The Lobster Chronicles: Life on a Very Small Island
by Linda Greenlaw
Detailing the trappings of island life
By Michael Kenney, Globe Correspondent, 7/9/2002
After 17 years swordfishing offshore, Linda Greenlaw came home to the ''very small island'' of Isle au Haut.
Hauling lobster traps in the sheltered waters of Maine's Penobscot Bay with her father as sternman is a day in the sun compared with the isolation and dangers offshore. Greenlaw was at sea, a captain in the swordfish fleet, during the ''perfect storm,'' and was among the last people to have radio contact with the doomed Andrea Gail. She wrote an earlier book about the difficult swordfishing life.
But island life has its charms - and its conflicts - and Greenlaw writes as enthusiastically about them as she did about her offshore experiences in the well-received ''The Hungry Ocean.'' The real, and very pleasant, surprise of ''The Lobster Chronicles'' is how well Greenlaw captures the small-town, waterside dramas of the Lighthouse Committee and the Island Lobster Association.
There was both public benefit and private gain at stake in the move to obtain and maintain the Robinson's Point Light, which was being abandoned by the Coast Guard. The driving force behind the move happened to be the owner of a bed-and-breakfast in the old lightkeeper's house.
The outcome was satisfactory to the public and the private interests. But as Greenlaw puts it, ''a phenomenon of small-town politics'' is its ability to keep a fight going.
Another truism of island politics, writes Greenlaw, is ''it is never enough simply to exhaust a topic; it needs to be replaced by something or it will go on being discussed no matter how little more can be said. Someone would have to do something stupid or gossip-worthy soon; the lighthouse controversy had long worn thin.''
Distraction arrived in the person of a Southern ''biker chick - a girl who couldn't keep her shirt down,'' as Greenlaw puts it, and who ''wasted no time becoming the talk of the town, giving the Lighthouse Committee members time to catch our breath.''
At least until a larger distraction occurred. An emergency meeting is called, and a committee member and lobsterman muses to Greenlaw: ''I don't know what this meeting is about, but I can tell it's not good.'' And it wasn't good, for in between bursts of tears - ''the crying of shame,'' Greenlaw writes - the committee's chairman admits she had been ''borrowing'' lighthouse funds.
The politics of the lobstermen's association receives the same sociological attention, but the accounts of lobstering are the charm of ''The Lobster Chronicles.''
When Greenlaw returned to the island, leaving the 100-foot, state-of-the-art swordfisher Hannah Boden and its five-man crew to lobster with her own boat, the 35-foot Mattie Belle, Greenlaw knew that she would need a sternman. ''I knew I didn't need any witnesses to the many blunders that I would no doubt make while learning how to catch lobsters,'' she writes, ''but I would need help.'' It would have to be someone ''who knew less'' than she did and ''would not tell me what to do aboard my own boat, and would do as he was told without question, no matter how ridiculous.'' That turned out to be her father, a retired steel company executive whose family history went back four generations on the island.
Greenlaw describes a typical day on the boat with an eye both for detail and for its meaning. ''Working our way in an easterly direction along the south shore of Merchants [Island], we set pair after pair of traps. The stack of traps got smaller and smaller and was finally gone. As I steamed toward home, Dad hosed off the deck where the traps had left pine needles and dried mud from the trap lot. Dad and I had spent a lot of time together. It was nice.
''My back ached, but I didn't dare complain to my 71-year-old father, who had done most of the lifting.''
Greenlaw wrote her chronicles after four seasons of lobstering. There is a note of regret that she ''can't report that [she is] married, pregnant, catching lots of lobsters, and living happily ever after.'' But, she writes, ''the seven miles of water separating'' Isle au Haut from Stonington - the link to the mainland - ''reinforce those traits of independence and self-sufficiency that are necessary for all islanders and fishermen.'' And that sense of independence is what this clear, proud memoir is all about.
The Lobster Chronicles: Life on a Very Small Island
by Linda Greenlaw
Hyperion, 239 pp., $22.95
July 7, 2002
By ERICA SANDERS
THE LOBSTER CHRONICLES
Life on a Very Small Island.
By Linda Greenlaw.
238 pp. New York: Hyperion. $22.95.
ON WHALE ISLAND
Notes From a Place I Never Meant to Leave.
By Daniel Hays.
242 pp. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. $22.95.
An Island Life in the Hebrides.
By Adam Nicolson.
Illustrated. 391 pp. New York: North Point Press. $27.
Islands are terrible places to live. They're inconvenient. The basic necessities are tough to come by. It follows that people who live on them are odd types, slightly warped by the limitations they've endured, yet proud of their ability to survive.
Linda Greenlaw grew up on an island, and as a woman who enjoyed a successful 17-year career on swordfishing boats, she's a perfect example of the ambitiously rugged individuals whom island life breeds. After Sebastian Junger introduced readers to her in his best seller ''The Perfect Storm'' (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio played her in the movie), Greenlaw wrote her own thrilling book about her fishing life, ''The Hungry Ocean,'' which became a best seller, too. Readers learned everything about swordfishing, from baiting the miles-long lines to handling churlish crew members to calculating profits on a 50,000-pound catch. As captain of the swordfishing boat Hannah Boden, Greenlaw demonstrated she was quite comfortable running the show.
