ERIN FRISTAD survived fifteen years as a deckhand on a wide array of vessels and adventures. She chased herring near Togiak; crab off the Columbia River; salmon more places than she can remember; and for five years pursued fish in the name of science. Eventually, the tide brought her to Port Townsend, Washington where she continues to write, teach and work as Campus Director of Goddard College. Erin was a subject in the documentary film, FISHER POETS. Her poems have been published in anthologies and journals including: Rosebud, americas review, The Blue Collar Review, Hanging Loose, The Seattle Review and Working the Woods, Working the Sea: An Anthology of Northwest Writing. Her Poem, “Advice to Female Deckhands” was included on the Salmon Nation Artists Project CD. Erin is a regular performer at the Fisher Poet Gathering and is grateful for its community of generous and tenacious sea folk.
Erin Fristad performs "Survival Training," "First Responder," & "FInal Day..." Video courtesy of Brad Wartman, 2013.
The smoke brought a crab boat to our rescue: black steel,
cracks in the storm windows, just back from winter
in the Bering Sea. Unshaven men stood at the rail
peering down at us, one of their heavy tie up lines
landed on our deck, a fire extinguisher stood ready.
Shouts were exchanged. No flames reported.
Smiles formed in their beards. The engineer climbed
down to examine our problem. His thick oil-stained hands
moved with experience. He spit on deck after he talked,
wiped his nose with his sleeve. His advice sounded simple,
they towed us back to the harbor.
Side by side we traveled. I watched lines: taut, slack
taut as our little pleasure boat tried to keep up.
The unshaven men returned, took turns smoking cigarettes,
watching our progress. A woman appeared, dressed like the men
a black wool coat and knee-high rubber boots.
Her hair danced wild around her face. She winked,
gave me a gentle wave. I blushed, looked at my feet.
Before leaving us safe in the harbor, they accepted food
and drinks. They told us of their season, each person
adding details to the story: high winds, shallow waters,
icy decks, plentiful crab and a good price. Sometimes
the speaker would pause, look off over our heads, searching
for the words that could make us understand
living on the ocean, through the season of darkness,
on the rise and fall of thirty-foot waves. I surveyed the boat:
contents of the window sills, slow turn of the radar, dents
along the hull, orange and yellow raingear hanging
from the back of the house. The woman caught me staring,
motioned me closer, offered her hand from over the rail.
The voice on the phone says flatly,
“We’ve been forced to lay off some boats.”
A long pause implies he’s one of them.
His response equally flat. He fantasizes
calling them bastards, ranting about pathetic
marketing, price fixing, how unfair it feels
being forced out by huge steel boats that fish three
or four fisheries, with three or four hired
skippers. But the voice on the phone
is familiar, a man he met when
he was eighteen walking the docks
looking for his first fishing job.
This same man called to congratulate
him when he bought his own boat.
This is the man who arranged his cannery loan. Truth is
they’re both sorry, and that’s what they say,
and silence and they hang up.
What’s left of a fisherman laughs
at the words “laying off boats.”
“You’re laying off people you bastards”
finally escapes between a shout
and a whisper. A noise brings him back,
his four year old daughter pushes the door
open, she’s giggles, bounces, points.
She wants him to see their golden
retriever wearing a sweatshirt, struggling,
wagging his tail, trying to please her. Now he’s a father,
petting his dog, tickling his daughter, directing
them back out into the yard. What if I tell you
it’s not that bad for this man. What if his boat is paid for,
his wife is a teacher, they have health insurance,
they own their cars. A young couple from Seattle
has phoned twice, desperate to buy
a classic wood boat, turn the fish hold
into state rooms. What if I tell you
he has a teaching certificate
he’ll find work, maybe get his captain’s license
run a small tour boat in the summer. But I can’t let go
of the phone call, the one where he found out
the sale was final. I can’t forget that same afternoon
when he drove to the harbor, sat in his truck staring
at his new boat in the slip. He walked down the dock
alone, climbed on board. I can smell it, wet wood
diesel. There he is lighting the stove
warming his hands over the flame.
