Woman at Sea in a Man’s World (With a Rogue Wave from the Past)

Posted by on June 11, 2012 in Alaska, Commercial Fishing, Culture, Hooked Favorites, Salmon Trolling, Women in Fishing | 28 comments

By 6:00, the sun had already blazed a long trail above Sitka’s mountainous backdrop. Joel slept in as I headed up the dock, lured by blue skies, the Backdoor Café’s Saturday morning cinnamon rolls, and a solo walk to puzzle over a resistant piece of writing. I hit the harbor ramp with a smile.

“Goddamn, is that Tele?”

My smile became a grimace. I nodded to the man casting a fishing pole on a nearby float.

“Top o’ the morning!” he called. “How’re you doin’ this gorgeous day?”

“Doin’ great. Have a good day.”  At the top of the ramp, I stomped onto the parking lot pavement. Like a threatened bear, an irritated chuffing broke from my throat. Really? We’re harbor buddies now?

*****

Our reunion had occurred three weeks earlier. I’d taken some books back to Kettleson Library, weaving around two men smoking outside the entrance. One exhaled a thick cloud. “Tele?”

I cocked my head. Probably no older than his early 40’s, life had gnawed this grizzled man’s edges, but still he grinned brightly. “It’s me, Carl!”

Just before he spoke, my stomach sank in recognition. I kept my face blank for a few passive aggressive beats.

“Holy shit, you look ‘zactly the same! What’s it been, 15 years? You still fishin’? Hey, didja ever get those pictures I sent ya?”

I grappled for handholds amidst Carl’s tornado chatter. How’s it going. Yep, running a boat with my partner. Pictures? Huh, no, don’t recall. Nice to see you, gotta go.

Fleeing into the library’s quiet, I felt snared by unforeseen remembrance.

*****

I was 19 when I got my first job crewing for someone other than my mom. Broken by a series of bad seasons and major expenses, she’d had to sell the Willie Lee II. Like many boat kids, I’d been anxious to stretch my deckhand wings, eager to prove myself working for someone who wasn’t family.

My new captain was a type of man I’d come to know well over the next decade. Men of my dad’s generation, who prized work ethic above anything, they saw a female worker not as a weak link, but a delightful novelty. Men who were tickled to see a petite young woman hurl herself against physical labor. The other deckhand and I did the same work, yet our captain had a clear favorite.

This didn’t endear me to my crewmate. In his mid-20’s, Carl had worked on giant processors in the Bering Sea, but had never been salmon trolling. For three months we cleaned fish alongside each other all day and slept in bunks mere feet apart. We seemed to share the same 52-foot universe, but in truth, Carl was beached on a desolate island. Our captain and I were veteran members of the Southeast Alaska troll fleet, and our conversations built fences instead of doors.

On a boat, three can be a far lonelier number than one on land.

Carl was a good sport – better than I would’ve been in his boots, really. Chatty, good-humored, helpful. But as the season went on, he descended into sullen silence. I don’t remember asking why.

The truth came out in September. Anchored in Yakutat Bay, we waited for gales to pass so we could make the long, exposed run down the coast. Our captain napped as Carl and I played nickel-a-hand gin rummy at the galley table. (A slow coho season, some days felt like I made more money playing cards than fishing.)

Studying his hand, Carl took a breath. “Sorry I’ve been kinda an asshole this summer. It’s just, I’d never worked with a girl before. I just thought we’d end up – you know – doin’ stuff, to break the monotony of bein’ on a boat. So it confused me when nothin’ happened.”

As if he’d shouted the Empress has no clothes, Carl shattered my illusion that if I worked hard enough, I could erase gender. Make myself more fisherman than female. I don’t remember my response. What I do remember is picking a fight with him an hour later. When he turned the boat’s 10-inch TV to a scratchy episode of Cops, I scoffed the show’s racial caricatures. Knowing our oppositional views, I went there anyway, deliberately, and Carl replied just as the script said he would.

“What are you, some kinda n***** lover?”

The gloves came off. I didn’t know how to speak a sudden sense of gender frailty, how to name the resentment of being viewed as concubine rather than coworker. But I could rage to defend another group’s misrepresentation. That felt easier than speaking up for my own.

The remaining weeks thrummed with tension. I didn’t tell our captain. When we reached Seattle, I hopped off the boat and didn’t look back.

