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Isla Bella looms over Tote Services employees at the NASSCO shipyard in Sand Diego.
Lee with TOTE Services coworkers at NASSCO as they readied the Isla Bella for launch

Lee shepherded the Marlins, the first NASSCO-built commercial containerships in 20 years, from concept to service.

By Hilary Reeves

Botanist, child occupational therapist, foreign correspondent – Shari Lee grew up wanting to be “everything.”

Her father, born and raised in Washington D.C.’s Chinatown, was a first-generation American who grew up eating hotdogs and hamburgers, playing street basketball, and racing his 1969 Roadrunner. Her mother, a “super-traditional Chinese woman,” was proper, and fiercely demanding.

“I think my family would make for a great sitcom,” said Lee. “While my mother stressed the importance of my being proficient in English, she always served my lectures in Chinese. She taught me her work ethic: to always be prepared and give my best effort. My dad taught me how to property dress a hotdog (never with ketchup) and the importance of leaning into turns on a motorcycle, but more importantly to be personable with those I work with and always be firm about my values. I was raised seeing through two vastly different cultural lenses, which was awkward enough going through school, but I am so thankful as an adult for the perspective.”

Lee attended high school in Bowie, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C. Despite a childhood spent imagining dozens of different career paths, she finally latched on to the idea of attending the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. After graduation, she spent the better part of seven years at sea before laying down roots in San Diego. Lee now sails as Second Mate on TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico’s Perla del Caribe.

Streamers and balloons cover the deck of the Perla del Caribe with fireworks going off in the background.
The Perla del Caribe as it was launched from the ways at NASSCO

TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico was the first in the nation to announce plans to build new ships designed to run on liquefied natural gas (LNG). In April 2015, the first Marlin Class ship, Isla Bella, was launched. Her sister ship, Perla del Caribe, was launched in August.

“I’d been living out of my seabag since graduating college when I heard about a cool LNG containership project taking place in San Diego,” said Lee, who worked in the NASSCO Shipyard during the build and sailed on both ships’ sea trials. “I’ve been lucky to have been around from the beginning, from paper plans, to untouched steel plates, to blocks being craned onto the building ways.

“The Marlins were built specifically for the Puerto Rican trade needs, with the intent of being more efficient and environmentally conscious,” she continued. “The shipyard workers at NASSCO take a lot of pride in their work, and the Marlins were the first commercial containerships built in two decades. There was a lot of buzz and attention throughout the build process. In a nutshell, it should be known that caring people put a lot of effort into making sure the Marlins was completed successfully.”

And like any proud parent, Lee was among those gathered to christen the ships last year. She sang the National Anthem at both events, and was onboard the Perla as she traveled from San Diego, through the Panama Canal to her homeport.

“Singing takes so much effort, and one has to make it look effortless,” she laughed. “For Perla de Caribe’s christening, I was practicing three hours a day everyday; we were on Isla Bella for sea trials and getting her ready for delivery while getting Perla ready for her launch. Those were some crazy times.”

Lee describes the Canal crossing as an amazing experience, especially for the many onboard who had already logged long career at sea already but hadn’t been through before.

“If the Marlins were babies, we’d been there from crawling, to walking, to now running. And Perla is definitely running.”

Lee smiles and rests her arm on the console of the Perla del Caribe
Lee on the bridge of the Perla del Caribe

According to Lee, a typical San Juan day starts at 5 a.m. when Perla arrives just outside of the harbor and picks up the pilot, maneuvering under pilotage and tugs through the harbor to her berth where she is tied. The crew makes fast their lines, and puts down the gangway so the longshoremen can board and start unlashing the containers. The crew starts cargo operations by 7 a.m.

“I’m currently on watch in the morning, and work until noon, then come back on deck for my evening watch before 6 p.m. and work through midnight,” Lee explained. “Cargo will be worked through the evening and will wrap up in the early mornings, and we prepared to get underway the next day at 5 a.m. As Second Mate, I’m responsible for the voyage planning, chart work, and maintaining the electronic navigation equipment.

“Crewing on a brand new American vessel is pretty exciting in its own right,” Lee said. “One doesn’t often hear about new U.S. vessels being built, so its actually a very proud moment for American shipbuilding and our merchant fleet.”

When she’s disembarked, Lee cooks. And camps. And indulges in her obsession with her miniature schnauzer, Kala.

“I get excited to roast, braise, or sear anything if it involves butter, garlic, rosemary, or wine,” she said. “And to work all that butter off, I love the outdoors. Anything involving stars and wood fires piques my fancy. My boyfriend and I think Kala is the cutest, and we will one day have a gallery wall with just her photos.”

Lee said her career choice is fulfilling, its difficulties mostly lying in the challenge of the job itself, not in having to work in a male-dominated industry.

“I don’t have the time or extra energy to dwell on the moments when someone has approached me with a biased expectation,” she said. “It can be equally just as difficult in an office environment. It does get frustrating, but I’ll never get ahead of anyone as long as I’m trying to get even with them. I am totally for women’s empowerment and leadership.”

And as for the future, she’s keeping her options open.

“Oh, I’m all for seeing what the future has planned for me,” she concluded. “There was a time, I’d say from high school through my mid-20s where I had my five- and 10-year goals laid out and they were preposterous and didn’t account for time to stop and smell the roses. And honestly, I still want to be a journalist, a restauranteur, a builder of tiny homes – the list hasn’t gotten any more reasonable or shorter over the years.”