Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, August 13, 2015 and The Weekly Packet, August 13, 2015
Over three decades at the helm
Captain Linda Greenlaw Wessel navigates a life at sea
by Anne Berleant
Deep in Surry on Newbury Neck Road, Linda Greenlaw Wessel readies her 41-foot wooden lobster boat, Earnest, for a day pulling and dropping traps.
“I just had my sternman pull up and load some traps, to poke around,” she said, casting a look out on Penobscot Bay. The sky looms silver gray below its early morning cloud cover. “This is a great boat, but she’s a little poky,” she adds.
Her hands move with the speed and confidence of someone who held a lobster license “as a baby” and stepped on board her first commercial fishing boat at 19. It was a swordfish boat, out for 30 days at a clip. Her plan was to earn cash for college but, like the ocean currents, life has a way of pulling one in a different direction.
“I signed on as a cook on a swordfish boat and I fell in love with it,” she says.
She graduated from college and began fishing year-round. Three years later, in 1986, she was named captain of the 67-foot swordfish fishing boat Gloria Dawn.
“I’d done everything,” she says. “I came up through the ranks and learned from some very good people….I felt I was deserving to be skipper.”
A commercial swordfish boat typically spends 30 days out, syncing trips on the lunar cycle, setting longline hooks during the moon’s first quarter before the full moon when the temperature breaks and the “tide’s running hard,” Greenlaw Wessel explains. “There’s a lot of science in fishing.”
Greenlaw Wessel set her lines east of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, hiring her own crew. “I like to think that any guy who asks me [for a job] wouldn’t have problem. That’s not to say I didn’t have crew problems. Everyone does. One thousand miles out, you’re stuck with them, that’s the way it is.”
A woman skipper of a commercial fishing boat is still a rarity, and Greenlaw Wessel’s crews have always been men. “No women ever asked me,” she said. “Young girls, up until very recently, never thought of fishing as an opportunity.”
Thirty days out at sea can hinder traditional stepping stones through a woman’s life. Greenlaw Wessel, who fished swordfish for decades, married for the first time three years ago, at 51. “I blame it on my lifestyle,” she said. You miss so much. You miss the milestones of everyone around you.”
Like anyone in the commercial fisheries, Greenlaw Wessel has experienced firsthand how the industry has changed with the advance of technology. “I’m old,” she laughed. “I started before we had a GPS.” Then, fishing boats used satellite navigation. “You’d get a fix, every two or three hours or days….I’d have a real good idea where I was until Nova Scotia and then it was dead reckoning.”
Now there are underwater sonars and fish finders, but “the big change is knowing your exact position at all times.”
Greenlaw Wessel began a second, parallel career as an author after she and her then-swordfish boat, Hannah Boden, were featured in a supporting role in the 1997 fishing disaster book The Perfect Storm in 1997. She is now working on her 10th book in a catalog that includes cookbooks, mysteries and memoirs.
She has retired three times from fishing, but always returns, she says. The first time was to write her first book, The Hungry Ocean. “I was writing from my kitchen table in Isle au Haut, watching my friends go out [fishing].”
Greenlaw Wessel summered in Isle au Haut as a child and settled there in 1997. She moved to Surry after marrying the owner of Wesmac Custom Boats, Stephen Wessel, where she now works as a broker and lobsters part-time.
“I never really imagined myself not fishing,” she said. “Then, it was writing and fishing. I have a really short résumé. But it all goes pretty well hand-in-hand.”
Now, Greenlaw Wessel lobsters part-time, and occasionally goes out for “a little halibut or tuna for two or three days at a time.” She is building a new boat and, with only rarely having to handle bait or pull the traps, she says, “I could go for a long time at this pace. I’m not ready to quit.”
She nods at her two-man crew, still prepping for a day of lobster fishing. “As long as I have good guys with me.”