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A 'Seaworthy' Captain Returns To The Open Ocean
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of film, "The Perfect Storm")
Ms. MARY ELIZABETH MASTRANTONIO (Actress): (As Linda Greenlaw) Andrea
Gail, do you read me? Do you read me? Come in. Come in, for God's sake,
come in. (Unintelligible).
Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) Who is it?
GROSS: That's Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio playing our guest, fishing
boat captain Linda Greenlaw in the film "The Perfect Storm." Greenlaw
says that her actual radio conversation with Captain Billy Tyne in 1991,
believed to be the final contact made with the Andrea Gail before it
disappeared in a storm, was less dramatic than the Hollywood version.
But Greenlaw is a real commercial fisherman and the only female
swordboat captain in the country. Swordfishing doesn't involve nets and
trawling. During each fishing venture, Greenlaw and her crew will set
thousands of individual hooks on a line and haul the massive creatures
aboard one at a time.
After years on the sea, Greenlaw left deepwater fishing for 10 years to
set lobster traps and write books. Her first, "The Hungry Ocean," became
a bestseller, and she's written five more books of fiction and
Last year, she returned to the deep water. That voyage is the subject of
her new book, "Seaworthy: A Swordboat Captain Returns to the Sea."
Greenlaw spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
DAVE DAVIES: Well, Linda Greenlaw, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, in
this book, you write: the position of skipper aboard a U.S. Grand Banks
longline vessel is the absolute pinnacle of the commercial fishing
world. And I'd like you to begin by just telling us what longline
deepwater swordfishing is, how it works.
Ms. LINDA GREENLAW (Author, "Seaworthy: A Swordboat Captain Returns to
the Sea"): Well, longlining is, as the name would suggest, the fishery
itself is fishing a very long line. A typical set, which we do every
night while we're at sea, is 40 miles. We lay out a 40-mile single
strand of 1,000-pound test line, onto which we attach about 1,000 baited
And that attachment is called the leader. It's suspended, basically,
fairly close to the surface. And we fish temperature breaks, for
instance east of the Grand Banks, which is where most of my experience
is. We fish where the Gulf Stream, which is to the south, pushes up into
the Labrador Current, which is cold water.
These temperature breaks are where all the feed collects, and where
there is prey, there should be a predator. That's where we fish.
DAVIES: Okay, and so every day, you have this big spool on the deck, and
you just roll out 40 miles of line, and you have floats every so often,
right, which I guess allow you to retrieve these things later. And you
leave these 40 miles and 1,000 baited leader hooks out for several hours
and then reel them in the next day, right?
Ms. GREENLAW: Yes, that's correct. And swordfish are nocturnal in that
they feed at night. They come close to the surface to feed at night. So
we set the line out in the evening, and at daylight, we pick up the end
of the 40-mile string and start hauling it back.
DAVIES: I guess one question somebody would logically ask is, well, what
happens if a boat crosses that 40-mile line?
Ms. GREENLAW: It happens often. It's called a part-off. And we have
things called beeper buoys, which are electronic buoys transmitting
frequencies that we can pick up in the wheelhouse of the boat with
something called an automatic direction finder.
So if we're hauling this 40-mile string and come to a bitter end or a
part-off, the skipper would run up to the wheelhouse, tune in the next
beeper buoy and sort of zero in on that, chase it down and hook back up
and continue hauling.
DAVIES: So a boat will cut the line? It's close enough to the surface so
that a boat will cut the line if it crosses it, right?
Ms. GREENLAW: Yes, a deep-draft ship, like an oil tanker or something
like that, would certain part it off. It can be parted off by sharks.
Sometimes setting between the hot water and the cold water, stringing
along this break, the cold water moves slower than the hot water, and
sometimes the line just stretches beyond its tensile strength and parts
off that way.
DAVIES: Okay, so now you've got this crew of, you know, I guess five or
six people on a boat that, I guess in the case of the Sea Hawk, which
you most recently were on, it was, like, about, what, 63 feet?
Ms. GREENLAW: Yes, a 63-foot boat, and I had a crew of five men.
DAVIES: Right, so you have five people that are baiting 1,000 hooks a
day, reeling them out. And then when you reel them back in, explain the
process there and what you do when you have a swordfish or some other
kind of fish on it.
Ms. GREENLAW: Okay, well, hauling the gear back, it's all hands on deck,
including the captain. And that's my favorite part of the job is hauling
the gear because it's just like Christmas. You know, you can't wait to
see what you're going to get.
You tie-in at the end of the morning and start hauling it. The captain
drives the boat along the line, kind of following these floats, as you
mentioned. And when the line gets tight or you feel some strain on it,
that means you have some weight on a hook.
You back the boat down, stop the boat hopefully, and see what you have.
