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Jailtime ‘humbling': swordboat captain

In fall 2008 when Linda Greenlaw got the call to captain a swordfishing vessel from Cape Cod, Mass., to Newfoundland's Grand Banks, she considered it a "now or never" moment.

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Greenlaw, America's only female swordfish captain, sat down with Soundings to discuss her latest book, "Seaworthy: A Swordboat Captain Returns to the Sea" ($25.95, Viking, 2010), which details her voyage on the 67-foot fishing vessel Seahawk and her well-publicized run-in with Canadian authorities that included jail time.

Greenlaw gained fame as one of the commercial swordfishing captains featured in Sebastian Junger's book "The Perfect Storm" and the 2000 film of the same name. Since then, she has written several books and been featured on the Discovery Channel. Petite and tanned with an easy smile, Greenlaw has a laid-back personality - not surprising since she spends her time on the water constantly dealing with the unexpected.
"Friends and pretty much anyone who has met me or heard me speak ... say they read the book in my voice and that's kinda neat," says Greenlaw, 49. "I guess I write the same way I talk."
The trip, which took place between Sept. 11 and Nov. 5, 2008, marked Greenlaw's return to sword-boat captaining after 10 years.
She was lobstering near her home in Isle au Haut, Maine, when she got the call from an old friend to take on the job. She couldn't resist the opportunity to rediscover herself and make some extra money.
"Going back to swordfishing was a combination of exciting and terrifying," says Greenlaw. "The terrifying part wasn't that I was afraid of weather ... it was mostly that I had wrapped my lifetime identity around being a sword-boat captain and in the 10 years I was out if it I talked about how much I missed it and wanted to go back ... but the time was never right. The more time marched on, I thought, ‘I might never do this. So what am I?' "
Greenlaw says the hardest part of the trip was keeping her four crewmembers upbeat when things on the steel Western rig longline vessel Seahawk kept breaking. Less than 48 hours into the trip, the main engine blew and the ship had to be towed into Nova Scotia for repairs.
"Then there was the hydraulic steering, so I couldn't steer the ship, which was a big problem," says Greenlaw. "We had electrical problems, watermaker problems ... you name it, we had it."
And then, of course, there was the jail time in Canada.
"We'd been buzzed by this Canadian plane a few times and couldn't imagine what the problem was. So I went up into the wheelhouse and looked at the chart plotter," says Greenlaw. "Clearly, I was on the wrong side of the line. I felt sick to my stomach, like I was going to throw up. I knew I was in big trouble."
Greenlaw uses pelagic longlines, which are set near the surface of the water. Baited hooks are attached to the longline by shortlines and set to drift on the surface of the ocean with a radio beacon attached so the vessel can track them to haul in the catch. Greenlaw believes that sometime during the night an unknown ship must have crossed her longline and dragged it into Canadian waters before it was cut, unbeknownst to her, causing her to follow the line the next morning and leading her across the border.
Greenlaw was arrested Sept. 23, 2008 (her crew was not) and she was charged with illegal entry and illegal fishing in Canadian waters.
"The judge didn't question whether it was unintentional or not," says Greenlaw. "I was four miles on the other side of the line ... no one has ever been acquitted for those charges in Canada and I was not to be the first."
Greenlaw says the experience was humbling and embarrassing.
"I wasn't mad, I was sad," says Greenlaw.
The hardest part about writing about the experience was getting the characters right and staying true to the story, Greenlaw says, but at the same time it gave her closure on the whole experience.
"I would have no credibility at all with my audience if I told them I loved everyone every second of the trip, but I did worry I would hurt people's feelings," says Greenlaw. "I hope my crew does read the book and be thick-skinned about some things that are said because it's honest. I also hope by the end of the book they realize I really liked these guys."
Greenlaw says the fame that has come from "The Perfect Storm" has been very helpful because it allows her to show people what commercial fishing is like on a day-to-day basis.
Greenlaw was slated to be back fishing Aug. 1 on the Grand Banks in Hannah Boden, which she captained in 1991 and was sister ship to the Andrea Gail, the boat that disappeared in "The Perfect Storm." She also has plans to write a sequel to her 2002 non-fiction book, "The Lobster Chronicles."
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This article originally appeared in the New England Home Waters section of the August 2010 issue.