CONCH KEY -- Crusty commercial fishing captain Gary Nichols Jr. was upset when his wife Beth told him their second child was going to be a girl, just like their first kid.
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 said he could retire tomorrow and know that the family business would be in good hands with Capt. Kelly at the helm.
She has gone from the cute blond 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 the 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, both 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 that was 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.