One of the most common questions I get asked is what is it like as a woman commercial fishing. As much as I want to edit and give a watered down version, I don't think it would do the reality of my experiences justice. Honesty is what I have brought. I want to be clear that even though this highlights a few challenging themes and moments I experienced, it also was an incredibly rewarding and wonderful experience as a whole. Some assumptions I hear when asked about my time at sea are people fishing for the horror stories or for validation that it's not an industry meant for women. On the contrary, I have met a lot of women on the ocean who make it their lifestyle. They crew on boats season after season, women who are tough as hell. Women who often buy their own boat, or own one with a supportive husband. Women who even raise their babies on the docks. It’s a beautiful life. For a time, I even considered it for myself. However, for me, the reality of my experiences cannot be denied.
These experiences represent my story, and my story alone. I can't say that the experiences I've had, whether positive or negative, happen to everyone in my place, or even every woman. Nor is this just a gender battle. The commercial industry is tough, and there are women and men alike that can't always hack it, same as there are men and women alike that can, and do, succeed at this lifestyle. This particular season just highlights a few of the common challenges I personally experienced throughout my time in the commercial fishing industry. What I can say, is that even with the best of intentions, and a serious commitment to being professional and working hard, it was still extremely difficult at times, for me, as a woman in the commercial fishing industry.
For years, I fished on commercial boats throughout Alaska, in just about every fishery there was. One year was on a seiner out of Prince William Sound, one a gill netter out of Bristol Bay, another was on a tender vessel, servicing herring, salmon, seiners, and gill netters along the entire outer coast of Alaska. One season was spent as a commercial troller, with my ex-fiance, which consequently, is how I got into selling commercial, troll-caught fish. Although I admit that I am naturally hard on myself, and I love a good challenge, most of the lessons I've learned have often been from doing it wrong. But i have learned.
My first season was on a tender vessel, and I was a bright-eyed, green deckhand. A tender vessel is a boat that takes fish from the fisherman and delivers it to the processing facilities. We also served as a floating grocery store, shower facility, and overall barge for fisherman to come get hot soup and "shoot the shit". I can remember following the engineer around like a puppy dog. "What's that? What's this? How does that work? Can I help you?" If he got up from the galley table, I got up from the galley table. I pushed myself, because I felt more was expected from me. The captain encouraged it, and he even promoted me to the engineer position once the engineer I had learned from left. There wasn't much I wouldn't have been willing to do to learn.
One particular season, I had the opportunity to crew on a seiner out of Prince William Sound. It was by direct order from a captain I gill netted with previously in Bristol Bay. He owned a separate seiner out of Prince William Sound, and hired a captain to run it so he could work his gillnet fishery out of Bristol Bay. One of the crewman on the seiner had to leave and go back to college in the middle of the season, so it needed a new member to complete the four man crew.
Up to this point, I had been fishing with this captain up in Bristol bay, 350 miles from anything, and I hadn't showered in three months. I was part of a crew that consisted of the captain, me, and another deck hand. Unfortunately, that third crewman hurt his hand halfway through the season and had to call it quits. So, the captain gave me two choices: he could hire another deckhand to help me run the deck, set nets, and pick fish, or, I could do it solo and get double the crew share. For me, the latter of the options was the obvious choice. After single-handedly running the back deck on this gill netter all season, the captain was so impressed with me that he sent me to fill the open position in Prince Williams Sound on his seiner.
I was ecstatic, but what I couldn't have known at the time, was how unwanted I would be on that boat. I was dropped into a situation, and had no clue that there was a shit storm, in the form of the captain (and his small, Asian, and extremely jealous wife), waiting for me there. It was pretty clear that I wasn't welcome, and the only reason was because I was a woman. There were some pretty messed up dynamics on that boat, of which I had no clue, and no power over.
That first week was hell. When you're seining, you have two parts of the net that are set out and brought in: the corks and the leads. Now, the corks are considered the easier of the two, because when they are brought over the roller, they are light and easy to stack into the beautiful figure eight pattern that has been drilled into my memory. The leads, however, are a solid line of lead weight that holds the net down in the water so the salmon get trapped and can thus be pursued and captured. Not only are the leads physically challenging, but they usually require the more experienced hands on the boat to run them. Of course, the captain put me on the leads right away. Another huge difficulty I soon encountered was that the leads were directly under the roller, where you just get pounded by jelly fish. I didn't know you could actually become immune to jelly fish stings! I was stung in my eyes, on my cheeks, on my tongue! Oh man, the pain! I wore full rain gear covering my head, a bandana covering my mouth and as much of my cheeks as possible, and sunglasses to protect my eyes. I looked like I was in full combat mode every time we went out on deck to start our sets for the day. Sometimes we did five sets in a day, sometimes we did as many as eighteen.
