Aye, Aye, Mother Burke: After 201 Years, the Navy Gives a Seagoing Command to a Woman
When the naval academy’s 82-foot training schooner Mistral glides out of Annapolis harbor next week bound for Europe, the sound everyone hears won’t be hawsers snapping—it will be the shattering of barnacle-encrusted naval tradition. For the first time in the 201-year history of the U.S. Navy, one of its vessels will, in virtually every practical respect, be under a woman’s command.
The Mistral’s civilian captain—her actual job title is “operations and repair leader”—is Louise Kevin Burke, 43, a daughter of the New England coast and of a nautical dream that has consumed her since childhood. Born and brought up in Swampscott, Mass., she vividly remembers Mistral riding at anchor in nearby Marblehead harbor when the schooner was still privately owned. “Every afternoon I’d grab some cookies and row out in my boat,” she recalls. “It was a sure sign of autumn when Mistral’s bowsprit hung out over the road behind Graves Yacht Yard.”
A scuba diver and a pilot as well as a sailor, Louise carried a restlessness wherever she went. “After high school she had a good job programming computers for GE,” says her mother, Peg Kevin, “but the sea lured her away.” Part of the lure included Les Burke, an aerospace researcher and, says Louise, “a confirmed bachelor until I met him.” They were married in 1962 and four years later launched a seafaring career in the Caribbean as one of the first husband-and-wife crews in the charter trade.
But tragedy struck when Les died of a heart attack in 1972. “The winter after he died,” Louise says quietly, “I sailed 15,000 miles.” Anxious to keep busy, she moved from boat to boat, taking the jobs as they came—paid hand, race-crew member, bilge scrubber. Gradually the sea restored her, and in the process she became a superbly accomplished yachtswoman. Two years ago, as navigator, she steered her first Atlantic crossing to deliver the 55-foot sloop Dyna from Marblehead to Sardinia. “All I had was a sextant, a recording log and a chronometer,” she remembers. But her first landfall, in the Azores, was flawless. “Her knowledge is so broad,” marvels Jack Reynolds, chief of small boat repairs at Annapolis, “that there’s almost no one at the academy who’s her equal.”
It may have been coincidence, but on the day last November when Louise reported for civilian duty at Annapolis, the battered Mistral first sailed into port. A 40-year-old white elephant, and an obvious misfit among the naval academy’s sleek ocean racers, the schooner was desperately in need of attention. No one was more capable of giving it than Louise. She holds a 100-ton ocean ship operator’s license and is also, says Reynolds, “a halfway decent carpenter and a pretty good electrician. She can dive into a diesel and make it run, and she’s more than capable in any emergency repairs.”
Though the Navy reacted coolly to her application at first—”discrimination and jealousy have dogged her even here,” says Reynolds—she competed for the job and got it. Readying Mistral for an 8,000-mile round-trip voyage has meant a thousand details begging for attention, and only a green crew of midshipmen to help her. “Without Louise, this boat wouldn’t make it,” Reynolds says flatly. Vows Burke: “Mistral will be spit and polish when we get to England.” Her mission on the month-long crossing is to train the nine middies (including Sandy Daniels, the only other woman on board) in all phases of seamanship, then join Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee ship review on June 28. Completing the crew will be three ensigns and retired Army Lt. General Robert C. Taber, vice commodore of the naval academy’s sailing squadron and technically the officer in charge of Mistral.
Unintimidated by the breaking of precedent, Burke plans no change in her style of command. “I’ve been told I’m pretty easygoing,” she says. “I don’t scream and holler. I just say, ‘Do, do, do.’ ” And the crew does, with respect and affection. Now setting her sights to the east, Louise forecasts a cold but not difficult crossing, while expressing a sailor’s regard for the elements. “If we don’t make it to England in time for the Queen’s review, I won’t even land there,” she says with mock seriousness. “A big old schooner like this can only sail 60 degrees to the wind. We might be out there forever if it blows nor’east.”