, Gloucester, MA

October 29, 2010

Women on the stern a growing lobstering role

By Peter K. Prybot

Even though they snagged their husbands years ago, wives Katie Crowell, of Gloucester, and Rockporters Barbara Silva and Marilyn Halmen still stand by their men at sea as sternmen — or sternwomen — on their lobster boats.

These ladies, members of a minority female workforce on commercial fishing boats in the northeast, quicken and ease their husbands' job of catching the lobsters on the bottom and getting them to the market.

Just who first asked whom to come aboard, and what are some of the job's yeas and nays for these sternwomen? Furthermore, are their husbands, Buddy Silva, John Halmen and Dickie Crowell, happy with their job performances?

Going sternwoman "... was my idea," said Barbara Silva, who grew up in Pigeon Cove.

"I started doing this full-time in 2000, the same year I stopped smoking," she recalled. "Buddy would come home from work at 3 p.m., and then he would go out lobstering and return home around 6.

"I just found myself very bored during those hours," she said. "I went out once and liked it, and next I found myself going out more and more." She and Buddy, parents of two grown sons and grandparents of eight, have been married 43 years.

For Marilyn Halmen, the idea of coming aboard "was John's."

"He used to have his cousin Bob (as a sternman)," she said. "Bob eventually couldn't do the job anymore, so John asked me, 'Why don't you give it a try?'"

The Halmens, who have three grown children and five grandchildren, have been married 41 years.

"John and I met at Northeastern University," she added. "I thought he was a rich lobsterman from Rockport, and he thought I was a rich industrialist from Lynn."

For the Crowells, married five years, Katie's going aboard as a sternwoman was a mutual decision.

"This is our second year of lobstering. I wanted to (go sternwoman) from the beginning; we do everything (including clamming) together," she explained.

The lobstermen's wives each enjoy different aspects of being sternwomen.

Katie, who grew up in Lanesville and came from a lobstering family, explained, "I love being out on the water and working outside."

"I also love working alongside my husband," she said. "We get along great."

Marilyn especially enjoys the beauty and tranquility of working on the ocean.

"It's different out there," she said. "It's beautiful. Today (late October) there was no wind, and it was also so peaceful."

Barbara, who stresses she was previously "not an ocean person," says she now likes just about "everything" about the job and its surroundings.

"It's interesting out there," she said. "You're seeing and learning something new all of the time. The fresh air is also good."

But, the ladies' jobs have at least one downfall for each of them.

Marilyn doesn't like the cold, which she especially feels in her hands.

"By the time December rolls around, it's usually time for me to come in," she said. "I don't like going out on cold days with bitter winds."

Luckily for her, John usually wraps up his lobstering by early winter. The other two lobstermen also lobster seasonally.

Although "The cold doesn't bother me," Katie says, "sea sickness does sometimes."

The same is true for Barbara.

"The days of the swells bother me the most; I tend to get seasick," she said.

The husbands, however, give their wives high marks for their job performances, which largely entail banding the lobster claws, baiting the traps and moving them about on the lobster boats.

Barbara Silva "... does an excellent job," her husband reports.

"She does a lot of the little stuff (especially banding and re-baiting) that takes the time," Buddy Silva says. "I'm glad to have her aboard."

Dickie Crowell further states his wife "... is as good a backman as anyone else who has worked for me."

"She has no problem going through 200-300 traps a day," he says.

Marilyn, says John, "... is a tremendous help to me. She knows what to do."

Halmen said his wife also keeps him in line at sea.

"I told him last summer, you better be good on the boat, or I'll hose you down. I'm the one who handles the wash-down hose on board," Marilyn explained.

"She has already done that once or twice," John said. "She also threatens that if I'm not good, she won't make lunch for me afterward at home. I'm captain on this boat, but I have a rear admiral working behind me, so I'm out-gunned.

"As a captain, I'm also a little concerned that the sternwomen might start their own union, and they would require union wages," he joked.

Gloucester lobsterman Peter K. Prybot writes regularly or the Times on the fishing industry and other local issues.