I Thought I Was a Tomboy Until I Went Fishing

By: Laura Hartema, author of Bering Sea Strong: How I Found Solid Ground on Open Ocean




“Gone fishing,” said the phone message in my Seattle studio apartment. After three weeks of hell-and-brimstone classroom training to weed out the wimps, there I was, plopped from an instruction manual onto a larger-than-life commercial longliner. As a fisheries observer (scientist) I’d monitor the catch, collect and send my data to the National Marine Fisheries Service, used to manage sustainable Alaskan fisheries. What I didn’t know was how living for three months on the Bering Sea would transform me and the full protection my rain gear would provide.


Aboard my 141-foot longliner, the captain gives me a tour, and in a brief meet-and-greet, I discover I’d landed on ninety day singles cruise-capade and was the only woman to sign up. Within the hour he drop kicks me to my shared stateroom and says, “Welcome aboard. You’re on your own from here.” I’m jolted by doubts of my decision.


I knock, “Hello. Is anyone in there?”
“Yeah! Yeah!” says a scratchy voice. “Come on in.”


Edging my way in, my eyes bulge at the bulge staring back at me. It’s number one of my three roommates, standing proud and hairy-chested with nothing on… but white briefs.


“How’s it goin’?” he asks, as if ordering a latte at the local Starbucks.


It’s my first hour aboard I’m already vying for territory with a man in his underwear. I cringed to learn my other roommate, the cook, will launder and handle my own undergarments. My insides shrink knowing my private life is under assault. I already feel exposed.


The complexity of my situation becomes clearer during the safety meeting in the galley, where I sit hip-to-hip with twenty-five rough-and-tumble fishermen. The captain unleashes, “Keep porno magazines and videos out of sight while our female observer is aboard. Treat her with respect. Serve her. Help her in whatever she requests. If she asks you to kiss it, you ask ‘Where?’ and pucker up! You can also tone down the F-bombs.”


Might I add, “Wear pants?” I don’t expect the guys to alter their behavior for me, but I hope to avoid seeing Fruit-of-the-Loom on his one-man panty-parade again.


Eighteen hours from the dock, an eerie whine signals a haulback and my time to haul butt down to the processing factory to sample the catch. Adorned with long underwear, saggy sweatpants and a turtleneck, I yank a wool hat and a hooded sweatshirt over my ponytail. I shove my feet into thick, wooly liners and XtraTufs. My final layers, Grundéns bibs and a hooded parka, are impenetrable. Rubber bands seal the wide-legged pant legs tight to my ankles to prevent seawater from going up and over my knee high boots. The scare tactics of my training materialize as we fish the edge of receding ice floes.


My hands, enlarged by waterproof gloves, make me think of Pa, my Polish great-grandfather, with giant bear paws who passed away when I was eight years old. His old-fashioned messages rang in my psyche, “Women should look like women!” From our front porch in Chicago, he’d chase away a neighborhood teenage girl with pixie hair, sneakers and a baseball cap. Without his dentures, he’d shout in his heavy, old-world accent, “Summ-omm-biiitch, I kiiill you! No boys in this house!” She was a fun, cool girl, who loved to compete in sports. Pa didn’t think she should wear “boy clothes.” But growing up, we girls were already receiving messages that society awarded men for their toughness. We didn’t know it then, but we dressed like tomboys to be perceived as equals, as I was doing now. I’m sure as Pa looks down from heaven, he doesn’t approve of my getup on this ship either.


But now, maybe no one will notice me in my bulky rain gear. On a fishing boat, there’s no need for a full 360 in a mirror to see “how I look.” My Grundéns and boots would be indestructible, holding me up straight against sloshing saltwater and stinging salt spray, powerful wind, and anything else I might need to step in, over or through on a fishing boat. I’m shrink-wrapped and hermetically sealed in my orange Bering Sea burka. I’m equipped for battle.


