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A Female 'Swordboat' Captain Returns To The Sea

Jul 1, 2011 (Fresh Air from WHYY)

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This interview was originally broadcast on June 8, 2010. Seaworthy: A Swordboat Captain Returns to the Sea is now available in paperback. Greenlaw and her mother Martha have also recently released a cookbook, The Maine Summers Cookbook: Recipes for Delicious, Sun-Filled Days.

For an entire decade, there were no female swordfish boat captains in the United States.

That's because Linda Greenlaw — who broke down gender barriers in the commercial fishing industry 24 years ago when she became the only working female swordfish boat captain in the U.S. — decided to take a decade off from life at sea.

After 10 years of lobstering and writing in Maine, however, the siren call of the deep blue water drew Greenlaw back to the world of long-line offshore fishing. At 47, she signed up to captain the Seahawk, a rusty craft with faulty equipment and a small crew, for a 60-day expedition off the coast of Nova Scotia.

Seaworthy, Greenlaw's account of her time captaining the Seahawk, contains details about the major setbacks she faced during the swordfishing trip, including almost losing a man overboard and (briefly) spending time in a Canadian jail after inadvertently crossing into Canadian waters.

Greenlaw tells Fresh Air contributor Dave Davies that despite the setbacks and the uncertainty, she couldn't envision herself leaving commercial fishing again.

"I like the way I feel when I'm at sea. And I'm passionate about catching fish," she says. "It's really very much about being in this world apart. I've learned through the years that the things I really love about being in this very separate world are probably the same things I dislike: total solitude, being absolutely self-reliant and responsible for your entire world with very little input. I'm on a boat at sea. I'm sometimes 1,000 miles from the closest dock with four or five guys. And you know, that's your entire world. There's very little contact with anything outside of that world."

Greenlaw is also the author of The Hungry Ocean, Slipknot and All Fisherman are Liars: True Adventures at Sea. She was also featured in the book The Perfect Storm and in the Discovery Channel series Swords: Life on the Line.


Interview Highlights

How she reels in swordfish

"It's all hands on deck including the captain, and that's my favorite part of the job ... hauling the gear because it's just like Christmas. You can't wait to see what you're going to get. You tie-in at the end of the morning and start hauling it. The captain drives the boat along the line — kind of following these floats — and when the line gets tight or you feel some strain on it, that means you have some weight on a hook. You back the boat down, stop the boat hopefully and see what you have. ... [You do] hand-over-hand hauling. One man, one fish. And you hope it's a swordfish. Sometimes it's a shark. Sometimes it's a tuna. Sometimes it's mahi-mahi. But the target is swordfish. That's what we're all praying for."

On conditions during swordfishing season

"Sleep deprivation is a big part of the swordfish industry. We're lucky if we get four hours a night. The days get long, depending of course on weather, which is the biggest factor. If you're trying to haul in the gear in bad weather, it just takes a little bit longer. Every fish that you stop to get aboard is a little more difficult to get aboard. Part-offs [where the line gets cut] are a huge factor in the length of a day. If you're hauling back the line and you have two or three or five part-offs in a day, each time you have to chase the end, so it's time-consuming. A captain can make a bad set and catch a lot of sharks. It's very time-consuming."

On being a woman in an industry dominated by men

"I fell in love with fishing at the age of 19. I love what I do. And honestly, gender has not been an issue. I started on deck, I worked very hard [and] had an opportunity to run a boat. I came up in the traditional way. I stayed on a boat long enough to become first mate. The owner of the boat bought a second boat. That was my opportunity to become captain. I worked very hard and became very good at it. I hire my own crew. A lot of questions are about men working for a woman. I hire my own guys. Any man that doesn't want to go to sea with a woman hopefully won't ask me for a job."

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