- by Carol Standish
There's a disparaging rumor around the boaty literary circles that Linda Greenlaw wrote her book, The Hungry Ocean (Hyperion; 265pp; $22.95) just because of Sebastian Junger's bestseller, The Perfect Storm. No "just because" about it. Greenlaw's first sentence tells it like it is, "I have been fishing commercially for seventeen years, and up until the summer of 1997, nobody cared…The Perfect Storm [brought] attention and opportunity." She continues to tell it like it is for 265 pages. Smart woman.
Without giving too much space to Junger's book, everybody's read it, everybody loved it. It is a tale of sound and fury told by a combination of hypothesis and prodigious research. Junger gives life to his victims by describing their lives ashore. The storm is described by timetables and measurements and calculations, an entirely engrossing story but tinged with the theoretical.
In The Hungry Ocean you are on the boat. You have signed on to the 100 foot Hannah Boden swordfishing vessel out of Gloucester, Massachusetts for the duration. The only escape is to jump overboard or slam the book shut and I bet you can't do that even if you do feel a little queasy or claustrophobic. You are committed, even trapped out east of the Banks trying to stay out of the way of five highly motivated, slightly crazed, well-seasoned fishermen and the adrenaline-shocked alertness of their captain.
Greenlaw's book is intense in a far different way than Junger's. The reader becomes part of the daily routine on the Hannah Boden, and it is grindingly hard. While the boat is steaming for 5 days to the fishing ground the crew is busy preparing the gear. First, hooks are fitted with light sticks and attached to a leader. Each leader is attached to the 40 mile main line. At other intervals electronic locating beepers and floats are also attached. Thus fitted the line is wound onto a drum, ready to set. "Once the gear is in order, the crew find themselves with idle time, which leads to boredom [and] discontent [which would] soon put pressure on me to get the fishing under way…to keep the crew busy."
The crew is Captain Greenlaw's first priority, right after finding and catching fish. "My present crew might terrorize Gloucester when we're ashore, but they have always behaved as gentlemen in my presence." The men are a palpable presence in the book. The reader smells their sweat, scratches their salty skin, struggles, spits, swears, and chuckles with them at their bad jokes on each other. Despite tensions, ably addressed by their no-nonsense captain, they work as a well-oiled team breaking their backs for the common good…a trip from which they all come back alive to a good paycheck.
The fishing starts when the captain finds a "break," an area in the ocean where warm water meets cold. She has been taking multi-depth temperature readings for many hours. When she finds the spot, the 40 miles of main line is paid out. It takes an average of 21 hours to set and haul, simultaneously cleaning the fish and packing them in the hold. Crew and captain alike are lucky to get three hours of sleep between sets. Then they do it all over again—for a month.
Greenlaw has a talent for vivid description, "waves crashing into and onto the Hannah Boden in sync with 70 knot winds created a throbbing steel vibrato." And although she is often describing grueling, repetitive work she creates a tension and pace that exhausts even the reader. The book is full of discreet detail and Greenlaw's own passion for her profession, "I continued to haul, and soon the angle at which the line exited the water increased…as the angle sharpened and the line tightened, so did my excitement. I had been through this drill thousands of times, landed thousands of fish, and each was as exciting as the first. Just a hint of weight on the mainline was enough to wind me up tight."
As for being female, she says, "it hasn't been a big deal…I have been surprised…by the number of people who are genuinely amazed that a woman might be capable of running a fishing boat. Frankly, I'm amazed that they're amazed." The most skilled and competent men of her crew take the liberty of calling their captain, "Ma." In their culture the title is a reverential compliment. They know why she makes the "big bucks," they know why she stands at the "pointy end" of the boat. Now we all do. Smart woman, great book.