After gearing up its time to run the gauntlet through the testosterone-soaked factory. There, I meet a wall of tough guys gutting, sorting, sizing and packing Pacific cod into metal trays. I’m all covered, yet their X-ray eyes search for a hint of female hidden beneath my defensive layers. The men track my steps and hold my gaze with laser focus. In those eyes I wonder who to trust and who will help or hinder me. In time, I will adapt to this assorted catch of characters—the fun and playful, the difficult and devious, and the gentlemanly gems. For now, I scan the lineup and am relieved to see no full neck or face tattoos.


At my sampling station, I ready my stance in a semi-squat like on defense in basketball. My scale swings from a rusty overhead pipe. The deck boss with piercing green eyes appeases me with a wink, “If you need anything, Darlin’, just ask.” He rips the dazed fish from hooks to gaff to my sample basket. I sort them by species and measure their lengths on the frigid steel counter. Wrangling a grease pencil with one clumsy gloved hand, I paw at a clipboard in the other. I record each sample’s weight.


Pacific cod and rockfish come aboard in a steady rhythm. My back revolts under heavy lifting. Twenty. Fifty. Eighty pounds. Fat fish after fish. I grip against the slime, measure, and toss. Fingers like popsicles, my palms stiffen. A massive wave funnels through the hatch sending my sample basket surfing across the factory floor. I’m thankful the rubber bands around my ankles do their job while I figure out my own.


We keep this brutal pace haul by haul, month after month. I learn what it takes to thrive on a fishing boat. Endless work with brief snatches of restless sleep. Faith the bow, encased in ice, will rise after each plummet into the belly of a wave. Being tested by extreme personalities and extreme weather. Knowing things will go wrong, sometimes horribly. Realizing humor can get you through difficult circumstances. Recognizing true privacy will have to wait until I get home. With each passing day, I absorb the men’s sea sense and strength, as I discover my own.


At the end of another sample, a crewman pulls himself from the line, as is now our playful ritual, and says, “Button up!” With a high pressure fire hose, he blasts the splatter-coating of fish scales, guts and slime off my Grundéns with icy saltwater. Down the scuppers it goes, along with a little bit of my hardened shell. My true self is slowly unveiled with each haul.


Initially, I suited up to work, but my Grundéns and boots represented more to me than foul weather gear. Like matching school uniforms, the grand equalizer, my Grundéns neutralized my appearance, allowing me to blend in long enough to do a rough job in a manly-male environment.


They sheltered me from hurricane force winds and frozen sleet; from birds crapping on me on deck; from fish slime and dorsal spines; from the blaring factory lights at a half-asleep, o’dark-thirty sample; from hard men’s penetrating eyes; and from my own insecurities.


Bow thrusters push us dockside. It’s another trip down. Before departing, the captain pulls from his duffel a black jacket with “our” ship embroidered on the back. Grinning while slightly shaking his head, he hands it to me and says, “You put up with a lot of bullshit. You can hang tough with us guys. If observing doesn’t work out for you, you’ve earned a spot on this vessel.”


The boat jacket stirred me deeply. In that moment, my tomboy exterior I’d relied upon my whole life, seemed to lift. The storms, the gear, this ship, the crew, and the difficulties helped peel away my layers to uncover my authentic self—an inherently feminine woman who wants to be valued and respected simply for what I can contribute—in science, on a sport court, or on a fishing boat.


This vessel became my first of three observer contracts. Years later, as an ecologist, I shuffle through rivers, streams and wetlands in my trusted gear, but add a dab of makeup and perfume. I no longer need to wear “man qualities” to appear strong or hide my femaleness as if it were a handicap. I’d proven to myself stumbling through Bering Sea boot camp—lifting, sorting, and sampling fish, and living among my boat bros—that with or without the layers, I’m strong, capable, and oh, so female.


Too, I suspect my Polish great grandpa in heaven had a change of heart. Pa is probably clapping his big hands and cheering for me in my gear, “Summ-omm-biiitch! I’m so proud of the woman she became.”


Editor’s Note: Excerpts in this guest post by Laura Hartema were taken from her memoir, “Bering Sea Strong: How I Found Solid Ground on Open Ocean.” Laura is an ecologist and author and resides in Seattle, WA. See more at: http://www.laurahartema.com/ and https://www.facebook.com/laurahartema/.



Guatemala Sailfish Commission