From the Galley: Conflict of the Feminist Fisherman

30 03 2011

There’s a treacherous voice in my head. It maintains a mosquito-like buzz in the back of my brain, an oppressive equation: “You are X, so you need to do/dress/behave Y.”

You know the one. Maybe you’ve struggled with your own version. Maybe someone explicitly stated these rules, building a box around your self-image one rigid, restrictive word at a time. Maybe we absorb a cultural narrative, sucker-punched by the messages saturating daily life. The box goes up higher still, stronger, until we can’t distinguish where the walls end and our true selves begin.

Rock with Driftwood – trapped & constrained, or securely embraced?

I was 27 when, burned out and broken from my 7 years as a social worker, I fled back to fishing. It seemed a good omen, exchanging a social service life for a boat named Sadaqa, the Arabic word for charity. Full of good juju, we were Team ‘77: vessel, captain, and crew, all born in the same year.

April 28th was a glorious day to throw off the dock lines. Seattle’s Fisherman’s Terminal is unusual in that it is a fresh-water home to ocean-going vessels. Lake Washington’s water table is higher than Puget Sound, and requires passage through the Ballard Locks to access the sea. Marlin manned the helm as I supervised our lines on deck, ignoring the crowds of spectators.  The water table slowly fell, a mariner’s elevator down to the exit floor.  One of the workers, a man around my age, smirked down at me.  “Are you the cook?”

I pointed at Marlin: Nope, he is. Six years later, Marlin’s still chuckling about this. “He didn’t say anything after that; I think you imploded his mind. ‘What? But you’re the girl!’”

The captain crisping our tofu, blowtorch-style.

Joel and I were a couple for almost 2 years before I agreed to crew for him.  After earning a reputation as a skilled deckhand, I was afraid of going backwards in the fleet’s eyes, being relegated to “the girlfriend” on a boat. When I hopped aboard the Nerka, the chip on my shoulder was a 4×4 beam, ready to bludgeon anyone who’d box me into a stereotypical role.

As is so often the case, I ended up clobbering the person I loved most. Turned out Cap’n J had never done the cooking on board, and, consumed by the full-time task of keeping the Nerka functional and fishing, wasn’t eager to start. Of the 7 boats I’d crewed on, all of my previous captains had handled the meals. The realization that I’d be the woman in the galley, taking direction from my male partner, sent me into a total tailspin. We had some ugly scenes those first few years.

The ridiculous, complicating truth?  I love food, and believe anyone who enjoys eating yummy goodness should know how to prepare said yummy goodness.  I’m the conflicted feminist who carries still-steaming pies down the dock to share with friends and cooks big pots of soup to keep on the stove in case anyone stops by – and who resents the hell out of anyone assuming I’d do these things.

It’s been a long road to realize my struggle has more to do with my own internalized sexism, insecurities stashed in my psyche, than the actual perceptions of my fishing friends.  The fishermen who thought I was a good deckhand before I joined forces with my sweetheart, they still think so.  Cap’n J and I navigated this storm, creating a pretty awesome partnership along the way.  Peace generally reigns, on deck and in the galley. Me cooking is the most efficient use of our respective skills (and appeals to my controlling nature), and he does the cooking at home, enjoying the big kitchen.  Everyone wins.

I was reluctant to post recipes on Hooked. Had a whole big back-and-forth in my head about it. That nasty voice sneered that I’d be boxed as “that fisherwoman who blogs about fish recipes.”  But your time is valuable, sweet reader, and I want you to gain something from your visits to Hooked. Beyond these stories, the tangible offering I can share is a deep love for wild seafood, and some of our favorite ways to enjoy it. Delicious, heart-healthy, beautiful fish… If not from our boat to your table, at least from this page to your recipe box.

(I wonder – are there places where you struggle with the shoulds and supposed to’s, and the path that makes you happy to be you? How do you make peace with this tension in your own life?  Hey – I’ve got a berry pie coming out of the oven. Pour some tea and join me, and we can peek past those false walls and sit with our authentic selves, at least for a moment.)

Pie and tea? Yes, please.


Walking on Water with Michael Jackson

26 03 2011

(A note: On March 25, 1983, Michael Jackson introduced what would become his signature move – the moonwalk – during a television performance of “Billie Jean.”  Though many other artists had performed the move over prior decades, it gained worldwide popularity through MJ. This bit of trivia, totally unrelated to women in fishing, becomes relevant later.)