*****

However anonymous you feel on the big blue, there’s no escaping your past once you hit the dock. West Coast fishing communities blur into a small, secret-less neighborhood. Given enough time, you can count on tying up next to the person you could’ve gone the rest of your career without seeing.

Fifteen years later, I consider for the first time the courage behind Carl’s admission. I’m unsettled by my reactions, then and now. Self-examination veers dangerously close to the apologist behaviors women are so socialized for, and I turn away. Surely there’s a lesson in this – isn’t there always, in situations that leave us feeling like we’ve fallen off the sidewalk’s edge? – but I haven’t found it yet.

A gift in 1994; still one of my favorite presents ever. (Thanks, Daniel.)

Have you worked somewhere that your gender made you stand out, or have you worked alongside someone else in this situation? What lessons did you take from the experience?

28 Comments

  1. Oh, Tele, brave post and suspenseful. I wanted to read faster to find out, who is this guy and why does he unnerve you? What a creep. Congratulations for revisiting the past slight and bringing to life as you come to terms with it.

    • Thanks for your feedback, Kari – I miss running drafts by you!

  2. Really well written, Tele. I agree with the previous commentor: brave, and I’m anxious to hear how the story unfolds. You’ve combined storytelling and self examination seamlessly.

    After I graduated from WWU, I traveled with a children’s choir from East Africa as they raised money for education. I was one of 8 -10 chaperones who traveled with the kids by bus, staying in four locations per week. We were on the road for almost 2 years. “Parenting” 7 to 12 year olds alongside other adults from the UK, Uganda, Canada, and the US (from very different backgrounds) was the most challenging job I’ve ever had. It shaped me more than any other experience has. Gender was only one variable to contend with in our group. I think this comment is turning into a blog post of it’s own. 🙂 Thank you for the prompt!!

    Love your writing.

    • Emily, thank you so much for your own bravery – being the first to share your experience in this thread! I’m fascinated to hear about your experience (had noticed the “African Children’s Choir” tag on your blog) and can’t imagine all of the variables. Glad to provide a prompt – I’d love to hear more!

  3. Gender equality is an oxymoron . I’ve lived it throughout my career in corporate America. The good old boys club remains strong even to this day with sexual innuendos, disparate pay, and a general lack of respect. On sea or on land, small or large corporations, there will always be the great divide.

    • Thanks for chiming in, Nancy. I went to a panel on gender and writing a few weeks back, and it was fascinating to hear the Alaskan women reflecting on how much they did/didn’t perceive gender as impacting their lives up here. I’ll be interested to hear how you experience gender during your time in Chignik!

  4. Tele, wanted to tell you about a German woman I dove abalone with in the erly 80’s. On a big old gulf shrimper with 4 other divers. She was a certified padi instructor, a pilot, involved in a eastern spiritual group called ananda. Every other diver was a Vietnam vet except me. I figured she was in for a rough ride.
    One day way on the southern end on the outside of dall island her air supply stopped. I don’t remember why. The other diver just did the “blow and go” technique. The seas were big and things were pretty marginal to begin with. Well angy wasn’t about to abandon her weight belt and abalone bag. She dropped down to the bottom, placed her bag down on a nice open spot and put her belt on top of it before bailing out.
    By the end of that season she was a well respected diver. She harvested about as much as the rest of us and I don’t think anyone hit on her. She moved up north after that season and I haven’ t heard anymore but I always remember her when the women on a boat issue comes up. By he way. She was attractive and heteral, just to clarify, her boyfriend was a seiner we all knew.
    Thanks for tackling a tough subject

    • This is a GREAT story, Spencer – thanks so much for sharing! Sounds like an amazing woman, and an intense fishery that I don’t know anything about. A good reminder of how unaware I am of the many pioneers that came before… My family started hand trolling out of Sitka in 1984, and the women I remember from that time were all here as fishing wives/girlfriends. In the 90’s, my mom and I were the only mother/daughter operation that I knew of, and today the docks seem comparatively full of women – skippers, deckhands, partners, all of the above. My observation is limited to such a small window of time; thanks for this reminder that we’ve always been here, in some form or another.

  5. “On a boat, three can be a far lonelier number than one on land.” Love that line, Tele. I imagine there are countless more tales waiting to be told. Your words here painted pictures in bold outline. Thank you.