Trading in hooks and lines for lobster traps, Greenlaw moves back home and into her old bedroom -- not a choice many accomplished 40-year-olds would make, especially a woman who is looking to find a mate and start a family. She narrates her story in a folksy style that's much more personal than that of her previous work. There isn't much on Isle au Haut, Me., located in Penobscot Bay, ''the lobster capital of the world,'' six miles from Stonington -- a post office, a lighthouse and inn, a one-room schoolhouse, a general store and a town hall. Acadia National Park takes up more than half the island's acreage. There are no banks, no fast-food restaurants, no bowling alleys. ''Yes we have TV. No we do not have reception,'' Greenlaw writes.
Still, returning middle-aged ''to the nest,'' as she says, has its advantages. She hires her retired 71-year-old father, who has ''ties to the island going back four generations,'' to work the stern of her new boat, the 35-foot Mattie Belle. They set some 500 traps, haul them up, then rebait them. (As the season progresses and the lobsters fail to arrive in great numbers, Greenlaw refers to this as ''changing the water in the traps.'') She and her father work well together, and each night her mother greets them with dinner. ''We would eat, drink and laugh with the lighthouse as a backdrop until the curtain of darkness fell.'' During the season, they ate lobster once or twice a week.
If this sounds ideal, consider that Greenlaw is looking for a boyfriend on an island where there are only 47 full-time residents, and she's related to half of them. In sizing up a prospective blind date visiting from Martha's Vineyard, who she speculates is a ''catch-and-releaser'' type, or worse, a member of Greenpeace, she jokes, ''My reputation for slaughtering the entire swordfish population in the North Atlantic single-handedly would cause him to choke on his latte, perhaps soiling the front of his silk shirt.'' It seems that excelling in a profession dominated by men has had an influence. Greenlaw swears like, well, a fisherman, too.
''The Lobster Chronicles'' is deliberately written in places, but ultimately it's a lot of fun to read. In the way that ''The Hungry Ocean'' broke down technical aspects of swordfishing, here Greenlaw relates the lobster's rise from its beginnings as grub fit only for servants, orphans and prisoners; the creature's mating rituals; and her mother's recipe for lobster casserole. It's not always clear where Greenlaw's headed or why, but the patchwork of anecdotes leaves the reader with an experience akin to stepping back in time. When the chairwoman (who was also the secretary and the treasurer) of a committee to repair the lighthouse embezzles money, she confesses and pays it back. Her punishment is not jail time but several hours of community service. The islanders are charitable, and like most who live in remote places, they have a high tolerance for bad behavior.
''On Whale Island,'' Daniel Hays's memoir of living for a year on an island off Nova Scotia, should be enough to discourage anyone from attempting such an adventure. Left to his own devices, he shows how little prepared he is for life on a deserted island.
Hays retreats from the ''McWorld,'' as he calls it, when royalties from a best-selling book he wrote with his father, David, dry up. ''My Old Man and the Sea,'' about their harrowing sail around Cape Horn, was published in 1995. In that book the danger was nicely balanced with moments of genuine closeness between father and son. Readers met Daniel at 24, unapologetically obnoxious but an excellent sailor.
''On Whale Island'' is a one-sided conversation in comparison. Narrated through diary entries, the book highlights what was only glimpsed at previously -- Hays is a kook. In ''My Old Man and the Sea,'' his endless practical jokes and angry idealism were easily attributed to his age. Fifteen years after the voyage with his father, they're much less attractive, especially since he's got a family to care for.
After marrying a woman named Wendy and buying a big house, Hays writes, ''I got lost somewhere between my 20-horsepower fuel-injected four-wheel-drive weed whacker and the 13 separate sprinkler zones surrounding my 'estate.' '' So they move to the fictionally named Whale Island, which he bought years before with money meant for medical school.
Hays, who has a degree in environmental science and who is experienced as an emergency medical technician, has a plan. They will live in the tiny two-story house that he built with his father. Heat will be supplied by a wood stove. For electricity, a windmill and three solar cells will power two radios, a CD player, a battery charger and a laptop computer. They'll drink rainwater collected from the roof in two 55-gallon drums. No TV (''a clump of perverted perceptions'') and no phone. A motorboat for transportation. Hays's stepson, Stephan, will be home-schooled.
Hays, a great fan of psychics, Partridge Family music and the conservative radio personality Dr. Laura Schlessinger, is a seemingly un-self-censoring diarist, expanding in great detail on the things that make him look especially incompetent. This is a positive trait for a writer -- besides earning a reader's pity, it's entertaining.
