Linda Greenlaw, author of "The Lobster Chronicles," you say that the world's most dangerous profession is fishing. Why?
Well, I think mostly it's because of bad weather. You're definitely, you know, out in the weather, especially swordfishing. I've done lobstering and swordfishing, all different types of fishing. But fatigue is often a factor, but I think bad weather is the biggest factor.
How many friends have you lost over the years from fishing?
Close friends, I've lost nearly a dozen, but there's this real sort of fraternity among fishermen that when you hear about someone going down or being lost at sea or being killed aboard a boat, you may not know them, but you feel -- you do feel some connection.
How long have you been fishing?
I've been fishing since I was 19 years old, and I'm 41 now, so 21 years.
Why do you fish?
I am passionate about fishing. And people always ask me, "What do you like about it?" I like the way I feel when I'm at sea.
So when you were 19, where did it all start?
I started as a cook on a swordfishing boat, and at the time, it was a summer job to help pay my way through college.
Where'd you go to college?
I went to Colby College in Waterville, Maine.
And this book, called "The Lobster Chronicles," is what book for you?
Book number two.
What was book number one, and when did it come out?
Book number one was "The Hungry Ocean," and it was published in 1999.
Swordfishing. The book is structured around a 30-day swordfishing trip to the Grand Banks of Newfoundland.
And what's your relationship with the whole "Perfect Storm" movie and the "Perfect Storm" story and Sebastian Junger?
Well, I suppose most people, if they've ever heard of Linda Greenlaw, recognize my name as the woman who survived the "Perfect Storm." I was the captain of the Andrea Gail's sister ship, the Hannah Boden. So most people make the "Perfect Storm" connection right, you know, very quickly. I was running that swordfishing boat the last six years that I swordfished, and because of the book -- people always ask, you know, "How did `The Perfect Storm' change your life?" The weather event itself didn't really change my life a great deal, but the book by Sebastian Junger changed my life from fishing to writing. I started -- because of the generous portrayal of me in that book, started getting a lot of attention from the media and got some attention from publishers.
What year did you start the writing thing, then?
It took me one year to write my first book, so I started it in 1998 and finished in 1999.
Now, when we record this -- we're recording this in August -- your book's number two on "The New York Times" best-seller list. Did you ever think that would happen?
No. I have been so surprised and, of course, thrilled that it's happened.
Why? Why do you think this is happening?
I have a theory that I think people are generally really interested in reading non-fiction written by someone who has done what they're talking about because I get so many people coming up to me asking me to sign a book and saying they really -- they felt like they were on the boat with me, and they feel that it's a very genuine story. And people seem to find that very refreshing.
Now, when I looked at your book tour, it's enormous, the number of -- how many places are you going?
My original tour was supposed to be two months, taking me to 60 book stores. And now the tour's being extended to a foliage tour, so I'm going to go home for a little while in September and then go back on tour for maybe just a couple of weeks in October.
How are your crowds?
They've been great. I've been, again, very surprised not so much at the crowds in Maine. When I'm in Maine, it's my home state. I was anticipating some really nice support, and I've gotten that. But I've been really genuinely pleased with the support that I've gotten outside of Maine.
Why do you think they're all coming out to the book stores and...
And what are the first couple questions they always ask you?
I think people are genuinely interested in meeting a fisherman because that's not really -- not everybody knows a commercial fisherman, so people are genuinely interested in that. The first couple questions -- people are usually interested -- "How did you go from college to fishing for a career? And how did you go from fishing to writing?"
"Stern-Fabio" -- I'll just grab that one out of the middle of your book.
What's that chapter about?
Stern-Fabio is an endearment -- almost -- for a young man who showed up on the island where I live looking for work, asked me for a job. I didn't really need a stern man, which is the person who works from the stern of a lobster boat, because my dad works for me. But this- this kid was so persistent -- and you know, "You don't even have to pay me. I really want to try it. It's been my life-long dream to go fishing" -- that I immediately liked him -- he was a nice, nice kid -- and took him fishing and through the course of maybe a month of having him work for me, I discovered some things about him that weren't that good. And so he fooled me, which was not the most pleasant thing. But...
How did he fool you?
Well, I really liked him, and I thought he was a great hard worker and a nice person. And in the end, it turned out that he wasn't such a nice person, and he ended up not showing up for work, which was bad because I liked him and I wanted to wait. You know, "He's probably just late. We'll wait a little longer at the dock to see if he shows up." And then to just be, like, stood up -- it's sort of hurtful to really sort of put confidence in someone and hire them and have them be on your boat and then have them be a no-show.
Why the name "Stern-Fabio"?
Well, he was very handsome!
How old was he?
Young. I'd say he was early 20s.
Where'd he go? Where'd he end up?
Well, I don't know. He disappeared from the island. He ended up -- he went ashore to do something, and he ended up stealing my vehicle that I have on the mainland and disappeared for a couple of days. And word got to him that I was not very happy, and he never showed back up to work after that. So I haven't seen him.
Where is the island?
It's Isle au Haut, and it is in Penobscot Bay, seven miles off the mainland coast of Maine.
OK. We need more. Close to what? How do you get there?
OK. The closest mainland is Stonington, Maine. And to get to the island, you either have to have your own boat or travel by mail boat, which is a privately owned boat that has a contract with the Postal Service to bring the mail back and forth from the island. So it's not the easiest place to get to. It's a beautiful island. It's physically beautiful. The people are great. Islanders are, I say, quirky, and I mean that in a very nice way. We're a little bit of an odd group.
Is there somebody on the island named Rita, in actuality?
There was someone on the island named Rita. I used her real name. And people always ask about Rita and, you know, how -- the way she got into my book -- I was two thirds of the way through the writing process, and my editor called me and said, "Linda, you can't love everyone." You know, "You're going to have no credibility here. You're not writing a fairy tale. Isn't there anyone out there that you genuinely dislike?" And I said, "Oh, yes. There is." And I wrote more than he cared to hear about -- about this character, Rita.
