She's at home at sea
Copyright 1997 Guy Gannett Communications
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ISLE AU HAUT - Linda Greenlaw speeds toward the island in her blue-hulled lobster boat, which skips and pitches in the choppy sea. Conversation lulls. 

''Feeling seasick?'' she asks. 

Greenlaw, a deep sea fisherman for 17 years, is in her element. At 36, she is the only female swordfish captain in the Grand Banks fleet. Perhaps anywhere. 

The work is physically demanding and requires stamina, skill and considerable risk. Greenlaw has earned respect in this male-dominated world and often returns with the  biggest catch. 

Nobody cared, she said, until they read about her in the current best seller ''The Perfect Storm,'' about the Halloween Gale of 1991. She was one of the last to talk to the Andrea Gail, which sunk without a trace off Nova Scotia in huge seas. All hands were lost. 

The next thing she knew, Greenlaw was in the October issue of Vanity Fair. 

People magazine called. She appeared on the Discovery Channel and on ABC. 

A motion picture producer called her from Los Angeles. ''I'd love to make a movie about you,'' Rocky Lang told Greenlaw. ''Think about it.'' 

Simon & Schuster wants her autobiography.  

Greenlaw laughs about it all. ''Read page 30, in case you're wondering if I'm wonderful or not,'' she quips, as a visitor starts to browse through the book that brought her notice. ''That paragraph's why I'm getting the attention. Page 30 is just fine.'' 

The text describes Greenlaw as ''one of the best captains, period, on the entire East Coast,'' according to author Sebastian Junger. ''When the Hannah Boden unloads her catch in Gloucester, swordfish prices plummet halfway across the world.'' 

''She beat every male on the Grand Banks five years running. She whipped their butts,'' said Orr's Island resident, Capt. Alden Leeman, who owned the first boat she fished on, and the first boat she ran as captain. 

Fast-talking dynamo   

Just 5-foot-3, Greenlaw has sun-streaked brown hair pulled back in a ponytail. Her face is crinkled around the eyes and tan from the sun and wind. She is a high-energy, fast-speaking dynamo, with flashing eyes and a quick smile. 

But when her lower lip juts out and she exhales a blast of air, it's time to back off, according to Leeman. ''She's coming with everything she's got.'' He teased her once too often about her cribbage game, he recalled, and she threw the deck of cards at him, followed by the cribbage board. ''She can be one tough lady,'' Leeman said. 

Born in Connecticut and raised in Topsham, she has been swordfishing for 17 years, starting her freshman year at Colby College, where she was majoring in English and government with an eye to law school. 

''I fell in love with fishing and didn't want any more schooling,'' she said. Grown men have come to Leeman with tears in their eyes, fearing for their lives in bad weather. Never Greenlaw, he said. 

The worst storm she ever encountered was the March Gale of 1993. Winds reached 120 mph in driving rain, with waves more than six stories high. Greenlaw was in the 100-foot Hannah Boden at the time, off the coast of Baltimore. 

The sea storm started in the afternoon and was soon blowing the tops off waves and turning the ocean white. Huge seas crashed over the bow, shutting out daylight. 

When night fell, the storm got worse.   

Greenlaw tried to keep the bow into the wind, which moaned in the rigging like a church organ. She couldn't see the waves, by then so high that two large ships jogging the weather out near her told Greenlaw they couldn't see her boat on radar. 

''Bad weather is more of an inconvenience than a problem,'' she says. ''It takes time away from fishing.'' 

Greenlaw, who is taking a break from swordfishing right now, steamed out of Gloucester, Mass., five days east to reach the fishing grounds with the rest of the 25-boat fleet. They fish on the lunar cycle, returning to port every 30 days. 

Swordfish like moonlight   

Swordfish bite when the night sky is bright. Darkness is unproductive. ''You try to stay on the moon,'' Greenlaw explains. The best season is August through October. 

Each boat lays 40 miles of line, with 1,000 hooks, along the best temperature break it can find - where the warm Gulf Stream meets the cold Labrador current. 

The line is set in the evening. Two men at the stern bait each hook with a whole squid as it comes swinging off the spool. Each hook has a cigar-size chemical light stick to attract the fish. 

