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Fishing for tall tales
Categories: Books, Utrinque Paratus

‘Liars’ hauls in catch of laughs, lessons from the sea

By Leigh E. Rich

All Fishermen Are Liars: True Tales from the Dry Dock Bar
By Linda Greenlaw
Hyperion Books
July 2004
240 pages

All fisherman are liars—but for good reason. At least that’s the moral of the sea story Linda Greenlaw weaves in her third nonfiction book so aptly named.

Though not yet a household name, particularly in these land-locked parts, the light bulb will go on for many when Greenlaw is introduced as “that female captain” portrayed in Sebastian Junger’s book and Wolfgang Petersen’s film, The Perfect Storm.

And if it seems as though Greenlaw was the only female in the depiction of how the Andrea Gail and her crew were lost in the “perfect storm” of 1991, there’s good reason: She is one of the few female commercial fishermen and perhaps the only female ever to captain a swordfishing boat.

At the time, Greenlaw was captain of the Hannah Boden, a lobster boat and sister ship to the doomed Andrea Gail. But thanks to book and film, and Greenlaw’s quarter-century of life at sea, there’s no need to recount the 1991 storm off the coast of Massachusetts in All Fishermen Are Liars, a collection of sea stories heard during one long afternoon of drinking in the Dry Dock Restaurant and Tavern in Portland, Maine.

Some stories are Greenlaw’s own (though she notes that she’s “sick to death of Linda Greenlaw” and eventually would like to venture into fiction); some are only retold by Greenlaw. But with each chapter, the tales grow wilder, the one-that-got-away bigger and the love of the sea deeper. The book picks up speed and increases in saltiness with each turn of the tiller.

Greenlaw begins with her own experience in March 1993, when she nearly lost the Hannah Boden and several hundred lobster traps. Caught up in re-reading A Confederacy of Dunces, she confesses to mentally tuning out radio transmissions warning ships of the impending storm.

The chapter suffers only because no storm can compare to the harrowing swells of The Perfect Storm. And even Greenlaw admits that there is “only so much one can say about a miserable storm at sea, only so many adjectives, so many analogies.”

But Greenlaw’s writing is appealing, her style easy and pleasant. “I pulled the throttle back,” she writes. “The bow fell sharply and the boat followed in a dive. Every loose thing in the wheelhouse was now hanging in midair. Parallel rulers, dividers, and binoculars defied gravity. As the dive slowed slightly, the suspended articles caught up with the hull and landed like hailstones around me.”

In true one-upmanship style, Greenlaw’s mentor and best friend, Alden Leeman, is quick to rebuff his junior partner.

“Oh, big deal,” the crotchety, 70-year-old Alden says. “Twelve hours? Try that routine for three days. The Hannah Boden is an ocean liner compared to what I used to put to sea in. You’ve been spoiled. Why, I remember a time when …”

And so it goes, from lunchtime conversation between Greenlaw and Alden to evening drinking as other fishermen in the Dry Dock join in.

For example, there’s the story of David Marks, former captain of the Misty Dawn, “a 65-foot fiberglass longliner” that didn’t survive Hurricane Marilyn in 1995. While fishing in the Caribbean—”a dream come true” for Marks, Greenlaw writes—Marks and his crew encountered a category five cyclone, boasting winds between 180 and 220 knots.

After abandoning the Misty Dawn, Marks ended up swimming for two days in his boxer shorts, forced to watch crestfallen as two helicopters and one rescue plane were unable to spot him. Passing two tiger sharks—the least of his worries—he found land and, while preparing for another several days of swimming to the next island, was located by a search and rescue team.

Or there’s the time Greenlaw met the infamous Harry Ross, a commercial captain who was on the lam for smuggling marijuana and who had disappeared from the radar in 1979—the same year Greenlaw began her career. “By 1986, seven years after his vanishing,” when Greenlaw met him, “Harry was just another sea story.”

Interspersed between every story, Greenlaw provides several “bar snacks,” consisting of small vignettes, insider information, short short stories and top-10 lists.

To wit: There are many frequently used excuses fishermen invoke after a day of catching no fish (such as “the bait was rotten” or “too many sharks”), but only one never used: “I’m a lousy fisherman.”

There’s also a top-10 list of lies (“If I knew where we were, I’d tell you”); a feminist’s worst nightmare about hiring crew members; explanations of sea slang such as “carrying three red lights” and “bleeding the monkey” (not surprisingly, both references to drinking); and many amusing others.

But mainly All Fishermen Are Liars offers insight into Greenlaw’s “incidental education”—her many life lessons learned from Alden and others and from her various adventures at sea. Disguised as stories about “fishing, gear, seamanship, navigation, boats, rigging,” Greenlaw’s lessons are never preachy and rarely render her infallible. In fact, her self-effacing honesty, if you can believe a fisherman, is endearing, amusing, excruciating and awe-inspiring.

And Greenlaw is nothing if not all fisherman: “I have lived like a nomad, swear like a pirate, my income has been sporadic at best, and I can look my best friend square in the eye and unflinchingly lie, sandbagging or exaggerating the day’s catch.”

Lying is entertainment, writes Greenlaw, as “one should never let the facts stand in the way of a good story.” Each of the book’s barroom tales, mixed with excessive drinking and the puffing of egos, conveys the feel of the wind, the sting of the salt air, and the acrid smell of fish guts and diesel fumes to all those eavesdroppers willing to lean a littler closer in.

In addition, she emphasizes, lying can be a necessity. “Most of us have learned the hard way not to share valuable information. … In this, and other ways, I am sure, the fishing industry resembles corporate America. … So much of life’s interactions, personal and professional, are a balance of said, unsaid, implied, denied.”

As Alden reminds her, “All fishermen are liars. I’ll drink to that … But not all liars are fishermen.”

Rich, L. E. (2004, July 9). Fishing for tall tales: ‘Liars’ hauls in catch of laughs, lessons from the sea. [Review of the book All Fishermen Are Liars by Linda Greenlaw.] Rocky Mountain News.

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