I’ve decided to resolve the issue by simply saying ‘I fish.’
By Holly Hughes
Strait of Juan de Fuca
I write this as we head 336 degrees north by northwest out of Puget Sound. The sun is gingerly dropping into Haro Straits; a haze as light as gauze presses low against the horizon and the first chill of evening fills the wheelhouse.
It’s a relief to be underway. At last my attention isn’t focused on a departure date but on this day, the sun glinting across the water and the way the waves slap the stern like old friends. Most of the projects are done and the world finally turns more slowly as we settle into the timeless rhythm of life on the water.
My thoughts, however, haven’t slowed down to seven knots. I’ve been working on this Women Fishing story all spring and, in my usual fashion, managed to put off writing my part of it. “Why don’t you write something to help the readers put all the material together?” my editor had said.
“I’ll write it on the trip north — there’ll be plenty of time,” I promised.
So now I sit at the galley table, the stories and letters from women which had poured into the Journal’s mailbox over the last four months churning in my head. We ran an ad last January asking for contributions from women for these special issues. (Part II will run in September.) The response was overwhelming; by May I had close to fifty letters, poems, stories and photos to sort through, edit, and assemble for the story. In addition to the material that came in, I talked to as many women as I could, filling a small notebook with names of women in the business: I talked to a 72-year-old woman who has been running a boat herself for forty years in Southeast; I talked to a 21-year-old woman who is first mate on a trawler, And I received letters from fisheries biologists and phone calls from women running machine shops. In almost every letter or interview there was some new kernel of insight, some new point of view presented. Now that it’s time to wrap up the Women’s story, though, conclusions are nowhere in sight. There are too many different roles, different points of view, and different women to generalize about a woman’s experience fishing.
Yet I know there is still some confusion on this subject, for both men and women, confusion which I would clear up if I understood it all myself. I don’t have any answers but I’ve tried to come to terms with being a woman in this business over the last five years, and I hope I’m getting closer.
So I’ll lay my cards on the table first. O.K., I confess that I don’t know what to call myself. The choices seem to be: “fisherperson,” “fisherwoman” and just plain “fisher.” As far as I’m concerned, “fisherperson” won’t work; it’s much too sterile. “Fisher woman” isn’t quite as bad, but fishing has such a rich history that it doesn’t seem fair to change the word used for a person’s occupation, just to name a person’s gender. I’ve tried using “fisher,” too, but then I’ve always felt more like a bird than a woman who fishes. I think the problem is that I really want to be a fisherman. I want to be part of that age-old tradition, too, but I can’t say I’m a fisherman without getting bemused looks in response. I’ve tried to roll the word out nonchalantly, to railroad it through the conversation, but it always gets sidetracked. “You mean a fisherwoman,” these well-intentioned folks say gently, as if to a small child. Until something better comes along, I’ve decided to resolve the issue by simply saying “I fish.”
That’s not the end of it, though; this confusion extends to the docks, boats and fishing grounds. For example one fisherman at our dock greets me each day with “Good morning, young lady.” Another fisherman calls me “Cap’n.” And another fisherman at the same dock calls me “M’boy.” Then we had a young kid helping us paint this spring who insisted on calling me “Hal.” I just figure I have to answer to most anything in these confusing times.
I know it’s not just me, either. I talked to one woman in Bristol Bay who has been told she’s “one of the toughest guys on the Bay.” She’s a fisheries consultant and her position can be equally ambiguous. When she goes to conferences, usually to give the presentations, she says the men will often ask her if she’s there to take notes.
As women are making their way into the fishing industry, there are plenty of interesting situations being created. Women are breaking out of the century-old role of waving goodbye from the dock and are raising their families on board, sharing fishing equally with their husbands and running their own boats. When I think of how long a woman’s role has been to stay at home, I’m not surprised there’s some lingering confusion.
I can see this landscape with my eyes closed; the shifting faces of the water, the sawtooth edge of fir, the headlands which fade into each other down a long, lonely channel. That light there, ahead, spilling gold across the water; I remember it. And the way a wayward whiff of the trees catches one by surprise and seems almost exotic amidst the smell of diesel and salt. Emmy Lou is crooning (as well as she can above the engine): “one of these days I’ll look back and I’ll say I left in time. There’s going to be peace of mind for me one of these days.”
I was 23 the first time I came this way and on that trip I wrote everything down. I was riding north on a tender to a cannery job in Petersburg and I was sure the beauty would slip through my fingers if I didn’t try to collect it in words. So I wrote endlessly of the land and water I was seeing for the first time. I wrote about the people on board, the meals we ate, and the breakdowns that slowed us down. I did everything I could to be a part of the crew: I took wheel watches, helped load groceries and organized all the tools in the engine room in those final frenzied hours before departure. (I didn’t know what most of them were called or what they did, so I organized them by size and shape. From then on, whenever the skipper wanted a tool, he had to draw a picture of it so I could tell him where it was.)