Advice to Female Deckhands
You will be the cook.
In addition to wheel watches, working
on deck, unloading fish, fueling up,
filling fresh water, mending nets,
grocery shopping whenever you come to town,
you also will prepare three meals a day
and two hearty snacks to go with coffee.
You must keep the kettle on the stove full
and the juice jug and two gallons of milk in the fridge.
You will learn to slice vegetables, prepare a marinade,
cook pasta and fillet a salmon
in twenty minute intervals
while the net is out. You will learn
to ignore the other crew members sitting
at the galley table reading. You must know
how to create a corral in rough weather,
so pots of soup don’t end up dripping
down the firewall behind the stove. You will need
bungee cords to keep the cast iron skillet from sliding.
These cords melt if they touch the stovetop.
Keep a squeeze container of Aloe Vera gel
under the galley sink for the burns
on your hands and forearms.
The stove will blow out on windy days
when you’re exhausted,
your skin stinging with jelly fish.
The crew will say they’re not hungry on these days
but when you slide behind the Cape, it will be flat
calm and all of you will be starving. Before relighting the stove
determine how much diesel has built up.
If it’s more than an inch deep,
turn off the fuel source
by flipping a breaker in the engine room.
You don’t have time for ear protection. Get down there
and back before someone hollers for you on deck.
Passing the engine, watch the straps on your raingear,
your ponytail, where you put your hands.
When cooking, remember all odors from the galley
drift directly into the wheelhouse. Fish sauce
smells like dirty tennis shoes. Once she smells this,
your skipper’s daughter will refuse to eat anything
she suspects has fish sauce. As a woman and cook
you will be expected to have a special bond with the skipper’s daughter
and you will. Have art supplies in a shoebox in the galley,
a drawing tablet under a cushion, collect starfish,
Decorator Crab and Spiny Lump Suckers in a deck bucket.
Teach her what you know can kill her. When she cries
put your arm around her, kiss her
on the top of the head and let her cry.
Allow her to use your cell phone to call friends
in exchange for making salads, pots of coffee,
washing lunch dishes, carrying groceries to the boat.
Develop sign language for communicating
when she stands in the galley door
peering out at you on deck.
This isn’t what I intended.
I set out to give you advice for taking care
of yourself, now it’s about taking care of a girl
you’re related to by circumstance.
This is exactly what will happen.
You’ll notice a hum
more penetrating than the engine.
I’m glad my poem makes your lip curl in disgust. You tell me you can’t get past the first line: You will be the cook. I’m glad that this is no longer true. I realize that it was never true for all women. We both know Moe: woman and skiff driver. Moe’s like finding a salmon that is both chum and humpy. I’ve watched the unloading crew marvel at one of these finned anomalies. Orange-gloved hands rolling it over and over looks of confusion at the water marks of a chum and the spots of a humpy. Then the crew boss arrives, the old timer, the 28-year-old, the guy with a gait like Stevie Ray Vaugh. He knows exactly what it is and declares: chumpy. He shrugs: “You see a couple a season. Toss it in with the chums. Freak like that is worth a little more; don’t you think?” He gives a smoker’s chuckle and continues down the dock like a rock star.
You see Kelley, the first time I approached a boat asking for a job it was assumed I would cook. In fact, the promise of cooking was the only thing that might get me on board. I wasn’t the wife, sister or daughter of the skipper. What was radical at the time is that I didn’t become the skipper’s girlfriend. And despite many generous offers, I never slept in his bunk nor took a shower with him. When I approached that first boat I stood as tall as possible and declared: “I heard that you’re looking for a cook.” Women weren’t even called deckhands. We were cooks, even though we piled gear, stood wheel watch, sorted fish, repaired nets and hauled five gallon pails of dirty oil up the dock. We were always called “the cook.” When you heard a boat was looking for a “cook” it was a sign that they might consider taking a woman on board. In Petersburg, Alaska, this was a rare. I’ve been told that Norwegians, and there are plenty Petersburg, believe that having a woman on board is bad luck. This seems odd to me since Norway elected their first woman Prime Minister in 1981, and Norway has one of the highest standards of living in the world, but of course the Norwegians who founded Petersburg had decidedly left Norway. When a Petersburg boat did hire a woman, it was often just a skipper who was mad at his wife or girlfriend. He knew that when she heard there was a woman on the boat all hell would break loose. He was looking for a fight and he got one. This resulted in an awkward conversation; you standing on the dock and he on his boat looking down at you. He’d tell you a lie about forgetting that he’d promised the job to his nephew. The crew would be standing behind him looking at their feet.
