Back to the Sea
Linda Greenlaw’s new book returns to swordfishing with all its perils and personalities.
By Linda Hedman Beyus
Linda Greenlaw, the best-selling author of The Lobster Chronicles, The Hungry Ocean, All Fishermen Are Liars, a cookbook, and two mystery novels, describes herself as such: “My resume is short: I fish, and I write about fishing.” But it’s a little more impressive than that. She was, after all, the other boat captain in The Perfect Storm. And not many of us have the chance (or frankly, the guts) to experience commercial blue-water swordfishing firsthand.
So the next smartest option is to read her latest book, Seaworthy: A Swordboat Captain Returns to the Sea (Viking, New York, NY; hardcover; 256 pages; $25.95). And once this tale is under way, readers will be relieved to never have to go to sea in these conditions — we’re not talking just about weather here, as in some previous Greenlaw ventures.
Faced with a chance to return to commercial swordfishing after a ten-year break from writing and lobstering from her home on Isle au Haut, Greenlaw signs on as captain for some high-stakes fishing in the tough waters of the Grand Banks. As she admits, “I know I really thrive on the life of wild adventure at sea.” She has twenty years of commercial fishing under her belt, earning her stripes as a skilled swordboat captain with the ability to catch plenty of big fish.
Since there are only about six boats that sail from the U.S. to fish the Grand Banks, Greenlaw observes, “Being one of their captains really placed me on an endangered species list.” She also has the distinction of being the only female swordboat captain in the U.S.
Greenlaw and her hand-picked crew of four set off from Massachusetts on the forty-six-foot Seabird, which from the start has a series of malfunctions — engine failure, a busted ice machine and water maker, broken electronics and beeper buoys, and more. Seabird, supposedly refurbished and ready for the trip according to its owner, is later nicknamed, understandingly, with a profane ornithological name by its crew.
The book is a page-turner once the round-the-clock swordfishing starts and the “set” is made. Lines are thirty to forty miles (yes, miles) long, upheld by three hundred buoys, with a thousand leaders that dangle off the main line holding baited hooks that also attract pesky sharks. Not easy stuff to deal with and still have toes, fingers, and limbs intact. The work is hard, fast, intense, and dangerous.
In Seaworthy Greenlaw gets into the gritty details — managing crew, strategizing where to fish, boat repairs. It helps the reader comprehend a foreign world: the “fishing ocean,” as she calls it. Yet Greenlaw skillfully describes the details of fishing and captaining without weighing the book down in technicalities. Part of this voyage includes her well-publicized arrest and being thrown in jail in Newfoundland mid-trip for inadvertently drifting into Canadian waters (the two hundred-mile limit) while fishing and following Seabird’s thirty miles of meandering line, a costly and uncharacteristic mistake.
Greenlaw also illuminates the people and the environment she surrounds herself with. She’s unafraid to be introspective and self-examining in her writing — occasionally more than is needed to convey a point. And she writes deftly about the strengths and struggles of her crew. These interpersonal observations pair well with her depiction of the nature of swordfish. She describes them as “fascinating in their unique combination of fish and sword — like a unicorn, but real.” And she offers insight into her own Darwinian relationship with their demise: “Do fish have the capacity to experience feelings of defeat or triumph? The belief that they do makes catching them that much more intense an experience. Who wants to engage in a battle with a rock? Xiphias gladius is the Braveheart of the ocean.”
Greenlaw is a solid nonfiction writer, and Seaworthy is another feather in her writing and fishing cap. To say that it narrates an unsmooth trip is an understatement, but you’ll have to turn some pages to learn how it all ends up.