Woman at Sea in a Man’s World (With a Rogue Wave from the Past)

11 06 2012

By 6:00, the sun had already blazed a long trail above Sitka’s mountainous backdrop. Joel slept in as I headed up the dock, lured by blue skies, the Backdoor Café’s Saturday morning cinnamon rolls, and a solo walk to puzzle over a resistant piece of writing. I hit the harbor ramp with a smile.

“Goddamn, is that Tele?”

My smile became a grimace. I nodded to the man casting a fishing pole on a nearby float.

“Top o’ the morning!” he called. “How’re you doin’ this gorgeous day?”

“Doin’ great. Have a good day.”  At the top of the ramp, I stomped onto the parking lot pavement. Like a threatened bear, an irritated chuffing broke from my throat. Really? We’re harbor buddies now?

*****

Our reunion had occurred three weeks earlier. I’d taken some books back to Kettleson Library, weaving around two men smoking outside the entrance. One exhaled a thick cloud. “Tele?”

I cocked my head. Probably no older than his early 40’s, life had gnawed this grizzled man’s edges, but still he grinned brightly. “It’s me, Carl!”

Just before he spoke, my stomach sank in recognition. I kept my face blank for a few passive aggressive beats.

“Holy shit, you look ‘zactly the same! What’s it been, 15 years? You still fishin’? Hey, didja ever get those pictures I sent ya?”

I grappled for handholds amidst Carl’s tornado chatter. How’s it going. Yep, running a boat with my partner. Pictures? Huh, no, don’t recall. Nice to see you, gotta go.

Fleeing into the library’s quiet, I felt snared by unforeseen remembrance.

*****

I was 19 when I got my first job crewing for someone other than my mom. Broken by a series of bad seasons and major expenses, she’d had to sell the Willie Lee II. Like many boat kids, I’d been anxious to stretch my deckhand wings, eager to prove myself working for someone who wasn’t family.

My new captain was a type of man I’d come to know well over the next decade. Men of my dad’s generation, who prized work ethic above anything, they saw a female worker not as a weak link, but a delightful novelty. Men who were tickled to see a petite young woman hurl herself against physical labor. The other deckhand and I did the same work, yet our captain had a clear favorite.

This didn’t endear me to my crewmate. In his mid-20’s, Carl had worked on giant processors in the Bering Sea, but had never been salmon trolling. For three months we cleaned fish alongside each other all day and slept in bunks mere feet apart. We seemed to share the same 52-foot universe, but in truth, Carl was beached on a desolate island. Our captain and I were veteran members of the Southeast Alaska troll fleet, and our conversations built fences instead of doors.

On a boat, three can be a far lonelier number than one on land.

Carl was a good sport – better than I would’ve been in his boots, really. Chatty, good-humored, helpful. But as the season went on, he descended into sullen silence. I don’t remember asking why.

The truth came out in September. Anchored in Yakutat Bay, we waited for gales to pass so we could make the long, exposed run down the coast. Our captain napped as Carl and I played nickel-a-hand gin rummy at the galley table. (A slow coho season, some days felt like I made more money playing cards than fishing.)

Studying his hand, Carl took a breath. “Sorry I’ve been kinda an asshole this summer. It’s just, I’d never worked with a girl before. I just thought we’d end up – you know – doin’ stuff, to break the monotony of bein’ on a boat. So it confused me when nothin’ happened.”

As if he’d shouted the Empress has no clothes, Carl shattered my illusion that if I worked hard enough, I could erase gender. Make myself more fisherman than female. I don’t remember my response. What I do remember is picking a fight with him an hour later. When he turned the boat’s 10-inch TV to a scratchy episode of Cops, I scoffed the show’s racial caricatures. Knowing our oppositional views, I went there anyway, deliberately, and Carl replied just as the script said he would.

“What are you, some kinda n***** lover?”

The gloves came off. I didn’t know how to speak a sudden sense of gender frailty, how to name the resentment of being viewed as concubine rather than coworker. But I could rage to defend another group’s misrepresentation. That felt easier than speaking up for my own.

The remaining weeks thrummed with tension. I didn’t tell our captain. When we reached Seattle, I hopped off the boat and didn’t look back.

*****

However anonymous you feel on the big blue, there’s no escaping your past once you hit the dock. West Coast fishing communities blur into a small, secret-less neighborhood. Given enough time, you can count on tying up next to the person you could’ve gone the rest of your career without seeing.

Fifteen years later, I consider for the first time the courage behind Carl’s admission. I’m unsettled by my reactions, then and now. Self-examination veers dangerously close to the apologist behaviors women are so socialized for, and I turn away. Surely there’s a lesson in this – isn’t there always, in situations that leave us feeling like we’ve fallen off the sidewalk’s edge? – but I haven’t found it yet.

A gift in 1994; still one of my favorite presents ever. (Thanks, Daniel.)

Have you worked somewhere that your gender made you stand out, or have you worked alongside someone else in this situation? What lessons did you take from the experience?








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