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We Alaskans

Being female among fishermen: An unwelcome reminder on the docks

  • Author:
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published February 22, 2015

SITKA -- When the Kathleen Jo pulls out of her stall at noon, I am there to see them off.

My 5-year-old shipmate waves wildly through the starboard window. I wave back. When they turn the corner for the breakwater, I begin the trek to Old Thomsen Harbor.

Today is a panting raven kind of day, corvids parked in the dusty lot with oil-slick bodies radiating heat and beaks hanging open. Too hot to hop away, they allow me to pass closer than usual as I return to the first harbor I called home as a child but a place have spent little time in since. Until now. Having turned my longline job over to my friend Mike so I could use this time to write, I'm eager to make a temporary home aboard his sailboat. I stroll down the main float with sun-burned shoulders and a broad smile.

A smile that freezes as two men approach me.

I know these men. Sammy, a golden can of Coors clutched in his hand, worked at a local business until drinking cost him his job. The other is Carl, a man I crewed with a lifetime ago. A man who'd expected that sex would be part of the deal, working with a woman.

Both move toward me with the ursine lumber of the wasted. Maybe it's freshly achieved today, maybe it's the result of lifelong pickling; I can't tell, and it doesn't matter. Their blurry gazes sharpen.

If you're a woman reading this, you and I know how to do the math. With a single sweeping glance, we can measure a sidewalk, dividing width by threat. Where am I?

What time of day? Anyone else in sight? Any claims that female students test lower than men in mathematics don't measure our aptitude for equations like this. Painfully practiced, we're at the top of the class.

Here, though, standard calculations don't apply. A dock is not a sidewalk. Crossing the street is not an option. The water I usually look to as a friend is now an oppressor.

This harbor's wooden walkway is more generous than some. There's ample room for two people to pass comfortably if both follow the rules of personal space. But this equation involves three people -- two of them, one of me -- and Carl is not following the rules.

I step to my right, hugging the far side.

Carl steps to his left.

I veer to my left. No. Not that way -- don't put yourself between them. I overcorrect back to the right. Again, Carl mirrors me.

The T-shirt

In another place, using different math, this awkward step-shuffle-step would make me laugh. "Go ahead," I'd grin, and my accidental dance partner would sweep their arm out, "No, please, you!" Here, I am not laughing. Here, Carl stands before me, blocking my path.

His voice is raspy, words spilling out quick and loud. He asks if I know Sammy.

"I been telling him how I worked with you when you were just 20 -- goddamn, that was 15 years ago! -- and I gotta tell you, Tele, I do a lot of crazy shit, but I never meant to disrespect you. You know, like when I got you that T-shirt from Rosie's?"

Rosie's, a legendary bar in Pelican, sells clothes emblazoned with her red-hot ink urging, "Take Your Pants Off… Let's Have a Party!"

My words step out slow, several pitches lower than usual and balanced on the center of my tongue. They are careful not to rock this boat. I tell Carl no worries, dude, I don't even remember, and it's true. I don't remember anything about that season, other than how it ended.

Sammy tugs Carl's arm. "C'mon, man, let's go. Let her walk."

I wonder if Sammy is perhaps not as drunk as I'd thought. I wonder how far I can count on him, a man so slightly built he could practically fit in the pocket of Carl's Hawaiian shirt. I wonder why I'm looking to a man for an ally.

Carl shakes loose. "Nah, man, I'm talkin' to her! I got important things to say."

His eyes are overly intent on mine, shining too bright, as he admires my tattoos and claps my shoulder. Skin, burning skin. I will myself to become part of the dock's weathered wood, to hold his gaze, hold my center. To not flinch.

Sammy prods Carl again. In his distraction, a window opens. I move around him, circling wide as the dock allows.

The cool dismissal tossed over my shoulder astounds me with its nonchalance, but a new self-consciousness pilots my feet. Approaching the sailboat that been such a cause for excitement, all I see now is its isolation. I take care to memorize the stall number. I make a show of knocking on the hull, pausing for an imagined invitation to come aboard.

I open the door with warm chatter, as if my friend is waiting inside, not headed out on his first longline trip. Not gone for the next six days. I tell myself not to go down that road.

I am suddenly very aware that there isn't a good way to lock the sailboat from the inside.

When gender's a joke

My last trip on the Kathleen Jo, we caught 4,000 pounds of halibut one day. Jeff mock-complained that he and a male deckhand had once put in a 9,000-pound day. We are lifelong friends, having grown up together as boat kids, and I apologized over dinner.

"Sorry we didn't get more, boss. Must be my vagina." He ducked his head, blushing bright. The next day, struggling to heave a 75-pound halibut onto the hatch, I cursed, "Dammit -- if only I had a penis!" His wife and I delighted in teasing our captain, who wished he'd never said a word.

With these friends to whom I have nothing to prove, gender shrank to a joke we comfortably lobbed across the deck. Beyond our 53-foot sanctuary, it swells into a grenade.

Tick tick tick … The captain whose black cod I helped unload, observing, "You're sure pretty for this kind of work."

Tick tick tick … The man on the VHF snarling that another fisherman had yelled at him on the drag. His outrage wasn't over the exchange itself, but that it'd been "by a f---- woman!"

Tick tick tick … The guys mocking a greenhorn, sneering he wasn't man enough to be a fisherman, he should take off his skirt and pull out his tampon, stay on land and let the real men go fishing.

BOOM. The fishermen slapping bumper stickers on their pickups, vowing they'd rather have a daughter in a whorehouse than a son on a charter boat.

Does gender matter?

Dodging the shrapnel of encounters like these, I wonder how it is that a person can find her greatest love and truest identity in an environment that continually, in hard shouts and in sweet-tongued whispers, tells her she doesn't belong. How can I saunter these docks with more confidence, more certainty in who I am and my authority to be here, than I've felt anywhere else?

Gender doesn't matter here. That's the party line. Men and women alike insist, "It's all about whoever can do the work." Growing up fishing, it was easy to internalize that refrain -- even when I knew better. The value of all things -- all people -- existed in their relationship to masculinity.

At 21, I crewed for a captain who, in more than 30 years fishing, had hired one other female deckhand. When I peeked into his logbook at the end of our first day, blue scrawl assured me I was "a fine hand, as good or better than any man." Male was the yardstick, and I was determined to measure up. I drank the Kool-Aid, disparaging femininity, mimicking masculinity, unconsciously promoting the toxic thinking that constructed these binaries in the first place. Believing that if I worked hard enough, I could erase gender. Make myself more fisherman than female. Believing that "one of the guys" was the best me I could hope to be.

Of course, that was a lie. But it was a lie I inhabited enough for my identity to grow around it, like a dog whose flesh splits to absorb a too-tight chain. Even if my captains knew better, they allowed the illusion. Theirs was a gift of omission.

Carl shattered that illusion when I saw myself as he saw me: not as a crewmate, but an obligatory sex partner. Now, 15 years later, he'd done it again. In cornering me on the dock, Carl effectively cracked that measuring stick over his knee and tossed it into the drink. He forced me to remember that in a society where gender, power and violence are all connected, even the strongest fisherman's vulnerability is never quite as distant as she'd like to imagine.

Unrecognizable

Stepping off Mike's sailboat, I call goodbye to the no one inside and skulk up the dock. The sun still shines. In the parking lot, the ravens still sit with their beaks agape. As if they can't believe what they've seen. As if they don't recognize me.

I feel the same way.

Tele Aadsen is a Sitka freelance writer and commercial fisherman. Read more of her here.

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