Capt. Linda Greenlaw became an instant celebrity with Sebastian Junger's best-selling book, The Perfect Storm. She is the only American woman to have ever commanded a commercial swordfish boat and is rightfully a living legend among captains of both genders.
As all yachties know, crew are a mutlifaceted bunch; Capt. Greenlaw is no exception. In addition to running commerical fishing boats, she has a degree in literature and has become a best-selling author herself. She speaks to DOCKWALK.com here about being a woman in an even more male-dominated industry than yachting.
DW: In an archive interview, you said you got your first outboard while other kids your age were getting their first 10-speed (bicycle). Clearly boating was always a part of your life. But when you went to college, you majored in English. How does a college-educated English major end up becoming a sword boat captain?
LG: Before I started working on commercial boats, I never saw myself becoming a captain. Growing up, we always had boats, we always fished and we set traps for lobster. But becoming a captain and running a boat was something that girls just didn’t do. When I went to college, I wasn’t real sure what I wanted to do. I suppose I chose English because I like to read…I was 19 when I took my first job on a fishing boat to help pay for school and I quickly realized that I really loved it.
DW: Were you taken seriously when you first sought a job on a fishing boat?
LG: When I first signed on, I came aboard as a cook. Shortly after fishing began, another crewmember got hurt, so they needed me on deck. The injured guy took over cooking and I realized how much I loved the physical work and catching fish.
DW: If you had tried to sign on as deck crew, would you have gotten the job?
LG: In 1979, probably not, but not necessarily because I’m a woman. Back then there was a lot of money being made in commercial fishing, so there was not a lot of opportunity for new crew, and there was a lot of competition for the few jobs that were available.
DW: A number of female captains have admitted to us that the decision to become a captain was not entirely their own. Often someone else saw leadership qualities and potential in them and that they simply followed suit. How did your decision come about?
LG: Hmmm...I guess for me it was a mixed bag. By the time I became a captain, I had done every job on a sword-boat that there was to do. I had started arguing with the captain and felt like I knew more than he did. But unless you have parents who can afford to buy you your own boat, you have to wait for an owner to decide to take a chance on you. And that’s what happened. The owner bought a new boat, a second boat, and I was the second most experienced person on his crew, so he gave me the chance.
DW: How did your parents react when you started fishing?
LG: It was never really discussed. When I was 7-years-old my mother gave me the best piece of advice of my life; she said I could do anything. My parents may have worried about my safety but they never questioned my decision to work on a fishing boat. When I started fishing full time, it was under the assumption that I was taking a year off between college and law school…I lied.
DW: Did their perspective change when it became clear that fishing had become your career?
LG: Yes. I say my mom gave me her best piece of advice when I was 7 and the worst advice when I decided to make my living fishing. My parents said I was wasting my education and that I should get a real job. Fortunately, by that time, I was at that age where I no longer listened to my parents’ advice.
DW: Do you think your experience in becoming a captain was unique because of your gender?
LG: Unique, no. The obstacles for any sword boat captain are things like weather and bad fishing; gender has no bearing on those things.
DW: Were there times when you felt like you were treated differently because of your gender?
LG: As a woman, I may have been outnumbered, but I was never dominated. I did what every other captain did. I stuck around; I worked hard. Once you are proven, nothing else matters. There were times when I might have brought the boat to the dock a bit hard and knocked the deckhands around. I’d be the first one to lean out of the wheelhouse and say, “Sorry, woman skipper.”
DW: Was it hard to find crew willing to work for a female captain?
LG: As a captain, I was able to hire my own crew. If someone had a problem working for a woman, then they wouldn’t ask me for a job. Once I started doing well, then everyone wanted to work for me. Boats that are making money, “High Liners” as they’re called, draw the best crew, there’s no magic to it. It’s just a good equation.
DW: Being the only woman aboard a sword boat, sharing crew quarters with a bunch of men, it had to get nasty down there.
LG: I just always made sure that I had my own space and my own quarters. But I do think men are better behaved with a female captain. I’ve even had crew say that to me before. They are better behaved, and the language is different. Some of the guys said they preferred that about working on my boat.
DW: Spending weeks and weeks at sea, working long hours and getting beat up on deck, there had to be times when the crew would come to blows with one another. Did you ever have to break up fights aboard?
