A typical workday for Florida Keys fisherman Kelly Nichols-Cordova begins with a 3 a.m. wakeup to head to her 43-foot lobster and stone crab boat Life Force. The captain and her two crew expect to pull as many as 1,000 heavy traps in a day, and it’s usually a two- to three-hour ride to the fishing grounds in the Gulf of Mexico. Nichols-Cordova always hopes to be back at the dock in time to pick up her 10-year-old son from the school bus stop.
Meanwhile, her husband, Eddie, is running his own trap boat — an identical 43-foot Torres built in the Keys. The couple is extremely busy now that they’ve taken over his father’s operation as well as supplying Nichols Seafoods, her dad’s longtime Islamorada business.
The 2017-18 fishing season has not been bountiful for Nichols-Cordova, despite deploying more than 10,000 stone crab and 7,000 lobster traps. Hurricane Irma’s devastating winds and waves destroyed or displaced many lobster traps early in the season. The stone crab harvest, which began about a month later, started out well but petered out fairly quickly. The summer off-season is going to be tight with very little money trickling in.
Still, Nichols-Cordova never once considered changing careers.
“I love this. I love the water,” she said. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I’ll do this ‘til I die.”
The 34-year-old was born into the commercial fishing industry and began running her dad, Gary’s, fishhouse at age 18. She begged him to let her captain her own boat, but he refused, telling her it was no job for a woman. So she did brief stints in nursing and business school, and kept pestering him.
Finally, frustrated after running through roughly a captain per week on his boats, her dad relented. His daughter took the helm — and rest of the duties on board.
“I don’t just run the boat. I stack the boat. I run the winch. I do it all,” she said. “It’s hustle, hustle, hustle all day long. I’ve had guys out of the Army that can’t do it. It’s a lot of hard work. It’s a challenge."
On non-school days with calm weather, the captain takes her son along. Maybe when he’s a little older he can help out, she says. Hoping for a little brother or sister for him, she’s training her brother-in-law as a relief captain.
On school days or when seas are rough, Nichols-Cordova misses her son like crazy.
“My biggest thing is coming home to see my son,” she said. “As a mother, you want to give them the best life that you can.”