Wharf. It’s all in the family. There are guys who’ve been doing this for two or three generations. It’s their whole livelihood. It’s father and son. It’s daughter and father. (Captain) Fred Tonkin - he’s our biggest fan. He walks by every day and says ‘All female crew! Good for you guys!’ It’s so great. I’ve been around the world doing this and it’s not always that reaction.”
For Mercer, a life on the water also runs in the family. Both of her older brothers are in the industry, including Matt, who previously worked on the Monomoy before her.
“I said if they can do it, I can do it,” Mercer said of her brothers. Since the three women started running charters together this season, Mercer said the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive - with only a few exceptions.
“All the captains in the boat basin have been super encouraging toward us,” Mercer said. “The only sexism we have encountered is from some clients. I’ve had a few times where people don’t let me unhook their fish. They say ‘ok, I got this.’ I’m thinking really? And then they get a hook in their hand or get spiked.”
For owner Josh Eldridge, who has run the Monomoy since 1995 and captained every Critter Cruise the business has ever done, handing over the reins to his boat was not the easiest thing to do.
“I won’t lie, the first time I watched it drive away from the dock, it was a little weird,” Eldrige said. “But Erika is a natural leader. She’s confident in her abilities. I’ve had many people approach me in the past about running the boat. But various things - scheduling, personalities - it just never worked out. And this year, she’s the perfect candidate.”
Flaig, 30, originally from California, also grew up on the water with a family of sailors. After college, she lived and worked on the Great Barrier Reef teaching scuba diving. She then spent the next seven years working aboard super yachts all over the world. Flaig worked her way up, starting as a deck hand, then a bosun, and a first officer. At the age of 25, she earned her captain’s license. It was during that time that she met her partner Matt Mercer - Ellie’s brother - who was spending his summers on Nantucket.
“That was the connection,” Flaig said. “Ellie was working on the dock and she said I want you to come work with me.”
At the end of last summer, Flaig joined Eldridge and Mercer on a trip to take the Monomoy up to a boatyard in Maine.
“Erike rode along with us and that’s how we got to know each other and we started kicking around this idea, and I said I love this,” Eldridge said. “
While an all-female crew is notable and a point of pride for the women of the Monomoy, Flaig also emphasized that she hopes it will one day become the norm to have female crews and not something people look at as exceptional.
“My whole career people said ‘this is Erika, our female deckhand or our female bosun, our female first officers’,” Flaig said. “And I would say ‘I’m just the first officer.’ You don’t need to note the fact I’m female. The ultimate goal is that people don’t say, female captain. Just captain. But I do think it’s important to highlight women in leadership roles so it does help change the status quo. I’m so thrilled to drive this boat and have the little kids seeing women doing this.”
Boating and fishing are what brought the three women together aboard the Monomoy, and their love for what they do and their camaraderie on the water make for a memorable experience for those lucky enough to take a Critter Cruise or fishing charter with them.
“I’ve never seen kids have more fun in my life,” Rivard said. “This gets so many families and kids into fishing. You meet families from all over. We had one from New York and the kids had never been on the water before. We were pulling up dogfish that day and the kids were just screaming. They’re going to have that memory for the rest of their lives.”