Almost immediately Hays's romantic vision begins to dissolve. It doesn't rain for a few days, so they must buy $100 worth of bottled water on shore. When it does rain, the house leaks. The stove burns too hot, so they must buy another. When the toilet gets clogged with frozen sewage, Hays ''fixes'' it by taking a rifle to the problematic section of pipe. When he tries to wean himself off Prozac (yes, this Thoreau wannabe was reliant on Prozac and sleeping pills, too), he finds his increased sexual desire does not outweigh the need to restore his mental equilibrium. Days earlier he sat in the shed, music blasting, with a row of tequila shots lined up and a loaded shotgun ''to make hell with.''
For all the ego and insecurity on display, there's a fair amount of tension. One worries whether his seat-of-the-pants attitude might lead him to bring harm to his family. During an argument, he picks Stephan up to throw him out of the house. He couldn't ''remember ever being angrier,'' he writes, then, regaining his self-control, feels ''horrified, numb, tingling, afraid.'' Later, as Wendy and Stephan realize their power as a team, it's a question of whether they'll do Hays in first. It's clear Wendy is more than ready to go when the year is up. She buys a $400 exercise machine in an attempt to restore a hint of her former life.
While Hays dominates every page of his memoir, Adam Nicolson is merely a ghost presence in ''Sea Room.'' The main character in his meticulously rendered story is the Shiants, three tiny islands in the Hebrides (located off the coast of the Isle of Lewis) that his father bestowed on him when Adam was 21.
It's too bad he doesn't include a more personal portrait because, of any of these three writers, Nicolson has the most colorful background by far. His grandmother, who first spotted an ad for the Shiants (pronounced as if there were no ''i'') in 1937, was Vita Sackville-West, the poet and novelist. During her marriage to Harold Nicolson, she was engaged in a very public affair with Violet Keppel, the daughter of Alice Keppel, King Edward VII's mistress. Adam's father is Nigel Nicolson, the noted publisher, a former member of Parliament and the author of ''Portrait of a Marriage,'' about his parents.
THE Nicolsons are members of the British aristocracy, but these islands are hardly a Scottish baronial retreat. The other spot of glamour in their history occurred when the novelist Compton Mackenzie owned them, in the 1920's and 30's. But the Gaelic-named Garbh Eilean (Rough Island), Eilean an Tighe (House Island) and Eilean Mhuire (Mary Island) are rather hostile to human habitation.
It's a perilous 16-mile boat ride across the Sound of Shiant to reach Nicolson's beaches. With its southward-moving ebb tides colliding with northbound currents from the Hebrides, the sound is ''a chaos in which there are not only steep-faced seas coming at you from all directions, but, terrifyingly, holes . . . into which the boat can plunge nose first.'' Nicolson has a boatwright build him a 16-foot viking-inspired vessel in which he commutes. He sleeps in a rat-infested two-room cottage. For water, he uses a dish to skim off the top layer from a muddy well. Whenever he visits nearby Scalpay, friends give him a bath and launder his clothes, he's so ''filthy and stinking.'' In the local press he's lampooned as an Englishman who's in over his head.
Despite the ribbing, Nicolson maintains his mission to make a public appreciation of his islands. He takes his legacy seriously, vowing to ''give everything a sniff.'' He's a skilled observer, especially when exploring bird colonies. ''Ludicrous and lovable puffins!'' he writes, in one of the most entertaining passages in the book. He admires their eggs, ''turquoise-flecked and scribbled in dark brown like a Jackson Pollock,'' their diving capabilities (to 180 feet), their flight speeds (60 miles an hour), their longevity (some 40 years) and their monogamy.
Nicolson is a patient storyteller, making the facts do the work. He employs a Czech team of archaeologists to excavate an area that was a farmhouse in the Middle Ages and learns that thriving life in the Shiants was cut short relatively recently, in about 1770. Ancient dung heaps reveal farming practices. Piles of limpet shells indicate a last-resort famine diet. A pillow-shaped stone with a cross carved on its face provides evidence of a hermit in the area between 10 and 13 centuries before. Most fascinating is the discovery of a Bronze Age torque, a kind of body ornament. A local fisherman dredged up a two-foot gold filament. Watching ''Antiques Roadshow,'' he discovered that what he had was more than old wire. The neck jewelry was later purchased by the National Museums in Edinburgh. Nicolson's chronicle is a fine book. Readers who stick with him will be duly awed by his delicately layered story.
Island living presents its mysteries and challenges. Apparently, as Greenlaw, Hays and Nicolson show, it's hard to keep quiet about the experience.
Erica Sanders is a freelance writer and critic.
- by Carol Standish
Linda Greenlaw, commercial swordboat captain for 17 years, author of The Hungry Ocean (review), a riveting account of that unique career, has now written The Lobster Chronicles, Life on a Very Small Island (Hyperion, $22.95, 238pp). After retiring from sword fishing, Greenlaw moved in with her parents who live on Isle au Haut, Maine, and began her second fishing career, lobstering. Her second book focuses on island life and the frustrations of her first lobstering season.