    • You’re such a good reader, Patricia – as always, thanks for the feedback and for being a part of the Hooked community!

  6. Interesting story and probably a tough one to share. Without discounting the ugly pressure’s of gender inequality in the work place or the even more obnoxious sexualizing (sp) of the work place by either gender I’m feeling like maybe Carl deserves a break.

    I only come to it with the information in your story and from that perspective he sounds like a dumb kid trying to clear the air on a cramped boat with another kid (can’t imagine you were ever very dumb). Now to truly understand I’d have to understand his tone and facial expressions when he made his admission. If it was as I imagine it a sort of mea culpa, “I know nothings happening here so I’m sorry I’ve been an ass can we be friends” tone there is something brave and practical in that. Brave in that he’s admitting his interest, admitting the stupidity of it and putting himself in your power especially given that the captain liked you. Practical in that he’s trying to recalibrate an out of balance working situation (a lot of which has nothing to do with gender).

    IF all that guess work is valid then he doesn’t sound like too bad a guy to me leaving aside his comments regarding Cops for the moment. You were there you know his tone and you can make the call.

    I’m also interested in your idea that by working hard you could erase your gender, erase the physical things that make heterosexual men take notice. Why would you even consider this possible? Sexuality is hardwired so deep into our species that it’s always there. I’ve worked for the last eight years as a teacher often with kids meaning I’m more or less in what’s traditionally been a woman’s world and I’ve never once had the illusion that I could be good enough at my job that women would forget that I’m a man. How could they? I’m bigger, my voice is deeper, I look different, my body puts off different pheromones, even the children react to me differently because I’m a man.

    So that’s my long way of saying that sexuality/gender is impossible to avoid. For some men (and women) sexuality/gender obscures everything else for the more well adjusted it is only a part of the equation either way it’s always there.

    And your skill and effort aren’t going to erase that, in fact amongst Southeast Alaskan’s they’re only going to make you more attractive. Very nice, well adjusted men have probably been thinking thoughts like this about you most of your adult life, “Ah Tele she’s a cute one, smart too an’ she’s a better fisherman than half these clowns. Why didna meet her when she was single?”

    So that’s my reaction. It’s morning here in Taiwan and I just got up and you’ve already made me think. Thank you. Now I need to stop and eat.

    • Ryan, thank YOU. You took this conversation somewhere valuable and made a lot of us think in a deeper, more thoughtful manner. (First thing in your morning, no less? Impressed!)

      You’re very kind, but I definitely qualified as a dumb kid in many ways, and still tend to make too many things in life harder than they need to be. Including this incident, perhaps.

      I agree with you (and Jessica, several comments below) that Carl’s admission took courage, and in retrospect, I have much more respect for that act. As I wrote this post, I began to feel that my weirdly harsh reaction was saying much more about me than it was about Carl. Full disclosure: the original draft’s concluding line was something like, “Writing this, I begin to suspect that I’M the jerk in this scenario.”

      Re: sexuality/gender in general… I like your example of your role as a male teacher, and I get that. As an adult, I get that competence and skill are attractive traits, and I get that we humans are swimming in an ocean of gender issues, so immersed that, like fish, we don’t even know we’re wet. But as a teenager, it was really important to me to be “one of the guys” in the fishing world. My femaleness seemed a weakness in many ways, so I worked hard to keep up with my male friends, drank hard, didn’t dating anyone from this pool. As you pointed out, whatever rigid fences I built didn’t change anyone’s thinking, but for the most part, conversations and interactions were remarkably free of sexual undertones, and I could convince myself no one saw me in that way. Misguided and totally false? Sure – but at the time, an illusion that was pretty important to me.

      Sincere thanks for your thoughts, Ryan. It’s a privilege to have you chiming in from across the Pacific.

      • Tele I’m glad you found something of value in my comments. Especially since most of the time when people use the words deep or deeper in relation to something I’ve said it’s either 1) I’ve dug myself a deep hole or 2) they’re using deep as a euphemism for full of shit.

        You make me want to start blogging again thanks. As if I didn’t already have enough to do. Ha, ha.

      • I’m still using this illusion.

        Finding your articles is cracking it, but you’ve opened a dialogue with several people I wouldn’t normally talk to, and they’re helping me build a different perspective.