It comes to a point when the snap or the thing that connects the hook to
the main line, when that breaks the surface, it's hand-over-hand
hauling, one man against one fish.
And you hope it's a swordfish. Sometimes it's a shark. Sometimes it's a
tuna. Sometimes it's mahi-mahi. But the target is swordfish. That's what
we're all praying for.
DAVIES: And you can tell when it's a swordfish, right?
Ms. GREENLAW: I can, yeah. I've been doing this a long time. I started
swordfishing at the age of 19. So, basically, I'm not fooled much when
there's a little weight on the line. A swordfish acts totally different
than a tuna or a shark.
DAVIES: Well, talk about that. How does a swordfish act?
Ms. GREENLAW: A swordfish generally is pulling straight down, and when
it gets close to the surface, it starts doing these circles. We call it
a death circle, or we hope it's going to be a death circle and not a
Tuna fish, often if you have the line in your hand, you feel a pump,
pump, pump, when it's pumping its tail, and you can really feel that if
you have the line running through your hand.
A shark generally does not dive down. It comes up to the surface. So the
leader would be stretched out on the surface and quite often, you'd see
a fin breaking the surface.
DAVIES: Now you've got to get this thing aboard the boat, and I know
from reading your book that there's a break in the gunnel, I mean, the
side of the ship, right, in effect a door, right, where you can haul
this. But it's still, you're talking about a hundred-pound fish, right?
Ms. GREENLAW: Yes, I mean, you're hoping it's a hundred-pound fish. Last
season, we had a 171-pound average. These are big fish. And, yes,
there's a door cut in the side of the boat to make it a little easier to
get the fish aboard.
Basically, once the fish breaks the surface, you put gaffs in the fish
to help pull it aboard. If it's a gigantic fish, we have a hydraulic
lift that we can put a strap around the tail and pull the fish aboard
DAVIES: Then what happens?
Ms. GREENLAW: Once the fish is aboard the boat, the fish cleaner goes to
work. It's very important for us to keep the quality of the fish really
to high standards to get the money that we need to get for the fish to
make a living.
So the fish needs to be cleaned. That means, you know, the head comes
off, the guts come out, saltwater rinse, and it gets packed on saltwater
ice immediately. Really important to get the fish chilled really quickly
and not leave the fish on deck.
DAVIES: So every day, assuming that the weather is decent and things are
working, you are reeling out 40 miles of longline, baiting 1,000 hooks,
pulling in those 1,000 hooks the next day and then preparing to put them
back out the next morning. It must be incredibly strenuous and sleep
Ms. GREENLAW: Sleep deprivation is a big part of the swordfish industry.
We're lucky if we get four hours a night. You know, the days get long,
you know, depending on - weather, of course, is the biggest factor. If
you're trying to haul in the gear in bad weather, it just takes a little
Every fish, you know, that you stop to bring aboard is a little more
difficult to get aboard in bad weather. Part-offs are a huge factor in
the length of a day.
DAVIES: That's where the line gets cut, right.
Ms. GREENLAW: Yes, if you - if you're hauling back the line, and you
have two or three or five part-offs in a day, each time you have to
chase the end. It's time-consuming. A captain can make a bad set and
catch a lot of sharks, very time-consuming.
So yeah, the long days â you know, you're lucky if you get four hours
DAVIES: And how long does a trip last?
Ms. GREENLAW: We generally keep our trips in synch with the lunar cycle.
So a trip is, you know, 28 to 30 days, and that's â the goal is to keep
on the lunar cycle because the fishing is better because you're fishing
these temperature breaks, and the moon obviously affects tide.
I guess everyone's aware of that, but these temperature breaks are more
defined during â from the first quarter through the full moon. So we try
and do our steaming back and forth to the dock and our turnaround or our
time at the dock unloading, re-supplying, during the new moon or when
you can't see any moon, and our fishing during when you can see a moon.
DAVIES: So you're typically at sea for about a month.
Ms. GREENLAW: Yes, a typical trip is 30 days.
DAVIES: So when you're reeling in the line, these 1,000 baited leaders,
how many swordfish will you typically get?
Ms. GREENLAW: Well, the success of a trip just varies so much. I've
never been skunked. That means I've never been fishless at the end of a
haul back. My biggest day was 107 fish. That's huge, over 10,000 pounds
of fish in one day.
If you can average, you know, 3,000 pounds a night, you know, 30 fish,
that's a good way to put a trip together. It's a grind. You know, you're
going to make 10 or 12 or 20 sets, whatever you need to do to get enough
fish to go in with without sort of overdoing the moon thing. You know,
you don't want to miss the next moon. So you can't stay out too long,
and you don't want your fish to be too old. So, you know, 3,000 pounds a
night is a pretty good average.
DAVIES: So 1,000 hooks, 30 fish and do it again the next day.
