The only woman on board for the deadliest job

What I learned about myself as the sole female crew member on a commercial fishing vessel

Published March 10, 2018 3:00PM (EST)


Excerpted with permission from "Bering Sea Strong: How I Found Solid Ground on Open Ocean" by Laura Hartema. Copyright 2018, Skyhorse Publishing, Inc. Available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Indiebound.

Before the universality of social media and the promulgation of movements like #MeToo that now prominently display powerful, mold-breaking women as role models for younger generations, I embarked on a 90-day journey as the sole female aboard a commercial fishing vessel among 25 men across the perilous Bering Sea. As the passage below recounting my first day aboard the ship demonstrates, I was in uncharted territory (both literally and figuratively). It was through this trying experience that I gained invaluable life lessons: my own capacity to withstand hardship, how I should act as a representative of my gender, and to understand what it truly means to feel empowered as a woman.


* * *

Black floats wrapped with rows of rubber tires bumped between our vessels. Russian men, with serious eyes and gold teeth, stood on the deck of the adjacent ship in their warm fur hats. Before heading to the fishing grounds—north of the Pribilof Islands, “The Pribs”—we made a twelve-hour pit stop to offload the product from the previous trip onto a 400-foot Russian tramper, an international fish taxi, anchored in the bay. I watched as cranes swung pallets of frozen fish over the cargo net and then lowered them into the tramper’s freezer hold below deck. Two of their crewmen guided the cable; one of them flipped me off. Nice! The tramper would haul the catch to Japan, where it would be held in cold storage and then redistributed or auctioned to the highest bidder.

Our crewmen hung over the railing with their arms out­stretched, waving cartons of cigarettes at the Russian men. “Hey, you! You want?” they yelled, their eyes gleaming at the Russians’ prized pelts perched on their heads. Neither party understood the foreign chatter, but the message was clear: several cases of American smokes in exchange for Russian fur hats. Minutes later, Dean with his inviting green eyes and a burnt stub of a cigarette in his mouth, wheeled around the corner. He proudly offered me an official, well-worn, oil-stained, Russian hat as if he’d won me a stuffed animal at the county fair. The luring of the new girl had begun.

When the Russian tramper released our lines, I made my way onto the deck, where I was met with wind, sleet, and popcorn-size hail. This was no salt and seaweed facial. I thought this must be what it feels like to be run through a carwash. Through the fog I could see a blur of lights from buildings, pickup trucks, and docked boats. It might be weeks or even months before I saw another shoreline. What would it be like out there, in unprotected waters? Growing up in the Chicago area, if anyone had said that someday I’d be working on a fishing boat on the Bering Sea, my response might’ve been an echo of my mom’s, “When Hell freezes over!” Maybe that’s exactly where I was headed. Our fishing grounds were fifteen to twenty hours and 200 miles away.

I didn’t see the ocean until I was in high school. My imagina­tion, books, Jacques Cousteau programs, and downtown Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium had been my only connection to the sea. On that first encounter, I dipped my toes into the Atlantic Ocean at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. The saltwater held me light and buoyant above the foamy surf. I wanted to learn about the world beneath me and beyond what I could see or fathom. That was the moment I knew that living and working near water would be essential to my happiness.

While other high school girls were flirting with guys at parties, I spent Friday nights on the southwest side of Lake Michigan at the Waukegan Harbor breakwater. I dragged along my resistant friend, who said like a Doctor Seuss rhyme, “I’d rather sit in a box than here on these rocks.” Those jagged rocks were my imaginary island, from which I pierced the darkness in search of the unseen other side. I wondered what it was like at sea—really at sea, when you’re surrounded by water, sky, and a few of God’s creatures to remind you that you’re not alone. Lake Michigan, more than twenty times larger than Washington’s Puget Sound, was my ocean, my channel to somewhere else.

Seven years later, there I stood on a 141-foot floating mass of steel leaving the Aleutian Islands, the southern boundary of the Bering Sea. An extension of the Pacific Ocean, the Bering Sea is the eighth largest sea in the world. We would be fishing some­where in the 878,000 square miles between Alaska and Russia in a variety of ocean terrain: a shallow continental shelf; gradual slopes; or above the edge of deep canyons that plummet into the abyss. Only the wild was ahead of me—not the kind you bounce in and out of while hiking, car camping, or driving through a wildlife park with your windows down. I was heading 200 miles offshore into blizzards and hurricane-force winds, to that some­where else I’d dreamt about as a teenager on the shores of Lake Michigan, where if you hold a fish out the window, it gets bitten off by a Steller sea lion or an orca whale. It doesn’t get any wilder than that.

Within hours of departing the Russian tramper, Captain Gabe called a mandatory safety drill in the galley, where all eyes were on me, except for the two pairs on deck barfing over the railing. Their retching made my own guts quiver, and I hoped I wouldn’t get linked into a chain reaction. The captain explained what to do in case of a fire, a man overboard, or worse, if the ship went down. The men’s survival suits were located a level above us, in an outside locker near the life rafts; I would sleep with mine like a teddy bear. Sitting there, sandwiched between two crewmen, I gritted my teeth and gripped the galley bench tighter against the rolling, twisting surge beneath the vessel. We had pulled past the sheltered islands into wider channels and open, deeper waters. Soon we’d face waves big enough to capsize a boat.

“No drugs or alcohol are allowed aboard this ship,” Captain Gabe said with serious brows. “If I hear about it, consider yourself fired.”

