At 19, Francisca Patricia "T" Guillen is enjoying the sweet success of charting her own course.
"T," a family nickname, is the youngest charter captain and also the only female charter captain in the fleet that represents some 45 Ninilchik charter businesses registered with Alaska's Department of Fish and Game.
"It's easy to find a person with a captain's license and it's easy to find a person who knows how to fish," said Guillen's boss, Lynn Keogh, owner of Key-Os Guide Service. "But to get the two together is the exception."
Guillen has all that and more.
Guillen warms up the boat motors before meeting with halibut clients in Ninilchik.
Photo by M. SCOTT MOON
"She knew how to fish, had a license and had experience off Deep Creek," he said. "That's exactly what I was looking for. Plus she's young, and I'm hoping she'll stick with me for a few years."
Keogh said he had several people tell him he was crazy to hire a girl.
"But I had no reservations whatsoever," he said.
After witnessing her skill at running a boat and keeping the clients smiling, Keogh said his critics "have turned around and said she's doing a pretty good job. ... Actually, she's surprising a lot of people down here. She's excellent. I have no complaints."
Keogh's wife, Mary, said even at Guillen's young age, she is developing a faithful following.
"She loves what she's doing," Mary said. "The clients can see that. Everyone just raves about her. They take one look at her and go, 'Oh, a woman. And young besides that.' But they come back and say she's awesome."
Guillen, who was born in Hanford, Calif., came to the Kenai Peninsula when she was 3-months-old. Her earliest memories of fishing start four years later.
When she was 9, she caught her first salmon while fishing with her dad on the Ninilchik River. About that same time, she experienced her first bout of seasickness while accompanying her grandpa, Hans Pinnow, on his commercial fishing boat on Cook Inlet.
"When I was a little kid, everyone was fishing," Guillen said.
But that was only half of the environment in which she grew up. The other half was learning a strong work ethic from her parents, Gary and Tambra McKellar, whom Guillen considers her role models.
"They taught me how to be a good worker and it's a good thing, because otherwise I probably wouldn't want to work this hard," said Guillen, whose days as a captain often start at 4 a.m. and sometimes continue past 7 in the evening.
"Now I understand why it's important."
Gary McKellar agreed that he and his wife taught their three children, of whom Guillen is the oldest, to work hard.
"You only get what you deserve," he told their children.
However, he doesn't take credit for his daughter's love of fishing.
"That's just something that's in her blood. Even when she takes a day off, she's fishing on the river."
The McKellars recently had the opportunity to fish with their captain daughter.
"I've been telling my kids what to do all my life, but this was one time that she knew more than me," Gary McKellar said. "I just kept my mouth shut. We're just totally impressed with her."
Tambra McKellar had trouble finding words to express her reaction to Guillen's accomplishments.
"I'm too proud to say anything except that she's incredible," she said.
The couple was cautious when Guillen first expressed an interest in working on a fishing boat.
"My family didn't want me to go away with other people during the summer," Guillen said.
When she was 14, she started telling Rod Van Saun, owner of Van Saun Charters, that he needed a deckhand.
"She was working for another charter business around their office," Van Saun said. "But she wanted to be a deckhand so bad, and she begged and begged me to hire her. I had her make sure it was OK with her parents and employer for her to fish with me for one day."
If Van Saun thought that would settle the matter, he was wrong. Guillen launched a winter-long campaign to be hired by Van Saun as his deckhand for the following summer. Her plan worked.
"She's awesome," he said. "She never quits working, even when things are slow. And there is always a smile on her face. She loves to fish, she's great with people, and she's got a great sense of humor."
When Guillen started her deckhand career, her father encouraged her to log her hours in case she decided to pursue a captain's license. After she shared her dream of attending college with Van Saun, her employer suggested she consider becoming a captain as a way of increasing her earning potential.
"It takes a lot of money to go to college," Guillen said. "Rod encouraged me to get my captain's license to pay for it. So that was my goal, to help me go to school."
Petty Officer Paul Haskins, license evaluator with the U.S. Coast Guard, said Guillen's license -- master of a steam or motor vessel of not-more-than 25 tons for inland waters of the United States -- requires a physical, a drug screening, first aid and CPR certification, an FBI fingerprint check, a Coast Guard-approved course and 360 days at sea, 90 of which have to be within the last three years. The license is good for five years.
"I took the class through Alaska Nautical Training in Anchorage last September," Guillen said. "I was the only girl with mostly adult guys. Everybody was really cool. I even got a couple of job offers when I left, but I didn't accept any of them because I wanted to come back here for my first season as a captain."
Enthusiasm and good people skills might not have been on the class syllabus, but Guillen's high school basketball coach, Dan Leman, said those were traits she exhibited on the basketball court.