Her first book testifies to Greenlaw’s courage and frankness, her more than adequate writing abilities and her story telling talent. In Chronicles most of those attributes remain obvious and pleasurable. Part of the problem is that island life, peppered with eccentric characters and interpersonal frictions as it may be, simply lacks the intensity of captaining a 100’ seagoing mechanical workhorse and a five man crew in 21 hour shifts out in the middle of the North Atlantic for 30 days at a crack and bringing home the quarry in record-breaking tons. What could equal that story?
The Hungry Ocean was a story of achievement. The Lobster Chronicles is a story of beginnings. Saying they shouldn’t be compared doesn’t mean they won’t be. As in her first book, Greenlaw’s prose is a no-nonsense, un-puffed-up reportorial style, easy to read and appropriate to the content. Expressions of her appreciation of working on the ocean often approach the poetic, “I loved the sound of the lobsters’ shells’ muffled applause as the clapped against themselves and one another in the end of a trap fresh from the water. A full trap sounded like a standing ovation.” Rock solid island personalities are sensitively portrayed. “Payson [Barter] is the Island’s top lobster producer. The key to his success is common knowledge and is printed across the stern of his new boat for all to see: Perseverance…I saw [her] in the distance, keeping her usual slow and steady pace. Payson never dashed around making noise and commotion.”
Although Greenlaw recognizes what makes a “highliner” and has experienced extraordinary success herself—as a swordfisherman. As a sword-boat captain, she is mature, masterful and far-seeing. But she is green as a lobsterfisherman. As she reports her performance in a lackluster season, she portrays herself as frustrated and discouraged and uncharacteristically cranky. At the bottom of another learning ladder she lacks the sure-footed competence and authority we all reveled in (but she misses the most).
In the epilogue Greenlaw admits, “My life is now one big loose end.” The phrase also characterizes the book itself. Publication of The Lobster Chronicles seems premature (no doubt the publisher’s bottom-line driven decision) but it is, nevertheless, well-written and entertaining as far as it goes. However, there will be even greater literary pleasures in store for Linda Greenlaw fans as soon as she ties up a few of those loose ends. Moving almost on shore takes some getting used to and as every fisherman knows, timing is everything.
By Louise Jarvis Flynn
ALL FISHERMEN ARE LIARS
True Tales From the Dry Dock Bar.
By Linda Greenlaw.
228 pp. Hyperion. $22.95.
This is what happens when memoirists run out of memories. Linda Greenlaw, the swordfish boat captain who played a role in Sebastian Junger's ''Perfect Storm,'' may have exhausted her own harrowing exploits in two best-selling memoirs -- ''The Hungry Ocean'' and ''The Lobster Chronicles'' -- but not the desire to relive her life in print. Quite a pickle. But Greenlaw's tough, and in ''All Fishermen Are Liars'' she turns to other sailors' experiences to flesh out the few untold stories she has left.
The result is a narrative that dangles from a thin premise: Greenlaw is meeting her best friend, Alden, an old salt with a bad heart, to try to persuade him to retire. At the Dry Dock bar in Portland, Me., the two drink and talk, swapping big-fish tales and life lessons as the lunch crowd shifts into the dinner crowd and eventually the drunken crowd. It's hard to say where this book is trying to place itself: on the high-seas-adventure stack, the self-help-through-pensive-sport pile or the ''if you liked 'Tuesdays With Morrie' '' list. Perhaps Long-Lining for Dummies: each chapter is burdened with a nautical-term theme -- ''Running Out Your Time,'' ''Compass Error'' -- and ends with a sidebar called ''Bar Snack.'' These asides include lists of clichés (''Top Ten Fishermen's Lies''), a few predictable tips (''Remedies for Seasickness'') and fishing anecdotes that apparently just didn't fit into the main story line.
At least Greenlaw is honest. In the ''Note to Readers'' she seems to anticipate a less than enthusiastic response to the book. ''I am sick to death of Linda Greenlaw,'' she writes, ''and have been not so secretly yearning to tackle a work of fiction.'' Only her editor knows why the seafaring novel was not to be. Certainly she has the kind of research at her fingertips that other novelists need grants to obtain: one of the book's best stories is about her pal David Marks, who lived through a 150-knot hurricane in a leaky survival suit, only to end up stranded on a fly-speck island vomiting raw wild eggs and cactus juice. Another fishing friend, Ringo, spent five nights in a Bahamian prison cell that ''smelled like the men's room at the Boston Garden on game night.''
Greenlaw is a terrific spinner of sea stories -- anyone's sea stories. In her recounting of them, the conversational style surges with confidence. Suspense is her friend, and she plays with pace like an old pro who's used to telling long jokes without ruining the punch lines. In particular, the tale of a young Coast Guard enlistee and his first training cruise builds and breaks perfectly.
But Greenlaw shouldn't take her laptop off the boat. On dry land, where drama is not as reliant on the threat of physical peril, she is awkward and uncomfortable describing her emotions. This is a problem when the book's central conceit is supposed to be an open and honest conversation between two friends about something as wimpy as retirement. Alden's plight is not vital enough to hold the book together, and what we see of him is limited by Greenlaw's timid approach. She tells us that they ''did a good job of talking about mortality,'' though one would never know it without that single admission. Her more personal stories involving boyfriends or nephews are insipid and, like family-vacation slide shows, meaningful only to those who were there at the time. But that's one truth that memoirists, who remember everything, tend to forget.