Who was she?
She was one of my closest neighbors for two years, the first two years that I was back on the island. And she was a major nuisance. She would come over uninvited, let herself in. Even if I wasn't home, she'd be in my house, using the telephone without permission. And you know, I'd ask her time and time again, "Please," you know, "don't come in if I'm not home." We don't lock our doors on the island. We don't lock our vehicles. We don't take keys out of anything. So to have somebody very intrusive, it was hard -- sort of hard to deal with. Islanders are very non-controversial. You know, we don't like conflict. So it's easier just to allow somebody to abuse you or use you badly than it is to actually say something. So it's just easier just to say, "Oh," you know, whatever, "it's Rita."
Whatever happened to her?
She moved off the island less than a year ago, and she now lives on the mainland. I'm sure she's annoying somebody else now.
What do people do in situations like that on an island, where you're very close?
For the most part, nobody says anything. Nobody wants to confront anybody. It's just easier to sort of sweep it under the rug or ignore it. Something could be driving you nuts, but you certainly would never want to make waves or mention it to someone. It is such a small, close-knit community that most everyone's aware of what's going on. But things just aren't talked about.
The main reason we wanted you to do this program was kind of a sub-theme in your book. It's not prominent, but it's a sub-theme. And that is regulation and the law that has something to say about fishing and lobstering. And I made a bunch of notes about things that directly affect -- you know, by the -- from the state's standpoint. The lobster pot itself has -- the laws tell you how you -- what you have to -- how you make it up.
Sure. There's a size restriction, and there are these escape vents for small lobsters to get out of. That -- it's all -- you know, very legal. There are some real restrictions on what you can put in the water to try and catch a lobster.
Who tells you that the lobster pot has to be a certain size?
The state of Maine. There are federal regulations and there are Maine state regulations. But I'm governed by the state of Maine.
So if someone wants to be a lobster fisherman, how do they start?
Really hard to start right now because there's a moratorium on all Maine state lobster-fishing licenses. A young guy wants to go lobstering, forget it. You can't just apply to the state of Maine and get a license. That's relatively new. Maybe the last four or five years that's come into effect. So now you'd have to be an apprentice for, I think it's three years, and do a lot of paperwork and have marine patrol people sign off on all these days that you have spent as an apprentice before you can actually go lobstering yourself.
Do you have a license?
I do. I have a Maine state license. I've had it since I was a kid. And I, fortunately, renewed it every year. Even when I was swordfishing, I kept my Maine state lobster license. So when I decided to go lobstering, I was all set.
What's it cost a year to have a Maine state lobster license?
It's not a lot of money. The license that I have is, like, $217 or something like that for the season, for a year. So it's not a great deal of money.
How many lobstermen are there in the state of Maine?
Good question. Thousands. I wish I had the exact number. Thousands. There are so many people on the coast of Maine who make their only living or most of their income catching lobsters.
How many women are there?
Not all that many. There are a few who have their own boats, like myself. And there are more and more sternmen or women that work in the sterns of boats for a father or a boyfriend or an uncle.
Why do you need a sternman?
Well, you can get a lot more done with a sternman. It's just much easier. You can haul more gear with some help. If somebody's in the stern of the boat, picking the traps or taking the lobsters out, re-baiting the traps, bating the bags, which is a mesh bag that we put the bait in, it just goes a lot better. It's safer to have a sternman with you. Fishing alone is dangerous. If something happens, you go overboard, there's nobody there to at least knock the boat out of gear.
You say that lobstermen are undemocratic by nature.
I think fishermen in general are undemocratic by nature. It's a very self-reliant, self-sufficient group. There's not a lot of voting or committee-type solutions to anything. It's about the ultimate in being self-employed.
What else is controlled? We're talking about the -- where you catch the lobsters, having regulation. What about the boat size?
The boat size is not really controlled by your license, not in lobstering. In other fisheries it is because the license, the federal license that you have, let's say, for ground fish is all, you know, by the size of the boat, the license fits. Lobstering, you can fish any size boat that you'd like, but there are -- you know, some boats would definitely be too large. It'd be too expensive to run them for the intra-lobster fishery. And some, obviously, would be too small because you couldn't do the work.
What about the size of the lobster?
Size of the lobster -- in the state of Maine, we have a lobster measure that has two sides. One side measures a lobster to make sure it's big enough, and the other side of the measure measures it to make sure it's not too big. So we have an oversize law and an undersize law. So that the big lobsters get thrown back as breeders, and the very small lobsters, obviously, get thrown back so they have a chance to reproduce and get to a legal size.
What is the size that you can keep?
It changes so often. I don't know what the exact measurement it, and I wouldn't dare say on television because I would be off by a 16th of an inch one way or the other.
It's -- I mean, I remember reading something three-and-three-quarters inch to five inches at the -- you know, the body of the lobster. Is that...
Right. That's the length of the carapace, which is the body. It's measured from the eye socket to where the end of the body meets the tail.
Why does it change -- why does the size change all the time?
The size changes as the lobster molts or sheds. Every time a lobster sheds its old shell and grows a new shell, the lobster grows anywhere from -- well, up to a half an inch every time this happens.
Does the state change the length of that measurement all the time?
Yes, the state does. It's been for the last few years increasing. The measure increases, so the lobster has to be bigger to keep legally, which is good. It's good for conservation. It's good for, you know, the reproduction of the lobster. It keeps the lobster stock healthy.
Who makes that decision in the state?
There's a state -- there are state agencies that, you know, control all the fisheries. There's not, like, a lobster person, but there -- you know, Maine Marine Resources mostly does that kind of thing.
Do people look -- I mean, do they come around where you're fishing from the state and check out your gear and all that stuff?
Yes, there are observers that go on boats to do studies for the state, and there are also wardens and marine patrol people who, you know, patrol the area to make sure everyone's in compliance with the laws and regulations.
Anybody ever check you out?
