Chapter One: Turning the Boat Around
It was very early in the morning, very late in the month of August. The Hannah Boden chafed against the pilings at Gloucester Marine Railways, at her usual berth between trips. I enjoyed a deep and restful sleep in my bunk onboard, the type of sleep that nonfishermen get most nights and fishermen get only when all lines are made fast to the dock. I slept, and it seemed all of Gloucester slept. All of Gloucester, that is, except Bob Brown. The stillness of the harbor was broken by the ringing of my cellular phone. I was able to incorporate the high-pitched jingling into my dream for the first fifteen or twenty rings. But I was familiar with Bob's persistence and knew he was not about to hang up; I had to get up and answer the phone. I pulled a pair of sweatpants up over my nightshirt and opened the door between my quarters and the boat's wheelhouse. As the phone rang on, I squinted at the clock. "Oh, for Christ's sake, Bob, four-thirty..." I grabbed the receiver and said "Hi, Bob" as pleasantly as I could.
"Good morning, Linda. How did you know it was me?" The voice, sharp and clear on the other end, was wide-awake.
"I hope I didn't wake you," he lied.
"Oh, no, I've been up for hours," I said, trying to use sarcasm to mask my irritation.
"Well," he continued, "today is sailing day, and I thought you might like some breakfast before the boys show up. I'll pick you up in thirty minutes."
I hung up and finished the conversation to myself. "Luckily for you, Bob Brown, the one and only thing in this universe that I will sacrifice sleep for is food."
I nearly fell asleep in the shower. As the hot water pounded the back of my neck I thought about my boss. Although Bob Brown had proven himself a difficult man, I'd liked him upon meeting him, and my feelings hadn't changed over the years. I often found myself defending him to the five men who comprised my crew, whose attitude toward Bob was made up of equal parts of respect and repugnance. When somebody told me early on that I was working for the most hated man from Puerto Rico to Newfoundland, I laughed. But time had proven this to be true. No matter where I went, I would meet someone who knew Bob or had heard about him, and who would inevitably ask, "How can you work for that asshole?" My answer seldom varied: "He's not so bad. He's got the nicest boat in the fleet, the best equipment money can buy, and he treats me well."
Bob was a smart man and couldn't possibly have been totally oblivious to the general fishing community's dislike of him, although it appeared that he was. He managed to take everything in stride, as if this ill will simply went with the territory; he was far too busy to waste time acknowledging any criticism. There will always be people who question extreme success, and with everything Bob touched turning to gold, there was a lot of talk. Some criticisms had merit, some were cheap shots born of jealousy. Bob had obviously stepped on a few fingers on his way to the top, and although some said that he had also picked a few pockets, I had never seen any dishonesty in my experience with him. He was an amazingly clever person; his competence covered a wide range. Among other things, Bob flew his own plane and was a top-notch mechanical and electrical troubleshooter. As for determination--he would take a boat to Mars if he thought there might be a fish to be caught there. Today the name Bob Brown is recognized by the millions of readers of The Perfect Storm as the owner of the Andrea Gail.
My only real problem with Bob, I thought as I dried my hair with a towel, was that he demanded so much of people. He naively expected everyone he came into contact with to think and act on his level. I worked hard to live up to Bob's expectations and usually fell short. Bob's approval was something I strove for, and seldom achieved, but it was one of the things that kept me going during my five years under his employ. As I tied my shoelaces, I concluded my thoughts on Bob Brown: Our relationship worked.
The tide was half and rising, making it an easy step from the rail of the boat up onto the dock, where Bob's truck was just easing to a stop. The man behind the wheel was of impressive stature. Bob was not tall, by any means, but what he lacked in height was more than compensated for in width of shoulders and girth of chest. His was a body built for physical work, low to the ground and rugged. As I climbed into the truck I made some smart-assed comment about the risk involved in riding with Bob Brown through the streets of Gloucester: "What if I'm hit with a bullet intended for you?"
Bob laughed, shaking his short and neatly combed, not quite to the salt-and-pepper stage, black hair. Stroking his clean-shaven chin with a hand that resembled a bear's paw, Bob thoughtfully offered, "Perhaps you would prefer to walk."
"No. I feel lucky this morning. You're buying, right?" I slammed the door and we made small talk as Bob drove to the restaurant.