Waving his clipboard at us, he continued, “Look out for each other, and keep your hands and feet out of coils!” I pictured run­away hooks baited with squid and loops of line wrapped around my leg, dragging me like a human anchor through the ice-cold water down to the ocean floor.

When he told us, “Don’t throw a damn thing overboard unless you can eat it!” I envisioned buoyant garbage—plastic bottles and orange rubber gloves—floating in our wake, and me writing the infraction in my logbook.

“We have a diverse crew, so I don’t want to hear any racist shit!”

Seated around me were Japanese, Vietnamese, Mexicans, Blacks, Samoans, and a mixture of other cultures, including the lean white guy with blonde mini-ponytails perched on top of his head who definitely wasn’t from the US. He didn’t know it yet, but he’d already signed up for a whupping just because of the way he wore his hair. As diverse as we were, we had one thing in common: we chose the extreme.

Then the focus shifted to me as Captain Gabe ordered the crew, “Keep porno magazines and videos out of sight while our female observer is aboard.” I kept my gaze on him. “Treat her with respect. Serve her. Help her in whatever she requests. If she asks you to kiss her ass, you ask ‘Where?’ and pucker up! You can also tone down the F-bombs.”

Although I admired his straightforward demands—I didn’t want to be treated as “less than”—I had no expectations of seeing the gentler side of this bunch, or for them to alter their behavior for me. Though maybe, just maybe, the guys would act a little nicer, try a little harder, and avoid blatant crotch scratching, belching, or farting in front of me. I kept a stoic front while all eyes stared at me, a flower in a field of thistles.

Sitting among the crew, I wondered what else I’d encounter in the next three months with all the hidden porn and testosterone booming through the vessel, contained only by the pounding surf outside. This was my fresh start, day one of a ninety-day contract, Bering Sea boot camp. The waves grew larger and my new home, my new world, instantly became smaller.

That evening, before bed, I stood on deck, face to the wind. I bent over the railing and searched deep into the water for signs of life. A person could technically drown in two inches of water in a bathtub, but this was different. Here you would reach out into the cold emptiness and no one would be there to pull you up; I’d felt that way a lot in life. A nearly full moon floated in the dark sky like a crystal ball, but empty, void of any future predictions. It cast an iridescent halo on the clouds below. Was someone on land looking at the same moonlight and thinking of me? I hoped so. As the distance between me and the land increased, I felt both lost and affirmed. I survived my entry into shipboard life. This was the starting line, and I was committed to the course.

Later, wrapped in a flannel cocoon, I stretched out in my rack for my first attempt at slumber on this carnival ride atop the Bering Sea. I’d never slept on a boat that wasn’t anchored or tied to a dock, where I could abort ship if something went wrong in the night. I thought back to the cold-water survival drill in Seattle, where I’d stood at the edge of Lake Washington dressed in my bulky red immersion suit like an awkward aquatic superhero. At the shout of, “Go!” I jumped into the flat, calm lake and pretended to be overboard in the Bering Sea. The hooded suit, thick and cumber­some, squeezed tight against my body and pushed the warm air up through the seal around my face; the escaping air would be replaced with thirty-five-degree water seeping in. But I was in the lake, flailing in a buoyant awkward backstroke for fifty meters to the inflatable, igloo-style life raft. On the ocean, I’d be lucky if I could even spot the raft while being sucked and pulled and blown against raging waves and wind.

During the drill, I struggled to pull my body onto the raft. As my feet crossed the threshold, the horn sounded. Among my clapping classmates I heard a “Woohoo, Girlfriend!” from Stef, my personal cheerleader and voice of reason.

But as I laid in my bunk, there was no Stef to help me overcome my doubts and relieve the churning in my stomach. All I could think about were the enormous white-capped waves, the force of transient water and wind against solid steel, the dull pounding, and the constant rise and fall. Logically, I knew ships were constructed to float, to voyage, to shelter against the unforgiving ocean and weather. Still, I took little comfort in knowing what was between me and the ferocity of the sea: three-eighths-inch plates of steel, a few beams, and fuel tanks. I thought of how dark and far it was to the bottom of the ocean and how cold the water must feel on a warm, trembling body.

I prayed to God wholeheartedly and recited the escape route in my head. If the time came, I would put on my red survival suit, stumble out the galley door to the stern deck, pull myself up the slippery rungs of a ladder, and aim for the life raft. Would I be able to open the case? I couldn’t depend on one of the guys to do it for me. Maybe I would have to plummet thirty-plus feet into the ocean and swim to the raft, which would have likely tumbled away in the wind and waves like a beach ball.

When I signed on, commercial fishing ranked as the single most deadly occupation. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 1991 and 1992 in Alaska, seventy fatal­ities occurred to commercial fishermen—twenty times the overall US occupational fatality rate—almost half of those in the Bering Sea. The cause of death for the majority was drowning or presumed drowning due to hypothermia. If our ship sunk, we’d likely die within minutes of immersion. The survival suit would keep us alive long enough for us to know that we were dying, the last seconds spent in prayer and panic.

I turned up the acoustic guitar music in my headphones to strum away and temper my growing list of fears. I said a prayer to quiet my brain.

“Dear God, please help me avoid barfing in my bunk, seeing another crewman in his underwear, and sinking today or any other day.” I exhaled. “Oh, and one more thing, please help me figure out how to do my job. Amen.”

By Laura Hartema

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