Sure. Yes. Not unusual to be boarded, have a marine patrol person come aboard your boat and measure the lobsters that are in your tank to make sure that you're not keeping undersized lobsters, make sure that you're not keeping any egg-bearing female lobsters because it's illegal to do so.
So if they find you doing something wrong, what happens?
Generally, if it's a first offense, you may get a fine. Second or third offense, you could lose your license, which would be devastating for someone trying to pay bills and raise a family. If the only thing they do is lobster fish, if you lose your license, you're out of business.
Is there a regulation on how many traps you can have?
There is. The state of Maine has an 800-trap limit, and different zones in the state of Maine -- so the Maine state waters are chopped up into several zones. I fish zone C, for instance. We're allowed 800 traps. But there are other zones who have committed to a smaller trap limit. There are zones who fish 600 traps, for instance, as a maximum.
Is there a time of day that you can fish?
Yes. You can only fish the daylight hours. And during the summer months, you can only fish six days a week. Sundays are no fishing.
Why is that?
A number of different reasons. I think there's no fishing on Sundays to keep some of the part-timers out of it, or the people that would just fish in the summer. It sort of protects the bottom for the people who are really making all of their living lobstering. It's harder for someone to put a lot of gear on the water if they only have one day a week to fish, which would be Saturday, if you're a weekend fisherman.
How many lobsters are you allowed to catch?
Well, there's no quota on lobsters. There's only a quota on the number of traps that you can fish and the hours that you can fish them. As many lobsters as you can get in those hours in those days.
The normal lobster-fishing day for you begins at what time?
Daylight normally would be when you'd go out and go to get your bait aboard the boat. And as soon as you can see your first buoy, you should be hauling.
So what time do you get up when you have to hit the first light at, say -- say it's -- the early part of the summer, it's 4:30 in the morning, and you have to be out there. What time do you get up?
Oh, get up around 4:30, 5:00 o'clock, go shake my father out of bed and have some coffee and go get our bait for the day. Normally, we try and haul 200 traps a day, and that's not a really long day. That's a pretty comfortable day. We, you know, start early and be done by 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon.
When you say "haul," what does that mean?
When I say "haul," I mean actually the act of hauling traps from the bottom of the ocean, getting them aboard the boat to pick them, re-bait them and set them back.
How heavy is that trap?
Oh, 30 pounds. One lobster trap is around 30 pounds. Traps come in all different sizes and configurations. They have bricks in them to weight them, to make sure that they land right-side-up or right-side-down on the bottom of the ocean. And some people believe in more bricks. Some people believe in fewer bricks. I like smaller traps with fewer bricks because they're just easier for me to handle physically.
What's the largest a trap can be in the state?
Four feet long.
And what -- is there a smallest it can be?
No, there's no legal limit to how small a trap can be, but it's advantageous, fishing-wise, to fish the biggest traps that you can because there's more room in the trap for the lobsters.
When did you write the last word for this book? What was the date, do you remember?
It was March, this past March.
March of this year?
And the season you're talking about in here, which you say was a rotten season?
It was a rotten season for me. I'm writing about my first lobster season, my first year moving back to the island, because part of the book is about going home after being gone for 17 years. So I'm writing about my first season. It was a really slow, slow start to the season. It did get good very late, but then something happened that I sort of lost interest in the season. So it was a terrible season for me.
So what year was it, the exact year that you're writing about?
Oh, it would have been 1996.
So how'd you go about writing the book? How did you recall all these stories and...
Well, most of it was just from memory. I didn't have an outline. I don't keep a diary or a log or a journal or anything like that. But I had been fishing, when I started writing the book, for four years. So I knew the basic -- OK, we have to get the boat in the water. We have to get the gear ready. The gear has to go on the water. We're not going to catch anything early in the season. Hopefully, it's going to get good. And in the season that I write about, it did get good at one point. And so I knew, you know, the structure of the book is going to be a lobster season, which I was very familiar with at that point.
What months of the year does a lobsterman fish?
Some lobster fishermen in Maine fish year-round. Where I fish, we fish basically May through December 1. But the bulk of the lobsters are caught in July, August, September and October.
And what happens in those other months? What are you catching then? And what years -- what months are they shedders, where they're not full lobster -- not full meat?
Basically, any time that we're catching a lot of lobster, which is July through October, we're catching mostly shedders, the soft-shell lobsters. Later in the season and earlier in the season, we'd be catching more hard-shell lobsters, or the ones that are very full of meat.
So what kind of money do you get paid on a normal basis for every pound of lobster that you bring to the -- do you have a co-op?
We do. We have a co-op on the island. We call it the Island Lobsterman's Association. I sell to the co-op. And right now, we're catching mostly shedders. Shedders aren't as valuable as the hard-shell. The price is around $3 a pound. Later in September, the price will drop a little bit more simply because there are more lobsters being caught, and a lot of the seasonal places that serve lobsters are closing down that time of year.
So if you're a lobster eater in this country, what's the best time to -- when you go into a restaurant, to order a lobster, and what's the worst time?
All right. Well, pound for pound, or dollar for pound, you're better off eating a hard-shell lobster I think in the wintertime. It's more expensive then. Lobster's more expensive because they're less abundant because of weather and season. There aren't as many people fishing. So it's more expensive, but the lobster is really packed into the shell, so you're getting more for your money. Personally, I prefer shedders. I like the soft-shell lobster. If I'm eating them, which would be at home, I wouldn't eat one in a restaurant because I make a real mess. I'd rather eat three or four shedders than one hard-shell any day. I think the meat is sweeter. They're easier to get into. You don't need all these tools.
The last year that you can remember the statistics on how many lobsters are caught or pounds of lobsters are caught in the state of Maine?
I couldn't even begin to tell you.
Well, I've seen a figure -- I've seen two figures. One that $300 million in lobsters were sold in the last year, and 57 million lobsters.
I was going to say probably a million pounds would -- would be a great season for the state of Maine. So the $3 million -- the $3 million figure would be...
No, $300 million.
