Lt. Anna-Liza Villard-Howe takes command of NOAA research vessel

Rear Admiral Jonathan Bailey, Director of the NOAA Corps and Director of NOAA's Office of Marine and Aviation Operations, installs the command pin on Lt. Anna-Liza Villard-Howe. Rear Admiral Bailey served as a former captain of the Gloria Michelle early in his career. Captain Jack Moakley, NOAA (Ret.) looks on. — Photo by Anne O' Brien

“Sir, I assume command of NOAA vessel Gloria Michelle.”

At a change of command ceremony in Woods Hole on June 1, those traditional words uttered by Lt. Anna-Elizabeth Villard-Howe proved tradition changing.

The 34-year-old lieutenant, who grew up on Chappaquiddick and got her sea legs as a teen deckhand on the Chappy ferry, took command as the research vessel Gloria Michelle’s first female captain. Ensign Shannon Hefferan, age 25, reported for duty as the Junior Officer in Charge. The two of them are the first all-female crew on a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) research vessel.

About 50 people, including their co-workers, laboratory staff, family, friends and special guests, attended the change of command ceremony held outdoors last Friday at the flag plaza at the Northeast Fisheries Service Center’s (NEFSC) Woods Hole Laboratory on Water Street.

The significance of the day was not lost on Capt. Jack Moakley, NOAA (Ret.), who served as the Gloria Michelle’s first NOAA captain, and now oversees its operation as chief of operations, management, and information for NEFSC.

“This is an historic moment,” Captain Moakley said in remarks at the ceremony. “I’m looking forward to these two making more history for the Center.”

Rear Admiral Jonathan Bailey, director of the NOAA Corps and director of the NOAA Office of Marine and Aviation Operations, for whom the lieutenant formerly served as a personal assistant, pinned a bronze smallcraft command insignia under Lt. Villard-Howe’s right shoulder.

Her husband, Tim Michaud, attended the ceremony, along with his parents, Tim and Lean Michaud of New Hartford, Conn. Her sister Kate, age 28, made a trip from Roxbury, where she is doing a clinical internship in a high school towards her master’s degree in mental health counseling.

A “Chappy” contingent included Elizabeth Villard, the lieutenant’s mother, a captain on the Chappy ferry who is now starting her seventh summer, and her friends Claire Thacher and John Ortman.

After the ceremony, Lt. Villard-Howe deflected praise from herself as achieving a “first” to her mother. “My mom and her contemporaries, they were the trend-setters, breaking glass ceilings left and right,” she said.

“It’s a great opportunity for me,” she added. “It’s more important to me that I’m taking command of a vessel rather than the fact that I’m the first woman to do so on this one.”

When The Times asked her mother what she thought of the ceremony and her daughter’s achievement, she replied in an email, “I am incredibly proud of her, not just because of what she has achieved, but how hard she worked to get where she is.

“I am also proud of her comment that it never occurred to her that a woman couldn’t do what she is doing,” Ms. Villard added. “She earned her job, but it was her old-school feminist mother who taught her that she could do anything.”

Life aboard the Gloria Michelle

Lt. Villard-Howe relieved Lt. Carl Rhodes as Officer in Charge after serving 18 months as the Junior Officer in Charge. For the next 18 months she will serve as captain while the boat is underway and as its main administrator while in port.

The 72-foot Gloria Michelle is operated by NEFSC and based at the center’s Woods Hole laboratory. NOAA considers it a small boat, because it is less than 90 feet long and not commissioned.

“The boat only has the two of us assigned to it full-time,” Lt. Villard-Howe told The Times in a phone interview last week. “We hire additional crew for the actual underway time and sail with four total. Year-round, we don’t have an engineer or any other crew, so we’re doing everything, right up to and including the cooking while we’re underway.”

The Gloria Michelle is used by the NEFSC to conduct the Massachusetts groundfish survey, which includes any kind of fish that lives near the ocean bottom, and the Federal northern shrimp survey annually.

The stern trawler’s now reputable mission is quite a step up from her checkered past. In 1979 U.S. Customs seized the vessel with a cargo of 16 tons of marijuana aboard, stowed in the fish hold. The Gloria Michelle was mothballed at a backwater bayou near Biloxi, Miss., according to the NEFSC website. Through Captain Moakley’s persistent efforts, the vessel was later released to NOAA Fisheries Service and the Gloucester lab.

“We sail with ten people on board, so we’ll have the four crew, and six scientists come out with us, different ones for the different surveys,” Lt. Villard-Howe said. “They come out and process the catch.”

The scientists determine the survey station locations, which are sometimes random and sometimes historic. Historic surveys must be done exactly the same every year.

“We’ll go out to these different locations and do short sample tows,” the lieutenant said. “We’ll fish for 15 or 20 minutes, and then bring it all up on board, and the scientists measure everything, because they’re not just looking at our target population.”

The surveys are usually three to four weeks long. Lt. Villard-Howe said the boat goes out for four to five days at a time, limited by food storage space. “But we’ll operate right down almost to George’s Bank,” she said.

When asked about the surveys’ importance, Lt. Villard-Howe said, “Technically, what we’re doing is stock assessments, and that’s what they use to set the fishing quotas every year.”

The science is also important, she added, because the surveys affect people’s lives and livelihoods.

“It’s very important we do it well and do it right and do it as professionally and capably as we can, because we don’t want any bad name attached to that,” Lt. Villard-Howe said. “We don’t want the science to be called into question because of what we’ve done.”

Mission misunderstood

Despite all of that, she added, their work is not always understood.

“It’s interesting, and it’s always weird for us, because we go out and sail for a month, fishing for shrimp, and then that data goes out and is processed by the scientists, and goes up to some level way above my pay grade, where they’re setting quotas,” Lt. Villard-Howe said. “But then, what people in Maine and people in Gloucester think when they see us is, oh, that’s the boat that cut our fishing.”

“But what they remember is what they would consider the heyday of fishing in the 70s when Gloucester’s piers were 14 deep in trawlers; what they see now is all the cuts,” she added. “They’re saying, my son can’t do what I’m doing. We say that we’re trying to guarantee not necessarily that your son can do what you’ve done, but that his sons or daughters, at least some of them, will be able to fish, that there will be something left.”

Putting the fishing surveys aside, Lieutenant Villard-Howe said the safety of the people on board is the most important part of her job. “It’s also always driven home to us, especially when we take command, that I’m going out there with ten people and it’s my responsibility to make sure that all ten of those people get home safely,” she said.

She and her husband, Tim Michaud, live in Bourne. They met on Martha’s Vineyard. “My landlord was her boss at the time,” Mr. Michaud said.

Lt. Villard-Howe graduated from Falmouth Academy in 1997 and received her B.A. degree in economics from Vassar College. She served as a captain on the Naushon and Chappaquiddick ferries before joining the NOAA Corps in 2006.