I was lucky that the first boat I approached was from points south of Petersburg. When I stood there looking up at the skipper, who was shortly joined by the engineer, it took all of 20 seconds for him to say “hired.” “That’s it?” I asked. He nodded. “But don’t you want to know anything about me?” He shook his head. “Don’t you want to know if I’m a psycho-killer?” He put his hands on his hips in a stance that suggested I was wasting his time: “Are you a psycho-killer?”
“No, are you?”
“No” and there was another long pause. “Are we settled then?”
“Good. The boat has accounts at both stores. You can have the grub delivered when we get ice. We’ll leave at midnight.”
“I’m a greenhorn.” I added
He finally cracked a smile: “Figured as much.”
The engineer, who hadn’t uttered a word, let out a long, loud “Sweeeet.” Pulled on his earmuffs and disappeared back into the engine room.
What I hadn’t confessed to in my “interview” was that I didn’t know how to cook and that I hadn’t eaten red meat or chicken for 10 years. Maybe I felt they deserved this for assuming all women cook. Or maybe I believed, as a woman, I had some dormant culinary skills that would miraculously bloom when I faced a stovetop. Or maybe I didn’t think cooking was that important.
When I proudly told my girlfriends in Petersburg about my new job they were suspicious: “He hired you on the spot? Are you sure? What will his wife say? I wouldn’t count on it.”
I later learned is that the skipper’s wife wanted to spend summers riding her horses in the North Cascades. As long as she didn’t have to be on board, she didn’t care if his crew consisted of a dozen strippers. It was three years before she and I would meet. We were delivering fish in Bellingham. He announced, “My wife’s coming to pick me up. He swallowed hard and added, “I think she planning to come down to the boat.” When she arrived I pulled off my rubber glove, offered my hand and cheerfully said, “It’s great to finally meet you.” All she said was: “I pictured you being older.” I turned on the deck hose and began cleaning the fish hold.
Eventually, I learned to cook. I resented it, but I learned to do it. I also slept fully dressed for the first five years I worked on boats. I was concerned that someone might think that I was on the crew for a reason other than being a deckhand. I believed that sleeping in my stinky deck clothes protected my integrity. As a cook my learning curve was steep and I was lucky to work with patient crewmates. Early on, two of the three dinners I made were beef stroganoff and spaghetti. I made them with enormous pieces of meat. Finally, one of crew said, “Erin, we’re carnivores but we don’t have fangs.”
I worked with number of trained chefs. While they didn’t want the stigma of being “the cook” they shared a few tricks with me. Every season I added new recipes to my repertoire: New Mexican Enchiladas with Green Chili Sauce, Thai Peanut Sauce, Curried Sweet Potato Soup, Eggs Benedict, Scallop and Mushroom Risotto, Blur Blanc. I took pride in fishing on the ocean all day and serving dinner with in an hour of entering calm water. Imagine coming around Cape Ulitka it’s calm, you’re suddenly starving and before you appears a plate of sesame sockeye with a raspberry reduction sauce, roasted red potatoes with rosemary and a Caesar Salad whose dressing recipe came from the guy piling leads that summer. His winter job was cooking at the best restaurant in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
My mom claimed that cooking was her artistic outlet, her escape, after teaching school all day. That’s what it became for me. In a world of discomfort and dogged routine, cooking became my creative outlet. Cooking is where I could play, improvise, disappear into my own thoughts. It was my escape on the boat. I was part cook, part choreographer. I’d strategically load the cd player, turn up the volume and navigate my galley landscape with efficiency and grace. For every boat I worked on I engineered a reliable system of metal arms and bungee cords for keeping pots in place when cooking on the ocean. I charted diesel stovetops with the tenacity of a 15 century explorer: where water would boil, where to simmer a marinara, where to keep tortillas warm. I’ve studied back drafts with the urgency of a firefighter. To this day, standing in a galley or a kitchen, I unconsciously wedge my toes under the bottom ledge of the cabinets, bracing myself for the swell.