Oh, $300 million? Yes, maybe after it's gone through a few middlemen, but not to the fishermen. If the fisherman's getting $3 a pound, the consumer is not getting a big break on the lobster. Somebody's making some money along the way.
What does the average lobsterman make in a year?
Real tough question, average. A good lobster fisherman makes a really good living, but he's earning it. He's fishing really hard. He's fishing year-round, putting in a lot of hours, hauling a lot of traps, and has a big investment, probably has a bigger boat so he can fish in the winter, probably has the biggest traps his money can buy. Bigger traps are more expensive. Anything from a really good living to real part-timers, kids that go just during the summer in a skiff, hauling by hand, a handful of traps.
Are they allowed to haul a handful if they don't have a license?
They have to have a license to do so, but there are student licenses and recreational licenses that people can get to fish 5 or 10 traps.
You didn't give us a figure, though in the book you say that a good lobsterman can make $100,000 a year?
Sure. I'm sure that's not unusual for some of the high-liners, the very good lobster fishermen that go really hard to make -- yes, I consider that a really good year's pay.
On your island, you have man named Payson?
Payson Barter. He is the best -- in my opinion, he is the best on the island, and I think he works the hardest.
So if you're the best, what do you do that the not-so-good don't do, that makes you a success?
Well, I think when I see Payson Barter, whether he's on his boat or ashore, he's always working. He and his father have a fish house or a shop, where they work on their gear. They're there constantly. Any time of day I go by, no matter what the weather is, they're there. Either they're painting buoys or going over line or rigging new traps. It's a constant -- a constant job.
In your book, you say your dad is 71 at the time. How old is he now?
He's now 72.
And your mom had cancer.
Yes. My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer just about a year ago, and three days ago, she had doctors' appointments, and this is a really good time because it's the first time in a year that she's been declared cancer-free, so -- very good.
Why does your dad work with you as your sternman?
Well, he's a retired suit-and-tie guy, and it just happened quite naturally. I was looking for someone. He was very willing to go as a sternman. He couldn't be happier that I'm on book tour now because now he's running my boat, and he's hired his own sternman. So it's worked out really well. It's been nice. I've always been a tomboy, and I always had a great relationship with both my parents, but I always, as a kid, was sort of a daddy's girl because I liked to do the hunting and the fishing and the working around the boat stuff. So it's been really nice to go home and really reconnect with my father and work with him.
Where were you born?
I was born in Connecticut, Stamford, Connecticut, and lived there for three months and moved back to Maine with my parents, where I've lived ever since.
What's the relationship of your family to this island?
My dad's family is from the island. I am fifth generation on the island.
And when did they come there, in the first place, the family, and under what circumstances?
Well, everyone who moved to the island -- let's say, the settlers of the island -- were all fishermen. And it was attractive to live on the island, let's say, in the 1800s because it was closer to the fishing grounds. Now, that changed somewhere along the way with the adventation of steam engines. No longer sailing to the fishing grounds, don't need to be as close now because, you know, we have these engines. Also, high school education made it so that high school kids on the island had to move off the island to go to high school. No high schools on the island. So the island sort of depopulated between the two things, between kids having to go to school, a Maine state regulation, and gasoline and steam engines.
Where did you go to grade school?
I went to grade school in Topsham, Maine, a really small, small town.
There is a school on the island still?
There is, a one-room schoolhouse that's one of the few remaining one-room schoolhouses in the country and one of very few on these remote outposts of islands. Kindergarten through 8th grade, I think there will be six students in the school this year.
And why didn't you go there?
Well, I was a summer kid growing up. My father worked at Bath Iron Works. It's a ship-building company in Bath, Maine. So you know, Dad's going to work. We're going off and going to school.
Did you go off the island every day to go to school?
Or did you live...
We lived off-island. I was really a summer kid on the island. And it was always my lifelong dream to live on the island year-round. As a kid, I always hated leaving the island in the fall. I always had these great memories of summers on the island.
And where did you go to high school?
I went to high school in Topsham, Maine, at a school named Mount Ararat School.
What did you -- what were you interested in in school in those years?
I was an excellent student. I liked school. I was into sports. I was sort of a weekend fisherman in the summertime with my parents. My parents were always very avid sports fishermen, so I grew up in the summers trying to catch anything that swam or crawled around my home. And I always liked school. I was always a good student and enjoyed that also.
Your brothers -- your brother -- one brother and two sisters?
One brother and two sisters.
What are they like? And what are their ages, compared to yours?
I have a younger brother and sister who are twins, and they're eight years younger than I am, and one older sister who is two years older than I am.
Where do they live?
Everyone lives in Maine. We're all in Maine. My younger brother and sister both live in Portland. My older sister lives in Topsham, which is where we went to school as kids.
And what do they do for a living?
My older sister is a housewife. My younger brother is a marine engineer, went to Maine Maritime Academy, shipped out for a while, now works a land-based job. And my younger sister is an executive, a businesswoman.
And what do they think of their sister, the fisherman?
Well, they don't want to be me, but they -- you know, they're very proud. They're very proud of what I've done and my accomplishments, or whatever. I mean, I'm very quick to say that I've also had a great number of failures, but everything I've done been's hard work, whether it's been a success or a failure.
Now, what have you failed at?
Oh, I'm a real wannabe musician. I can't play anything. Other things. I mean, just fishing in general, I've had, you know, some really bad years and some really good years. It's all work, and sometimes it's very good, sometimes it's very bad.
How did you originally get into swordfishing?
I started as a cook on a swordfishing boat at the age of 19...
... as a summer job to help pay my way through college. And that was out of a place called Orrs Island, Maine.
And how -- what got you there, though, in the first place? Why -- where did you think that you could be a cook all summer?
OK. A very good friend of mine in high school's father owned a swordfishing boat, so I knew -- I knew of fishing. I went to school with kids whose parents were fishermen, and I knew that it was an opportunity. I needed a good-paying job to pay through school, so -- fishing was good money when I started.