Sitting across the table from Bob, I started to get the first twinge of nervousness. It happened every trip, the day we were to leave the dock. I wondered what chore we had forgotten, what item I had neglected to put on my list, and how hard it would be to do without that particular item over the course of thirty days at sea. I pulled my checklist from my back pocket and went over it for what seemed to be the hundredth time since I'd brought the Hannah Boden back into Gloucester two days before. Preparing a boat for a month-long fishing trip involves so much work and such a high degree of organization that when the time comes to cast the lines off the dock, I have often breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that the most unpleasant part of the trip is over and the best is yet to come--the actual catching of fish, the reason most of us are in the business. Intense anxiety stood between that sigh of relief and myself this morning. There were still tasks to be completed after breakfast, before the lines could be thrown from the dock, indicating the official start of our September trip.
A waitress took our orders and filled our coffee cups. While we waited to be served, I fidgeted. I drummed the fingers of my left hand on the tabletop and bounced both legs up and down on the balls of my feet as I stared at the worn-out piece of paper in front of me. My mind raced through the events of the past forty-eight hours while the question lingered... What have I forgotten?
On August 26, my crew and I had landed in Gloucester with the biggest trip of swordfish of my career, unloading over 56,000 pounds. The pride and excitement I felt over the previous trip did nothing to ease the tension and anxiety for the coming one. In fact, today I felt even greater pressure than usual. We would surely be expected to repeat in September what we had accomplished in August, and the first critical steps in that direction would be taken today. I had prepared for these trips so many times in the past that everything should have been more routine, less frantic. But so much was riding on the success of each trip during the short Grand Banks season that it was impossible to relax. I had heard of, and too many times lived through, difficulties caused by not fully preparing for a month at sea. The owner, the captain, and the crew all must pay strict attention to every detail that could affect the outcome of a trip. At sea you need to maximize your control over everything you can, to minimize the effects of those things you can't control, such as Mother Nature, who is known by all fishermen to be quite temperamental, and often a nuisance.
Bob Brown was the epitome of organization and a master of "turning the boat around," repairing, maintaining, and re-outfitting a boat between trips. Brown was known and admired for his unheard-of two-day turnarounds for Grand Banks trips. My head was spinning with the whirlwind of tasks that had been completed in the past forty-eight hours. Bob Brown was the only boat owner I have worked for who, upon our homecoming from thirty days at sea, yelled to me from the dock before the first line was made fast, "When are you leaving again?"
Two days ago, when the last of the 527 swordfish, 118 bigeye tuna, and 7 mako sharks had been hoisted from their saltwater ice beds in the Hannah Boden's fish hold and placed aboard trucks headed to Boston and New Bedford to be sold, we began the scrubbing and sanitizing of the fish hold. While the cleaning was being done, Tom Ring, my first mate and cook, headed to the grocery store to "grub up," shop for food for the six of us for the next thirty-day boat ride. Ringo had been in the business for nearly twenty years and was among the best crew members with whom I had ever had the pleasure of working. Not only is Ringo a first-rate deckhand and a good-natured shipmate, he's also an excellent cook, a key element in any successful and happy fishing operation.
Ringo has the amazing ability to shift gears, something that mediocre crewmen lack. Ringo's strength and endurance go well beyond what one might expect from a man of his size and build, which were deceptively average. Lacking excessive bulk, the muscles in Ringo's upper body were well defined by the years of physical work that he had chosen and loved. At some point in every trip, everyone reaches a stage of exhaustion unimaginable to anyone who has never quite been there. It is a state way beyond dead tired, a fatigue that goes all the way to the bitter end of each and every hair on your head. Just about the time I think the guys will start dropping on deck, Ringo musters some untapped resource within himself and goes into overdrive. Until hiring Ringo, I had always been the pacesetter, the prodder. (No self-respecting fisherman will allow himself to be outworked by a woman; it is a fact that brought the best out of my crew for years.) Now we all took pride in keeping up with Ringo.
Kenny and Carl, at twenty-two and nineteen respectively, the two youngest members of my crew, had climbed out of the fish hold with their scrub brushes just as a tractor-trailer truck was backing down the wharf. "All done! You could eat off the deck down there," said Kenny as he sat on the starboard rail and lit a cigarette. Pulling off his Boston Red Sox hat, Kenny exposed his bright orange hair, which matched his also naturally fiery temper. The other three men were kicking off their oil gear (foul weather or deck clothes consisting of rubberized bib overalls, hooded jackets, and knee-high rubber boots) when the screech of air brakes on the dock brought their attention to the tailgate of the truck, which had come to a stop just short of the edge of the wharf. The men looked at one another, then at the truck, and then at me.