LG: Oh yes, and just like you said, most of the time it was just fatigue that would get tempers flaring. I guess that is one way I am different from a typical male captain. I’m 5-foot-2 and 125 pounds; I’m not getting in between them. I would just start taking money away. No one wants to work that hard and not come home with every penny coming to them.
DW: Do you know any other female commercial fishing boat captains?
LG: Well, I’ve heard of some in other sectors, but I don’t know them.
DW: You have been quoted as saying that you felt the reason there were so few female captains is because women do not see it as an opportunity, do you still believe this to be the case?
LG: I don’t know about yachting, but there really aren’t a lot of women who have an interest in running a commercial fishing boat. Commercial fishing is not a growing industry. I think most women are smart enough to figure out that there are better opportunities out there. I think for the women who do run boats, they are in it for the right reasons and they are really happy doing what they do. A lot of men run boats because they feel like they were born to do it and don’t know what else they would do.
DW: With no female peers, did it sometimes feel lonely at the top?
LG: I have always been a tomboy. If I go to a dinner party, I always end up with the men talking about engine rooms and fishing, so, no, I never felt alone on a boat. I was always part of team, and I was fortunate enough to be able to surround myself with great people.
DW: Looking back, do you feel that by becoming a captain you sacrificed more – in terms of your personal life – than a male captain or woman in a more “traditional” profession?
LG: Looking back, yes. It never crossed my mind that I would not have kids and a family of my own. But I loved what I was doing and kept putting it off. Not until my late 30s did I start to worry about it…I talk about that in The Lobster Chronicles. I decided I wanted to get serious about meeting someone and settling down and foolishly chose to return to an island where all of the bachelors were either relatives or gay.
DW: But there is a love in your life?
LG: Absolutely and he’s a great man. I also am the legal guardian for a teenage girl. When I imagined having a family, I never imagined it would start with a teenager…I am optimistic that there is still opportunity for babies and I could be just as happy adopting them.
DW: Having been portrayed in both a novel and movie (which might most accurately be described as fictitious non-fiction) in the minds of those who meet you, you are both a real person and a character. Our readers would tell you that there are a lot of captains out there who are more likely to go down with the ship before issuing a mayday in a situation that they might be able to Hail Mary their way out of. In the movie, "The Perfect Storm" your character issues a mayday on behalf of the Andrea Gail when radio contact is lost. Did that really happen?
LG: That was all Hollywood. I think I would be just as stubborn, but I’ve never been in a situation where I had to radio a mayday. No, my last conversation with Billy was a calm discussion about weather and fishing, there was no fear, no panic. They disappeared very quietly…Everything that has been written is all speculation.
DW: And now you are a best-selling author yourself. Funny how life tends to come full circle. So how does writing fit into your life now? Do you see yourself as a captain or an author?
LG: My heart says I’m a captain, but my checkbook says I’m an author. When I’m introduced as a “best-selling author” I still feel like I need to look over my shoulder to see who they are talking about. I’m on tour promoting my sixth book now, and it still does not feel real to me.
DW: Your first four works were non-fiction, but your latest books are fiction novels. With such a deep well to draw upon for non-fiction, what made you decide to try fiction?
LG: I guess because it would be a challenge. I always wanted to try it and the opportunity was there.
DW: Is it harder to write non-fiction or fiction?
LG: Definitely fiction is harder. You have to invent everything, you draw from real life, but you have to invent the entire story and all the characters…it’s definitely harder.
DW: Speaking of fiction, in All Fishermen are Liars you mention a friend named Alden Leeman. You made that name up, right? Alden. Leeman.
LG: No, seriously, that’s his real name. And trust me, you could not make up someone like him, he’s the real deal.
Linda’s latest novel is called Fisherman’s Bend and is available at bookstores now. Fisherman’s Bend is Greenlaw’s second work of fiction following Slipknot. Her non-fiction works include: The Hungry Ocean, The Lobster Chronicles and All Fishermen are Liars. Greenlaw has also co-authored a cookbook with her mother, Martha, called Recipes From a Very Small Island. Visit her website, www.lindagreenlawbooks.com, for more about Capt. Linda Greenlaw.