How regulated is swordfishing by the state?
Oh, I think any U.S. fisherman, whether it's commercial or recreational, we are the most highly regulated, managed, and monitored bunch of fishermen in the world and that's not to say that that's bad. I know that regulations are needed. I'm a conservationist. I like to know that there's going to be a future in commercial fishing. It's probably the oldest industry in the world, or it may be the oldest industry in the world. The problem is the regulations are so strict that a lot of fishermen have been regulated out or forced out of the business. Now the regulations have worked in many, many species. The New England Groundfish Fishery is what you hear a lot about nowadays. It's become regulated by litigation almost. You know these conservationist groups are suing National Marine Fishery Service so it's no longer fishermen and scientists making rules and trying to do what's best. Now it's other groups stepping in and getting the federal government to step in and force laws on fishermen that are really too stringent in my opinion.
How long is the swordfishing boat? How big is it?
The last boat that I ran was the Hannah Boden and that's 100-foot boat.
And when you were cooking that summer, how big was that? How many people worked on the boat with you?
When I first started at the age of 19, I started on a 70-foot boat and there were six people on the boat.
How long would you be out at sea?
Generally about a month. Swordfishing trips we try and time around the moon or the lunar cycle. The fishing is best from the first quarter through the last quarter through the full moon, and we try to do our steaming back and forth and our time at the dock during the dark moon or the new moon.
And when you have a fishing day on swordfishing, how long is the day?
A fishing day is long on a swordfishing boat. We set the gear at night because swordfish are nocturnal. They feed at night. We set the gear at night. We leave it for a few hours. Daylight the next morning we start hauling this 40-mile-long piece of line back aboard the boat. Now, east of Newfoundland, daylight is 3:30 in the morning so it's a real early start to the day. It takes most of the daylight hours to get the 40 miles of gear back onto the boat.
So you say you worked as a cook in the summertime to go to Colby College. What did you study at Colby?
I studied English and government.
Why didn't you do either one of those?
Well, you know, at the age of 19 when you're supposed to be declaring your major, I don't know what I thought at the age of 19. I thought attorney sounded good. I wanted to be a lawyer, so I thought English and government. That's pretty close to pre-law and it just sounded like a good thing to do, so that's what I studied. I enjoyed both of them but I knew after I started fishing that I would not be going to law school.
By the way, when you told your mother that you weren't going to be a lawyer and that you were going to be a fisherman, what did she do?
Yes, she wasn't very happy, and I write in "The Lobster Chronicles" about one scene in particular, very vivid memory of my mother breaking like every dish in the house she was so upset that I was like throwing my education away, wasting my education, and for years my parents never really gave up on the law school thing. When I graduated from Colby and told them I was going fishing, now when it was a summer job it was a good idea, but you know for 17 years I sort of endured this well intentioned advice of parents of, you know, getting a real job, you're wasting your education. And, I do a lot of speaking now since I've gotten notoriety from "The Perfect Storm," I have an opportunity to speak to students quite often and one of the things that I always say is, you know, my education has never been wasted regardless of what my parents thought in the past. I've used every bit of my education every day, whether I've been fishing or writing or book touring or interviewing. It's never wasted. I mean your education becomes you. You'll hear people say education is a tool. No, you know, education isn't a tool. It's not like a screwdriver that if you're not driving a screw it's laying around dormant. You're using it all the time and it's part of you.
By the way, the scene though, you get the impression your mother was picking plates off the shelf and slinging them and throwing them and everything.
Oh, she was. She was throwing them down onto the floor and breaking them.
Yes, she wasn't very happy.
Was that normal for your mother to do things like that or did...
Well, I wouldn't say it was normal but it wasn't the first occurrence, so I wasn't totally surprised when it happened.
Are you like your mother or your father?
A little bit of both I suppose. Do I break dishes? Oh, yes.
And so let's go back. You graduate from Colby in what year?
I graduated in 1983.
Had you worked on a swordfishing boat during the summers every year?
I had. At the age of 19 I started. I fished my way through school. After I graduated, I started fishing year-round.
You're 17 years on a swordfishing boat. Did you buy your own boat at some point?
No, I didn't. I was always like the hired gun. I ran other people's boats for them, very typical. There are a lot of - very few I should say owner-operators. There are quite a few people who own boats and hire other people to run them.
Give us a range on what somebody can make as a swordfisherman, I mean just some idea.
All right, as a person working on deck, you get paid by what you catch. You get a percentage of the catch. It's called a settlement and if you have a very good trip, a person working on deck could make $10,000 a trip. That's $10,000 a month, really good money for a college kid.
How many months a year can you do that?
Well, you can swordfish year-round but the Grand Banks season, which I think is always the best, is May through October, and then some of the U.S. fleet will travel down to the Caribbean and fish the winter months.
Are you regulated on that boat by the government? Do you have to have a license to fish?
Yes, you need a federal license to fish for swordfish and there are all kinds of gear regulations and closed areas where you can't fish, and you know size restrictions and all kinds of regulations.
What kind of money can you make if you're running the boat, if you're hired to be the boss?
Well, if you're running the boat, generally you'd make about twice as much as one of the crew members.
Every month but you know there are so many months that you would make nothing too. There's a thing that we call a broker, which is you know going for a month and making zero. You know, some trips when the fishing is very poor, you're very lucky to pay the expenses. It's an expensive fishery. You leave the dock with $40,000 of things aboard the boat that are going to be thrown away during the trip, the bait, the food, the fuel. That stuff's gone at the end of the trip, $40,000.
So what's the worst thing that happens when you're out at sea for 30 days?
The worst thing that can happen would be a combination of bad weather and poor fishing, really hard to deal with. One or the other you can kind of handle, like poor fishing. If the weather's nice, well you know this is fun. But, coupled you know bad fishing and bad weather, really tough to deal with, really hard to stay up and optimistic.
Did you ever think you were going to lose your life?
