Female captain makes history in Florida Keys

CONCH KEY — Crusty commercial fishing Capt. Gary Nichols Jr. was upset when his wife, Beth, told him their second child was going to be a girl, just like their first.

With a Kelly and a Katie, but no Gary III, who was going to continue Nichols Seafood, which he started from scratch at age 16 with the help of Beth, then his girlfriend?

But now, more than two decades later, Gary says he could retire tomorrow and know the family business would be in good hands with Capt. Kelly at the helm.

She has gone from the cute blonde in a pink dress in an aging picture — one that shows her steering dad’s big boat while standing on a bucket — to a confident 29-year-old giving orders to her crew while serving as captain of Life Force, a 50-foot Dorado that can hold more than 300 traps.

While women have made great inroads in many traditional male professions, including combat positions in the military, it’s still rare to see a commercial fishing vessel with a female captain. Kelly is the only one in the Keys, where 90 percent of spiny Florida lobsters are caught.

It’s such a male bastion, Gary conceded, that “I didn’t think she could do it.”

But at the dock, after Kelly and her crew brought in about 500 pounds of lobsters, he put his arm around his daughter and said: “I couldn’t be more proud of you.”

Kelly knew in her heart

she wanted to follow in her dad’s footsteps, but her parents encouraged her to go to college like they did, earning degrees in education.

After graduating early from Coral Shores High in the Upper Keys, Kelly went first to Fort Myers and then to Miami for nursing school. But the medical field didn’t hold her interest for long.

In her blood was the lure of the sea, from the calm of the wide-open space and fresh air to all the magical marine creatures below.

It’s a love inherited from her dad and nurtured by years spent playing and working on the family boats, beginning when she was just a week old.

“We put her in a little carrier and she was just so happy,” Beth recalled. “Both our girls were naturals on the water. I wish I had the sea legs that they have.”

As soon as the girls were big enough to reach the cash register, they also began helping in the fish house — waiting on customers, filleting fish, tailing lobsters and weighing in the day’s catch of other fishermen.

“Kelly was picking up those amberjacks and slinging them around like they were nothing, and some weighed 50, 70, even 100 pounds,” Beth said.

At 19, after giving college a try, Kelly returned home to the Keys, begging her dad to give her a shot at being the captain of his second boat, then a 40-footer called Miss Beth Too.

For years, Gary had experienced trouble finding captains who were dependable and sober.

Still, he did everything he could to discourage his daughter.

“You always hope for the best for your kids, and I hoped that she would marry some rich, successful guy and she’d have some grandchildren,” Gary said.

“This is hard work, waking up at 3 a.m. and working until 8 or 9 every night, six to eight months of the year. It’s not for the normal, everyday person.”

Kelly was not deterred, already having learned a strong work ethic from her parents. And in another trait she got from her father, stubbornness,

Kelly did not take no for an answer.

Gary finally gave in, giving her the keys to Miss Beth Too.

He figured the novelty of it would wear off soon. But Kelly dove all in, working as hard as the boys, even teaching one of the young mates how to pick up a 60-pound-plus trap without hurting one’s back.

She got a crash course in navigating the boat in bad weather and high seas, lobster-catching strategy and boat maintenance. And while her dad could have helped guide her, he usually was many miles away on his own boat.

Kelly was on her own, including the day the electrical wiring caused two fires on her boat, spewing smoke in the wheelhouse when she was 40 miles offshore hunting for stone crabs.

While it took some effort to earn the respect of her all-male crew, Kelly said the toughest critic was her father — who slowly but surely became impressed by what she could do.

“I remember the first year she came in with like 2,300 pounds of lobster, more than I had ever caught in a day,” Gary recalled.

With those big catches came some big paydays, including one check for around $6,000. “I think that’s what really hooked her,” Gary said.

Kelly stuck with it, even after the scary fire. And she didn’t let a little thing like pregnancy slow her down. She and her husband planned for their first child to be born in April, at the end of lobster season.

“We finally had to make her get off the boat when she was nine months,” Beth said.

“I guess it was a good thing,” Kelly added. “My belly was so big I could barely reach the steering wheel.”

She’s now a bit of a grizzled captain herself, starting her 10th season. During the first week of August, she and her crew did the backbreaking and monotonous job of loading the heavy lobster traps onto the boat and then dropping them at pre-selected locations in the shallow bay and deep ocean waters.

They began at midnight Aug. 1, right after the Keys commercial fleet was blessed, and worked 20 hours straight. Nichols Seafood owns 7,000 commercial lobster trap certificates, the most held by a single entity in Florida. With good weather, they baited them all with cowhide and dropped them in just four days, over an area covering 50 miles.

The routine included several trips to the “Island from Hell,” where about 2,000 traps are kept. “It’s always hot and filled with mosquitoes,” Kelly said. “But I’m so glad that we are not baiting the traps with the fish heads this year. I would always end up smelling so bad.”

On Aug. 6, the first day lobsters can be commercially harvested, Kelly and her crew were out on the water at dawn. For the first few days, the main goal was to pull up the traps and make sure they were baited with a “barely legal” or “short,” a lobster smaller than the legal limit. Bait lobsters are collected from the traps, and when there are not enough little ones, bigger lobsters are used.

“It sucks when you have to put back a big one, but lobsters are social and attract their buddies,” Kelly said. “So when we come back, you hope there will be double or triple of them.”

Pulling up traps is like opening a box of Cracker Jack. Kelly said you never know what will be inside. Nobody is more excited to discover what is pulled up than her son, Jayden, now 5, who often goes out on the boat with his mom.

He laughed as the crew showed him crabs, fish and an octopus that had found their way into the wooden traps. But he was most interested in the box with the “baby lobster.”

“He gets so excited, just like I did when I was a kid,” Kelly said. “I still find it exciting. I guess that’s why I love it so much.”

Just as her dad did, Kelly showed Jayden how to drive the boat while sitting on her lap.

Kelly said she and her dad have become competitive, often betting $20, dinner or a 12-pack of beer on who will return to the dock with the biggest catch.

Kelly and her crew brought back about 500 pounds on a recent Thursday, a good catch so early in the season.

But who caught the most that day?

“Me, the old man,” said Gary, who showed off 800 pounds.

Said Kelly: “I have to let him win sometimes.”

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