The captain was always the hardest on me, not to mention he and everyone else assumed I had to have been sleeping with the captain that sent me out there, because how else could I have landed the job on the seiner? If I screwed up, he'd point it out ruthlessly. He watched me like a hawk for any sign of weakness, any reason to fire me and get me off "his" boat as soon as possible.
Being as stubborn as I am, I refused to give in, to give him any excuse whatsoever. I always asked for more. Even when my arms were screaming, and I had jelly fish tentacle stings that left me gasping for air from the pain, I stacked those leads, and after every one I eagerly said, "Can we do it again?" I cleaned the deck quicker than anyone, and I worked circles around the other crewmen. I never complained...not once.
The irony was, that I preferred being on deck after awhile, that was the easy part. At least it was just physically challenging, I could handle that. When we weren't fishing, I had to endure his jealous wife's behavior. Death stares and threats for anything and everything that might be construed as me "wanting" her husband were a regular facet of sea life. She served me dinner last, and I remember once I went into the engine room to ask the captain a question, and when I came up, his wife physically pinned me against a wall and accused me of F*%$ing her husband! It was two months of absolute insanity, and I wish I would have quit the day I walked aboard.
Before I left to go back to Juneau for the winter, there was the final straw. The captain who had sent me out there in the beginning, the captain whom I had previously respected and genuinely liked, and for whom I had worked so hard, gave me a dildo for my birthday! It was like every unfair stereotype that I had been struggling against, that I had to constantly deny and prove wrong, he had actually been feeding into it behind my back. I was disgusted and burnt out, and in that moment, quite possibly a bit insane. I threw the sex toy into the ocean in front of him, and I left the docks of Homer behind.
Perhaps it sounds like I am impressed with myself, bragging about being tough, and perhaps there is reason to be, but truth be told, I am not proud of the way I behaved. Yes, it built an immense amount of character, but it took an enormous toll on me emotionally. I should never have tolerated it. I should have left immediately, because no one should have to endure that kind of abuse. But I was too stubborn to call it off, too young and naive. Too often, for a woman in man's industry, enduring the unimaginable, and shouldering the double standards and the abuse, are just the cost of doing business.
What I'm trying to communicate with these stories, are the two very real stigmas that followed me around as a female crewman. It is because of these two stigmas that my time at sea was such a battle at times, and I had to keep my wits about myself at all times.
1.) In spite of your best efforts, you will often be expected to fail. In which case, prove them all wrong! Prove that you're a bad ass, professional chick, who can hold her shit together in extremely challenging situations. You must be more than physically equal to male crew members, it's imperative that you be mentally and emotionally strong as well. Most importantly, you must know when enough is enough, and when you have met your limit. True strength lies in standing up for yourself, and for what is right, not in enduring all when you don't necessarily have to. It's not in tolerating abuse when it achieves nothing, but rather, in being good to yourself emotionally, mentally, and physically. You don't have to prove anything to anyone but yourself. Respect yourself enough to demand that others respect you.
2.) Although this probably happens in every industry, it can be considered taboo to discuss, and is therefore rarely mentioned. Nonetheless, I will mention it. It was often assumed that I was sleeping with someone in order to obtain my positions within the industry. This stigma was untrue and unfair, and I didn't always encounter it, but it happened often enough to be irritating. No matter how hard I tried, I felt all of my hard work was constantly threatened and de-valued by the idea that I'd used sex to achieve what I had. The worst part, was that for years I was embarrassed by this part of the story of my commercial fishing career. I always thought to myself that if I had done things differently, perhaps it would have been different, and that perhaps it was my fault somehow. Maybe I hadn't acted well enough, or maybe I had accidentally led these guys on in some way? Maybe I said something that was misconstrued as sexual. This kind of thinking is bullshit! It is not your fault! Let me repeat myself: Ladies, if you honestly work hard at your job, and yet your work is devalued because of your gender, it is not your fault! The sad thing is is that it happens all the time, in every industry. To this day, within my current industry as a business owner, people have often devalued my hard work and say things happen for me because I am a "pretty girl". On the flip side, I have also had people and clients do things for me in hopes of pursuing me romantically or sexually. They have led me on toward what I thought was a business opportunity, and when I am honest with them, and politely (sometimes not so politely) turn down any non-business relationships, they withhold whatever business we had between us. I've had several people and clients try to complicate a professional relationship with sexual advances. I have had to shed from my life quite a few clients for demonstrating this mentality.