Fishing for tall tales
'Liars' hauls in catch of laughs, lessons from the sea
July 9, 2004
All fisherman are liars - but for good reason. At least that's the moral of the sea story Linda Greenlaw weaves in her third nonfiction book so aptly named.
Though not yet a household name, particularly in these land-locked parts, the light bulb will go on for many when Greenlaw is introduced as "that female captain" portrayed in Sebastian Junger's book and Wolfgang Petersen's film, The Perfect Storm.
And if it seems as though Greenlaw was the only female in the depiction of how the Andrea Gail and her crew were lost in the "perfect storm" of 1991, there's good reason: She is one of the few female commercial fishermen and perhaps the only female ever to captain a swordfishing boat.
At the time, Greenlaw was captain of the Hannah Boden, a lobster boat and sister ship to the doomed Andrea Gail. But thanks to book and film, and Greenlaw's quarter-century of life at sea, there's no need to recount the 1991 storm off the coast of Massachusetts in All Fishermen Are Liars, a collection of sea stories heard during one long afternoon of drinking in the Dry Dock Restaurant and Tavern in Portland, Maine.
Some stories are Greenlaw's own (though she notes that she's "sick to death of Linda Greenlaw" and eventually would like to venture into fiction); some are only retold by Greenlaw. But with each chapter, the tales grow wilder, the one-that-got-away bigger and the love of the sea deeper. The book picks up speed and increases in saltiness with each turn of the tiller.
Greenlaw begins with her own experience in March 1993, when she nearly lost the Hannah Boden and several hundred lobster traps. Caught up in re-reading A Confederacy of Dunces, she confesses to mentally tuning out radio transmissions warning ships of the impending storm.
The chapter suffers only because no storm can compare to the harrowing swells of The Perfect Storm. And even Greenlaw admits that there is "only so much one can say about a miserable storm at sea, only so many adjectives, so many analogies."
But Greenlaw's writing is appealing, her style easy and pleasant. "I pulled the throttle back," she writes. "The bow fell sharply and the boat followed in a dive. Every loose thing in the wheelhouse was now hanging in midair. Parallel rulers, dividers, and binoculars defied gravity. As the dive slowed slightly, the suspended articles caught up with the hull and landed like hailstones around me."
In true one-upmanship style, Greenlaw's mentor and best friend, Alden Leeman, is quick to rebuff his junior partner.
"Oh, big deal," the crotchety, 70-year-old Alden says. "Twelve hours? Try that routine for three days. The Hannah Boden is an ocean liner compared to what I used to put to sea in. You've been spoiled. Why, I remember a time when . . ."
And so it goes, from lunchtime conversation between Greenlaw and Alden to evening drinking as other fishermen in the Dry Dock join in.
For example, there's the story of David Marks, former captain of the Misty Dawn, "a 65-foot fiberglass longliner" that didn't survive Hurricane Marilyn in 1995. While fishing in the Caribbean - "a dream come true" for Marks, Greenlaw writes - Marks and his crew encountered a category five cyclone, boasting winds between 180 and 220 knots.
After abandoning the Misty Dawn, Marks ended up swimming for two days in his boxer shorts, forced to watch crestfallen as two helicopters and one rescue plane were unable to spot him. Passing two tiger sharks - the least of his worries - he found land and, while preparing for another several days of swimming to the next island, was located by a search and rescue team.
Or there's the time Greenlaw met the infamous Harry Ross, a commercial captain who was on the lam for smuggling marijuana and who had disappeared from the radar in 1979 - the same year Greenlaw began her career. "By 1986, seven years after his vanishing," when Greenlaw met him, "Harry was just another sea story."
Interspersed between every story, Greenlaw provides several "bar snacks," consisting of small vignettes, insider information, short short stories and top-10 lists.
To wit: There are many frequently used excuses fishermen invoke after a day of catching no fish (such as "the bait was rotten" or "too many sharks"), but only one never used: "I'm a lousy fisherman."
There's also a top-10 list of lies ("If I knew where we were, I'd tell you"); a feminist's worst nightmare about hiring crew members; explanations of sea slang such as "carrying three red lights" and "bleeding the monkey" (not surprisingly, both references to drinking); and many amusing others.
But mainly All Fishermen Are Liars offers insight into Greenlaw's "incidental education" - her many life lessons learned from Alden and others and from her various adventures at sea. Disguised as stories about "fishing, gear, seamanship, navigation, boats, rigging," Greenlaw's lessons are never preachy and rarely render her infallible. In fact, her self-effacing honesty, if you can believe a fisherman, is endearing, amusing, excruciating and awe-inspiring.
And Greenlaw is nothing if not all fisherman: "I have lived like a nomad, swear like a pirate, my income has been sporadic at best, and I can look my best friend square in the eye and unflinchingly lie, sandbagging or exaggerating the day's catch."
