“The Hannah boat is skippered by a Colby College grad named Linda Greenlaw. Not only is Greenlaw one of the only women in the business, she’s one of the best captains period on the entire East Coast; year after year, trip after trip, she makes more money than anyone. When the Hannah Boden unloads her catch in Gloucester, swordfish prices plummet halfway around the world.” The Perfect Storm, Sebastian Junger
Linda Greenlaw is fond of saying that she worked as a commercial swordfish fisherman to pay her way through college. “Fishing for tuition,” she says with a laugh. After graduating from college with a major in English, Linda surprised her parents by announcing that she was going back to commercial fishing.
“My parents were not happy,” she says. “I heard `fishing is no place for an educated young person; you’re wasting your education.’”
Linda, however, fell in love with commercial swordfish fishing when she was a child and knew by age 19 that she would spend her life on boats. Yet, along the way, Linda’s life on the sea led her in some unexpected directions. She has now penned nine books, many of them landing on the New York Times bestsellers list, and appeared in a TV show on the Discovery Channel, Swords: Life on the Line. On August 21, a luncheon was held at The Hamilton, part of the Clyde’s group of restaurants, to showcase Linda Greenlaw’s branded swordfish being marketed in partnership with Great Oceans and now a permanent menu offering at Clyde’s restaurants. (The version presented at the luncheon, prepared by Clyde’s chefs, was served on a bed of spicy succotash and did Linda’s swordfish proud.)
“I had come to know it’s impossible to waste your education,” she says. “I like to think that I use my education every single day, fishing or writing, book touring, or just sitting around with my friends.” Certainly good news to all those recent graduates paying back loans and wondering if they made a bad investment.
Linda’s rise to fame was a combination of skill and luck. In 1991 she was captain of the Hannah Boden and the last person to speak with the captain of a companion boat, the Andrea Gail, whose tragic loss was the centerpiece of Sebastian Junger’s bestseller and a subsequent film starting George Clooney as the Andrea Gail’s captain, Billy Tyne Jr. Not only was Linda praised for her expertise in Junger’s book, she was portrayed in the film by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (above).
With Junger’s book dominating the bestseller lists, Linda began to receive calls from publishers asking her to write her own book. “To have this opportunity land in my lap, I was very fortunate,” she says. “I wrote my first book, The Hungry Ocean, thinking that it would be a one shot deal. No one was more surprised than I was when that book ended up on the New York Times bestsellers list. I’m still pinching myself because I never expected to write anything. My life has taken some strange turns.”
One book led to another and Linda has just returned from a nationwide tour to promote her latest book, Lifesaving Lessons: Notes from an Accidental Mother. Unlike her previous books that dealt with fishing, Linda’s new book is about her becoming the legal guardian of a troubled 15 year-old girl. “It’s a horror story with a happy ending,” she says. Isle au Haut, a small island off the coast of Maine where Linda lives, has 50 year round residents. “This is an abused kid who had been on the island since the age of ten with someone that we thought was her uncle,” Linda explains. “Unbeknownst to us, everything is not fine. Her former guardian is currently in federal prison which is a good place for him.”
Not only has Linda become a parent later in life, last September she got married. “I used to say that my lifestyle, being away for 30 days, being on a boat is not conducive to finding a guy—thanks for dinner see you in 30 days,” she says with a laugh. “I delivered a boat to his boatyard to have some work done. I put the boat on a mooring and he road me to shore. I can’t say it was love at first sight but it was definitely infatuation at first sight and we started to see a lot of each other. It happened very quickly. When I told my family that I was getting married, they said, isn’t this kind of sudden? And I’m like, I’m 51! How long do you want me to wait?”
While Linda’s life these days seems charmed, she has certainly paid her dues. “I worked very hard, I got very good at it, and, as luck would have it, I’ve been acknowledged,” she says.
Linda worked as a consultant during the filming of The Perfect Storm. “I was thrilled because I thought they are really trying to get it right,” she says. “I had the opportunity to read a draft of the script and make comments with a letter that went through my literary agent to Warner Brothers, Wolfgang Petersen (the film’s director) actually.” Although the film was a commercial and critical success, the disclaimer that it was “based on a true story” did little to answer critics who seized on factual errors. Linda herself admits that the romance between Clooney’s and Mastrantonio’s characters shown in the film, never happened in real life. Still, the film managed to capture the thrills and hazards of commercial fishing.