Many aspects of the fishing lifestyle give me great joy.  Living seasonally, in partnership with the environment we’re dependent upon, developing an entirely different sensory system to understand and co-exist with the natural world.  The independence of being our own boss, driving ourselves hard and relishing the satisfying exhaustion that comes from pushing beyond perceived limits of physical and mental endurance.  And of course, working in an office that words – my words, at least – simply can’t do justice to.  Sometimes I look up from the fish I’m cleaning and take it all in – every make-your-heart-ache glacier-laden mountain that supervises our tack, all of the pristine forests rolling like carpet across vast hillsides and on down to craggy shorelines, and an ever-changing ocean as far as I can see.  Even after 22 years of calling this coastline home, I sometimes forget to breathe in the face of the unfathomable grandness of it all.

One of my favorite aspects about our life is the opportunity to enjoy the creatures around us.  Alaska’s waters are dense with life, an urban metropolis bustling around and beneath us.  It’s tough to avoid anthropomorphizing: we may not spend time with other human beings during our two weeks out, but we’ll interact with our animal neighbors daily.  As guests in their natural habitat, we get an intimate look at their behavior, an idea of their likes and dislikes.  They become more real, more relevant, than our human companions.

(Oh yes, I’m aware of the hypocrisy here, that I can write about cherishing wildlife interactions even as we’re out there as professional killers, harvesting life from the very ecosystem I’m exalting.  But that, sweeties, is another post – or ten – for another day.)

Like us, each species has their own unique moves.  Dall porpoises, among the most joyful living creatures, seem delighted by our presence.  They race our vessels, zipping in front, darting beneath the bow so close you catch your breath, afraid that this time they’ll miscalculate the boat’s speed and the water’s chop. They never do.

Grizzlies lumber along the beach, snuffling a spot of sea asparagus here, nudging over a crustacean-concealing rock there.  Though they can run up to 35 miles per hour, I’m content to have only observed their muscle-bound, shoulder-led saunter from the comfort of a boat.

As a corvid fanatic, it’s no big shocker that I think Alaska’s ravens have the animal kingdom’s handle on cool.  The sky is their playground, where they coast on thermals and dive into barrel rolls, exultant in their atmospheric acrobatics.  And it’s something else entirely to walk down the sidewalk behind a raven’s tail-shaking swagger.

I thought I had a pretty good idea of the local creatures’ characteristics, so it was a surprise to learn that the black-footed albatross is a Michael Jackson fan.  The following video was taken in June 2009.  I was crewing for our friends Ben and Betsy, longlining for halibut in Sitka Sound.   We had just finished setting our gear, and were about to enjoy an eight-hour break  while the hooks soaked.   We drifted in the Sound, surrounded by these friends cleverly waiting for our haul, when they’d swarm over our bait scraps.  Keep your eye on the handsome fellow in the middle left.

Professional Deckhand, Ocean Hitchhiker

21 03 2011

A special mentor recently shared the concern she’d felt upon imagining my life at sea.  Cradling a glass in her hands, she recalled, “I wondered, ‘Is she ever scared?’”

I immediately assumed she was referring to the fear that comes of realizing how insignificant and powerless you are, utterly dependent on the sea’s benevolence and a consistently winning hand of good judgment, good preventative maintenance, and good luck.

Then she continued. “‘At night, when everyone’s had a few too many shots of vodka, does she feel afraid then? If so, what does she do with that fear?’”  (Yes, this friend is a trained therapist.)

It’s telling that this, one of the first concerns other females bring up when speaking with a fisherwoman, wasn’t on my radar. For the past few years, this gender-based issue has been a non-issue for me. I’m fortunate enough to only work on the boats of close friends these days – trolling with my sweetheart, Joel, and longlining with trusted friends, like my “brother,” Martin. Every season, I feel gratitude for the comfort, ease and safety I experience on these boats.  It wasn’t always this way.

Growing up crewing for my mom, I – like all boat kids – fantasized about working on other boats.  That if I could just get loose of the family obligation, there was a whole fleet of highliners I’d lobby for a spot on. One troller in particular was at the top of my list. I loved listening to that skipper on the radio, that whiskey-voiced, casually blasphemous, warmly self-deprecating tone so essential to fishermen’s storytelling.

