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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It’s Not the Work that Makes Fishing Hard….

16 11 2011

When new friends learn I’m a commercial fisherman, their eyes often drop in an almost-unconscious survey. What they see – a petite, 5’2″ female – doesn’t match the burly machismo touted as an industry requirement. “But isn’t that hard work?” is a frequent response.

I struggle to answer that question. Yes, the work is physically demanding, but many of us take perverse delight in pushing our bodies beyond their presumed limits, learning that our force of will can be greater than our height, weight, and gender. How to explain the far more daunting mental challenges?

Enter Moe Bowstern. One of my longtime literary heroes, Moe’s been author/editor/publisher of Xtra Tuf, a zine chronicling the stories of commercial fisherfolk, since 1996. She’s a legend on the Fisher Poets’ circuit. It was here that I found her prose poem, “Things That Will be Difficult.” I read it aloud, and as I read, my heart shifted into my throat and my mouth went dry with recognition. These days, I have the luxury of crewing with like-minded loved ones, but that wasn’t always the case, and her words rang painfully true. Though she described the challenges green deckhands experience, Moe nailed exactly what I’d struggled to articulate.

Yes, fishing is hard work, and these are some of the reasons why.

(Posted with immense gratitude to Moe Bowstern for her eloquent words, and her willingness to see them re-posted on Hooked. She’s amazing; buy her zines and follow her work here.)

Things That Will Be Difficult 

(Originally published in Xtra Tuf #6, The Greenhorn Issue)

It will be hard to never know what is going to happen next or indeed what is happening right now. It will be hard to not understand what is going on for days, weeks. The entire first season. It will be hard that everyone else knows how to do everything, and they know that you, the greenhorn, can do nothing right. It will be hard to have no opinion worth attending. It will be hard to have no one around to whom you can say, will you please explain that whole knot versus miles thing again?

It will be hard to look at the fish hold and see an undifferentiated mass of fish, while your crew mates are separating fish into five distinct species. It will be hard to wake up in your tiny little bunk in the pitch-dark fo’c’sle in the middle of a scream with your crewmate shaking you by the shoulder, telling you to shut the fuck up, we’re trying to get some sleep. It will be hard to dream that you are in a coffin every night.

It will be hard to cook two or three meals a day, every single day and have no one ever ever not once say thanks. It will be hard to get the hatch cover off. It will be hard, if you are a woman, to struggle to do anything new without having some man come and take the tool from you and do it. It will be hard, later, to hear yourself described as lazy when you’ve given up doing anything because some man takes over everything you start doing. Except the cooking.

It will be hard if you are a man, to understand why your female crewmate, who started out so friendly, is so silent now, when you are only trying to help.

It will be hard, if you are a woman, to go two weeks without speaking to another woman, to only see a woman as a faraway figure clad in raingear on a distant boat.

It will be hard, if you are a man, to read a poem or draw a picture without having another man call you a faggot or a pussy. It will be hard, whatever you are, to go for weeks without a touch, a caress, a hug, a kind word. It will be hard, if you are queer and a man, to never let anyone know who you are. It will be hard, if you are queer and a man, to work all summer and never dare to get drunk with your friends and crewmates lest your resolve fail and you act, after which you will be called ‘the kisser’ in harbor legend forever, and you will never return.

It will be hard, if you are queer and a woman, to keep it to yourself lest you scare away the few women around you, and bring closer the men who have rented a specific video they think you might have starred in. It will be hard, if you are a woman, to walk onto a boat filled with men watching porn and see your friends among them. It will be hard, if you are a man, to refuse to watch porn with those men. It will be hard, if you are a woman, to remember that you are pro-porn.

It will be hard to keep everything to yourself, buttoned inside your head and locked in your heart. It will be hard when you go without laughing for so long.

It will be hard, if you are a man, to go without seeing a woman except as a faraway, raingear-clad figure on the stern of a distant boat. It will be hard when you realize you are helplessly hot for your crewmate. It will be hard when you realize that the skipper has a crush on you and your crewmates hate you for the special treatment you didn’t ask to get.

It will be hard to find joy. It will be hard to make it through those last twenty days of August. It will be hard to regress to the childhood frustrations of not knowing how to do anything, even the simplest thing, without anyone to cheer you on when you finally figure out the simplest thing–tying a knot you are supposed to know, fueling up without spilling a drop.

It will be hard to be green. To hurt all over your body and have nobody care. To see whales — whales! — and when you run in to tell your crewmates they are irritated at their interrupted naps, they who have seen a thousand whales, they to whom a whale is a fishing obstacle.

It will be hard to return to the boat for your second, triumphant season, and realize that you are still a greenhorn. It will be hard to find a place alone, where no one can see you cry or masturbate or read kid’s books. It will be hard to look at the beach every day and never set foot on land, fifteen days, twenty days.  To live in thirty-eight or forty-four feet with three or four other people, that will be hard. It will be hard to watch yourself become your worst possible self, to understand eventually that all along the problem was you, and even with this epiphany, you can’t stop being that self.

And then, finally after it’s all over, and you are back home, wherever that may be, among those who love you, who praise you, who hug you and laugh at your jokes and always say good morning–then you will find that beyond all reason, you are homesick. A truck will belch diesel as it passes you and the stench will transport you to a moment in a quiet bay, fueling up at your favorite tender. Everything will be too fast and too loud, there will be too many people everywhere. You will develop an affinity for men with beards. You will learn how to spot a working fisherman,  a fellow. You will miss the boat. You will miss the ocean. And that will be hard.


And you, sweet readers? Does this ring familiar for the fisherfolk among you?  Those of you on land, are there places you’ve experienced similar struggles?








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