Anyway, I think I made the skipper nervous with my constant scribbling. He finally said: “Hey, if you write something about me, make me out to be a hero, O.K.?” Looking back now, it was a good thing Dave and I decided to go fishing ourselves at the end of the summer, for the words I had hoarded didn’t last me through the land-bound winter.
I grew up believing that doors would open for me if I was honest, changed my socks, and took my vitamins regularly. It seemed to work until I reached Alaska. Within the first week I was turned down for pre-season cannery work because they already had two women to clean the bathrooms. The men, meanwhile, were painting. “I can paint, too,” I said. “Sure you can,” they said, “but it’s our policy to hire men for those jobs.”
That summer I learned to drive a forklift at night, worked in the freezer at the cold storage during the day and spent every lunch break trying to get a job on a boat. I didn’t have much luck. Everyone has heard the reasons: “You might get seasick; you’ll distract the crew; you won’t have any privacy; you won’t be able to pull your own weight; my wife wouldn’t like it; yetta yetta yetta.” I can understand some of the reasons but that isn’t any consolation when you are longing to be on the water as I had been every summer before then.
Queen Charlotte Sound
“There is, one knows not what sweet mystery about the sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath,” wrote Melville. Today Queen Charlotte stirs restlessly and this crossing is always a bit awesome for me. I never tire of watching these changing faces, this inscrutable sea.
I just read a story about a New England woman back in the early days who cropped off her hair, borrowed a man’s clothing, and shipped out on a whaler. As the story goes (it is chronicled in sea chanteys), she managed to keep up her disguise for several years (aided by her lover) but was finally discovered when she became pregnant. I guess that’s the way it goes, but I am intrigued by her and I wonder what her life was like aboard that whaling ship. Did she go to be with her lover or was she just drawn to the life at sea? How many other women have also been drawn to the sea, yet not allowed to enter that traditionally male-dominated world? “Why is almost every robust, healthy boy with a robust, healthy soul in him at some time or another, crazy to go to sea?” wrote Melville. Melville doesn’t mention that there might have been few women around who were crazy to go to sea, too. But we live in different times now and it is amazing, considering the history of women and the sea, that women are going to sea in person now, instead of as figureheads and names of ships.
I remember when I first found out about the superstition that women bring bad luck on boats. I was heading across the deck of a tend
er to ask the skipper for a job when the galley door flew open and a voice shrieked: “Bad luck, you bring bad luck. Get off my boat!” I tried to reason with him but it was no use. “Off,” he shrieked again. I mumbled something to the effect that I guessed he wasn’t real interested in hiring a woman cook and vaulted over the rail. He’s still running his tender so apparently I got off before I killed his luck.
Since becoming a fisherman myself, I have learned that fishermen do not relinquish their superstitions easily, perhaps because the risks in the business are great enough without whistling in the wheelhouse to tempt Fate. So as not to ruin our luck, we didn’t leave port on a Friday to begin this trip.
Namu, Bella Bella, Klemtu. The towns tick past — their names like an ancient litany to chant through the night. As we round Ivory Island light at last — the fog rolls back and we slide out onto Milbanke Sound and the cold clear light of dusk.
When I was putting this story together, I was curious to see if there were women fishing in other parts of the world. About all I could find out was that there is probably nothing written on this particular subject. In general, though, women are often more involved in the processing and marketing end of the fish business than in the actual catching — except, perhaps, in China. Women seem to be part of the fishing business to a greater extent here in the United States than anywhere else. This phenomenon isn’t limited to the West Coast, but it seems to be happening the fastest here. Judging by the response we got, there are now women in the fishing industry in Alaska at every level. There are women deckhands, cooks, skippers, and skiffmen; there are women gillnetting, seining, trolling, and setnetting; there are women fishing crab, herring, halibut and snapper, there are women in Southeastern, Prince William Sound, Kodiak, Bristol Bay and Norton Sound.
Not only are the number of women in the fishing ranks swelling, but the number of women in fishing related professions are, too. There are women fish biologists, women fisheries consultants, women Sea Grant agents and women fisheries lobbyists. In fact, there was a period of time several years ago when the executive director post of every fishermen’s association in Southeast was held by a woman.
There is a distinct quality of light which comes round at dawn and dusk, a light which seems to be created by objects rather than reflected by them. This morning in Grenville Channel that light is etching each pine needle sharp against the sky and singling out the white hull of the boat ahead of us. Fresh coffee is on and the day slowly comes into focus.
