A Female 'Swordboat' Captain Returns To The Sea Linda Greenlaw took a decade off from commercial fishing, but the siren call of the deep blue water drew her back in. The only female swordfish boat captain in the United States recounts her latest adventure at sea in a memoir, Seaworthy.
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A Female 'Swordboat' Captain Returns To The Sea

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A Female 'Swordboat' Captain Returns To The Sea

A Female 'Swordboat' Captain Returns To The Sea

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(Soundbite of music)

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of film, "The Perfect Storm")

Ms. MARY ELIZABETH MASTRANTONIO (Actress): (as Linda Greenlaw) Andrea Gail, do you read me? Do you read me? Come in. Come in, for God's sake, come in. (Unintelligible). They are exploding.

BIANCULLI: That's Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in the movie "The Perfect Storm," playing our next guest, fishing boat captain Linda Greenlaw Greenlaw. She says that her actual radio conversation with Captain Billy Tyne in 1991, believed to be the final contact made with the Andrea Gail before it disappeared in a storm, was less dramatic than the Hollywood version.

But Greenlaw is a real commercial fisherman and the only female swordboat captain in the country. Swordfishing doesn't involve nets and trawling. During each fishing venture, Greenlaw and her crew will set thousands of individual hooks on a line and haul the massive creatures aboard one at a time.

After years on the sea, Greenlaw left deepwater fishing for 10 years to set lobster traps and write books. Her first, "The Hungry Ocean," became a bestseller, and she's written five more books of fiction and nonfiction.

Last year, she returned to the deep water and that voyage is the subject of her latest book. It's called "Seaworthy: A Swordboat Captain Returns to the Sea," and it's now out in paperback.

Linda Greenlaw spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies last year.

DAVE DAVIES: Linda Greenlaw, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, in this book, you write: the position of skipper aboard a U.S. Grand Banks longline vessel is the absolute pinnacle of the commercial fishing world. And I'd like you to begin by just telling us what longline deepwater swordfishing is, how it works.

Ms. LINDA GREENLAW (Author, "Seaworthy: A Swordboat Captain Returns to the Sea"): Well, longlining is, as the name would suggest, the fishery itself is fishing a very long line. A typical set, which we do every night while we're at sea, is 40 miles. We lay out a 40-mile single strand of 1,000-pound test line, onto which we attach about 1,000 baited hooks.

And that attachment is called the leader. It's suspended, basically, fairly close to the surface. And we fish temperature breaks, for instance east of the Grand Banks, which is where most of my experience is. We fish where the Gulf Stream, which is to the south, pushes up into the Labrador Current, which is cold water.

These temperature breaks are where all the feed collects, and where there is prey, there should be a predator. That's where we fish.

DAVIES: Okay, and so every day, you have this big spool on the deck, and you just roll out 40 miles of line, and you have floats every so often, right, which I guess allow you to retrieve these things later. And you leave these 40 miles and 1,000 baited leader hooks out for several hours and then reel them in the next day, right?

Ms. GREENLAW: Yes, that's correct. And swordfish are nocturnal in that they feed at night. They come close to the surface to feed at night. So we set the line out in the evening, and at daylight, we pick up the end of the 40-mile string and start hauling it back.

DAVIES: Okay, so now you've got this crew of, you know, I guess five or six people on a boat that, I guess in the case of the Sea Hawk, which you most recently were on, it was, like, about, what, 63 feet?

Ms. GREENLAW: Yes, a 63-foot boat, and I had a crew of five men.

DAVIES: Right, so you have five people that are baiting 1,000 hooks a day, reeling them out. And then when you reel them back in, explain the process there and what you do when you have a swordfish or some other kind of fish on it.

Ms. GREENLAW: Okay, well, hauling the gear back, it's all hands on deck, including the captain. And that's my favorite part of the job is hauling the gear because it's just like Christmas. You know, you can't wait to see what you're going to get.

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, as you mentioned. 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. It comes to a point when the snap or the thing that connects the hook to the main line, when that breaks the surface, it's hand-over-hand hauling, one man against 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.

DAVIES: And you can tell when it's a swordfish, right?

Ms. GREENLAW: I can, yeah. I've been doing this a long time. I started swordfishing at the age of 19. So, basically, I'm not fooled much when there's a little weight on the line. A swordfish acts totally different than a tuna or a shark.

DAVIES: Well, talk about that. How does a swordfish act?

Ms. GREENLAW: A swordfish generally is pulling straight down, and when it gets close to the surface, it starts doing these circles. We call it a death circle, or we hope it's going to be a death circle and not a release circle.

Tuna fish, often if you have the line in your hand, you feel a pump, pump, pump, when it's pumping its tail, and you can really feel that if you have the line running through your hand.

A shark generally does not dive down. It comes up to the surface. So the leader would be stretched out on the surface and quite often, you'd see a fin breaking the surface.

DAVIES: Now you've got to get this thing aboard the boat, and I know from reading your book that there's a break in the gunnel, I mean, the side of the ship, right, in effect a door, right, where you can haul this. But it's still, you're talking about a hundred-pound fish, right?

Ms. GREENLAW: Yes, I mean, you're hoping it's a hundred-pound fish. Last season, we had a 171-pound average. These are big fish. And, yes, there's a door cut in the side of the boat to make it a little easier to get the fish aboard.

Basically, once the fish breaks the surface, you put gaffs in the fish to help pull it aboard. If it's a gigantic fish, we have a hydraulic lift that we can put a strap around the tail and pull the fish aboard that way.

DAVIES: Then what happens?

Ms. GREENLAW: Once the fish is aboard the boat, the fish cleaner goes to work. It's very important for us to keep the quality of the fish really to high standards to get the money that we need to get for the fish to make a living.

