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My main complaint about Sebastian Junger's megabestselling The Perfect Storm (see review) was his decision to structure the book around the lost crew of the Andrea Gail, a group of relatively uninteresting louts, instead of on the Coast Guard divers or the woman on board the Japanese ship, who struck me as more compelling characters. Comes Linda Greenlaw, the captain of a swordfishing boat (the Hannah Boden) which is the sister ship to the Andrea Gail, to share with us the story of everyday life on board on of these vessels. Her account does nothing to dissuade me of my earlier judgment. The story is told competently enough and it is somewhat interesting as regards modern boating and fishing techniques, but it is nothing more than that. Neither Greenlaw herself, nor the members of her crew really capture our attention or allegiance. The resulting book is curiously unaffecting; there is a hollowness at its core, something left unsaid.
In fact, it seems to me that the problem is that it ignores its very raison d'être, for the obvious reason that entire premise of the book is actually startlingly sexist. In Perfect Storm, Junger described Greenlaw as "one of the best sea captains, period, on the East Coast". The parenthetical "period" is the key to that sentence and to this book and it is extraordinarily condescending. The entire subtext here can be succinctly stated: "And she's a woman!" It is impossible to imagine that this book would have ever seen the light of day had it been written by a male captain. There is simply too little drama here, too little story, to justify the book, absent the unstated but omnipresent novelty of gender. Greenlaw's admirable determination not to milk her uniqueness creates a weird effect, like the proverbial 800-pound gorilla that everyone tries to ignore. Author and publisher seem to have been at cross purposes--one emphasizing, the other virtually ignoring, the author's sex. The reader keeps waiting for something to happen to justify the book's existence, some incident or insight. But the dirty secret is that the point of the book, as the publishers saw it, is merely that Greenlaw is female. In this day and age, that isn't enough, or at least shouldn't be.
One apparent side effect of this is that Greenlaw seems so intent on portraying herself as just another capable sea captain that even those situations which might lend themselves to some drama are presented in a dry, unemotional tone. Perhaps that is truly how she met each and every situation, more power to her. But it makes for a pretty mundane tale.
GUEST REVIEW by DAVID "NEW WAVE" TANEN
That women and seamen do not mix is an old time mariner superstition. A woman on a ship is considered a Jonah or bad luck. Linda Greenlaw scuttles this un-p.c. nonsense in her captivating account of her life as a swordboat captain aboard the Hannah Boden in The Hungry Ocean. Greenlaw is respected by her fellow captains as one of the finest commercial fishermen. Just don't call her a fisherwoman, she might tell you there is no such word. Raised in Maine and a graduate of Colby College, Greenlaw worked her way up from a green first year crewman to "the pointy end of the boat."
The Hungry Ocean is a straightforward telling of one particular thirty-day commercial swordfishing trip aboard the Hannah Boden from her homeport of Gloucester, Massachusetts to the fishing grounds of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland approximately one thousand miles to the east. Running a swordboat is complicated business and Greenlaw's eloquent thrift with words, true to her New England roots, serves her well in describing the physical realities of the trip. Provisioning a one hundred-foot fishing boat with crew of six for thirty days at sea is the easy part for an experienced captain like Greenlaw. The fifty boxes of groceries doesn't change much each trip, nor do the twelve thousand pounds of squid (bait, not dinner), three thousand hooks, eight thousand chemical lightsticks and other tackle necessary to rig a forty-mile fishing line. The challenge is in those things you don't buy at the store.
Greenlaw writes that "finding a productive piece of water and protecting it from encroachers is absolutely the toughest and most critical part of a swordfish captain's job." That Greenlaw is a woman is not a factor in these territorial scuffles. She faces the same problems as any male CEO dealing with cutthroat competitors and employees and partners who don't always share the boss's view. No quarter is given Greenlaw because of her gender and none is asked.
The cutting edge technology aboard the Hannah Boden utilized in tracking weather and finding fish is explained clearly and makes for interesting reading. These great scientific advancements are key elements in increasing the safety and productivity for the modern fishing boat off shore. Although very little at sea is fool proof, this technology did not prevent the loss of the Andrea Gail, sister ship to the Hannah Boden, and her crew of six during the Halloween gale of 1991 as described in Sebastion Junger's best seller The Perfect Storm (see reviews). Science is also no guarantee that the fish will be where they are supposed to be. There is the phase of the moon to consider, shifts in currents and other aspects of nature that we might be able to track but are unable to influence.
Add to this uncertainty the volatility of six individuals from disparate backgrounds living in too small a place working exhausting hours and you begin to understand the life that Greenlaw does such a great job of describing. Life at sea is dangerous and difficult and the most explosive element is the human one. There is a saying that a boat seems to shrink one foot per day at sea. You might not like the characters described in The Hungry Ocean but anyone who has spent time at sea (or even weather bound in a house with a small group of friends) will recognize what an incubator a boat can be for the bizarrely polar extremes of human interaction. This is what Greenlaw spends most of her time describing in frank sometimes disturbing and often funny detail.
Stakes for a thirty-day commercial fishing trip are high. It cost approximately $40,000 to outfit the Hannah Boden for each two thousand-mile round trip journey to the fishing grounds and returning to port after a "slammer", a successful trip, is no guarantee of financial success as Greenlaw explains in the appendix where she describes the process of settling up. The variables at sea are often beyond human control and the danger of working brutal hours in a hostile environment can result in tragedy. There aren't many CEOs in corporate America that go to their workplace with the very real possibility they might be injured or killed on the job. Yet, Linda Greenlaw and her crew go to sea each season knowing the danger and that the financial rewards might not materialize. It's a fascinating way of life and for anyone who has ever thought about quitting their job and running away to the sea, Linda Greenlaw's The Hungry Ocean will shed enough light to keep you behind your desk, working on your computer and answering the telephone.
I would recomend this book to anyone interested in what other people do in life. It's not necessarily for the Grisham crowd and it might not be as good as Krakauer's Into Thin Air (see reviews) but I give it a B-
See also:Sea Stories
-ANNONLINE: Bio, Links, Interview & Excerpts
-The Interview: Linda Greenlaw (John Koch, Boston Globe)
-PROFILE: She's at home at sea (SUSAN RAYFIELD, Guy Gannett Communications)
-PROFILE: Master of her ship and her destiny (John Boit, The Christian Science Monitor)
-REVIEW: Passion for sea evident in 'The Hungry Ocean' ``The Hungry Ocean: A Swordboat Captain's Journey'' by Linda Greenlaw (Diane Daniel/The Boston Globe)
-REVIEW: of The Hungry Ocean (James E. Bransfield)