Fishing is one of the professions where experience is not only respected but sought after. It is a dangerous business, where knowledge can be life saving. The older people on the docks are the ones you want to know if you are starting out. It is also thought of as a man’s world; somewhat surprising is the fishing world is pretty much a meritocracy — true, it is hard physical work, but if you know what you are doing then you are respected, regardless of gender.
Chris retired recently and is now mostly land based and, in addition to figuring out her purpose in this new life, she is starting to feel the shade of ageism, which she is finding shocking.
How old are you?
Where are you from and where are you based?
I’m from Rhode Island, USA. I still live there and work out of the Port of Galilee at Pt. Judith.
How did you get into the lobster boat world?
My father and brothers were lobstermen. When my kids were young, I wanted a job where I could work around their schedules and take them with me in the summer. I usually worked on the docks getting lobster bait ready for a few boats.
As a woman, how was it working in a very male dominated environment?
When I was a kid, it was bad luck to whistle on a boat or have a woman on a boat. Women coming in to the industry had to prove they could pull their weight. Most of the men were patient and helped us learn the ropes. We did mostly shore work, starting at the bottom by cleaning boats or stocking groceries for boats going to sea, then moving into jobs like bait prep or as a deckhands. Once you proved you could hold your own, you were accepted and treated with respect.
“Elders are sought out for what they can pass down to younger fishermen”
Why do you feel that age on the boat didn’t matter?
I started working on the dock 38 years ago. I worked on my brother’s oyster farm for the last 10 years.
I worked in the same fishing community for 40 years. We all knew each other. You learn a lot over time. It’s not knowledge you could get from a book or computer. It’s all practical application and cumulative; elders are sought out for what they can pass down to younger fishermen.
You must have seen some amazing things during your time on the boat and have some good stories. Could you tell us some memorable moments?
Before the oyster farm, I did most of my work on the dock. I have plenty of stories, most I think probably should be kept under wraps!!
The most amazing thing is to see fish swimming in the sea; so many kinds and so beautiful. Working on the oyster farm, we were in a salt pond protected by an island. We watched the seasons change and the fish that came and went with them. It was quiet and smelled of salt and black mud. We walked the island shore for arrowheads in the gravel.
And sorrow. Boats sunk and men lost to the sea; too many over my lifetime.
What does it feel like to be retired?
Retirement has been an odd thing. No day is ever the same in fishing. I have to work to find some purpose. I’m not good at sitting around or going to lunch. I do plan on going back in the spring to help mentor new oyster farmers.
How has your body handled all the years of hard work on the boat?
It’s doing pretty well! I play tennis, kayak, stretch, and keep moving. Walk with the dogs. My joints are doing fine… I move as much as I can.
Are you mostly landbound now, or are you still getting out on the water?
I’m mostly on land now but will spend more time on the water as spring comes.
What is the ageism you felt when you retired?
I worked on the oyster farm until I was close to 70. Spending more time away from the fishing community, I began to notice I was treated as “elderly,” called, “dear, honey, sweetheart, etc.” I am absolutely not a dear, honey or sweetheart. I was also becoming invisible. Unvalued. I seemed to have nothing important to add to a conversation. It was a surprise!
How have you managed it?
With patience… mostly.
What is an oyster farm and what did you do there?
An oyster farm is a salt water lease where oysters are ground commercially. I worked it with my brother who died 2 years ago. I cleaned, dried, sorted, counted, bagged and sold oysters among many chores most of the year. Muddy, stinky, often really hot or really cold work. Hard work and fun.
What are some tips you are giving your mentees on the oyster farm?
The new farmers will take over the lease in the spring. I would tell them to have patience. A ton of patience.
What are 3 simple pleasures you are enjoying these days?
Tea with my friends with time to talk. Good food. Sunrises over the ocean.
What are 3 non-negotiables in your life today?
Time alone. Saying NO with no guilt or regrets. Peace and quiet.
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