BLUE HILL, MAINE — For nearly 20 years, Linda Greenlaw slipped over the horizon in 100-foot boats to longline for swordfish a thousand miles from the New England coast. And nobody much cared about it.
Ms. Greenlaw, whose last swordfishing boat was the Hannah Boden out of Gloucester, Mass., toiled quietly and in relative obscurity. But things changed in 1997 when Sebastian Junger wrote "The Perfect Storm," a tale of the Hannah Boden's sister vessel that disappeared at sea in a Halloween gale in 1991.
Suddenly, publishing houses came calling for Greenlaw's own story about what it takes to work and live at sea, and to be the only woman to captain a vessel in the US swordfishing fleet. She turned down an initial offer by saying she could make more in a season of swordfishing than she could by writing about it.
"I guarantee that's the first time a publishing house ever heard that," Greenlaw says with a laugh.
In a few weeks, eight more publishing houses began courting Greenlaw. She settled it with a telephone-conference bidding war that ended with a $150,000 advance.
The result is "The Hungry Ocean" (Hyperion). And unlike many celebrities who rely on shadow writers, Greenlaw's book, which she refers to as "two-hundred-and-sixty-five pages of sustained effort," is entirely hers. It is also entirely good.
Greenlaw shows readers every aspect of fishing. She takes the reader from the crew's hungover departure to the monotonous commute across hundreds of miles of dangerous water to the mid-ocean race for swordfish.
She talks of waves so big her vessel disappeared from radar, of drug-addicted deckhands, of stowing the body of a deceased crew mate in the icy fish hold, of a harrowing near collision in the middle of the night, and of how, once, she threw an axe into a television set because she felt she wasn't getting her crew's undivided attention.
Greenlaw can also walk between two worlds. During an appearance in this small town not far from her island home, Greenlaw leans easily against a baby grand piano in the dining room of an upscale retirement community, joking that she always was a "frustrated classical pianist." In five minutes, her audience is enraptured with her tales of the sea told with wit, charm, and diplomacy.
Respect for her, both at the dock and on the rolling deck of her boat, runs as deep as the waters she's fished. When a white teenage deckhand hurls racial slurs at a black crew mate, she asks the boy in exasperation what she has to do to make him act with civility.
"You could just ask me to stop," he says. "I've never ignored anything you've told me in the past, have I?"
Greenlaw was raised in Topsham, Maine, the daughter of an executive of Bath Iron Works shipyard. She spent her summers on Isle au Haut, seven miles off the coast of Maine with only 70 year-round residents.
"When other kids got their first 10-speed bicycle, I got my first 10-horsepower outboard," she says.
She graduated from Colby College with a double major in English and government. The summer after her freshman year, she decided to earn money by signing on as a cook and deckhand on a swordfishing boat. She soon abandoned thoughts of becoming a lawyer and by her mid-20s she captained her own vessel.
A stocky 5 foot 3, she is energetic, quick-tongued, and well versed in the vernacular of fishermen. "I swear all the time," she says. "Trashy language. Really. You don't even want to hear me on the deck of a boat."
Part of her biting language is reserved for the American chefs who she says misguidedly organized a ban on swordfish in restaurants. The chefs, after learning that the size of the average swordfish catch had decreased, misinterpreted the data to mean fish stocks were being depleted, she says.
But Greenlaw maintains that the swordfish population is healthy and that the smaller sizes simply meet the demands of these very same chefs. A swordfish steak has to be able to fit on the plate, meaning that smaller fish are more in demand, she says.
"In my opinion, little Chef Fancy Pants should work at perfecting his crme brule and leave fisheries management to those who know more about swordfish than how best to prepare it," she writes.
Learning the ropes of a media tour has been as novel as the first time she went to sea. She is a self-acknowledged tomboy and doesn't want to change, despite the pleadings of a media consultant hired to train Greenlaw in the art of public appearances and interviews.
"The woman took one look at me and dragged me off to Bloomingdale's," she says. "She said, 'What kind of makeup do you use?' I said, 'Well, I have Chapstick.' "
She deplores the term "fisherwoman" and says that the question most often asked during her tour deals with her relationships with an all-male crew in a male-dominated industry. But she says she has never been sexually harassed.
"Actually, it's been an asset," she says of being a female captain. "No self-respecting fisherman wants to be outdone by a woman, even if it kills him."
Her courage comes, in part, from her belief that she is the master of her destiny. There is no such thing as fate, she says. It is that self-assuredness that helped her make a name as one of the best captains on the ocean today. She says she never even doubted she could write a book. That same confidence has taken her to rooftop parties in Manhattan, on a whirlwind book tour, and to Hollywood as a consultant to the film version of "The Perfect Storm."
Whether she will return to fishing is uncertain. She is considering a second book of fishermen's stories.
In the end, however, it may be the challenge of the sea and the lonesome thrill of slamming fish onto a deck that wins her heart. "I can honestly say that I would rather be fishing."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society