Lying is entertainment, writes Greenlaw, as "one should never let the facts stand in the way of a good story." Each of the book's barroom tales, mixed with excessive drinking and the puffing of egos, conveys the feel of the wind, the sting of the salt air, and the acrid smell of fish guts and diesel fumes to all those eavesdroppers willing to lean a littler closer in.
In addition, she emphasizes, lying can be a necessity. "Most of us have learned the hard way not to share valuable information. . . . In this, and other ways, I am sure, the fishing industry resembles corporate America. . . . So much of life's interactions, personal and professional, are a balance of said, unsaid, implied, denied."
As Alden reminds her, "All fishermen are liars. I'll drink to that . . . But not all liars are fishermen."
L.E. Rich, Ph.D., is a reporter for The Colorado Statesman and vice president of the Colorado Press Women.
The Miami Herald
Posted on Sun, Jul. 18, 2004
A perfect storm of big waves, big fish and even bigger lies
Engaging lobster boat captain entertains with tall tales of the high seas -- and
a few glasses of rum.
All Fishermen are Liars: True Tales from the Dry Dock Bar. Linda Greenlaw. Hyperion. 240 pages. $22.95.
Pull up a stool, order a rum drink and soak in some stories of life on the high seas -- sometimes very high seas -- in Linda Greenlaw's latest memoir.
Just how high is high? Well, Greenlaw measures weather at sea in terms of wind velocity rather than the size of the waves. But in the case of extreme weather, she writes, it really comes down to a matter of ''this sucks'' and ''this really sucks.'' That's classic Greenlaw, the forthright former New England swordfish boat captain made famous by Sebastian Junger in The Perfect Storm.
All Fishermen are Liars is Greenlaw's third work of nonfiction, set at a Portland, Me., waterfront bar where Greenlaw, now a lobsterman, meets her best friend and fishing mentor for lunch. The meal includes lots of drinks -- mostly of the rum variety because, Greenlaw notes, just as in the days of old, rum remains the drink of choice for those who make their living on the sea -- and lots of stories about storms, wrecks, survival and eccentric crew members. Other commercial fishermen at the bar join in the storytelling, offering up their own adventures.
Greenlaw captures this afternoon of tales that lasts far into the evening with humor but also with the respect that is due the exhausting and dangerous work of commercial fishing. Describing her own worst experience captaining her boat during a ferocious storm (definitely weather of the ''really sucks'' category) she writes, ``A falling feeling in the stomach obliterated anything auditory. Each descent from a crest was silent, and we instinctively spent it with bent knees, ready to absorb the impact of the fetching up at the bottom of the next trough. As we hit, my knees buckled each time, then straightened as my ears opened back up to a loud bang followed by a shudder and the applause of heavy spray.''
You can't help but be a bit in awe of Greenlaw for her gutsiness, and she comes across as so darn likable you wish you were sitting at the Dry Dock with her, hearing first-hand about a marijuana-smuggling fishing boat captain who flees to St. Maarten; the miraculous survival and rescue of a crew swept overboard during Hurricane Marilyn in the Virgin Islands; and the harrowing account of a deep-sea fishing charter boat that got caught in a storm off Long Island and lost 46 people to the sea.
The tales are buoyed by sympathetic and entertaining characters, including intellectually shortchanged crew members -- ''products of the shallow end of the gene pool'' -- and glimpses into life aboard ship. Seasickness is a rite of passage for any sailor, Greenlaw writes, and she recalls two ''chronic'' cases: ``The victims were sick from the time they boarded the boat until the moment they stepped back ashore thirty days later. I believe that if either of these two sick deckhands could have mustered the energy to kill either me or themselves, they would have.''
As for the lying fishermen of the title, Greenlaw says dishonesty is practically a necessity in her profession. ''I can look my best friend square in the eye and unflinchingly lie'' about the day's catch, the type of gear or bait used or about where a huge catch was caught, she says. 'Hell, I have even been known to stretch the weather report to my advantage! Mastering falsehoods is not requisite for becoming a `good' fisherman, but most of us have learned the hard way not to share valuable information.'' So yes, all fishermen may be liars, but few of them can spin a tale the way Greenlaw does.
Amy Canfield is a writer in Portland, Me.
Friday, August 20, 2004, 12:00 A.M. Pacific
"All Fishermen Are Liars": Veteran's tall tales hook you into her world
Five days into a 30-day commercial fishing trip, the crew's worn-out anecdotes can, in the experience of fisherman and anecdote weaver Linda Greenlaw, "get a little old."
So in the pantheon of skilled professionals she might seek to hire on her boat, a good storyteller will rank right up there with cook and fish cleaner.
Applicants are encouraged to lie, if not on their résumé, certainly on deck.
"Lie to me," Greenlaw said on the cell as she drove from one storytelling session to the next in a 60-day book tour. "I'd rather be entertained than bored with the truth."