It’s with some chagrin that I recall leaving a note at the fish plant, fisherman’s fan mail in adolescent scrawl, prattling on about how I hoped to crew for him one day.  Many years later, I’ll hear dock gossip about this man, whispers of his assault of a female deckhand.  I’ll look more knowingly upon the scarlet spider webs erupting from his nose and eyes, and will understand the most critical lesson that all deckhands must learn – there can be oceans of difference between who someone appears to be on the dock and who they end up being at sea, and that difference is virtually impossible to predict.

My mom’s last season was 1996, forced out by a few bad seasons that failed to quench her boat’s bottomless financial thirst. And with that, I was a free agent.  Have X-tra Tufs and Grundens, will crew. Boat-hopping through the Sitka troll fleet was an education in the peculiar dynamic of going to sea with someone.  Our culture is bursting with cautionary tales against hitchhiking, strident warnings (particularly to young women) to never get into a car with a stranger, yet the maritime equivalent is standard practice for fishermen.

Far more intimate than sharing space in an automobile, imagine voluntarily locking yourself into a stranger’s home – their cramped, knees-touching-under-the-table, brushing-up-against-each-other-to-pass-wherever-you-are tiny home.  You might be at sea for five days, you might be out for two weeks. Whatever the duration, you’ll have no contact with anyone other than your shipmates for that time. You share every aspect of living space, sleeping in a bunk mere feet away from your captain and any other crewmembers. (If you’re lucky, there’s an enclosed bathroom. Many of the boats I’ve worked on, the head is a five gallon bucket, for use on the open deck. I tried to make sure I didn’t have “to go” until I knew the captain would be occupied at the helm.)

Your boat is an island – so close in the anchorage, yet worlds away from any other human being.

Any professional deckhand who’s tossed his or her sea bag aboard multiple vessels will have their own blog-worth of these stories. The safety concerns – abusive behavior, ugly drunks, mental instability that doesn’t appear until you’ve left the dock – are extreme examples, rare in our small fleet. Far more likely is that you end up with a “screamer” – an impatient captain who’s a poor teacher – or find yourself in polar opposition to the  political or social views of the person responsible for your crewshare.  Maybe not a safety concern… But miserably awkward while sharing 48’ of living space, without reprieve, for weeks on end.

I speak from a deckhand’s perspective, but the view is no better from the pilot seat.  My romantic fantasies of running my own boat went out the window when I realized the most daunting part of being in charge: finding good crew. As Martin explains, it’s not about finding someone who can do the work, but “finding someone I want to live with for three months.”

Let’s step back in time once more, back to that thirteen-year old girl so desperate to forge her own identity. When my mom and I returned to town with our latest fish delivery, I ran up to the office.  Never mind laundry or a two-week past due shower; my first destination in port was always the mail room. Tearing into the pink message slip awaiting me, I was thrilled by the response. Thanking me for my note, the chicken-scratch lettering assured, “We’ll figure out an appropriate boat for you when you’re a little older.”

Twenty years later, I still see that skipper occasionally. I’m always pleased to see him, give a hug, and get a bristly-bearded kiss on the cheek in return.   He’s rooted in my memory as one of those rare adults who treated a kid seriously, responding to a ridiculous request with grace and equanimity. And therein lies the life lesson: I’d never leave the dock with the captain, but I’m grateful to know the man on shore.

Across Oceans, Walking Home

20 03 2011

Japan’s 9.0 earthquake and consequent tsunami struck one week ago.  As the depth of the devastation continues to unfold, I’ve been thinking about our Japanese brothers and sisters, wondering how people manage to get through the unimaginable.

Three days ago, Al Jazeera News posted a video of 65-year old Takio Tachibana, a fisherman whose home of 38 years was destroyed. Surrounded by the remains of his family’s life, he pulled a rake through the rubble. Slowly – the motions of someone who has to cling to a tool, even if that tool is as relevant as a plastic spoon for clearing an avalanche. His wife and son were safe, yet in addition to their home, Tachibana’s boat – their livelihood – was lost. The disbelief on his face was clear – how does someone spend a lifetime going to sea, only to have the monster chase him through his very door?

Viewing photographs of shattered coastal townships, I’ve been thinking about the precarious nature of the relationship between humans and the sea, the sense of community forged between people, even on opposing sides of the globe, whose hearts pulse in time with the ebb and flood of the tides.

During one halibut season several years ago, my “brother” Martin perfectly articulated this sense of an ocean-based global connection.  He’s traveled extensively – Tunisia, France, Italy, most recently – and makes a point to always visit another country’s fishing villages. “Wherever I am in the world,” he reflected, “whenever I step on a dock, I’m walking home.”