        So far we’ve gotten to “I’m awesome at my job” rather than “I’m awesome at assimilating.”

  7. To this day, Al still docks the boat , while I handle tie-up lines tho I eventually attained a 100 Ton Master’s license. I was fearful of gender -related remarks which seems really irrational unless living in that kind of environment (male-dominated). In some ways, I think I felt protective of guarding Al’s masculinity or at least the image that other fishermen had regarding Al’s masculinity. Seems silly now to be so fearful of such things. And my fault for not stepping up.

    • Oh, interesting! Thanks for this alternate perspective, Karla. I hadn’t yet considered the ways that actively-fishing female partners might intentionally hold ourselves back, to protect a male partner’s image. Joel and I are in the same docking/tie-up division, and we often talk about it – “We should really switch off so you know you can do this,” he’ll say. Somehow we never get around to actually trying, and I’m pretty certain my own fear is a huge barrier there – fear of looking dumb, having a disastrous docking with other folks watching, whatever. Maybe this year will be the one…

  8. Hoo-boy…you sure can get the brain synapses firing. Just when I thought I’d be reading a nice bedtime story of the sea…uh, gotta go – big one’s on the line. Thanks, Tele! (I think.)

    • Pierr, you made me laugh with this one. I know, I know – things get awfully heavy over here! I’m sorry about that – I love writers who can be witty and wry, and am always a little bummed out that it’s just not my voice. Knowing that, I should probably put an advisory in the header (“Reader Beware: No Nice Bedtime Sea Stories Here”)!

      I AM planning to lighten Hooked up a bit with a series of “postcards” throughout the summer, sharing some of Cap’n J’s photos with you, and have another surprise post in the works (psst – stay tuned for Hooked’s first guest contributor! SO exciting!) Maybe those will add some much needed levity?

      Hope all’s good for you. I’m guessing this weekend is a biggie for your family – your son’s first Father’s Day? Hope you all have a wonderful time!

      • Gosh, Tele, you are wonderful. Thanks for this reply. But what I was really responding to was how you can express yourself so clearly and visually and hook! a reader, no matter what you write about. I recall turning off the computer and crying in my soup, “I want to write like that”…and that reminds me of your post some months back where you had a meltdown admitting your desire to write your memoir. To really go for it. I’m still chicken but closer and closer to gutting it out. I have a recurring dream where I hear a baby crying in this huge empty warehouse but I can’t find her! The baby’s my writing. This I know. Anyway, not to get heavy… Looking forward to your Cap’n J photos and – Amanda’s post!! Thanks, Tele. You’re an inspiration.

  9. Such a great post, Tele. I could relate to so much of it. The idea that you were respected for your work and your strength, yet Carl saw first and formost your gender–that he had expectations based on your gender … the idea of overcoming difference and finding common ground/equality only to find that someone only sees what makes you different. Love your writing too!

    • Thanks so much for stopping by, Lisa! With your strong sensitivity to dual identities and body image, I’m not surprised that some of this resonated with you. Whether we’re Alaskan fishermen or professional ballerinas, seems like there are some big universal themes in common.

      Also, SO many congratulations on Birch Wood Doll being a finalist in the Nilsen Prize for a First Novel competition!

  10. [This one isn’t from me, friends, but an email from my good buddy Jessica. I found her words so compelling, I asked to share them here for the larger conversation, and she agreed.]

    I’m with Ryan, I think this guy could be turned into an ally. Even maybe turn the corner on the racism. One of my goals is to treat every person like they’re coming into my life with good intentions and their own wounds. My boundaries have gotten much better, I can say no much more quickly and surely, but you never know which conversation is the one that’s going to change you or them. I look forward to hearing about further conversations with this guy, who sounds like he was pretty emotionally brave to open up like that in such a threatening environment.

  11. I have little/no experience working in an environment dominated by men (or women, for that matter), and expect that I’m somewhat naive about the realities of doing so. That said, I found what Ryan and Jessica said to reflect my sense of the guy based on your story. The other side of things is your response to recent meetings – and that’s one that seems somewhat similar to some of my own experiences.

