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Port of Call

One Florida Daughter found her calling in the bustle of the maritime industry

When a cargo ship is in port, every minute matters. Ships pull in, unload, reload, refuel and then head back out to sea. The faster all of that can happen, the better, not just for port costs but also for the flow of cargo.

“Time is money at a port facility,” said Victoria Robas, member of Amelia Island DAR Chapter, Fernandina Beach, Fla. “For everyone’s sake, ships need to be at port as little as possible.”

Up until her retirement this year, Ms. Robas spent the last 23 years working for the Jacksonville Port Authority, most recently as director of marine operations for the Blount Island and Dames Point marine terminals, which together cover 1,300 acres along the St. Johns River. With easy access to the Atlantic Ocean, the terminals serve some 40 ocean carriers transporting all sorts of goods worldwide. Jacksonville is one of the largest vehicle import/export centers in the United States; it’s also the origination point for the majority of cargo headed to Puerto Rico. 

“When the circus went to Puerto Rico, it came on a ship that was loaded in Jacksonville,” Ms. Robas said.

Her career path to the maritime industry was a winding one. Though happy in her hospitality job in Atlanta, Ms. Robas couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something more for her.

“My father died when I was young, but I can still remember the exciting stories he would tell about his work as a marine surveyor,” she said. “He would survey boats that had gone aground or were in a bad accident to see if they could be salvaged.”

She got in touch with some family friends in Savannah, Ga., a major U.S. seaport, and started learning the trade. She also picked up the specific lingo of the maritime business. POPO means pump off-pump on, which usually means the ship is carrying liquid cargo, she explained. RORO is roll off-roll on (vehicles), while WOWO stands for walk off-walk on, like cruise passengers, or those circus animals headed to Puerto Rico.

After three years in Savannah, Ms. Robas moved back to her hometown of Fernandina Beach, Fla., where she worked for a company revitalizing the city’s historic port. A year after receiving her master’s in business administration, Ms. Robas received a career-changing call from a friend at the Jacksonville Port Authority: The smallest of the port authority’s three marine terminals needed a new marine director; would she consider applying?

At a time when waterfront work was considered a man’s job, accepting this position could be considered trailblazing. But Ms. Robas didn’t see it that way.

“I was there to do my job and help run our operations as safely and efficiently as possible,” she said. “Taking attention away from that to focus on my being a woman would have been counterproductive.”

Retirement was a hard decision for Ms. Robas, who misses being on the waterfront and working with long-time colleagues. But she’s also happy to finally have time to pursue her passions, which were put on a 23-year-long hold due to the demands of her job.

Ms. Robas has been writing a family history, based on dozens of World War II-era letters written by her parents detailing the war and their budding relationship. And in 2003, Ms. Robas purchased a 10-acre tract of land, where she has planted rows upon rows of blueberry bushes. A late freeze and Hurricane Irma wiped out much of her crop last year, so she’s now working on rebuilding. In a few years, she plans to open up her farm to the public as a pick-your-own blueberry business.

“Tending to the farm and spending hours weeding are so relaxing to me,” she says. “The stress melts away.”

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