Captain Kelly Gordon Leads by Example

Kelly Gordon is among the few female captains in the yachting industry, and she's paying it forward.

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Capt. Kelly Gordon
Capt. Kelly Gordon originally planned to become a veterinarian, but a chance encounter on a yacht led her to a life at sea. John Linn

For a farm girl from Indiana to become a superyacht captain is an Everest goal, a dedicated pursuit of an extraordinary achievement. When Kelly Gordon stepped on board an 80-foot Sanlorenzo in Beaufort, North Carolina, for a party—her first time on a boat larger than an 18-foot runabout—she knew instantly that she’d found her life’s calling.

That boat’s name: Everest.

Thirteen years after earning her license, Gordon, 40, is captain of an even grander 2017 Sanlorenzo: the 106-foot Freddy, which charters out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Gordon credits years of hard work, determination and the mentorship she received from Everest’s captain for her standing as one of the few female captains in the industry. She now aspires to inspire other women to not just join the crew but to lead it.

Capt. Kelly Gordon
“We need to help these young women who are so passionate about getting into the industry,” Gordon says. “Mentorship was so important to me and my career. I want to pay it forward.” John Linn

Curiosity and a Thirst for Knowledge

The turquoise waters of the Exumas, Gordon’s favorite cruising grounds, are a world away from the corn and soybean fields of Elwood, Indiana—population 8,288. Gordon loved working her family’s 40 acres and looking after their menagerie. She left high school at 15, worked as a veterinary technician and started college at 17, with her sights set on becoming a veterinarian. She completed a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and was lured to Beaufort by a stipend to pursue a master’s degree and teach chemistry before continuing on to vet school.

Those plans changed when she stepped aboard Everest. The boat’s owner, Dan Meggitt, offered her a tour. “I said: ‘Where’s the engine room? That’s got to be the best part of the boat,’” she recalls. “His eyes got big with surprise.”

Yacht Helm
“To captain another Sanlorenzo felt like everything was coming full circle for me.” John Linn

“I saw the similarities between the boat engines and the engines in the heavy farm equipment that I grew up with,” Gordon continues. “It felt so familiar yet so different. I said, ‘I want to do this.’ Dan said: ‘You think so? Then come back tomorrow.’”

She did—and worked for Meggitt on Everest for the next eight years, running charters along the East Coast and to the Bahamas.

“He could see my curiosity and thirst for knowledge,” Gordon says. “He insisted I spend as much time as I could in every department. He told me: ‘You have to be in the engine room. You have to learn your systems. When you hire an engineer or contractor, you need to be able to have an intelligent conversation about what’s going on and not get the wool pulled over your eyes.’”

Capt. Kelly Gordon
Capt. Gordon is most at home on a yacht heading to the next port of call. Ryan Flanery/Eleven Seventeen Media

During what she calls her “baby captain” days aboard Everest, Gordon took one of her most memorable cruises: to Cuba in February 2016.

“We lost our transmission and limped into port on one gear,” she recalls. “Trying to deal with visas to fly out to bring back a long list of parts was a nightmare. So, I got myself a mechanic and a translator. I thought, ‘If they can keep these old cars on the road with minimal supplies, they will be able to help me with the transmission.’”

The mechanic came up with a one-part solution that allowed Everest to make it back to the United States. “The people of Cuba made that experience,” she says. “Whatever I needed to do, they were there to help.”

I’m Really Doing This

In 2017, Meggitt transitioned out of the industry, and Gordon pivoted to delivering boats ranging from 70 to 160 feet. “Delivering that 160-footer was a surreal moment,” she says. “I felt like: ‘Wow, I’m really doing this. After so many years of hard work and determination, I am doing what I wanted to do.’”

She brought on two crewmembers who are still with her: chef and jack-of-all-trades Shane Hughes and deck stew Gianna “Gi” Mesi. “Gi is one of the brightest young women in the industry,” Gordon says. “She is working her way up the ladder on the deck.”

Capt. Kelly Gordon
One of Capt. Gordon’s goals is to help inspire the next generation of female yacht captains. John Linn

The trio gelled as a team while crewing for three summers on a 75-foot private yacht in Chicago, and especially while navigating the inland waterways to deliver boats between Florida and Chicago.

“I was coming around the bend from the Ohio River into the Mississippi River, and it looked like a miniature ocean,” Gordon says. “You had waves, swells, trash, trees, refrigerators, buoys on the wrong side of the river and lots of commercial traffic. It took all three of us to get through situations like that.”

At every stop, Hughes was constantly mistaken for the captain. “He’d say: ‘No, I am low man on the totem pole. These two women are running the boat,’” Gordon says. “You learn to laugh about it and feel proud when they realize you are the captain.”

Capt. Kelly Gordon
Capt. Gordon in the wheelhouse of her latest ride, the 106-foot Sanlorenzo Freddy. John Linn

Word got out about the female captain. When Gordon pulled into Heritage Harbor in Ottawa, Illinois, the marina manager asked if she’d meet with a local young woman named Macy who’d been awaiting her arrival and aspired to be a captain herself.

“That was a pivotal moment for me,” Gordon says. “I didn’t realize how much of an influence I could have on young women.”

Coming Full Circle

During the past year, Gordon has taken command of two separate helms. In June 2021, three different sources contacted her within 24 hours about the captain position aboard Freddy. “It was meant to be,” she says with a laugh. “To captain another Sanlorenzo felt like everything was coming full circle for me.”

She took Freddy into the boatyard for extensive upgrades to the interior and chiller system. “Vendors have thought that Freddy is a newer boat than she actually is, so that has been rewarding,” she says.

The captain thrills every time she takes Freddy to the Bahamas, where she has made close friends over her more than a decade in the industry. “My energy, vibe and whole face change as soon as I see Nassau on the horizon,” she says. “Highbourne, Compass and Staniel cays are where my people are, and I love making each of those stops.”

2017 106-foot Sanlorenzo
The captain thrills every time she takes Freddy to the Bahamas, where she has made close friends over her more than a decade in the industry. Ryan Flanery/Eleven Seventeen Media

Gordon’s second “helm” is a mentorship program through her personal website (captainkellyjgordon.com) that connects the growing number of Macys who reach out to her from all over the world with the current generation of female crew.

“We need to help these young women who are so passionate about getting into the industry,” she says. “Mentorship was so important to me and my career. I want to pay it forward.”

Hidden Gem

While many charters in the Northern Exumas don’t venture past Staniel Cay, Gordon is proud to take her guests one stop farther south. She anchors in Little Bay at Black Point. She then takes Freddy’s 2021 Boston Whaler 320 Vantage down to Little Farmer’s Cay so guests can swim with turtles and visit an above ground cave. They then stop at Musha Cay to collect sand dollars.

Room to Grow

According to the She of the Sea 2021 “Diversity and Inclusion in Yachting” report, women account for: 1.9 percent of captains, 3.9 percent of chief officers, 0.5 percent of engineers, 8.6 percent of deck crew, 18.9 percent of galley crew, 86.4 percent of interior crew, and 2.1 percent of captain candidates.

Helping Hand

During a February stop at Pig Beach in the Exumas, Gordon noticed a piglet that wasn’t doing so well. She found some baby formula on Freddy and drew on her veterinary skills to get the piglet back on its feet. Her crew recorded the moment on video. “It says everything about me—the pigs, the beach and the boats,” Gordon says. 

Due Course

Like most captains, Gordon travels light. However, one fixture aboard Freddy is an old-school compass given to her by her sister, Brandee Gordon. Engraved on the back is the message, “Let your mind be free when you’re at sea.”

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