Though the navigation training schooner Ocean Star had several captains in the early 1990s, I will always associate the vessel with a captain named Virginia Wagner, who died on Jan. 30, 2015 after battling mesothelioma.
Virginia was the consummate professional, handling Ocean Star with the skill of a trained violinist, the vessel becoming an extension of her own self. She made it all look so easy, as if every storm, every tough docking, was just another day at the office.
The 88-foot schooner, designed by Murray Peterson and built by Howdy Bailey in 1991, had a gaff-rigged fore and a Marconi main. Greg Walsh, one of the founders of Ocean Navigator magazine, had her built to run celestial navigation classes and in her time, between 1991 and 2000, she regularly cruised from Halifax down through Bermuda, Jamaica, the Caymans, Cuba, as well as from Key West to the Dry Tortugas.
Virginia, a mate, two crew and a cook took six students and a navigator instructor on a week-long adventure. She didn’t really need a nav instructor aboard, as she was an excellent celestial navigator, but tending to the ship was time consuming enough without having to deal with decoding the celestial triangle for new students.
On the last day of class when the vessel was tied up, Virginia would gather the students into the cockpit and read from her Bible — not the New or Old Testament, but a well-thumbed copy of Bowditch. She would read a passage and from that create a homily that had everything to do with ships, sailing and the sea. She was an apostle of the seafaring life, and was so skilled at that calling that many held her as an inspiration. She was especially influential with young women who saw in her a model of confidence and skill, succeeding in a male-dominated industry. There is nothing unique these days in serving under a woman captain or mate, but it was not always so and Virginia Wagner helped to change that calculus.
Virginia probably didn’t begin her career with any desire other than to become a competent sailor and then captain. It so happened, and to the benefit of those who knew her, that she grew into someone so much greater than that. She was inspiring and set a fine example for all to follow: that professionalism requires discipline, effort and self-sacrifice, and also a good laugh or two.