In the end, my advice to young women who express to me that they want to get involved in the commercial fishing industry (but really it translates into any industry) is this:
You must maintain professionalism and treat it as any other job. The higher you climb, and the more elite of a position you hold, the more you will be faced with the challenge of people trying to discredit your success, as if it was handed to you on a silver platter. As if you manipulated your way to the top. In which case, persevere. Don't pay them any attention and hold strongly to your moral compass. It sucks that the higher you climb, the more you have to be on guard, but if you demand respect for yourself, then you must show respect for yourself, by holding firmly to your vision, your path, and your hard work.
On another note, especially in the commercial fishing industry, it's easy to get caught up in drinking and partying because you live and work on the same boat. It can be difficult to separate your work life from your social life, but remember, you're only up there for a few months out of the year. You will get a lot of attention, usually negative. Unfortunately, if we do want to be taken seriously within the industry, women have to be careful about how we come across. This is a reality men rarely have to deal with. There are some captains who will only hire women because they want to sleep with them. It creates tension, and accusations of favoritism on the boat with other crew members, and often, it actually happens! I can't tell you how many times my other crew mates were pissed at me because they thought the captain favored me. Forget my work ethic, right? Or the fact that I was up everyday before anyone else on the boat? Or that I was continually going the extra mile to do it right, to learn it right, and to execute tasks with precision and speed?
There are a lot of great captains, many completely professional ones, but if you start your relationship off advertising anything other than your ability to work hard, take orders, and learn fast, then it's going to be very tough getting out of that already deep hole, especially because it is such a male-dominated industry. When I entered the commercial fishing industry, I entered it with the mentality that I would work hard and then get the hell out. That's the trade off when you're making that kind of money, you commit yourself to it briefly, and you sacrifice much of normal living for a time. For a few months out of the year, when people blended their social lives and love lives aboard what I called the "35-foot-universe", things tended to get particularly unpleasant. Good times will be shared, and yes, friends will be made; but in my opinion, anything that happens on a boat is work, and outside of that I have the rest of the year to be free, to date, to party, and to do whatever else.
Finally, it seems like people are constantly asking me, "Was it hard?". My answer: Hell yes it was hard! It was the hardest thing I had ever done up until that point in my life, but I'll tell you a secret. You can do ANYTHING you put your mind to, if you take it one day at a time, one task at a time, and you never give up. There is no such thing as failure, unless you fail to try! Even if you take a chance and totally bomb at something, don't give up! Try again and learn from it. Don't let fear of failure hinder you from taking a chance at something you want to do. Anything! Ever! As crazy as commercial fishing in Alaska may sound, I did it! Pulling gear and losing track of any sense of time; day and night become irrelevant; only getting 4 hours of sleep at a time, but waking up after two hours because your hands are cramped closed and the pain in your forearm and armpits are unbearable... for months at a time... I did it! It doesn't always have to make sense to everyone else, or even to yourself why you're compelled to chase something. For years, I couldn't figure out why I had put myself through all that, why that experience was necessary for me. If you feel drawn toward something, trust that feeling. Honor that, because something inside of yourself is pushing you toward your destiny. In return, you will be honored with abundance and a passion-filled life. Anything is possible if you put your mind to it, while taking it one day at a time.
My time at sea pushed me beyond the limits of anything I could possibly imagine, but what I gained, was a certain grit and growth of spirit. The kind of maturity that comes from difficult experiences like that is invaluable. And in the end, who would have guessed my time at sea would prepare me for running my own seafood company? Think about it: I got to intimately learn every industry first hand before running my own business as a seafood distribution company. I was given all the experience I needed to take things into my own hands. It was more empowering than anything I've encountered yet. Life is funny.
With much love,