Wheeler joined Washington State Ferries in 1973 as an entry-level Porter. She was later promoted to Watchman and then Ordinary Seaman. After 18 months, the minimum amount of time to fulfill Coast Guard requirements, she was advanced to Able-Bodied Seaman. She was the first woman in the state ferry system to achieve this rank.
Along with meeting time and training requirements, Wheeler passed strict Coast Guard tests for her Inland Mate’s License, which allowed her to serve as a deck officer. Soon afterward, she joined the International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots, Inland Division, becoming the first female member of that labor union.
Wheeler was born in Seattle to a maritime family that owned the Washington Tug and Barge Company. She graduated from Olympic College in Bremerton.