Ms. GREENLAW: Exactly.
DAVIES: Right, so here you are. I mean, you're at very close quarters,
working long hours with five or six other people, and you are a woman,
which is rare in the business, right?
Ms. GREENLAW: Yes, it is rare in the business.
DAVIES: I know from reading about you that you started swordfishing I
guess when you were in college. And I'm just kind of curious: What was
it like being a woman at sea? Was it different? Was it difficult?
Ms. GREENLAW: I fell in love with fishing at the age of 19. I love what
I do, and honestly, gender has not been an issue. I started on deck, I
worked very hard, had an opportunity to run a boat, came up in the
You know, I stayed on a boat long enough to become first mate. The owner
of the boat bought a second boat. That was my opportunity to become
captain. Worked very hard, eventually got good at it. I hire my own
A lot of questions are about, you know, men working for a woman. I hire
my own guys. Any man that doesn't want to go to sea with a woman
hopefully won't ask me for a job. And that's not to say I've never had
crew problems, because I have, but they haven't been as a result of my
being a woman. Everyone has crew problems at one time or another.
DAVIES: Right. I mean, I guess, you know, you prove yourself and you get
the respect that you earn, you know, like people do in any business. On
the other hand, I mean, you know, you're commanding a crew of five or
six, and I think most of us would think that people who are in
commercial fishing are pretty tough guys, salty characters, perhaps.
Did you feel like you ever had to kind of adopt a persona to, you know,
to command these guys, particularly given that it's a strenuous job,
you're at close quarters for a month?
Ms. GREENLAW: Well, most guys really have respect for â especially
fisherman â have respect for someone who works hard, is good at what
they do. The bottom line is: Can I make them a paycheck? Back in my
Hannah Boden days, you know, I was the highliner of the fleet, I'm
catching all the fish, my guys are making the most money, everyone
respects that. They don't care if I'm male or female.
DAVIES: Just tell us a little bit more about some of the equipment on
Ms. GREENLAW: Most of the equipment in the wheelhouse is pretty high-
tech stuff. We have great electronics for forecasting not only weather,
we can print our own weather maps. We have satellite receivers like eye
in the sky. We can, you know, see weather forming, and you just kind of
get good at reading that stuff.
We also have electronics for fish-finding, whether it's a sound machine
or something that will show clusters of bait under the surface. Again,
satellite pictures of temperature breaks, eddies, ocean features. All of
those things are very helpful.
DAVIES: And an icemaker, which is pretty critical, right?
Ms. GREENLAW: Yes, and when I first started fishing, back in 1979,
before we'd leave for a trip, we'd blow freshwater ice aboard the boat
into the fish hold, and that is how we'd pack the fish.
Now, every boat has a saltwater ice machine, and we make our own ice out
of seawater. It's four degrees colder than freshwater ice, and it just
keeps the fish so much nicer. It doesn't freeze them, but it's really
difficult to tell what we consider the top of the trip, which is the
last fish caught, from the bottom of the trip, which would be the first
fish caught. It's just really nice-quality fish if you treat them right
and pack them properly in saltwater ice.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Linda Greenlaw. She is a writer and captain
of a swordfishing boat. She has a new book called "Seaworthy." We'll
talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is Linda Greenlaw. She's a
veteran swordboat captain and also an author who has written six books.
Her latest is called "Seaworthy: A Swordboat Captain Returns to the
Your latest book, "Seaworthy," is about your coming back to swordboat
fishing after spending 10 years off, right? You went ashore, did some
lobster fishing, wrote six books. What pulled you back to the deep
Ms. GREENLAW: When I got done swordfishing the first time, I wasn't
really retiring, or I didn't think that I was. I always had an idea that
I would go back to it after going lobstering, you know, going home for a
while, kind of touching base with the other world.
And through this 10-year period, I had opportunities to go swordfishing.
I mean, somebody would call and say, hey, you know, this boat's in
Newfoundland or Puerto Rico, the crew's all ready, all you have to do is
jump aboard and go.
Well, I always wanted to do it. I never could. It's like, you know, I
have 800 lobster traps in the water or I'm in the middle of a book tour.
I can't drop everything and go jump on this boat. And as time marched
on, it seemed less and less likely that I'd ever get back to what I've
always considered my first love of swordfishing.
Well, a couple years ago, the phone rang and the timing was right. So I
said, you know, if I don't do it now, I'm never doing it. So I, you
know, I jumped in, jumped in head first and it was a great experience
getting back to it. And I fished again last season, and I can't wait to
go again this season.
DAVIES: So what is it that you love so much?
Ms. GREENLAW: I like the way I feel when I'm at sea. And I am passionate
about catching fish. And I've learned through the years that the things
I really love about being in this very separate world are probably the
same things that I dislike: total solitude, being absolutely self-
reliant and responsible for your entire world with very little input.