As the line disappears underwater the sticks glow like a string of Christmas lights, fading on their way to a depth of 70 feet. On the surface the hooks are marked by a 40-mile line of orange floats, 100 feet apart. 

Hauling starts at 3:30 a.m., already broad daylight at sea, and takes all day. 

Greenlaw drives the boat back along the connecting dots of floats - one hand on the wheel, the other on the line, feeling for telltale tension. 

Swordfish weigh 100 to 500 pounds and grow to a length of 5 feet or more. 

When a hook hangs heavy, the boat stops and Greenlaw hauls the fish in, hand-over-hand. 

As the fish comes to the surface, its electric blue and purple back flashes, lighting up the water. Its sides are shiny silver, and the belly is iridescent silver, white or pink. 

''They're magnificent,'' Greenlaw said. ''And they look like warriors with that weapon.'' 

A living swordfish puts up a fight and must be handled carefully. ''You could lose it,'' said Greenlaw. ''With a 200-pound fish, at $4 a pound, you could be watching $800 swim away.'' 

As soon as the fish is gaffed and brought on deck, the sword is removed for safety.   

Greenlaw recalls how one dead swordfish, beak intact, slid across the deck in rough weather and pierced a man's ankle through his boot. 

Hooking mako sharks is even more dangerous. On deck, if still alive, they get up on their bellies and go after the crew. 

Brutal, unending job   

Swordfishing is brutal and seems unending, with crews often getting just an hour and a half of sleep 15 days in a row. On her first trips as captain, Greenlaw was so eager to do well that she got by with 45 minutes of rest a day for two weeks. ''I'd be dead on my feet by the end of the trip,'' she said. 

The deck hands, usually five or six men, work without breakfast until 8 or 9 a.m., when someone throws some frozen pizzas in the oven, which they eat while on the job. The only meal they sit down for is dinner, around 4:30 p.m. 

Fish is not on the menu

About the only time they take a break is when they haul a huge swordfish, shark or sea turtle. 

''Everyone wants their picture taken with it, so we stop for a minute,'' said Greenlaw. The turtles are released live. 

As captain - a natural promotion after being first mate for several seasons - Greenlaw is responsible for navigating, repairing the boat, hiring the crew, keeping them working smoothly, reading the weather and finding fish. 

A good trip meant as much as 60,000 pounds, before the 30,000-pound trip limit set in 1995. Greenlaw has made as much as $200,000 in three months, or as little as $50,000. 

When it comes to finding fish she has no crystal ball, she says. 

''It's not luck. I worked harder than a lot of people around me. I had the best electronics, and I knew how to use them.'' She also looks for areas where storm petrels are fluttering over the surface, and shearwaters gather. 

Where they feed, there is bigger feed and, hopefully, swordfish below. 

Whales and porpoise are seen often on the Grand Banks. Twice Greenlaw has watched pods of killer whales. ''You hear them before you see them,'' she said. ''Their high dorsal fins cut through the water like shhhhhhh.'' 

Once, investigating some splashing, she found a baby porpoise with line wrapped around its tail. The mother was below it, pushing it up to breathe. Greenlaw cut it loose and the pair circled the boat a few times, then swam away. 

Greenlaw says she's never had a problem being the only female on board for 30 days at sea. 

''It's been to my advantage,'' she said. ''Any self-respecting guy doesn't want a woman to outwork them. The guys stay more clean and the boat is clean because I'm around.'' No one has ever hit on her. 

Several call her ''Ma.'' 

Owner switches to crab   

Greenlaw left the Grand Banks when the owner of her boat decided to fish for deep-sea red crab instead of swordfish. 

She is living on Isle au Haut now, with parents and relatives, and lobstering. She plans to buy land there and build her own house next year. 

She misses being a ''long tripper,'' also called a ''distant water fisherman,'' and hopes to get back to it. 

''Way out, you can leave all your troubles behind. You don't have to face people for 30 days. And if you're quick, and get right back out, for another 30 days,'' Greenlaw said. 

''Even storms coming in can be beautiful.'' 

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