Dave and I have settled into a comfortable routine of taking turns at the wheel without speaking much and it’s easy to lapse into my own world. The past spring working on this story flows through my mind as I recall those occasional moments of excitement when I felt the story coming together.
I worked in the back office at the Journal, the “bullpen” my editor calls it. There are no windows; the desk is big enough for an old-model Royal typewriter and a new, black, pushbutton telephone. Sometimes I had a chair and sometimes I didn’t. Anyway, I’d walk into the office, pick up my mail, grab a cup of coffee and head straight back to my desk to read through it.
At first the letters from women just trickled in, and I spent a frantic week calling all the women fishing friends I had, trying to convince them to write something. Once the deadline was past, of course, the letters came in by the fistful and they kept coming in right up until the day we left town. So I would read each letter one by one and stack them in piles around me because I wanted to keep track of the distinct viewpoints. More than anything else, I wanted the story to be as representative of as many different women as possible, and miraculously, it all seemed to fall into place. Sometimes I’d read a line that would strike me as being so true that I’d burst out of the office and read it aloud to whoever was around. They’d look at me, shake their heads and I’d retreat to my piles again.
I had intentionally left the subject wide open when we ran the ad because I wanted to see what women felt moved to write about. Sometimes it seemed that I’d tapped a well, for the responses flowed so naturally. One woman wrote an eight-page letter telling how she came to run her own boat and then talked about the relative merits of male and female crews. I loved her honesty and her acuity in pinpointing those subtle differences that can make a big difference in the atmosphere here on a boat. Another letter came in right before I left in which the woman described the ups and downs of her feelings about working with her husband on the boat where “the relationship has to continue after the season is over.” Or the carefully-typed letters from two women in Meyerschuck who wanted to express their views on the politics of hand-trolling. There were beautiful journals and light stories, long poems, drawings, and lots of photos.
When most of the material was in, I started filling in the gaps with interviews. I had afternoon tea with two women who have cooked on seiners for close to ten years in Southeast; hors d’oeuvres and champagne with a group of women who fish or work in processing on the Bering Sea, spinach salad with the wives of two king crab fishermen, and wine in a hot tub with some friends. It was often hard to hold myself to an interview format; I’d become so wrapped up in meeting the women and seeing a whole different side of fishing that I’d forget to ask my questions.
Whenever I’d think of it, I’d ask men what they thought of women fishing; here’s some of what I heard:
“Well, there’s good ones and there’s bad ones”; “It’s great; it makes us brush our teeth and shave”; “They’re good cooks”; “I think most women deckhands get ripped off; they don’t get paid enough for all the work they do”; “Nothing wrong with it. Maybe some guys here in the harbor wouldn’t take a woman on board, but there’s not much a woman can’t learn to do on these boats same as a man.
Coming up Wrangell Narrows is like coming home. Here is where the Alaska I love best begins, for the country becomes more and more spectacular and desolate north of here.
I’m remembering two incidents now that happened right before we left. I was running for parts in Seattle one day and had to get a new chain link for the hydraulic motor that runs the reel. I knew exactly what I needed — down to the l/16th inch — but didn’t know the manufacturer of that particular hydraulic valve. (Neither did Dave as it turned out.) “Sure, lady,” drawled the skinny parts man. “Do you know what kind of boat you have?”
I might have been upset that a day earlier a fishing friend had stopped by to talk to Dave (who wasn’t there) and instead launched into a description of the problems he was having with his stuffing box. Not only did I understand every word he said, but I offered suggestions. (“How’s the shaft alignment?” “What’s the packing look like?”)
That’s how it’s been, it seems. For every obstacle I’ve encountered, someone else has cleaned the way and accepted me on my own terms: fishermen like Marco, who taught the skippers who gave me a chance to get out on a boat and get some experience. It hasn’t been any more difficult — or any easier — for me than for anyone else and now I think that it’s all in one’s attitude toward the whole business. I am particularly lucky to be fishing with a man who is willing to work out different roles and who has been more than tolerant of my sometimes conflicting demands.
As the buoys march past, I think of all the women who have come this way: Jerry Frink running her skiff from Beecher’s Pass to town; Jonni Dolan coming up for her twelfth season of fishing with her family; Marilyn Sheldon who chose to keep working on her tender after her husband Gene died;
Donna Olson who is running her own gillnetter for her third season; and all the women who troll alone or with their husbands; the women who work on crabbers; the women looking for their first jobs; the women who love fishing as I do. I see women as a strong and vital element of this whole profession — and I have a hunch that most of us are glad for that.
So we round the final buoy and now I’m 27 and I’m fishing with my husband on a beautiful 33′ wood boat and I’m not writing everything down anymore and my first trip this way suddenly seems like a long, long time ago.