So the fish needs to be cleaned. That means, you know, the head comes off, the guts come out, saltwater rinse, and it gets packed on saltwater ice immediately. Really important to get the fish chilled really quickly and not leave the fish on deck.

DAVIES: So every day, assuming that the weather is decent and things are working, you are reeling out 40 miles of longline, baiting 1,000 hooks, pulling in those 1,000 hooks the next day and then preparing to put them back out the next morning. It must be incredibly strenuous and sleep depriving.

Ms. GREENLAW: Sleep deprivation is a big part of the swordfish industry. We're lucky if we get four hours a night. You know, the days get long, you know, depending on - weather, of course, 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, you know, that you stop to bring aboard is a little more difficult to get aboard in bad weather. Part-offs are a huge factor in the length of a day.

DAVIES: Where the line gets cut, right.

Ms. GREENLAW: Yes, if you - 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. It's time-consuming. A captain can make a bad set and catch a lot of sharks, very time-consuming.

So yeah, the long days you know, you're lucky if you get four hours sleep.

DAVIES: And how long does a trip last?

Ms. GREENLAW: We generally keep our trips in synch with the lunar cycle. So a trip is, you know, 28 to 30 days, and that's the goal is to keep on the lunar cycle because the fishing is better because you're fishing these temperature breaks, and the moon obviously affects tide.

I guess everyone's aware of that, but these temperature breaks are more defined during from the first quarter through the full moon. So we try and do our steaming back and forth to the dock and our turnaround or our time at the dock unloading, re-supplying, during the new moon or when you can't see any moon, and our fishing during when you can see a moon.

DAVIES: So you're typically at sea for about a month.

Ms. GREENLAW: Yes, a typical trip is 30 days.

DAVIES: So when you're reeling in the line, these 1,000 baited leaders, how many swordfish will you typically get?

Ms. GREENLAW: Well, the success of a trip just varies so much. I've never been skunked. That means I've never been fishless at the end of a haul back. My biggest day was 107 fish. That's huge, over 10,000 pounds of fish in one day.

If you can average, you know, 3,000 pounds a night, you know, 30 fish, that's a good way to put a trip together. It's a grind. You know, you're going to make 10 or 12 or 20 sets, whatever you need to do to get enough fish to go in with without sort of overdoing the moon thing. You know, you don't want to miss the next moon. So you can't stay out too long, and you don't want your fish to be too old. So, you know, 3,000 pounds a night is a pretty good average.

DAVIES: So 1,000 hooks, 30 fish and do it again the next day.

Ms. GREENLAW: Exactly.

DAVIES: Right, so here you are. I mean, you're at very close quarters, working long hours with five or six other people, and you are a woman, which is rare in the business, right?

Ms. GREENLAW: Yes, it is rare in the business.

DAVIES: I know from reading about you that you started swordfishing I guess when you were in college. And I'm just kind of curious: What was it like being a woman at sea? Was it different? Was it difficult?

Ms. GREENLAW: 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, had an opportunity to run a boat, came up in the traditional way.

You know, 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. Worked very hard, eventually got good at it. I hire my own crew.

A lot of questions are about, you know, 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. And that's not to say I've never had crew problems, because I have, but they haven't been as a result of my being a woman. Everyone has crew problems at one time or another.

DAVIES: I'd like you to tell one story that you relayed in the book about a case where you saw a swordfish take on a shark.

Ms. GREENLAW: Early in my sword fishing career we fished on Georgia's banks and part of the fishery that we were doing was harpooning, which is the most incredibly fun and exciting fishery. It's a sight fishery. You're, you know, my part of that was being the helmsman. I climb up the mast. I'm in the crow's nest. I'm driving the boat from up there and looking for fish swimming on the surface of the ocean. It's one fish, you know, you're not seeing schools of fish. You're looking around for a single fish.

Well, this particular day I was up in the crow's nest, I saw fins and I was like wow, all right. Cool. I put the boat in gear and the captain's running out to the end of the stand, to the pulpit from where you through the harpoon. And as we approach the fins, which kept disappearing, I noticed that there were two sets of fins. One set of fins was the swordfish and a big one. And the second set of fins was a gigantic mako shark. Well, we watched a struggle between a mako shark and a swordfish and the captain of the boat is wanting me to get the boat onto the mako shark so he can harpoon the shark or the swordfish so he can harpoon the swordfish.

We get up to the shark, harpoon it and then look around for the fish. The fish is gone. And, of course, we're very disappointed the fish is gone. A little while later the fins pop up bang. No. We miss it. The fish is gone. So we missed a big fish. It was a huge fish. It was really a day saver. We really needed that fish. So we haul back the shark, get the shark on the deck, it's a big mako, and the guy cleaning the shark is just amazed at this little tiny baby swordfish that was in the shark's belly. And suddenly I felt okay about this big swordfish getting away because I had a feeling that the swordfish and the shark were fighting or, you know, struggling together, the swordfish was upset. I mean the shark ate the swordfish's baby. So I felt good about killing the shark and I felt kind of okay about the swordfish getting away.

DAVIES: Linda Greenlaw, thanks so much for spending some time with us.

Ms. GREENLAW: Thank you for having me.

BIANCULLI: Linda Greenlaw spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Her book "Seaworthy: A Swordboat Captain Returns to the Sea," is now out in paperback. And she's also written a cookbook with her mother, Martha Greenlaw. It's called "The Maine Summers Cookbook."

Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews two new movies "Larry Crowne," which stars Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts and the latest "Transformers" sequel which doesnt.

This is FRESH AIR.

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