Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Hungry Ocean Will Consume You

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

If you've read The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger or seen the movie based on it, you should recognize the name Linda Greenlaw. As captain of the Andrea Gail's sister ship, Hannah Boden, she was one of the last people to communicate with the doomed boat's crew. She's also the woman Junger labeled "the best captain, period, on the East Coast." Junger's praise stirred up interest in Greenlaw and her career as the only female swordboat captain in the world. When a publisher approached her for her story, Greenlaw responded by writing The Hungry Ocean.

Since people seem most interested in the day-to-day details of life aboard the Hannah Boden, Greenlaw's book describes "a real, and typical, swordfishing trip, from leaving the dock to returning" (xii). The story begins early in the morning on August 30 (not sure what year) in Gloucester, Massachusetts. When it opens, Greenlaw is breakfasting with her boss, mentally reviewing her checklist for her upcoming fishing trip. Having just brought in the most fish in her career - 56, 000 lbs. - she is eager for a repeat performance, but nervous that something has been forgotten. Will 12, 000 lbs. of bait, $3, 500 worth of groceries, and 20, 000 gallons of diesel fuel be enough to sustain her and her 5-man crew for a voyage that could last upwards of 30 days? What happens if she reaches the Grand Banks, 1, 000 miles from shore, only to discover she's forgotten something critical?

Despite her nerves, Greenlaw and her crew depart as planned, plowing northeast toward the fertile water beyond Grand Banks. As they steam, she describes the men she will be living with for the next month, the intense preparations they all make, and her own relationship with the ocean. Just when tensions are mounting on the boat, the Hannah Boden reaches her destination and the 6 fishermen spring into action. Working day and night, they jockey for choice fishing positions, battle sharks, fight personal battles, and toil to fill the ship's hold with enough fish to ensure a paycheck, however slim.

Greenlaw's writing is as matter-of-fact as I assume her to be. She describes every step of the fishing trip in detail, sometimes too much detail. I admit my eyes glazed over during some of her more technical explanations. Occasionally, she drifts into more poetic territory (especially when describing scenery), but The Hungry Ocean is mostly a frank look at an ordinary swordfishing trip with all its innate drama.

Now, I admit, that doesn't sound too exciting to those of us whose closest interactions with marine life consist of shaking frozen fish sticks out of a Gorton's box. Luckily for us, the real beauty of this book lies not with the animals, but with the humans who hunt them. Greenlaw offers vignettes about fishing life, from superstitions to pranks pulled on newbies to her own tale of "the one that got away." She also shows her crew in all their guts and glory - hardworking, hard-living men with their own faults and prejudices. Although she offers less details about her own life, Greenlaw touches on what it means to be a woman in a male-dominated industry. She insists:

Being a woman hasn't been a big deal. I never anticipated problems stemming from being female, and never encountered any. I have been surprised, even embarrassed, by the number of people who are genuinely amazed that a woman might be capable of running a fishing boat. Frankly, I'm amazed that they're amazed. People, women in particular, are generally disappointed when they learn that I have not suffered unduly from being the only woman in what they perceive to be a man's world. I might be thick-skinned - or just too damn busy working to worry about what others might think of me. (58)

While there are many fascinating aspects to The Hungry Ocean, the thing that really stands out is Linda Greenlaw's obvious passion for her work. Her love for the sea and its inhabitants imbue her story with authenticity and heart. She has known the ocean intimately and speaks of its duality with authority:

I have taken life and living from the sea, and have given the same back, I suppose. The complex and all-consuming ocean feeds man, but also feeds upon men. The flat calm that gently digests my troubles is capable of violent turbulence of enough gluttony to chew up and spit out vessels of the strongest steel, often swallowing men and ships whole. The ocean which gives so much takes back what it needs, commanding respect and getting it from those who have seen and understand the hunger. (253)

Greenlaw is at her best when contemplating her greatest enemy and fondest love - The Hungry Ocean. Her account will consume you as well.

Grade: B+

1 comment:

  1. I read this book a few years back with my book group and the only thing stopping me from giving it a higher rating was the baudy language throughout the book. In most books I can get lost in the story or use substitute words and most of the time it doesn't really phase me, but for some reason it really got to me in this book. Was it because she was a woman?? Did I hold her to a higher standard? I did enjoy learning about something so foreign to me though and found her a fairly entertaining author. Do you have certain tolerance levels too?

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