    I’ve been reflecting recently on situations in my own life where I’m uncomfortable interacting with someone else but they don’t seem to share the same discomfort. This sort thing happens from time to time even in good friendships, but I notice most acutely in a couple of situations with people I have past history with, but haven’t talked to in a while. I’m pretty sure that in my case it’s often because of the things I’ve left unsaid about being bothered by something in a prior interaction.

    In practice I’m probably overly averse to conflict, and as a result, I tend to not to be direct with people if I perceive there to be much chance of conflict – in the moment I’ll avoid it to try and have a little perspective first and/or keep from escalating things (which is probably not a bad thing much of the time), but the problem is I just continue to sit on it and never really clear the air (so to speak – though in the long run it’s often just the air in my mind, since the other person doesn’t always realize something bothered me). Of course when the other person acts like everything is normal, it’s a bit jarring, because of the cloud I’m still carrying around.

    Having thought this through a bit while responding here, now I wonder how often my friendliness is a jarring occurrence to someone else who might remember me with a certain lack of fondness for some reason or another.

  12. Oh, friends… I’ve not yet had the internet connection and opportunity to reply to each of your thought-provoking comments, but have been following this discussion closely. What a perfect illustration of how blogging can be a beautiful, empowering exchange… Thanks to each of you for contributing your thoughts and making this a larger conversation. My individual responses may be a bit delayed (doing our haul-out tomorrow; I’ll be preoccupied with toxic bottom paint for the next day!) but I’m sending thoughts of gratitude to you all.

  13. i’m a little late to this, but wanted to comment on the poetic slant in the way you write. stirring.

    that aside, i worked for a few decades as the only female in a heavy-haul trucking industry. well, there were a few females( with typewriters), but i was the female dispatching and routing overweight and mamouth-sized loads in remote settings. so many times i was told “get me a man i can talk to”. i wanted to be related to first because of my mind and not because of (positively or negatively) because of my gender. the comments here have helped clarify some of my own confusion over my reactions even so many years ago. i found myself reacting positively to carl’s admission, but i also realize that it has taken me years and distance to be able to do so.

    sherry

    • It’s never too late to add to the conversation, Sherry – thanks so much for sharing your experience. And what an experience – several decades! I spent a couple winters working at a truck shop, and can only imagine the stories you must have. Isn’t it something to see long-held reactions mellow with time, distance, and other people’s insights? I’m so glad that you stopped by and spoke up.

  14. Thank you Tele for the eloquent story. It is the best way to talk about this issue. I began my fishing career in 1986 gillnetting out of Haines. I fell in love with fishing after my first opening. Like you, I also thought if I worked harder and faster than my male crewmates, I’d be respected for my abilities. It never worked that way even when my decisions resulted in the boat being in the highliners that week. Over the years I fished for halibut, blackcod and dove for sea cucumbers and abalone.

    At the end of gillnetting in 1991 I left Alaska because of a bad relationship. Returning to college I decided on another career that was outside where I could also use my brain. Land surveying provided that opportunity and was a good fit. It turns out I picked another nontraditional career for women where we barely make up 2% of all surveyors. But I fell right into thinking that if I work harder and smarter than my male crew I would be respected for my abilities and not just an anomaly.

    I am now at the top of this career, the first woman to hold this position and the only woman in my organization who is a licensed land surveyor. I have begun to mentor and encourage other women in the profession and I am working to create a professional organization for women surveyors, although we still only have enough women for a coffee club and not a true organization. This support can help other women move up in their careers and share opportunities.

    I believe this is where we need to go. Women need to support, encourage, and help each other. Men do this all the time, but there are so few of us and we are too spread out. Your blog is a good example of how to link us together with the internet. Please keep writing! We need your voice.

    I still fish my IFQ halibut every summer and my goal is to buy enough quota so that I can quit my day job and get back on the water. Do you know anyone who wants to sell their 2C C?

    • Gwen, thank you for contributing – to this discussion, to breaking trail in your fields, and to mentoring women in nontraditional fields. Much respectful acknowledgement of what you’ve tackled and accomplished in your chosen fields. I hadn’t thought about the gender disparity in land surveying, but 98:2%…. Those are some stark numbers, indeed.

      I don’t know anyone looking to sell their 2C pounds, but I’m not paying much attention, either. I’m sure you’re already aware of Dock Street for updates; http://www.salmontrolling.com also has a section on IFQ’s for sale/wanted. Good luck!

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