Thursday book: Here comes the perfect swordfish

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The Independent Culture
YOU CAN forget The Perfect Storm. Now for the perfect swordfish. "It was by far the largest swordfish l had ever seen; I anxiously waited for the gaffs to be driven deeper into its massive head. My blood surged with excitement and I was intoxicated with the size of the fish now within our reach." Just another day in the life of Linda Greenlaw, who is not only a swordfish captain, but one of the best fishermen (she loathes the term "fisherwoman") on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland.

If it hadn't been for the sideways fame she won for being the one who got away from the Hallowe'en gale of 1991, when her sister ship the Andrea Gail and its six-man crew were fatally trapped in the eye of the storm, we would not even know Greenlaw's name. But intense public interest after the success of Sebastian Junger's book persuaded her to write her own story. Not of that once-in-a-lifetime hurricane, but of an ordinarily successful, month-long fishing trip.

There is, in truth, no need for either extraordinary fish or extraordinary weather. What Greenlaw regards as normal life is astonishing enough. This is a woman who regularly wrestles with swordfish and sharks ("I tugged a shark over the rail and threw it on to the deck body-slam fashion"). She rules her crew of five men with tough love. When she hauls a drunken crewman out of the icy water by his hair, she "gave one big heave and he flopped like a dead fish on the fibreglass deck". When the man on watch fails asleep, she averts disaster herself, then punches him on the jaw. That she is none the less popular and respected is nicely reflected in the way that, for all her bronzed, blonde good looks, the crew all call this redoubtable 37-year-old "Ma".

Greenlaw got hooked early on (sorry) on one of the world's toughest ways of making a living. She was only 12 when she went for a holiday at her grandfather's house on the coast of Maine, and saw a boy "not much bigger than myself" working with a lobster fisherman. That day she decided that she wanted to be a fisherman, and never faltered in her resolve.

Fishing paid her way through college. Then she started work in earnest on the Grand Banks, first as a cook; she was promoted to deckhand when a crewman was injured and she showed that she could cope. By the time she was 23 she was captain of the Gloria Dawn; 12 years later, she commanded the 100-ft-long Hannah Boden, the best-equipped boat in the Grand Banks fleet.

The Hungry Ocean is a calm, unhectic book in comparison with The Perfect Storm, written with a direct honesty and low-key modesty. But the course of the trip she describes, and a punctuation of anecdotes of other trips, make it clear that Greenlaw is a shrewd fishing tactician who excels at reaching lucrative shoals of fish that other boats fail to locate. Supportive to those in need, she is also a ruthless adversary. When she feels a shade guilty about misrepresenting (on the captains' evening radio round-up) how many fish she is catching, in order to keep other boats off her patch, she explains that "I lied for the sake of the livelihoods of my crew, my boss and myself, but mostly I lied because I had worked long and hard to be the best, and it felt good to be number one. Getting to the top of the heap was a painful journey, and I planned to stay there."

As captain, she has to soothe frictions between members of the crew, and make the unpopular decision not to scuttle home when gales threaten or fishing seems fruitless. Nor is getting home much fun. Imagine returning from a 30-day trip with a record- breaking load of 527 swordfish, 118 big-eye tuna and seven mako sharks, to be told by your intractable boss that you have just three days to turn the boat around and get out there again.

She is nonchalant about being the only woman in one of the ultimate men's worlds. "I never anticipated any problems stemming from being female, and never encountered any... I may be thick-skinned - or just too damn busy working to worry about what others may think of me."

So where's the love interest? Greenlaw is oddly resigned to the fact that there is no room for Cupid in the hold of a sword-boat. In truth, it's hard to imagine who could compete with "a streamlined and muscular missile with a bayonet - strong, swift and agile". All she seems to see of her home on Isle au Haut, Maine, is a promise in the distance; only occasional ship-to-shore calls connect her with her family and friends. There's a story there, but she doesn't tell it, and in fact I rather liked the elbow room this reticence gives to surmise.