March 10, 2004: Perspective

A fish tale
Finding bravery on the water

By Lilith Wood ’00

Lilith Wood ’00 is a freelance writer in Seattle.


I planned not to be shy anymore after I graduated from Princeton. Shyness was getting me nowhere. For instance, I never got very involved with campus journalism or the Press Club because I didn’t want to talk to strangers. It’s hard to think of the right questions when you’re nervous.

I grew up in a fishing town in Alaska and romanticized the fishing life. During the summer, I worked in a salmon cannery. Where the fishermen were bold and ruggedly independent, I was one of many drudges lined up along a conveyor belt, breathing in a fine mist of vaporized fish blood. I also knew that the water is dangerous, the work is grueling, the skippers yell a lot, and there’s no privacy. I never even thought about trying to get a job on a boat. I figured I’d just be seen as a liability anyway, because I’m female. “Male-dominated” can’t convey just how macho the fishing industry is.

In 2000, my senior year of college, I hatched a plan to travel around the U.S., interviewing women who fished for a living. I might not have actually done it, but the Martin Dale ’53 Fellowship committee thought it was a good idea, too, and underwrote the venture. I started in Alaska, and followed the Pacific, Gulf, and Atlantic coasts. I rode buses and trains, and took about five months. I sought out female fishermen in particular because I was curious about what made them different from me. I also hoped their bravery would rub off on me.

I had a chance to go fishing with Lynn in Alaska and with Zoe in Maine. Both Zoe and Lynn were small, nimble, and good with engines. Both fishing trips went about the same for me. For hours, they worked steadily and cheerfully on deck, while I cowered in a corner of a wheelhouse, shivering, vomiting, and fantasizing about a nice job in a cubicle somewhere in the Midwest. Once in a while my hostess would pop her head in to report on the catch and say something about how lucky we were that the seas were so mild.

Lynn, Zoe, and the other women I met did turn out to be strong and stoic. They listed the benefits of being female rather than bemoaning the obstacles they had faced. They cited stamina, the ability to multitask, the ability to verbalize, women’s intuition, and manual dexterity as some of their advantages. They regaled me with tales of alligator wrestling and untangling humpback whales from their nets. But they would also talk about stupid mistakes they had made over the years. It turned out that they were mere mortals after all.

Lynn began her fishing career by launching radarless into a thick fog, and referred to her former self as an “idiot-child.” Lisa, in Oregon, was seasick for two years, and would get so exhausted that the skipper would find her down in the hold, snoring on a pile of fish. She said it took her a long time to become a “halfway decent” deckhand. Susan had a near-disaster when she absentmindedly left her extra gas tanks at the fuel dock. She learned some obvious things the hard way. “Always keep a rope on your boat,” she said. Although they all seemed to know quite a bit about engines and machinery, a few of them wished they were more “mechanically inclined.” Linda, a sea-urchin diver in L.A., said she had to take her boat to the boatyard frequently because it was hard for her to figure out what the problem was, or how to fix it. She said, defensively, “I mean, if the truck craps out on the way to the harbor it might be something simple, but I wouldn’t tear the engine apart trying to figure it out myself – would you?” She was talking to the girl whose fear of the combustion engine had led her to take buses and trains around the country instead of just driving herself. Well, that and the fact that I had never driven anywhere except on Mitkof Island in southeast Alaska, where there are no traffic lights.

I didn’t overcome my shyness. I just did what I could. Sometimes I bravely approached people. Other times, I chickened out. In Galveston, Texas, I went to a wholesale fish market, because I had heard that someone there might know women who fished. It was a little place at the end of a street that turned into weeds and old railroad tracks. It was called Katie’s Fish Market, and I was hoping Katie would be around. I stepped in out of the sunlight, onto the cracked cement floor of a room where several men were working. I stood on the inside of a horseshoe of aluminum containers full of iced fish. The fish were like a barrier between the men and me. The men stopped working and stared at me. The fish and the men all looked at me with the same cold, glassy expressions. I am ashamed to say that I pivoted 180 degrees, and walked out without saying one word.

I never did find anyone to interview in Galveston. I got back on the bus and rode to Lafayette, Lousiana, where a nun named Sister Carmelita took me in and introduced me to Cajun crawfishers and Vietnamese shrimpers. Thank goodness for happenstance and the kindness of others. When I got stranded in Tidewater Virginia, a woman picked me up at a crossroads. She took me along to her Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, where I met another woman who took me home and fed me squirrel shot by her ex-husband, who lived in the basement with a Yorkshire terrier named Amy Doodle. Their son was a waterman, as they call fishermen there, and he squired me about the county in his red Toyota pickup, introducing me to the women he knew who worked the water.

As for asking the right questions, I only had to get people started. Most of the women I met were warm, funny, and self-deprecating. They opened up to me as if they’d been waiting for me to show up. I think that talking to me reminded them to be proud of themselves. They all had become competent fishermen gradually – the same way men do – by doggedly, ungracefully keeping on. I’m hoping the same goes for writers. I made a lot of dumb moves on my trip, but I didn’t give up and fly home. I didn’t exactly turn into Nancy Drew, but I learned that you can see a lot from the passenger seat if you keep your eyes open.


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