Throughout history, working as a maritime captain was considered men’s work and off limits to women regardless of how qualified they were. For centuries, carved feminine figureheads that graced the prows of seagoing vessels were the only female crew members.
Closer to home and modern times, more female captains have taken the helms of massive cruise ships (the first in 2007) and the U.S. Navy made history a few months ago when it recommended that Capt. Amy Bauernschmidt take command of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.
Although Marion County sits inland, we have had our share of local ship captains. Steamboats plied local rivers since just before the Civil War and up until the 1920s, when they were replaced by glass-bottom boats on the Silver River. The pilots were mostly men, but not all. Several pioneering female captains call Marion County home and have fascinating stories. Two stand out with decades of experience at the helm between them.
Capt. Virginia Ferguson
Ferguson is a trailblazer. She is known for being capable and professional. Her demeanor is both tough and warm-hearted, and she was a fixture at Silver Springs for close to half a century. During the late 1960s, Ferguson was raising kids and working at Club Bali, a well-known African American night club in Ocala. Several of the Silver Springs glass-bottom boat captains encouraged her to apply for a job. She did—and made history. On June 6th, 1973, Ferguson became the first female and the first Black woman to hold a United States Coast Guard captain’s license in Florida. This was no small feat given that the era of open racial and gender discrimination was not yet a thing of the past.
Ferguson ran glass-bottom boats, jungle cruise boats and the Fort King river cruise boats. She credits Capt. David Faison, a longtime Silver Springs captain, with helping her train and remembers it took time for some of the male employees and guests to fully accept her.
Ferguson recalled the day some of the monkeys who make their home on the river jumped into her jungle cruise boat full of guests. She coolly persuaded them to abandon ship (the monkeys, that is) using a large stick and treats. Her passengers came through safely with a great story to tell.
She was on duty in June 2010 when researcher Peter Butt was attacked and wounded by a large alligator while snorkeling in the Silver River. She helped get him out of the water and into a medevac helicopter and notes that as one of her most stressful days on the job.
By the time she retired, Ferguson had safely introduced tens of thousands of visitors to the beauty of the springs and opened the door for younger female captains to follow. When asked what advice she would give her younger self, she offered, “Stay in school and get an education.”
Capt. Connie Neumann
Neumann is one of those women who followed in Ferguson’s wake; in fact, Ferguson helped train her.
Capt. Connie, as she is known, ran glass-bottom boats from 2006 to 2012. She also has operated the Timucuan, the official tour boat of the Silver River Museum, since 2008. She has resumed running boats at Silver Springs and now works for both the springs and museum.
Prior to taking the helm, she worked as a magazine editor and in marketing. She is a published author (as Connie Mann) with seven novels and one non-fiction book. Her Florida Wildlife Warriors series is set in Marion County.
Neumann is a small woman with a core of steel. She remembers having to work extra hard to prove herself as a captain due to her gender and petite size. Once skeptical coworkers realized she could handle a boat as well as anyone, she was quickly accepted. It is worth noting that glass-bottom boats are not easy craft to control. With no keel to help them track and a motor that rotates 360 degrees, they are not well suited for amateur mariners.
In the beginning, Neumann describes early challenges such as her first attempt at docking a glass-bottom boat. She recalls the other captains and the general manager standing on the docks watching her. It was a nerve-racking situation, but Ferguson, who was training her, helped to defuse the moment by repeating, “Just do it like I taught you,” over and over. A perfect docking was achieved.
Neumann remembers Ferguson teaching her how to handle guests (polite or otherwise) and stressful situations gracefully. Neumann recalled the day she had a group of special needs teenagers onboard as she navigated the narrow Fort King waterway. She heard a large tree on the riverbank snap and had only seconds to reverse course. The tree fell across the bow but missed the kids, avoiding a disaster by inches.
Neumann’s best advice to her younger self is “Don’t be afraid to go after things you are interested in.”
It is no coincidence both women remember the day they started as captains at Silver Springs. After all, you don’t get to shatter a glass ceiling using a glass-bottom boat very often.
Scott Mitchell has served as the director of the Silver River Museum since 2004. He has worked as a field archaeologist, scientific illustrator and museum professional for the last 25 years.