When Joel and I travel, we always pack a few fishing photos.  Some of the Nerka on a blindingly blue ocean, some of the mountains towering above us, some us-with-big-fish snuff shots. When we pull these out to share with the locals on a Costa Rican riverbank or in a Tunisian boatyard, no es importante that we stumble over our minimal Spanish and hopelessly butcher the couple Arabic phrases we cling to, our linguistic life-jackets. When those pictures come out, suddenly we have a shared tongue.  Ours is the language of people who’ve gazed over an expanse of water so great that it washed away every illusion of self-importance, every misplaced notion of what was essential, water so omnipotent that it washed the very sun off the horizon. Together, with our global shipmates, we are drunks who clutch this confused cocktail of absolute freedom and total dependence, who’ve traded the certainty of firm ground for the risk-filled relief of a deck undulating beneath our feet. Each time we leave the harbor, we know this might be the time we don’t come back. And, knowing all of these things, we drink that glass dry, drain it of every last drop.

But Japan’s docks are gone.  Wrenched from their anchors as cruelly as a hermit crab yanked from its shell, their walk-on-water, floating footway promises utterly, irrevocably broken. I’m left wondering, how do ocean folk find their way home, when all of the moorings are gone?

The Launch

10 03 2011

Whenever I tell people that I’m a commercial fisherman, they’re full of questions.

“That’s cool – are you the cook?”

(Sometimes, when I have to be, and much more than just that.)

“Aren’t you awfully small for that work?”

(This is code for ‘Aren’t you awfully female for that work?’ Like every other woman   in commercial fishing, my competence and work ethic speak much louder than any response I can offer.)

And the Number One point of reference response for the past five years: “Oh, you mean like on ‘Deadliest Catch’?”


Time and time again, people respond with a craving to understand. Perhaps it’s the cultural shift to be more connected to our food, this eagerness to meet a harvester and learn the process of sea to plate. Maybe it’s the consistent flood of pop culture imagery ensuring that Alaska remains an icon of wildness, an Everest-sized lure for every generation. Possibly it’s the deep-hearted dreams so many people have confessed to me – to cut the urban tethers, turn off the devices promising “connectedness,” to lose themselves in something grand and untouched.  Lose themselves… Or find themselves.

As a lifelong listener who fears monopolizing conversational airtime, I often fail to fully honor this curiosity.  It’s taken me an embarrassing number of years to understand that the privilege of these experiences comes with a responsibility – that is, to share them.

Hooked is intended to share the story of what it is to be a Southeast Alaskan fisherman, a troller/longliner who combs the sea to harvest and share the highest-quality wild salmon, black cod, and halibut.  But fishermen are a diverse bunch, and no one’s perspective is quite the same. My voice as a tree hugging, yoga posing, public radio listening, pierced/tattooed bleeding heart liberal vegetarian, a lapsed social worker turned professional deckhand, is – perhaps – a tad unique.

Some things most everyone in the fleet can agree on.  No matter how many times you see the sun yawning over Mount Fairweather, a pod of humpback whales whooshing their odorous exhalations alongside the boat, or a lake-calm ocean sparkling so blindingly bright on an August afternoon that it makes your heart ache with gratitude… Some things never get old.  There’s no match for the optimistic anticipating of unleashing from the dock and heading out on a new trip, when your dreams are at the helm, nor for the weary satisfaction of returning to town with  fish hold bursting with perfectly-processed salmon, the boat’s Clydesdale-like plod so different from the frisky colt who cantered away from the harbor, bold and adventurous. Getting paid to do this?  Almost all of us agree: A shitty day on the water is still better than any day on land.

In a Carhartt- and Grundens-swathed migration, I head north every spring for an eagerly-awaited homecoming to Sitka.  I’m not alone in this adventure. The F/V Nerka consists of myself, Cap’n J, and Bear the Boat Cat.  Spending weeks at sea on a 43’ boat, in stressful, sleep-deprived situations, is definitely a make-it-or-break-it relationship trial. As we approach our fifth season together, I’m proud that we’ve crafted a successful partnership. Having the most breathtaking office would be enough, but sharing this experience with my best buddy makes it a special privilege.

So please, come on aboard. Get a cup of coffee and settle in for some sea stories – share some of your own, let me know what you’d like to hear more about, and, always, thanks for stopping by.

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