Oh sure. I mean I'd be lying to say I've never been frightened at sea. We fish May through October, which is also hurricane season. Quite often we're 1,000 miles from the dock.
You're talking now about lobstering?
No, I'm talking about swordfishing.
Right. Lobstering is very close to home, less dangerous because you're not subject to the weather as much. But swordfishing you're very far from the dock during hurricane season and it's dangerous.
So what do you do to prepare yourself for that? Do you train?
Not so much training but it's more, I think that good seamanship is like 90 percent experience and ten percent just a gut feeling. I've been on a boat a long time. I know there are certain things that you do if you know bad weather is coming, ways to secure the boat and just boat handling skills to keep the boat as safe as it's going to be.
Do more people want to swordfish than there are positions for them or the other way?
I think nowadays it's the other way around. I think that it's very tough for a boat owner to get a good captain, a qualified, experienced captain. There aren't really many new people because of the regulations and restrictions. It's not something that young people are jumping into. The money's not there like it used to be because you can't catch as many fish because of regulations, restrictions. You can't fish year-round. You can't fish this area. You can't use that type of gear. It's not an industry that there's a lot of young blood rushing to.
Is that all regulated by the feds?
Is there a lot of grousing among the crews and all about how much involvement there is from the government?
Oh sure. It's disconcerting to be subject to all of these regulations and seemingly a lot of them are sort of wasteful. I can give you probably the best example of what I think a bad regulation is and I said earlier, I know regulations are needed. You know it's a fisherman's job to catch the fish and catch the most the fastest so regulations are certainly needed to restrict people. But the best example of a bad regulation that I can give you is, these daily quotas that they have on groundfish or I'll say cod and haddock. No matter what they set the quota at, there will be boats who unintentionally exceed that daily quota and will be throwing dead fish overboard. That does nothing for conservation. It's very wasteful. It's a bad regulation.
So what year did you decide no more swordfishing, I want to go back to the island, I want to start to be a lobsterman?
In 1996, I decided that I had for a number of reasons, I felt like I'd reached the top of my game swordfishing. I didn't see any way to really improve my lot. I had the nicest boat. I had the best crew. We were doing very well. Government regulations were making it increasingly hard to make a good living year-round and I was ready to go home. I had been gone for 17 years, late 30s, ready to go home and start a family, so it seemed like a good time to move home and still have an ability to work on the water with lobster fishing.
So, what happened to the family?
Well, it seems that moving to the island was not the best idea to facilitate the family plan. I say in "The Lobster Chronicles" that there are three single men in residence and two of them are gay and the other one is my cousin, so I take a little bit of flack about that but I stand by it.
You've taken flack from?
From a couple other single guys on the island who know that they aren't my cousin, so.
How many names in here are the actual names? I know you say in your introduction, you've used synonyms.
Right. For the most part they're all real names. I have two composite characters. They are George and Tommy, Island Boy Repairs, and I changed one name.
Island Boy's Repair was about what? Who are those two men?
Two sort of men who came to the island to vacation, fell in love with the island, and decided to stay, and I call them the quintessential island suckers because they take and take and take and they don't really add much to the island. They're the island's handymen or self-proclaimed handymen who really seem to screw more things up than they actually fix.
Are they still on the island?
Yes, these are composite characters. There are people like that on every island. I've learned in my book tour, everywhere that I go, that people say oh yes, we have people just like that where I live, and you know these people seem very familiar. We have the same characters in the small town where I live.
Now from just your survey being on the island, how many of the people that live there permanently and you say there are 40 that live there permanently have read your book?
I would say most everyone has read my book at this point. I got to a point right before the book was available at bookstores being very nervous about how islanders would receive my book and would they see it as an invasion of privacy. So far all reports are very positive, which I couldn't feel better about obviously. I mean I love the island and I love islanders. I was very nervous about it for a while until I started getting some good reports and some good feedback.
So if you get in the car and you're at the Maine border, how many hours does it take you to drive to Stonington and then what, you have to take the mail boat over?
Right. From the Maine border, it would be about a four-hour drive to Stonington and then a 40-minute boat ride.
And how often can you go over on the boat ride?
This time of year, there are three boats that go over a day, one in morning, one mid day and one in the afternoon, so it's pretty easy for people to come out on the morning boat and hike around and check the island out. Half of the island is Acadia National Park, so there are a lot of trails to hike, a lot of beautiful things to see, and then get back on the boat and go back to the mainland.
Are there places to stay on the island?
There is one. That's the Keeper's House, Bed and Breakfast. They are booked, you know, a year in advance. It's a real - it's a beautiful place and they do a great job, good food, you know, beautiful surroundings. They have no trouble filling the rooms.
And you say it's expensive.
Well, I think it's expensive I guess.
Three hundred dollars a night.
Right, well I've just come from New York City and now I think maybe it's not all that expensive. Everything's relative.
So in the summertime, is there a noticeably large increase in the number of people on the island?
Yes, we have a big summer community. The population swells from let's say 40 year-round to maybe 300 in August, the middle of August probably the busiest time on the island. It's interesting though, the summer community for the most part, the summer people have been coming generation, generation, generation. A lot of the summer people have been on the island longer than some of the year-round people, so there's none of the animosity or sometimes, you know, you hear problems between the year-rounders and the summer people. We don't really have that on the island where I live. We get along quite well.
You said at the beginning that you've lost about 12 friends in this. Tell us about the 1983 incident.
The 1991, "The Perfect Storm?"
No, I'm thinking of the one when the five, the storm between the islands.
OK sorry about that.
That's all right.
Now I know what you're talking about. Yes, I was a senior in college and was watching television one night and heard this news flash about some young people from Isle au Haut being lost at sea and, of course, got very concerned. I was, you know, trying to find out what was going on.
Five young people left the island to go to see a movie. It was in the early spring. They went in a small outboard to the mainland to go to a movie and on the way back, the boat capsized from heavy seas and three of the people died, died in the water.
Did you know them?
I knew two of them. I knew one of them very well, one of them an acquaintance, and the third I didn't know at all.
