My plan had been to write about fishing families who pass their skill and knowledge down through the generations. I had arranged to haul with Josh Miller, son and grandson of lobstermen and just slightly my junior. His third man was sick and I was filling in. Within minutes of arriving and meeting Josh’s sternman, Emily, I knew I wanted to write a different piece: sterngirls.
When I warned Emily that I was not very experienced, her response was reassuring and warm,
“That’s okay. I’m grateful for the help. It’s just been me and Josh for the past week.”
As we left the dock, she waved to two girls aboard another boat and confided, “Now there are more girls who go hauling. It was just me for the longest time. I love it. We sisters need to stick together.”
Heading out of the harbor, she set me up baiting bags. “I usually sleep on the way out, but you seem nice so I’m going to help you.” I wasn’t sure what I’d done to deserve the compliment or the help, but I gladly accepted it. Emily stood at least a head taller than me, and while I struggled to lift the trays of bait, she did it with astonishing ease. As we filled the bait bags, I peppered her with questions – where was she from, how long had she been hauling with Josh, how old was she. I learned she was 25 and hailed from a fishing family out of Spruce Head. Her older brother was a lobsterman and she had come up fishing with her father and for a time, her brother.
As the sun came up, we began hauling triples. Emily broke the traps, hoisting them up over the side with ease, opening them and picking the lobsters while I took the old bait bag out and put the new one in, dragging the trap down the rail to make room for the second and third trap as they came up over the side. She talked me through how to set the third trap, which I‘d never done before. Her enthusiasm and energy never seemed to wane: she was in constant motion – breaking traps, picking lobsters, banding, bantering with Josh, hosing down the deck when there was a lull. She kept all her gear in a covered crate in the stern of the boat, reaching in occasionally to get something to eat. Josh’s boat had a hot tank, a large drum filled with water and a metal coil which kept the water hot. We used it to dunk our hands in to warm them, and it was also used to scrub growth off of buoys. Inventively, Emily also used the hot tank to warm a can of pasta – she put the can in the bait bag and put the bait bag in the hot tank. “Works perfectly” she told me. “Twenty minutes in there and it’s just the right temperature”.
Over the years, there’s been an increase in female lobstermen, but only 4 percent of Maine’s 5,600 commercial lobster licenses are held by women. This statistic, however, doesn’t reflect women who go as sternmen. Anecdotally, it seems more and more women are entering the ranks as sternmen, but they are clearly a minority. Still, when I talked to one lobsterman who had a female sternman, he said he found her, “More reliable and hard working.” I had already seen this with Emily, who confided at the end of the day that she liked to outwork the men.
Several weeks later, I went hauling with Danny Miller, who has two sterngirls – the two Emily had waved to at the dock. When one was sick, Danny took me along as his third. I was working under Mallory, just 19, petite and quiet, who had earned the “hard working” reputation several times over. Danny had told me that when she finished hauling, she went up and cleaned the Knox County Courthouse, and then, more often than not, babysat for her nieces and nephews. “When do you sleep?” I asked. “On days we don’t haul,” she told me. Up at 4 to haul, straight to the courthouse after hauling and then babysitting, often until midnight. Despite this, she was gracious with my failings, her instructions steady and quiet.
I had spent plenty of time on boats with other women. Years back, before I was married and had kids, I sailed around the world on an all women’s team in the Volvo Ocean Challenge. My crewmates were tough as nails: we saw plenty of weather, bitterly cold temperatures in the Southern Ocean, a sheared rudder we had to repair halfway across the Atlantic. The day I hauled with Mallory was one of the coldest of the season with a stiff northerly breeze kicking up. That day, working alongside Mallory, hoods up and weighted down with layers of wet-weather gear that made conversation impossible, I was reminded of the girls I had sailed around the world with. Like Mallory and Emily, they got down to business, proved themselves again and again and never complained.
When we hit the dock, the November sun was already sliding behind the trees and both Danny and I would be going home. But Mallory was about to begin her second stint, heading for the courthouse and then a few hours sleep before returning to the dock the next day to start all over again.