Fibbing with figures looms large in Greenlaw's third and latest book, "All Fishermen Are Liars: True Tales from the Dry Dock Bar" (Hyperion, 256 pp., $22.95), which was inspired in part by her desire to try fiction after her nonfiction successes "The Hungry Ocean" and "The Lobster Chronicles."
Her editor asked for more nonfiction, saying, "How about a book of sea stories."
"Nonfiction sea stories," Greenlaw said. "That's an oxymoron, but it might be fun."
The result is only slightly a ruse, as Greenlaw structures her book around a long, mostly liquid lunch at the Dry Dock Bar in Portland, Maine, with her longtime friend and no-nonsense mentor Alden Leeman. The press materials coyly point out that he is "the anti-Tuesdays with Morrie," a reference to the cloying philosophical tome-ette by Mitch Albom, and the book is a refreshing antidote to a lot of other folderol as well.
It's an antidote to the sensitive woman-of-the-sea genre, a pleasant, respectable niche, but prone to the pitfalls of sentimentality and self-absorption. Yes, Linda Greenlaw is a woman, and she's a rare and welcome voice in the maritime world, but she's about as froufrou as an old boat hook.
It's also nice to see someone tilt at the recent spate of truthfulness, inspired by a virus of obfuscators and fiction writers in the news biz. Suddenly, sanctimonious editors were everywhere selling the ever-dubious art of journalistic self-examination. Greenlaw comes right out and tells you she's lying, then does her darndest to pretend she's not.
But to tell the truth (for a moment), it turns out that the whole pretext of prevarication was so many horse feathers. For in between her talks with Alden — he's got a new pacemaker, and she's trying to talk him into retiring — she veers into tales that are very much reality.
There are several quite real white-knuckled weather stories. This is a niche Greenlaw helped popularize, having been out at sea and in radio contact with the ill-fated Andrea Gail in the 1991 tempest that led to the book "The Perfect Storm" by Sebastian Junger and Greenlaw's first best-seller, "The Hungry Ocean."
But the wildest story concerns David Marks, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., man who spent more than 12 hours in the water after his boat was blown off its anchorage, and he was blown off his boat, in a Virgin Islands hurricane.
Greenlaw really did hear this from David Marks.
"All the stories I assume really happened," she said. "If somebody tells me a bar story, there's some basis of truth there."
Perhaps Greenlaw drank a few too many glasses of make-believe chardonnay at the Dry Dock, but the stories tend to lag as Greenlaw goes on two long jags about fishing with her nephews and a young man's sojourn on the Coast Guard tall ship Eagle. After so many near-death experiences earlier in the book, I kept waiting for the later episodes to become cliffhangers or at least taller tales.
But all the stories have a way of taking you somewhere you'll probably never be, whether that place is a bar in Maine or a moonlit sea ruffled by no more than a tranquil breeze. Greenlaw ranges all over, from bar to boat and back to brief "bar snacks" on various subjects like "hiring crew." On this score, Greenlaw used to ask for all sorts of skills when fishing was good and good hands were plentiful. Now the list of questions is down to two:
1. Do you get seasick?
2. Do you own a pair of boots?
She's charming and widely travelled and occasionally insightful, like someone you know at the local watering hole, or could imagine spending time with at sea, swapping lies.
Chapter One: Lobsters
In terms of status, the lobster has come a long way. Homarus Americanus, or the Maine Lobster, ascended from humble fare to fodder fit for royal banquets in a relatively short one hundred years, a true success story. Prior to the nineteenth century, only widows, orphans, and servants ate lobster. And in some parts of New England, serving lobster to prison inmates more than once a week was forbidden by law, as doing so was considered cruel and unusual punishment.
Lobsters are Anthropoda, the phylum whose membership includes insects and spiders. Although lobsters are highly unsightly, the sweet, salty, sensual delight of a claw dipped into drawn butter more than compensates for the lobster's cockroach-like appearance and the work involved in extracting meat from the shell. Yet, in spite of prestige and high standing, the fishermen of Isle Au Haut still refer to them as "bugs."
Isle Au Haut (pronounced I-LA-HOE, accent HOE) is a small inhabited island off the coast of Maine in an area regarded as "the lobster capital of the world," Penobscot Bay. In a lobster fishing community such as Isle Au Haut, the calendar year can be best described as a two-season system: the lobster season and the off-season. Because this is true of all fishing communities up and down the coast, and because residents rarely refer to their home by name, Isle Au Haut will be referred to throughout this book as "the Island."
Friends fear the exploitation of our island and worry that any mention of its name will result in increased traffic to our precious and quiet rock. However, many travel articles in magazines and newspapers (not to mention television features) have run over the years, all touting the wonders of various aspects of life and events on Isle Au Haut, and all this attention has thankfully failed to transform us into the dreaded Coney Island. So I suppose that I should be flattered that my friends think it possible that my readership might do just that. Oh, I admit when years ago I read a Parade magazine article about the island's three Quinby children who the journalist claimed were all geniuses, I briefly feared that every parent on the planet desiring gifted, talented, exceptional offspring might attempt to move here, hoping that this concentration of brains might be the result of something in the air, or water, rather than of Quinby genes. Happily, nobody came.