Now how do you know now around when you're lobster fishing whether or not you have a storm problem? Do you have ways of keeping in touch with the weather?
Sure. Every fisherman has a weather radio at home and you listen to the weather before you get aboard the boat in the morning. Also, the VHF radio which is what we use for communication has a weather channel on it. You can turn it on any time of day. It's a continuous recording of, you know, weather reports.
So, well even with the radios, you know, really the best indicator of what your weather is going to be is the boat maybe a few miles west of you. The weather moves from west to east so what they're having you're going to get. Weather's not really a factor where I fish lobstering.
You know if I get up in the morning and the weather is bad, I don't have to go. I don't have to get on the boat and go haul traps. I can stay home if the weather is going to be severe. I'm never more than 15 or 20 minutes from the dock, so if the weather does get bad or looks like it's going to be bad, I can scoot in.
So go back, we were talking about a day in the life of a lobsterman. You get up and you get out at first light. How long do you stay out on a given day?
Well, a long day would be first light to four o'clock in the afternoon. The nice thing about being self employed is at any point in the day when you feel like you just want to stop, you can. As I said, my father and I try and haul 200 traps a day.
Now if things are going really well, like we aren't tangled up with other people and you know everything runs right and we don't get any line in the wheel or the propeller, we could be done by two o'clock.
How many traps do you have in the ocean at any given time?
I have a license to fish 800 which is the maximum in the State of Maine, but I only have 400 in the water right now.
And what's the biggest catch you've had in any one trap on any given day?
The biggest catch in any single trap, I had 15 keepers. So let's say pretty close to 20 pounds in one trap. That's very unusual.
How often does that happen?
That's only happened once. That's only happened once. I say you know in the best of times for me, if I am averaging three pounds per trap, that's very good.
What's the biggest lobster you ever caught?
The biggest lobster I ever caught, of course we throw the big lobsters back. Legally we have to, you know 20 pounds. I spent three winters fishing offshore with a much bigger boat and the lobster sometimes are much bigger offshore. So, I've caught some real large lobsters.
And what's the worst day you've had or do you have many days where you get absolutely no lobster at all?
Well, I've never had a day where I've not caught a single lobster, but I do remember the very first time I hauled traps in my lobstering career. Just moved home, couldn't wait to go, got a bunch of gear in the water and hauled for 17 lobsters. At the end of the day we had 17 lobsters. It was not a good day.
What's a gear war?
A gear war is what happens, it's something that escalates. It starts off as something so simple as a newcomer comes to an area. Lobstering is very territorial. If somebody comes who is not welcome in an area and it starts with basically cutting a few of maybe his buoys off so he knows that's a warning to move his gear out of the area. If he retaliates and doesn't know who to cut, he just cuts anybody, then those people who get cut don't know who did it and they retaliate and cut anybody and before you know it, everyone is cutting gear. It's very expensive.
Have you ever been through one?
I've not been through a very serious gear war. I have lost gear that I suspect has been cut away and I'd be lying to say I never cut anybody else's gear away. It's never escalated to a point of what you'd consider a war.
Is this the kind of thing that lobstermen don't like to admit?
Well, it's illegal so, of course, nobody wants to admit to cutting someone else's gear. There are a lot of people saying I lost gear and somebody cut me, but you never hear anybody saying I cut that guy out of the water.
You have 400 traps and you have 200 buoys, is that right?
Yes, that's correct.
Two traps per buoy. What color on the buoy do you have and who determines what the color is?
Each fisherman has their own colored buoy just so they can distinguish their own gear from somebody else's. The fisherman picks the color, the buoy color him or herself. When you apply for your license with the State of Maine, part of the application is what color, what's your buoy pattern? So mine is orange, yellow and white.
How much of the co-op, how many fishermen in your area belong to the co-op that you have on the island?
On the island there are about a dozen fishermen who are sort of full time lobster fishermen who belong to the co-op.
And how much of what they do is controlled by the state law?
As far as fishing?
Yes, just about the way they operate. I know you say that I mean the way the co-op works that the bonus that you get it usually comes out around tax time or after tax time. I mean tell us about the bonus and how that works.
Right. Well, the bonus that we get is a result of pounding lobsters or when we catch lobsters in September and the price is very low, we have a real natural pound it's called. It's a salt water area where you can put lobsters to store while the price is low and then take them back out in the winter, let's say February or March when the prices is back up, when it's back up high, and the extra money or the profit is divvied up among fishermen as the bonus.
And at a given time in a normal year, how big a bonus is there?
Anywhere since I've been back to the island, we've had anywhere from a 50-cent per pound bonus to a 75-cent per pound bonus, and it's a bonus not on what you put into the lobster pound yourself but it's a bonus on what you have sold to the co-op all season. So if you catch 10,000 pounds for the season, you're paid on your 10,000 pounds. If it's 50 cents, you get $5,000.
And when does that check usually come to you?
It usually comes right in April, right at tax time so it's a real good time to be getting some money because most fishermen have been all winter making nothing. You have Uncle Sam to deal with and it's a time of year when you need to spend some money to revamp your gear. You know you need to buy paint for the boat and paint for the buoys and maybe need to buy some new traps and some new line and other things that you need for the new season.
In your book you say "I have been accused all my life of keeping too much inside." And when I read that, I thought for someone who's been accused of that, you spent a lot of time talking about yourself in these books. Has that been hard?
Yes. "The Lobster Chronicles" was such a difficult book to write because it is so personal, really difficult to write about yourself and really difficult to write about relationships with family and community and so difficult to articulate this very deep and profound love of place. It was a real tough book to write.
OK, what about yourself? You tell us in there that you want to be married. You want to have children.
Right, I do, and you know people are sometimes a little surprised. They'll say I can't believe you're so candid about your personal life and your desires to get married and have children. I think well, you know, it's not something I'm ashamed of. I'm not, you know, ashamed to say yes, you know, I'd like to have a very traditional family.
