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Naval Academy graduate, San Juan Island native joins Foss engineering team

By Bruce Sherman – This article first appeared in the February 2016 Issue of Towbitts, the official publication of Foss Maritime.

Caitlin Ness grew up on San Juan Island and has been racing sailboats since she was a kid. Her father worked in the maritime industry, selling some of the first electronic navigation systems and other electronic gear to commercial boat owners when computers on board were still a new concept.

Caitlin Ness, at the helm of a 40-foot sailboat, a life vest wearing group supports her.
Caitlin Ness, at the helm of a 40-foot sailboat, during a recent race on Puget Sound

It was only natural that Ness would pursue a career on the water after completing a semester on the tall ship the SV Concordia her senior year of high school, and when she was recruited to join the sailing team at the U.S. Naval Academy, that career began to unfold.

“I was really fortunate to grow up in a place like Friday Harbor that had a community supported sailing program and gave me a lot of opportunities” she said. Sailing on the Concordia showed me how being on the water could translate into a career. ”

Today at age 27, Ness is working as a project manager at Foss, and is on a temporary assignment, helping to oversee the construction of a LNG bunkering barge for sister company TOTE Maritime’s new LNG powered containerships. She also is helping to design a training program for the tankermen in Florida who will man the barge, the first LNG barge in North America and the first to go through the regulatory process with the US Coast Guard and the American Bureau of Shipping.

Navy men and women throw their caps in the air celebrating their graduation.
Ness graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maine with a degree in naval architecture

Back at Annapolis, Ness, who had always been drawn to the water, enrolled in the school’s elite naval architecture program “because it fascinated me and everything else seemed a little bit boring in comparison.”

Upon graduating with a commission in 2010, she elected to go to flight school in Pensacola, Fla. After growing up in the San Juan’s, Ness had discovered a love of flying with her father, a private pilot.

Following commissioning, she spent six months working for the Navy at NAVSEA Carderock, where the Navy designs and develops the future ships of the fleet. At the same time, the Navy was facing enormous budget cuts and was offering officers early discharges. Ness took the offer, just a year and a half after being commissioned.

“I’m really grateful for my education,” she said. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the Navy.”

Ness kays on the floor looking back at the camera in front of a model boat.
Ness doing model testing during her final year at the Naval Academy

Finding jobs in naval architecture plentiful, she went to work for Jensen, a naval architecture firm owned by Crowley Maritime, and joined Foss last July.

“I like the fact that Foss was founded by a woman well over a hundred years ago, has strong family values, and is based here in Seattle,” she said. “When I met people here, I knew it was a good fit.”

On the outside, Ness is pursuing an MBA degree and is active in a trade group called Women’s International Shipping and Trading Association (WISTA). One of her projects at WISTA has been to collaborate with Getty Images and Lean In (of Sheryl Sandberg fame) to promote women in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields by updating stock images that accurately portrays both men and women in the workplace.

“At first, when I typed in ‘women on boats,’ I got photos of women in bikinis on boats, and I thought, they certainly don’t represent what I do in my everyday work life,” said Ness, noting that she is working with a Seattle photographer on what has become a national and international project.

Ness smiles for the camera in a profile shot.She said WISTA also gives her an opportunity to help show the next generation that jobs in maritime are not obsolete and through projects like this one, can more accurately show what makes them so interesting.