"She put in the time and you could see that she really enjoyed the game," he said. "That's just the kind of player that a coach likes to have. I would ask her to do something, and she would go out there and give it a try. ... She was dedicated and that came from enjoying what she was doing."
Although he has yet to fish with her, he said he wasn't surprised by her achievements.
"I'm sure she's done her homework and has something to contribute besides just getting clients hooked up with fish," he said. "You don't always come back with fish, but you can come back with a good experience. I'm sure they get their money's worth when they go out with 'T.'"
Helena Bock, Guillen's aunt, said her niece's people skills include the ability to ask for help when it's needed.
"She said when she's gone out without a deckhand and her clients catch fish too big for her to bring on board, she has asked them to help out," Bock said. "She's just got that kind of personality."
A recent incident, however, caught Guillen shorthanded in the people skills department.
"I had a client that I didn't realize was wearing dentures," she said. "Then he started sneezing and his dentures flew out and landed in a bucket. I didn't know whether to laugh, apologize or what. I thought it was pretty funny, but he wasn't laughing. His wife was, though. She said, 'You know how much those things cost!' He spent the rest of the day without his dentures."
David Kuper of Anchorage and his brother-in-law Eric Wilburn of Seattle were all smiles when they returned from a day of fishing with Guillen. Watching her process the day's catch of halibut and salmon, Kuper told Wilburn, "She can drive a boat and clean a fish. Marry her."
Acting as though she hadn't heard the comment, an innocent-looking Guillen raised her eyebrows and asked, "What was that?"
Everyone standing around the cleaning tables laughed.
"I was a little apprehensive," Kuper admitted of his first reaction to fishing with Guillen. "I guess that's chauvinistic of me, but she did a wonderful job. She was knowledgeable without trying to impress us with what she knows. It was clear she understands what she's doing."
Her deckhand, Sean Davis, 17, of Anchorage, agrees.
"She's great to work with," Davis said. "She's easy going, doesn't ask too much and is good with people."
Guillen's expert use of a fillet knife was sharpened over four seasons of working with the Deep Creek Custom Packing filet crew.
"We have trained lots and lots of filleters," said owner Jeff Berger.
During the peak of the season, his crew fillets 25,000 to 30,000 pounds of fish a day.
"Our filleters get professional training when they work on this fillet line. It takes a real professional to stand there and fillet for 12 hours straight and do it day after day after day. It takes someone with real fortitude. I tell them I want to be able to read a newspaper through a carcass when they're done."
Once again, Guillen was the right person for the job.
"She did a great job," Berger said. "She's talented, dependable and smart. I have nothing but good things to say about her."
John Hylen of Marine Services testified to the skill Guillen needs for launching off the beach at Deep Creek.
"She's a very competent operator," said Hylen, who has been tractor-launching boats at Deep Creek for seven years. "The captains have to be pretty competent to make it on the boat trailers, regardless of the wind and the weather."
Guillen said she has had a couple of rough days on the water since she started running Key-Os' 26-foot boat, Trapper.
"No matter what happens, you've got to stay calm, but it can be kind of nerve-wracking when the big swells are pushing you," she said. "I haven't been scared, but there were a couple of times when the water got ugly. You know when it's time to go to the beach."
What does she do in her off time?
"During the summer, I really don't do anything except fish," she said. After graduating from Ninilchik High School two years ago, she spent a winter snowboarding in California. Last winter, she stayed in the Girdwood area.
"I'm taking one more season off and then heading for school."
Although she hasn't pinpointed a specific course of study, she reported having her eyes on a marine-related school in Mission Viejo, Calif.
With an interest in basketball and a commitment to hard work, it is no wonder Guillen named Michael Jordan as her hero.
"He has achieved so many goals in his life and is such a modest, good person," she said. Using the same word others used to describe her, Guillen said, "He's awesome."
She also had high praise for Leman, Van Saun and the Keoghs.
"I enjoyed playing for Dan (Leman)," Guillen said. "I hope when I go to school, that I'll be able to continue playing ball."
She said she suspects her time on the court was part of the reason Van Saun, a basketball enthusiast, hired her.
"When we ran out of fishing stuff to talk about, we could always talk about basketball," she said.
Reflecting her own family values, Guillen said she admires the Keogh family's involvement in their business.
"It's pretty cool the way the whole family pitches in," she said. "All the kids love being there."
Lynn Keogh said although Guillen's responsibilities increased when she went from deckhand to captain, there are benefits that come with the territory. Once the day's catch is packaged, the clients are happily on their way and the cleaning tables are rinsed off, boat cleaning begins.
"But once you make captain, you no longer clean the boats," he said.
So what is there not to like about her captain status?
"Well, sometimes I meet people who are grumpy and that bums me out," Guillen said. "But I just say to them, 'Hey, you're on the inlet. How grumpy can you be?'"
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