Linda knows those dangers well. “It’s 1,000 miles to the fishing grounds and so we take trips and we unload in Newfoundland,” she says. Being such a long distance from shore means that when bad weather happens, help is rarely on the way quickly.
How bad was the perfect storm, also known as the Halloween Nor’easter of 1991? “It was not the worst weather I’ve seen in my life; people are usually a little disappointed with my answer,” says Linda. “While the film shows George Clooney and [Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio] yelling back and forth, screaming over the radio, that never happened. No one was aware that the Andrea Gail was in any kind of trouble until we couldn’t get them on the radio.”
Linda says she did have the last conversation with Tyne when he asked her about the weather, but there was no indication that the Andrea Gail was in trouble. The following day, conversations about bad weather dominated the radio waves. “These are guys I have fished around all my life who are really accustomed to riding out storms,” she says. “They didn’t say they were scared, but I could tell from their voices, from the things they were saying, that they were frightened.”
After the storm passed, no one had spoken to the Andrea Gail. “That was more scary than the storm,” she says. Without a mayday call, Linda says, the U.S. Coast Guard doesn’t start searching for a boat until it’s five days overdue. “If these guys are really in trouble, what are the chances that they could last eight days?” During the storm, 100-foot seas were recorded. “With a 70-foot boat, whatever happened to the Andrea Gail happened very quickly,” she says. “They went down without a trace.”
Junger’s book and Petersen’s film launched what would become a widespread fascination with commercial fishing and the seas. For three years, Linda appeared on the Discovery Channel’s Swords: Life on the Line. “It’s nice that people are taking an interest in commercial fishing that for years nobody cared about,” she says, singling out the popularity of another Discovery Channel show, The Deadliest Catch. “The Perfect Storm started all that. It snowballed.” And the term, “the perfect storm,” has entered our vocabulary as a way of describing the coming together of circumstances to produce an unexpected result.
Linda keeps a busy speaking schedule talking to young children, high school and college students, as well as adults. “Little kids always want to know what’s the biggest fish I’ve ever caught,” says Linda. For the record: a 635 lb. swordfish. “They want to know about sharks and about storms. They want the drama.” While men inquire about the technical side of fishing, women often ask about being a female working in a male dominated environment. “Gender has not been an issue in my life; I haven’t made it one,” she says.
She often fields questions about the sustainability of swordfish and other species. “Customers want to know where the fish comes from; they want to feel good about what they’re eating,” she says. Circle hooks, used by nearly all the boats Linda’s group is sourcing fish from, have been a valuable tool for keeping fisheries healthy. Circle hooks are rarely swallowed, decreasing the mortality rate. Fish are more likely to ingest a J-hook and come up on the line dead. “There’s nothing you can do with a small fish that’s dead,” Linda explains. “You’re not allowed to have it on the boat. You throw it back and it does nothing for sustainability.”
Being at sea is like “balancing on a giant medicine ball for 30 days,” she says. “I’d be sitting at my mother’s kitchen table for dinner and I’d hold my drink and I would cradle my plate in my arm and shovel the food in,” she says with a laugh. “My mother would say, `let go of the plate; it’s not going to land on the deck. You can have more than five seconds to eat this meal.’” While Linda says she’s not a chef, she enjoys food and cooking. She and her mother, Martha Greenlaw, have collaborated on two cookbooks, most recently, The Maine Summers Cookbook: Recipes for Delicious Sun-Filled Days.
Another habit that sticks with Linda when she hits dry land? Walking down the street, she expects people to pass her on the left. “The rule of the road at sea is that you pass port to port. It really bothers me when people want to pass me on my right side. I will go out in the middle of the street to try to force someone to my port side. It’s habit.”
Photos courtesy of Linda Greenlaw
Click to buy any of the following on Amazon:
Books by Linda Greenlaw
The Hungry Ocean: A Swordboat Captain’s Journey, 1999
The Lobster Chronicles: Life on a Very Small Island, 2002
All Fishermen Are Liars: True Tales from the Dry Dock Bar, 2004
Seaworthy: A Swordboat Captain Returns to the Sea, 2010
Lifesaving Lessons: Notes from an Accidental Mother, 2013
Cookbooks with Martha Greenlaw
Recipes from a Very Small Island, 2005
The Maine Summers Cookbook: Recipes for Delicious Sun-Filled Days, 2011
The Perfect Storm
The Perfect Storm, the film