However, as a way of placating my nervous friends, family, and neighbors, I want to make it clear that in addition to the reason stated above, I am calling Isle Au Haut simply "the Island" because it really is representative of any piece of land surrounded by water which is inhabited by hardworking and independent people, most of whom are lobstermen. If by any chance in the course of reading this book you should fall in love with, or become consumed with curiosity about Maine island life, I promise you that visiting Mount Desert Island, Bailey Island, or Monhegan will surely satisfy both lust and curiosity. People there welcome tourism. They have hotels and restaurants. We have nothing.
Well, not exactly nothing. The list of what we do have is shorter than that of what we do not have, and those of us who choose to live here do so because of the length of both lists. We have what I believe could be the smallest post office in the country and a privately owned boat contracted to haul U.S. mail on and off Island. We currently have forty-seven full-time residents, half of whom I am related to in one way or another. (Family trees in small-town Maine are often painted in the abstract. The [Greenlaws'] genealogy is best described in a phrase I have heard others use: "the family wreath"). We have one general store, one church, one lighthouse, a one-room schoolhouse for grades K through eight, a town hall that seconds as the school's gymnasium, three selectmen, a fishermen's co-op, 4700 rugged acres of which 2800 belong to Acadia National Park, and thirteen miles of bad road. And we have lobsters.
We do not have a K-, or any other mart. We have no movie theater, roller rink, arcade, or bowling alley. Residents can't get manicured, pedicured, dry cleaned, massaged, hot-tubbed, facialed, permed, tinted, foiled, or indoor tanned. We have neither fine dining nor fast food. There is no Dairy Queen, Jiffy Lube, newspaper stand, or Starbucks. There is no bank, not even an ATM. No cable TV, golf course, hotel, motel, campground, museum, art gallery…
Lobster season for most of us on the Island, begins in early May and ends around the first of December. Some fishermen extend or shorten on either end, but in general, we have a seven-month fishing season, and five months of off-season. Each lobster season is typical only in that it is different from every preceding span of seven months in which lobsters have been fished. There are trends, patterns, and habits that are observed by every generation, but each individual season has its own quirks, ebbs, and flows of cooperative crustaceans. Still, there seems to be in the fishermen's credo a tendency to be amazed that the lobsters this season are not acting the way they did last season. And each season every fisherman will attempt to think and reason like a lobster in hopes of anticipating their next move. A lobster's brain is smaller and simpler (in relation to its body mass) than that of nearly any other living thing in which some form of brain resides. So some fishermen are better suited for this game than others. I am not ashamed to admit that I am not among the best lobster fishermen on the Island.
Although the individual members are for the most part hardy, the year-round community on the Island is fragile. This winter's population of forty-seven people is down from seventy residents just two years ago. There are multiple threats to the survival of the community, most notably ever-increasing land values, corresponding property taxes, and extremely limited employment opportunities. The Island, for most of us, is more than a home. It is a refuge. What seems to sustain the community as a whole is lobster. Every year-round family is affected by an abundance or scarcity of income generated by hauling and setting lobster traps. Other than the fact that we all live on this rock, our only common bond is lobster. Island fishermen are presently enjoying the presumed tail end of a lobster hey-day, a boom that has endured several seasons of tens of thousands of traps fished and yearly predictions by biologists of sure and pending doom. Our own little piece of America hangs on by, a thread to the fate of the lobster.
A small community bears a heavy load. Elderly Islanders move to the mainland when isolated life becomes too strenuous. Why do we not care for our old folks? Small town politics creates rifts and scars so deep that some individuals, in fact entire families, have found reason to seek opportunity off-island. Some who remain are nearly hermits, reclusive family units, couples, and individuals preferring seclusion. Manmade problems are inherent in Island life. Yet, in our minds, all boils down to the lobster.
Lobsters are tangible. Lobsters become the scapegoat, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that all threats to our ability to catch lobsters become scapegoats. We have no control over Mother Nature, so she is the easiest target. A major storm could wipe us out, boats and gear, gone. Disease has been held responsible for catastrophic lobster-kills throughout the fishery's history. Runoff of chemicals and insecticides has devastated stocks in distant grounds quite recently. I moved back to the Island for many reasons, one of which was my desire to make a living fishing for lobster. Upon my return, it became abundantly clear that the greatest hindrance to my happiness and financial welfare would be what all Islanders perceive as the most palpable threat to our livelihoods: the overfishing of our Island's fishing grounds by outsiders. The threat from the mainlanders was both real and present, and was increasing exponentially with each new season. It dwarfed any threat Mother Nature had recently made. At the time of my joining the game, it was clear that the situation would culminate in war."
From THE LOBSTER CHRONICLES: Life on a Very Small Island, by Linda Greenlaw, July 2002 publication by Hyperion. Copyright © 2002 by Linda Greenlaw. Used with the permission of the Stuart Krichevsky Literary Agency, Inc.