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Fishing For Progress: Saying No To 'No Women On Board'

The author, bay scalloping in East Hampton in October, 1982. (Author/Courtesy, Francis Lester)
The author, bay scalloping in East Hampton in October, 1982. (Author/Courtesy, Francis Lester)
This article is more than 3 years old.

In 1982, as supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment fought claims that the proposed amendment to the Constitution would destroy the American family, I confronted an older mythology: Women are bad luck on boats.

I was a young maritime reporter for The East Hampton Star on Eastern Long Island. I loved boats and the sea, and I’d always loved adventure. That summer, I planned to join local fishermen aboard a state-of-the-art Japanese squid ship. This was several years after the United States enacted its 200-mile limit, but before American fishermen had fully developed a squid fishery of their own. In exchange for sharing their technical know-how, the Japanese would be permitted to catch squid in our waters.

I’d spent the previous five years in gurry-soaked oil skins reporting on life at sea on American draggers, lobster boats, bay scallopers, gillnetters, long-liners and clamming rigs.

I was game.

But as I was readying my boots and gear, I received an unexpected warning from the American sponsors of the U.S.-Japan venture: no women on board.

Surely, something must be wrong: I’d spent the previous five years in gurry-soaked oil skins reporting on life at sea on American draggers, lobster boats, bay scallopers, gillnetters, long-liners and clamming rigs. I’d photographed the sun rising over the stern of a dragger hauling its catch of yellowtail and blackback flounders, cod, haddock and scup. I’d spent bone-chilling winter days in an open skiff, culling bay scallops -­separating the delicate fan-shaped bivalves from whelks, rocks and seaweed. I’d danced on the boat, not for joy, but to keep warm.

On summer evenings, I’d helped my neighbor lift his gillnets, gingerly plucking out sharp-toothed bluefish and the occasional striper. And I’d finally succeeded in filleting a flounder without mangling the fragile flesh.

It took time to develop the trust of local fishermen­ — and especially that of their wives, who did not know what to make of me or my passion for documenting a life that was so different from my own. Back then, the only women I knew who fished did so accompanied by their husbands or boyfriends. Slowly, however, as fishing families saw that I was serious about representing their concerns, I was welcomed onto the boats.

Now, I had to prove myself all over again.

The author, left, aboard the Kiyo Maru in June, 1982. Right, in the wheelhouse: from left, Kazuumi Ogawa, the Kiyo Maru’s fishing master; Hiromichi Konno, second in command; and Captain Bill Tully, a lobsterman. (Author/Courtesy, East Hampton Star)
The author, left, aboard the Kiyo Maru in June, 1982. Right, in the wheelhouse: from left, Kazuumi Ogawa, the Kiyo Maru’s fishing master; Hiromichi Konno, second in command; and Captain Bill Tully, a lobsterman. (Author/Courtesy, East Hampton Star)

The no women on boats announcement blindsided both me and my editor, a woman. She immediately wrote our congressman to seek his intervention, to no avail.

I telephoned the project’s American co-sponsor, who had praised my carefully reported stories. He heard me out, then solemnly declared that Japanese culture was different from our own. He appealed to me to accept that no meant no. He seemed convinced of his Japanese partners' belief that women are bad luck on boats. The kicker: He told me that if I protested, I would scuttle the whole venture.

His words stopped me in my tracks. Was he saying that if I spoke up for my right to participate, the fishing community I had fought for would be deprived this significant project?

I was ready to back down when I opened a competitor's newspaper and spotted a piece written from aboard the Japanese ship by its outdoors columnist, a man. I liked the writer, but he was no friend of the commercial fishermen. In the perennial battles between sport and commercial fishermen, he often sided with the sports.

I was livid.

The next morning, I drove down to the docks. The sleek white Japanese ship with its automated jigging machines was anchored offshore. I was prepared to do battle. I asked to speak to the ship’s owner. He emerged from the dock’s office and stood quietly. He spoke little English and I no Japanese. I handed him a folder of my articles and spoke as clearly as I could, “I am a journalist. I want to take photographs and write a story.”

To my surprise, he nodded, paused and returned to the office. It turns out he was calling the translator in New York City. She arranged for me to board the Kiyo Maru the following evening. Had local fisherman put in a word for me? Had the venture’s sponsoring American organizers incorrectly assumed how the Japanese might respond to a woman? I’ll never know.

The Kiyo Maru caught more squid that trip than on any other during its east coast collaboration with the U.S. that spring. So much for superstitions.

But the captain and crew were most gracious. During the steam out to the deep-water fishing grounds, we guests —  two local lobstermen and I —  joined the captain for a meal of miso soup, squid sashimi with soy sauce and wasabi, rice, tea and pickled plums. That night, between the deck lights and the strings of high-powered lamps designed to attract squid, the sea was lit up like an offshore city as the inky cephalopods were pulled from the dark waters. The Kiyo Maru caught more squid that trip than on any other during its east coast collaboration with the U.S. that spring. So much for superstitions.

The following week, after a more than half-century-long fight, the ERA was defeated. The East Hampton Star ran an editorial about my “relatively small” but “timely and telling” victory, while anticipating the long battle still ahead for women and equal rights.

Related:

Susan Pollack Cognoscenti contributor
Susan Pollack is an award-winning journalist and author of the "Gloucester Fishermen's Wives Cookbook: Stories and Recipes."

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