Kelley, my point isn’t to convince you to cook on boats. On the surface, the deckhand who cooks works harder than the rest of the crew. I’d be cooking, they’d be reading. In town, they’ll be at the pool or the bar while I was shopping. But that’s just the surface, there are privileges due to the cook. The cook piles corks, gets first choice at watch assignments, takes the first shower and does NOT don wanders and jump into a fish hold of foam to chase down that last dozen fish. (BTW Kelley, waders always leak and we should be thankful condoms aren’t made of neoprene.) When I first started fishing, I wouldn’t invoke these privileges because I didn’t want to look weak. I confused the position of cook with being a woman. In fact, I was a deckhand who also cooked and happened to be a woman. I acted like I had to prove something, but all I was proving is that I didn’t value my contribution.
Initially my conflict with cooking was that it was seen as women’s work and women’s work is considered less valuable than men’s. I bought into that. Truth is, good food is good fuel and prepared in a timely manner it enables everyone to work harder and longer with less suffering. There are very few pleasures on a fishing boat in the middle of the season. Piling gear in five-foot chop, the web billowing like a spinnaker, everything dripping with red jellyfish: this is a small slice of hell. You’ve made five sets and it’s 10 am. Do you want a bowl of cereal? or a warm breakfast burrito: steaming tortilla, black beans, scrambled eggs, cheddar cheese, avocado, salsa, black olives, sour cream, sliced tomatoes and a little green onion. It’s warm, wrapped in foil, easy to toss in the skiff and can be eaten standing on the back deck in full rain gear. Cooking is an important contribution.
When I left my last job as cook, my replacement and I went out to dinner under the premise that I would prepare her, give her some helpful advice. I told her about the stove, the fridge, switching water tanks, piling gear around the hatch of the lazarette. I explained shopping early, having groceries delivered late and going for espresso in between. I repeated the mantra of the cork piler: guide them, don’t fight them. I explained the benefits of drop-off laundry service and that summer lovers are best kept summer lovers. And then I stopped myself. I remembered that first skipper I worked for. One afternoon he watched me secure the deck for travel. He stared and didn’t speak. It made me nervous, I started laughing: “show me how you want me to do it.” He replied: “No. I don’t want to tell you. You might figure out a way I haven’t thought of yet.”
Kelley, I want my stories, poems, experiences to offer insight. I want you to know our history. I want you to know where you’re coming from, who came before you, but like my first skipper I also want to stand back and let you figure out your own way. I can say that had I written “Advice to Female Deckhands” 10 years earlier it might have started: “You will sleep with the skipper.” I’m proud that it didn’t and glad I didn’t have to, but I won’t judge a woman for whom that might have been true; maybe her desire to be on the ocean was more voracious than mine, maybe she had fewer options. Maybe she couldn’t walk the docks in broad daylight looking for work, maybe she didn’t have a childhood friend who was already fishing. However she got there, her being there started breaking down a wall that kept women off fishing boats. Eighteen years ago, it wasn’t possible for me to get off the jet in Petersburg, walk down the dock and ask for a job as a deckhand. It was agreeing to cook that got me from the dock onto the deck. It was showing up and working hard for 15 years that contributed to the notion and general acceptance that women belong on fishing boats.
One last thing, three summers ago we were tied up in Petersburg working on the net, a young guy approached the boat and without hesitation he looked at me and said, “Are you the skipper? I’m looking for a job.” You know Kelley, I think he was looking for you.
With love and respect,