For five years, Captain Marce Branniff watched the two beautiful ships sitting unattended and slowly sinking into decay. When their cruise company went out of business, the ships were brought to port in Seattle and left.
“Ships are made for sailing,” Marce said. “It’s not good for them to just sit and rust.”
Keeping an eye on the boats and worried about their future, Marce was surprised to get a call one day from Dan Blanchard asking to meet for lunch. Interested in buying the ships, Dan hoped to chat with Marce and two other long-time ship employees about the vessels and their history with the previous owner.
“I wasn’t too familiar with Dan or his company American Safari Cruises but I told him I would love to see him succeed,” Marce recalled. “I just wanted to see the boats back on the water.”
Dan must have liked what he heard at that lunch. He signed a lease purchase for the two boats and asked Marce to be Captain of the newly named ship and another person, Jill Russell, who was at that fateful lunch to be captain of the other, the Safari Endeavour. After seven months of renovations and modifications, the 76-guest Wilderness Explorer was launched in May 2012 and has been cruising the waters of Alaska ever since.
Of course, Marce didn’t start out as a little girl planning to be a ship captain. Growing up in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, her original goal was to be “a professional tree hugger.”
After college, Marce got a job with the Natural Resources Conservation Service. When that contract ended, Marce was a 22 year old without a job or money. “I wanted to travel,” she said. “I had always done work-school, work-school so I decided I wanted to see the world.”
Heading to Alaska with a friend in a 1972 Jeep Wagoneer sporting a sign, “Alaska or Bust,” the pair did go bust – “a lot.” But Marce fell in love with Alaska. And shortly afterwards, she found her other true love – working on ships.
“One day in the mid-1990s, I saw a cruise ship go by. It was one of the National Geographic boats,” she said. “I said, ‘That’s what I want to do, I want to work on a boat.’ It took me nine months but they hired me.”
The plan was to work on the boat for six months. “I started out at the bottom as a deckhand painting the boat. I never meant to make it a career,” she said. But when her six months was up and she had gotten a job offer from the Environmental Protection Agency, Marce had already found a home.
“Much to the chagrin of my parents, I turned down the EPA and stayed with the ships,” she said with a laugh. “It took a while but I painted my way up from being a deckhand into the pilot house.”
Along the way, Marce has worked on boats and ships of varying sizes. But one thing she quickly discovered – bigger is not necessarily better.
“I started thinking about it and I saw a trend – the bigger the boat, the less fun I had,” she said. “I was most happy was when I was on a smaller ship. It was more like a family.”
When the offer came to be captain of the new Wilderness Explorer, Marce was ready. She helped prepare the boat and hired the crew. “This company offers a sense of empowerment to build your own team. We’ve got the best of the best on this ship.”
At one time, Marce said, the stereotype of a sea captain may have been a grizzled old man with a beard. But it is not strange to her that a “29ish” young woman could be at the helm of a big boat.
“It’s a non-issue for me. People can choose to do whatever they want to do… I chose this life and I’m having a grand time… I’ve learned to live every day in the moment.”
Photos by Jackie Sheckler Finch