Looking back, Linda Greenlaw says she should not have done it. “I feel stupid about it,” she says. But like any boat captain, male or female, she had to make sure her orders got followed. So when her five-man crew didn’t heed her third request to turn off the TV set and unload the bait for their next swordfish run that day in 1991, Greenlaw found a way to halt the mini-mutiny. “I took the fire axe and put it through the screen,” she says. “That was the end of the TV.”
All in a day’s work for Greenlaw, who has captained boats for 13 years and who has long impressed colleagues with her grit and her ability to snare swordfish—one of the biggest and fastest-moving creatures in the sea. Her fame spread inland in 1997 when Sebastian Junger sang her praises in The Perfect Storm, his mega-selling epic of life and death at sea. “She’s one of the best captains, period, on the entire East Coast,” he wrote. “When [she] unloads her catch in Gloucester [Mass.], sword-fish prices plummet halfway across the world.”
Now, Greenlaw, 38, has written her own book. Centered around a month-long hunt for swordfish, The Hungry Ocean: A Swordboat Captain’s Journey is selling well and getting good reviews, such as the one in The New York Times that lauded Greenlaw’s “robust passion” as a storyteller. Indeed, says Junger, her love of the sea infuses her writing. “She has a great spirit,” he says. “And she’s incredibly happy to be doing what she is doing.”
Greenlaw especially likes the hand-to-hand combat of “long-lining,” in which up to 40 miles of line is paid out the back of the boat. Hanging off the line are 40-foot “leaders” baited to catch individual fish, which can weigh upwards of 100 pounds. “It’s a big hunt,” says Greenlaw. “It comes down to the point where it’s one person pulling one fish in by hand. You’re fighting’ the fish.”
What she doesn’t fight are any gender battles with men who think women shouldn’t go to sea at all. “It’s almost all guys out there, and a pretty chauvinist business,” Junger says. But Greenlaw, who is affectionately called Ma by her crew and teased about her ticking biological clock, says she has been too busy chasing fish to worry about sexism. “I never even thought about it until people asked me about it on the book tour,” she says.
The second of four children born to Jim, a retired information-systems manager, and Martha, a homemaker, Greenlaw grew up in Topsham, Maine, near Portland. As a kid she dressed like Daniel Boone and hunted rabbits. The daughter of an avid sports fisherman, Greenlaw shook off a childhood tendency toward seasickness and began working on fishing boats during breaks from her studies at Colby College, where the English major graduated in 1983.
By then hooked on the sea, Greenlaw started fishing full time after college, telling her parents she wanted to take a year off before going to law school. “But I knew I didn’t want to continue with school,” she says, a fact that pleased her parents about as much as her decision to focus on month-long, deepwater swordfish expeditions. “It was the last thing we wanted her to do,” Martha admits.
But while her parents eventually came to accept their daughter’s saline career path, Greenlaw—who thinks about having a husband and kids—recently traded her sword-fishing career for the shore-hugging life of lobster fishing. “There was something about ‘Thanks for dinner, see you in a month,’ that didn’t seem to work,” she says. Then again, Greenlaw is beginning to wonder if she’s the marrying kind after all. “I like my life the way it is,” she says. “Why would I want to screw it up?”
Currently living in a rented house near her parents on Isle au Haut, Maine, Greenlaw plans to build her own place on a piece of land she bought with money from her book. And though she has talked about writing a book of sea stories, Greenlaw still feels the pull of the ocean. “I miss catching swordfish,” she says. She even misses hearing the rival captains playfully yelling at her, “Go home and bake a cake.”
Peter Ames Carlin
Tom Duffy on Isle au Haut