So how are you going to do this if you're on the island all the time and there's only - you haven't got much choice there? I mean has it helped being on this book tour?
Well, the book tour has been interesting because, you know, I get a few cards from people or generally if I go into a bookstore to do a signing, one of the women who works in the store will say oh, you know, I've got a guy to introduce you to. But, you know, it's not really, you don't really get a chance to meet anybody on book tour for more than five minutes because it's you know you're here and then you're gone to the next place. So, that's not the best way to meet somebody I don't think.
So, what's next after this book? Is your life going to change again, two successful, best-selling books?
I've signed a contract to write a third book, so I know what my immediate future will be. When I'm done -
What's it about?
When I'm done with my book tour, I'm going home to finish the lobster season. When the lobster season is over, I'm going to start writing a third book. I would like to write a novel.
Well, I don't have a plot but whatever I write, all I know about is fishing and boats and islands, so I have a setting and that's about it.
Why a novel?
I am so sick of writing in the first person. I am so sick of Linda Greenlaw. I think it might be refreshing to not have to really feel compelled to stick to the truth and wonder how people are going to feel about what you're saying about them. I think it might be a relief to maybe let my imagination play a bigger role in my writing.
How did it work after your first book came out? And by the way, can folks still buy it? Is it still in the stores?
Yes. Yes, it is. It's available in paperback.
And it's called?
"The Hungry Ocean."
And then, how did this second book come about? How did it work with your agent? How did it work with the book publisher?
Right. Well, because the first book did well, I was approached by the same publishers, Hyperion, to write a second book and I said yes, you know, I'd like to write a novel and they said no. We would like for you to write another non-fiction, so they gave me a two book deal, which was "The Lobster Chronicles" first and third book hopefully to be something of my choice.
This is private but are you going to make a lot of money off this book?
Well, you know, my pipe dream is to make enough money through my books that I can fish just because I want to and not because I have to pay bills. Certainly the books have been successful. I hope to make a lot of money with them.
How many of these are out there in circulation right now, your books?
Well, I think the last report I heard was that we were up to 185,000 in print. How many are circulating, I don't know.
And the time table on your next book, when do you have to have that done?
Well, I started this tour in New York one month ago, and I signed a contract to extend my deadline, so apparently I've already missed a deadline and haven't even written one word yet. It took me longer to write "The Lobster Chronicles" than anybody anticipated, so I'd like to think that I can get a major portion of that done this winter.
How did you write it? Where did you write it?
I write longhand in a notebook and make all my corrections on the paper, you know, arrows and things crossed out and pages stuck in. And when I get a section or a chapter to a point where I think I am not going to be able to make it any better, I take the time to type it in to the computer. I'm very slow typing.
That's the last edit that I do of something before I send it to my editor. Send it to the editor and within two or three days I get a call from him saying this is good, that's not, more of this, less of that, keep going. Don't go back and rewrite just keep going, and I basically got through both of my books with that process.
So where did you write it?
I wrote "The Lobster Chronicles," I wrote most of it on Isle au Haut. I wrote a little bit in Portland, Maine, had an apartment in Portland for a while and wrote a little bit there.
By the way, you're saying Isle au Haut and for those that have never seen this, it's I-S-L-E, and then a new word, A-U, and then a new word H-A-U-T.
How do you get from what looks like anything but Isle au Haut to Isle au Haut?
And what does it mean?
It means "high island." It's French, island of height, which is a very mountainous island. It's the first island that you see from offshore because it is so high. Many people pronounce it Isle au Haut and I've heard so many different pronunciations. The year-round local population says Isle au Haut.
So what's it like living on an island?
I like it but it's not for everyone. It's a tough existence. I think there are a lot of analogies that can be drawn between islanders and fishermen. You need to be self sufficient, self reliant. You need to not have a problem spending a lot of time alone.
And do you have any time ever being alone?
I enjoy my time alone. I also learned through trying to write on the island my first winter, thinking oh this will be great no distraction, you know I'll just write, write, write, write, write. I'll get this whole book done. I've learned that you do need some stimulation from the outside. You do need communication with people, or I do anyway.
When you live on the island, what about simple things like newspapers? Do you get any? Do you watch television? Can you hear radio from where you are?
We can hear radio. We have no local newspaper. There's no newspaper delivery service to the island. Some people now have satellite dishes so they're able to see television, you know, whenever they want and see whatever they want. Most people have computers and there are phone lines so you can have Internet access.
I think the things that are tough aren't - we have the technological advances. The things that are tough are, you know, there are no service people on the island, so if you need a plumber or an electrician, you know you're on your own, or try and get one from the mainland to come out. It's tough.
So your boat is how long again? How big is it?
Oh my lobster boat is 35 feet long.
Duffy & Duffy is the manufacturer of the boat, and the name of the boat is The Mattie Belle named after my grandmother.
And your grandmother on which side and what was her full name?
Yes, my dad's mother who is Mattie Belle Robinson.
And there is a Robinson name on the island, isn't there somewhere?
Yes, there is. There's a Robinson's Point, which is where the lighthouse is.
So when you go out fishing, do you have a cell phone now?
I do not. I'm a dinosaur. I'm like one of the only people probably on the planet who does not own a cell phone but I have a VHF radio.
And can you talk to ground? Can you talk to your mother or whatever?
I can. We have a handheld VHF at home that if my mother needs to get in touch with my dad and/or I, she can call us on the radio.
So how long do you think your father will continue being your sternman?
Well, I hope a long time. I really do enjoy working with my dad. He's 72 now but he's in great shape. He loves working every day. He can work me under the table, so I'm sure he'll be going strong for some time.
And when did he retire from his other job at Bath Iron Works?
Yes, at the age of 65 he retired, normal retirement job.
The book is "The Lobster Chronicles." Our guest is Linda Greenlaw and the book looks like this. This picture on the cover was taken where?
That was taken aboard my boat right in front of the lighthouse fishing off Isle au Haut.
Thank you very much for joining us.