Charlie, whose oil pants were now down around his ankles, let out a long disgusted sigh. "Please tell me that truck is not full of bait." Exhaustion had dimmed his blue eyes' usual brightness, and the stubble on his cheeks concealed deep dimples. Even Charlie's posture begged for a break. "We're not putting the bait on tonight, are we?"
Before I could answer, the driver threw open the back door of the truck and we all stared at the mountain of boxes stacked clear to the ceiling and as far back into the body as we could see. "Fuck!" yelled Kenny, his red hair standing at attention. He flicked his cigarette into the harbor and paced back and forth across the deck while launching into a signature Kenny tirade. He barked loudly the pointed syllables of words heavy with his native Newfoundland accent. "Oh, for fuck's sake. Six o'fuckin'clock. Twenty-six days at sea, work your ass off, come in with a big trip, work your ass off unloading the fish, scrub the fuckin' fish hold. All I want to do is take these slimy fuckin' clothes off, jump in the shower and go up the street. Is that asking too much? I guess the fuck it is. We've been tied to this fuckin' dock for twelve hours and I haven't even set one foot on dry land yet. I just want to get off this fuckin' boat--"
"Well, now's your chance," I cut in. "Jump into the back of that truck and start handing that bait down here." Carl hopped up onto the dock to take his place as the second link in the human chain, while Peter, the tallest of the crew, stepped up onto the rail, becoming link number three. After one look at the long faces of my crew, a passerby would certainly have thought that they had just been sentenced to life in prison. Although it seemed unfair, Bob Brown had learned the hard way that he needed to get the crew to do everything humanly possible before handing them paychecks and watching them disappear into the darkened doorways of the local barrooms. Kenny had recovered from his tantrum and was in the back of the truck; the others were pulling their oil gear back on. "Let's have a look at the stuff before we put it all aboard," I said, recalling preparations for a recent trip when I had refused 12,000 pounds of squid, sending it back to the cold-storage plant because of its poor quality.
Kenny jumped out of the truck with a 40-pound cardboard box of frozen bait and laid it on the rail of the boat, opening the top for my inspection. The bait was as gorgeous as any squid could be. Perfect in size, color, and condition, the squid had been laid in the box in a pattern similar to that of sardines in a can. The top layer of squid retained their tubular shape, not flattened or squished as some I had mistakenly accepted in the past. Each squid, about 10 inches from head to tail, was the color of a ripened eggplant, neither washed-out-looking nor freezer burned. The appearance of the bait triggered anticipation of what this squid might attract. I had learned through the years what now might sound obvious: the better the bait, the better the catch. Small swordfish and sharks are not nearly as finicky about what they eat as the larger fish. Markers, or swordfish over 100 pounds dressed weight (carcass weight minus head, fins, and guts), command a better price than pups (99 to 50 pounds), puppies (49 to 26 pounds), or rats (under 25 pounds). Better bait, better fish, better price, better paycheck. The buck starts here. Painfully, one 40-pound box at a time, with backs and biceps burning, six tons of frozen squid went into the Hannah Boden's bait freezer.
The motions of Carl and Peter, two consecutive links of the chain, each handing boxes to the next in line, were like the working of two intermeshed gears of contrasting sizes turning within a machine. Each produced the same amount of output, but the input seemed vastly different. Carl's moves were quick, acutely angular, and sporadically powerful, while Peter worked with the graceful power and strength of long and smooth motions. Peter was fluid, and Carl solid. The looks in their eyes and set of their jaws also revealed opposite attitudes. Peter appeared content and relaxed enough to lie down and take a nap, while Carl was impatient, irritated; he was in a hurry to get the job done.
Just as the last box was pulled from the truck, a second truck backed down the wharf. Bob and Ringo appeared from inside the second truck's cab. The groceries were here: all fifty-odd boxes of them. Once the groceries were aboard, the men worked together to separate and store the "grub" in the refrigerator, freezer, and cupboards, and under the bench seats around the galley table. When the $3,500 of food was stowed to the cook's satisfaction, the men collected their paychecks from the previous trip and disappeared, not to return until eight o'clock this particular morning, still a few hours ahead as I sat over breakfast with Bob.
