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McGrath's career at sea began with a visit to her dentist's office. She stopped off to check out an Air Force recruiting office in Merced, Calif. The recruiter was out to lunch, so she wandered into a nearby Navy office and signed up, lured by the promise of overseas adventure. She went on to officers' school in Newport, R.I., then landed in a Navy personnel office in Yokosuka, Japan. Once again, McGrath started daydreaming. "I was proofreading stuff that I really didn't understand," she says. "I wasn't doing what I had trained for--navigating, driving boats, seamanship and engineering." She hitched a ride on a Navy support vessel touring the region. "They had me stand watch, do a man-overboard drill, let me drive the ship," she says. "I went, 'Wow, this is neat.' I remember thinking, 'Yes, this is what I want to do.'"
The Navy told McGrath she couldn't enroll in the Surface Warfare Officers School. All 17 slots set aside for women had been filled. That school would have prepared her to sail on a support vessel--one of the tenders, oilers and suppliers that women were then confined to. But she was already setting her sights higher. After sailing out of Yokosuka on a visiting frigate, McGrath was more determined than ever to serve on a warship. "It was a lot more fun, like driving a sports car," she says. "They go fast, handle better, and they're sexy and glamorous."
Ultimately the Navy relented and found her an open slot in the surface school. After graduating, McGrath flourished aboard the Navy's fleet of support vessels. She served on four different ships from 1983 to 1994, including an 18-month stint as a commander of a salvage ship. Onshore she earned a master's degree in education from Stanford. Still, by the early 1990s she was beginning to be worried that her career had run aground. "I'm a dinosaur," she remembers thinking, "because the combatant ships aren't open to women." That changed in 1993, when Congress made warships--with the still notable exception of submarines--accessible to women. With that prospect in view, McGrath stayed with the service and paid her dues, serving two years in the Navy's personnel bureau in Washington and then heading to San Diego to help manage a destroyer squadron, ensuring the vessels were ready for war.
A ship's commander is like the mayor of a small town. McGrath's eight-level domain ranges from the officers' staterooms above to the sailors' berthing areas to the laundry down below. When the going gets tough--which it often did on a recent training voyage in the Pacific--McGrath buzzes up and down the Jarrett's ladders like a streamlined torpedo. She barks orders on the bridge, offers praise to sailors in the lower decks and sometimes snatches a few minutes alone in her stateroom to practice Haydn's Military Symphony on the violin. Her days often begin before 6 a.m. and stretch until "mid-rats"--midnight rations--are served to sailors standing night watch.