Danger and Joy

Ali Farrell’s Pretty Rugged: True Stories from Women of the Sea

Hauling a trap is Capt. Krista Tripp of Spruce Head. Photo by Ali Farrell

If you’ve ever imagined that catching lobsters for a living would be fun, you must have an interesting definition of “fun.” Ali Farrell’s book, Pretty Rugged: True Stories from Women of the Sea, portrays some of the women in commercial fishing, and while they do know how to have a good time, fun is not the main component of their work. In fact, Pretty Rugged really encapsulates these physically and mentally tough women of the sea.

In exchange for the satisfaction of being their own boss and working on the water, these women endure physically punishing work and harsh, even dangerous, conditions on a daily basis. Their livelihood is subject to the vagaries of nature, as well as government regulations and a changing market, and just getting started in business is an expensive proposition.

Despite all that, one after another of the women—whose fascinating stories Ali tells in the book—said they wouldn’t have it any other way. More than many of today’s occupations, fishing is not only a family business, but also a way of life, they tell her. Fishing communities stand by their own, helping each other out in emergencies or when times are tough.

Ali herself lived in Camden until she was 6, and at different times both of her parents fished. She said her dad had lots of great stories about his work on the water. At one point, her father was fishing out of Newfoundland, and her mother worked for the Camden Herald. Later, her parents had a business making lobster tanks for restaurants and grocery stores. Even after the family moved to Massachusetts, she told me, she spent summers in Camden.

Ali Farell

So, it came naturally to her when she returned to Maine as an adult four years ago, to hang out at the Waterfront Restaurant in Camden, where she met and became friends with several women who lobster. Some of them also have jobs on land—they are, or have been, state legislators, attorneys, scientists, pilots, community leaders, and more. “I met some really incredible people out there,” she said.

Some of those interviewed for the book are Ali’s friends, and others she connected with through a Facebook page, “All Things Lobstering.” Many of the women are based in the Midcoast, while some are from other areas. Since she is a professional photographer, she took some of the photos in the book and met others through Facebook. Nearly all the photos were taken especially for this book, she said. In addition, Penobscot Marine Museum granted permission to use some of its historic images.

The project took Ali two years to pull together. Like her first book, Pretty Combat: Nonsense, Shenanigans and Tactful Life Domination (2019), the new book was self-published through Sea Street Publishing in Camden. She said the COVID-19 pandemic not only made meeting people for interviews more difficult, but it also hit the fishing industry hard, especially at first. Initially, she told me, many lobster boats weren’t even in the water, so photographing the women at their work was impossible. Fortunately, things improved during the summer. Ali and the photographers who worked with her were able to go out with the fishermen. She said about half the interviews were done in person, with others conducted by email.

Capt. Heather Thompson of Harrington displays her massive catch of the day. Photo courtesy of Heather Thompson.

If you enjoy armchair adventures, you’re sure to like this book. Its portraits of women who make their lives on the sea include stories of danger, death-defying rescues at sea, and of course battling the vicissitudes of wind and weather. There are also stories about practical jokes, girls coming to love being on the water by growing up in what Ali calls “daddy daycare” on their fathers’ boats, and a true reverence for nature’s beauty and power.

Capt. Kelly Wallace fishes out of Friendship. Photo by Jennifer Bechard.

The women portrayed range from young mothers in their 20s and 30s to Capt. Virginia Oliver of Spruce Head, still fishing at the age of 100, and known to many in the community as “Mom.” Some of the women are active in trying to influence legislation affecting the industry. Ali herself, in addition to being a writer and photographer, runs the nonprofit United Fishermen, which helps connect fishermen directly with retail customers.

Capt. Virginia “Ginny” Oliver of Spruce Head, known to many in the fishing community as “Mom,” still fishes at 100. Photo by Hannah McGowan.

Fishermen, Ali said, can be wary and tight-lipped on first meeting, but she found that after chatting for a while they warmed up to her, and most were excited about participating in this project. Even better, to her, is the fact that those who have seen the book, which came out several months ago, have been pleased with it. She said the women have been grateful to have their stories told and excited to have something to pass down to their daughters and granddaughters.

Proving that fishing is not all hard work, Sarah Leiter of Goose Cove relaxes atop a stack of lobster crates. Photo by Hannah McGowan.

When I asked what surprised her in doing the book, she mentioned the high cost of being in business for fishermen. The first portrait in the book, of Capt. Heather Thompson of Harrington, includes a breakdown of the investment required to get into commercial lobster fishing. “You’re looking at about $267,750 in basic expenses, as of 2020,” she says in the book. With that in mind, she suggests that readers think twice before complaining about the price of Maine’s signature crustacean.

One of the things that especially appealed to me about the book was the sense of belonging evident in the women’s stories. Most of them have grown up in lobstering families, and even if they hadn’t at first planned to fish themselves, they have always been around fishermen and the culture of the fishing community. They exude a sense of knowing exactly who they are and what their lives are about that many an office worker might envy. Having a well-marked path laid out with milestones along the way gives youngsters growing up a sense of purpose and direction. And there is always the community to back you up, guide you, correct you when you mess up, and laugh with you about it later.

Kelly Wallace’s son, Charlie, plays in a lobster crate onboard with Mom nearby. Many children in fishing families grow up literally on the water. Photo courtesy of Kelly Wallace.

To read these stories is to step back into the ethos of an older America, notwithstanding the electronics and newfangled gear on the boats—one where people’s first loyalty was not to themselves, but to their community.

Pretty Rugged: True Stories from Women of the Sea can be purchased at www.PrettyRuggedBook.com as well as at the following local bookstores: Sherman’s Maine Coast Book Shop (Bar Harbor, Boothbay Harbor, Damariscotta, Freeport, Portland), Riverlily (Milbridge), and Mockingbird Bookshop (Bath).

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