I dipped one last bite of fish cake into the egg yolk, shoved it into my mouth, and hoped this trip would not be long enough to use all of the 12,000 pounds of bait, and that the $3,500 of groceries would be more than enough to keep us satisfied until returning to port. My obsessing over the amount of supplies was interrupted by a fishy-smelling young man who appeared at the side of our table. "You're Linda, aren't you?" he asked.
"Yes, I am."
"I work for Peck on the Hellenic Spirit. Congratulations on your trip, I heard it was a slammer."
"Ha," Bob jumped in. "She would have had a real slammer if she had fished a few more nights."
I smiled and tried to ignore Bob's comment. "You haven't met my boss, the very pushy and never satisfied Bob Brown."
The two men shook hands, and as the fishy smell backed away from the table he added, "I just wanted to say hello. I've never met a fisherwoman before. Good luck."
"Thanks. You too," I said, and shook my head at his use of the word fisherwoman. I hate the term, and can never understand why people think I would be offended to be called a fisherman. I have often been confused by terms such as "male nurse," wondering if that would be someone who cares for only male patients. Fisherwoman isn't even a word. It's not in the dictionary. A fisherman is defined as "one whose employment is to catch fish." That describes me to a tee. Generally, when the conversation reaches the point at which the person with whom I am speaking asks what I do for a living, I assume he or she has already determined that I am female, leaving fisherman appropriately descriptive of my occupation. Fisherwoman would at best be redundant.
The waitress came and cleared our plates from the table and refilled our coffee mugs yet again. Bob scowled at me with his sharp, black eyes and asked, "Do you really think I'm pushy?"
"Yes. Do you really think I should have stayed out longer last trip?"
"Yes. You had nearly six thousand pounds of fish your last day, and you headed for the barn. The Hannah Boden needs seventy-thousand-pound trips when the fish are there to be had. You should have stayed."
I gulped. Jesus, when was the last time anyone landed 70,000 pounds? "Well, I could have stayed. Should'a, would'a, could'a, but I didn't. The moon was going down, and I didn't want to screw up this trip by missing some of the September moon."
"What if the weather turns sour or the water cools off early this year? You don't know that the fish will still be there this trip," Bob argued.
"They'll still be there. If we leave today, we'll be on the fishing grounds the day before the first quarter. We're gonna have another slammer."
Bob nodded. He had swordfished for years, and he believed in the importance of keeping trips in sync with the lunar cycle. Usually the most productive nights are two and three days either side of the full moon. Ideally, fishing should start the night of the first quarter of the moon and end on the last quarter. Steaming, traveling to and from the fishing grounds, and time at the dock should be during the darkest part of the lunar cycle, around the new moon. This is why Bob was adamant about quick turnarounds. Some captains favor fewer, longer trips, staying out forty-five, or even sixty, days at a time. My friend Charlie Johnson is one of these guys. Paying little attention to the number of days at sea, he always catches his share of fish, but has become known as "two-moon Charlie." I preferred to avoid seemingly endless voyages.
Staring at the cups on the table, I thought how nice it was that they just sat there with no one holding them to keep them from sliding onto the floor and smashing to bits. It seemed an insignificant thing to appreciate, yet it was something I would not see for another thirty days. I shifted my focus back to the list and once again concentrated on preparations. While the crew had taken two days for R and R, the boss and I had worked at maintenance to ready the Hannah Boden for another month at sea.
The Hannah Boden was immaculately maintained; Bob Brown saw to that. This 100-foot length of manicured steel, the width of a double-wide trailer, would be everything to the crew and myself for the next thirty days. She would be home to the six of us, our platform for work, our place of worship, our center for entertainment, our source of pride. The Hannah Boden, built like a well-endowed woman, inspires wolf whistles from those who truly appreciate fine marine architecture. Cosmetically, she is of clear complexion, with no rust blemishing her dark green hull or her bright white topsides. Bob Brown was a stickler for maintenance, which gave us all a sense of security when heading to sea on one of his vessels. I remember clearly the look of horror in Bob's eyes when he relayed a story of witnessing an employee of a shipyard painting the deck of a boat and "painting right over the top of a flounder!" This action, something that caused most of us to laugh, made Bob cringe, and he vowed to never employ this particular yard to service any of his vessels again. I was running the nicest boat in the fleet, and intended to help keep her that way.
Just twenty-four hours before, we pumped 10,000 gallons of diesel fuel aboard, filling the six tanks to their capacity, a total of nearly 20,000 gallons and enough for sixty days, twice the amount burned in a regular trip. We changed oil and filters on the main engine, a 3412 Caterpillar, the Hannah Boden's source of propulsion. We serviced the pressurized air system that drives the engine's throttle and clutch controls, and cleaned the strainers on the suction lines of the electric pumps, all of which are powered by AC generated by one of the two 3304 Caterpillar engines onboard. We filled with distilled water the cells of the two 32-volt banks of batteries that supply the current for the DC systems onboard. All of the oil from a 55-gallon drum was pumped into the lube oil holding tank, and the dirty lube oil was pumped out of its holding tank. We charged the saltwater ice machine's compressor with Freon, pumped grease from a grease gun into an endless number of fittings located all over the boat, and ran errands to retrieve several odds and ends such as spare filters, lightbulbs, flashlight batteries, and duct tape.
The only thing that remained on my to-do list was stowing the new fishing gear. The gear had been ordered over the phone before we arrived in port and was now in the back of Bob's pickup truck. The gear, also called tackle, needed each trip is extensive; although longlining is a relatively simple fishery, tackle is a heavy expense, usually totaling close to $10,000 per trip.
Gear, fuel, bait, and miscellaneous items generally add up to a total of around $40,000 per trip. This cost is considered the operating expense and is subtracted from the gross profit before any money is divvied up into shares. So, roughly speaking, we needed to catch 10,000 pounds of swordfish to cover the expenses, and expenses must be covered before anyone would make a dime. All calculations are put on a piece of paper called a "settlement sheet"; the process of receiving pay is referred to as "settling up."
The principle of working for a share is something I have explained time and time again to prospective crew members, especially the green guys who have never fished commercially before. My explanation is usually part of a general warning meant to let them know what they are getting themselves into before they commit to a trip. If we don't catch fish, we don't get paid, period. There are no benefits, no salary, and no minimum wage. There exist no nine-to-five swordfishermen; in fact, twenty-hour days are the norm once we get the first hook wet. The game is never postponed due to darkness, and seldom delayed for weather. There are no weekends, no holidays, no personal or sick days. When the lines are cast from the dock, all time cards are considered punched "in," not to be punched "out" for over seven hundred hours--seven hundred hours of physical labor, in poor conditions, that you might not be paid for. In short, there is no labor union.
This is all spelled out quite clearly in the Sea Star Corporation's Employment Agreement, which all employees of the Hannah Boden are required to read and sign before embarking on their first trip. Included among the typical statements forbidding drugs, alcohol, and firearms onboard are an astonishing number of stipulations and contingencies that affect the size of paychecks, and a multitude of reasons for employment to be terminated with no compensation. I refer to the agreement as "Bob Brown's license to steal" and signed one many trips ago, trusting Bob to treat me fairly, which he has.
By the time Bob paid our breakfast tab, my nervous twinge had escalated to full-blown apprehension and near panic fueled by the knowledge that when we reached the Grand Banks five or six days from now we would be over 1,000 miles from the dock and any supplies I might have forgotten. Each step I took toward Bob's truck took me that much closer to the point of no return. Although satisfied that every item on my list had been checked off, there was always the chance that I had neglected to put something on the list, had overlooked some crucial detail. By the time we arrived back at the boat I was able to calm the butterflies in my stomach only by convincing myself that whatever I had forgotten, if anything, could not be very important or Bob would surely have noticed.
Stepping aboard the boat, my left foot reluctantly left the dock, not to return for at least thirty days. The clock was closing in on eight a.m.; the crew would be coming down the wharf any minute now. I looked optimistically up the dock. The panorama of the railways was chopped into sections like frames of film by the splintered pilings that had greeted and waved good-bye to so many boats in the past. I thought briefly how appropriate it was that I had stepped from the final frame of film already developed and into that which was yet to be exposed, a fresh start. I hoped that my crew would soon take the same step as easily as I had. As if reading my mind, Bob said, "I hope the men are on time."
"They'll be here." I feigned confidence.
"I hope they are sober and not too hung over."
"Don't count on it." I had been in the business of fishing for too long to expect, or even hope, that all five men might show up to work on time and sober. Although they were quite a rowdy bunch while ashore, I knew that my present crew was the best in the fleet. And regardless of their condition and the time they might appear this morning, these five were choirboys compared to some I had hired in the past. For instance, I can't imagine I will ever forget the group I enjoyed while running the Gloria Dawn out of Portland, Maine, and in particular a character called Uncle Patty.