I'm on a boat at sea, you know, sometimes 1,000 miles from the closest
dock with four or five guys. And you know, that's your entire world.
There's very little contact with anything outside of that world.
DAVIES: Right. There's a section there where you say that when you're
out there, you're not thinking about whether you've got a dentist's
appointment or what's happening in Congress. It's all - how much fuel do
I have left, what's the weather, those kinds of things.
Ms. GREENLAW: Yeah, we definitely have a different way of marking time
at sea. I say I've never worn a wristwatch. I mean, we mark time by
where the moon is, how many sets have we made, how much bait do we have
left. So it's just, it's a totally different way of living life.
DAVIES: All right, so when you come back to sea after 10 years, the
vessel that you command, the Sea Hawk, is not the pride of the longline
fleet, really. Tell us about it.
Ms. GREENLAW: Oh, boy. I couldn't believe it when I â I reached New
Bedford. My crew had been around the dock, working on the boat for a
week before I arrived. And they couldn't wait to show me the boat
because it was such a disaster.
You know, it hadn't fished in a while. The last captain had died at sea.
The boat was for sale. It had been dry-docked. It had been pretty much
scavenged by other boats, you know, hey, this boat's not going fishing
again, they don't need this, they don't need that.
So we had very little to work with and, you know, probably, you know,
looking back, I can say maybe I was foolish agreeing to take the boat
after I saw the state of disrepair.
But, you know, we got through it, and they say that which doesn't kill
you makes you stronger. So I'm sure my crew and I are stronger for
having fished the Sea Hawk for 56 days.
DAVIES: Right. I mean, you had all kinds of problems. I mean, the diesel
engine conked out, and you had to get towed to a Canadian town for
repairs, and the icemaker went out on another occasion and all kinds of
Ms. GREENLAW: I believe that if this trip aboard the Sea Hawk had been
my first trip as captain, I would never have gone back fishing. It was
just a 56-day epic disaster. There wasn't, you know, a whole lot good
You know, some of the problems were, you know, created by us, and other
problems were, you know, a function of Mother Nature.
DAVIES: Right. Well, we mentioned that the diesel engine conked out at
one point. So you had to get towed and then get it repaired. And then
the ice machine went out, and there were electrical problems. One of
your crew members was shocked, you know, by touching a light switch that
was poorly wired.
And then there was this disaster involving you drifting into Canadian
waters. What happened there?
Ms. GREENLAW: Yes, that's actually a big part of "Seaworthy," is I was
arrested. I made a legal set, my first set of my comeback trip...
DAVIES: And a set meaning you laid your 40-mile line of hooks and
Ms. GREENLAW: Yes, I set my 40 miles of line and leaders in
international water, which is where we fish. I set very close to the
Canadian line, knowing that my gear was going to drift away from that
line. Canada has a 200-mile limit. We're not allowed to fish north of
that line. That's Canadian water. And they patrol it and protect it, as
Well, I made my set and went to bed and got up the next morning and
grabbed the end very enthusiastic, couldn't wait to see what we were
going to catch, started hauling the gear, and as I stated before, it's
all hands on deck.
It was a very long day. We started catching sharks, and we had a few
part-offs. And at some point, I think it was like 2:00 in the afternoon,
we were buzzed by a Canadian fisheries airplane. I didn't really think
much of it because they do patrol the area very, you know, stringently.
They buzzed us again, and then the third time they buzzed us, I said to
the guys, you know, I really probably should go up to the wheelhouse
just to see what's going on. They may be trying to get me on the radio.
Well, I went up to the wheelhouse, and I looked at the chart plotter,
which shows our position on an electronic chart, and I nearly threw up
because the plotter showed my position four miles north of the Canadian
line. I was four miles into Canadian territory.
So I knew I was in big trouble, and I picked up the radio and called the
plane, at that point not having any idea how something like that
could've happened. I know the way the Gulf Stream moves. I know the way
the Labrador Current moves. There's absolutely no way that my line could
have drifted north.
I did a drift test before setting the line, you know, knocked the boat
out of gear and saw which way we were drifting. There was no wind to
speak of to affect my gear. Long story short, I was arrested, and the
boat was seized, and we were taken to St. John's, Newfoundland. I was
handcuffed and led to jail.
DAVIES: How did you figure out how this had happened, how your line had
drifted in a way that would've seemed impossible?
Ms. GREENLAW: After I was released from jail and went back out fishing,
a friend of mine was steaming to come fishing, and he stumbled upon a
piece of gear floating. And he called on the radio and wanted to know
who had lost a piece of gear, and I knew it was mine.
And he brought it aboard his boat and called me back on the radio and
said, yes, you know, it says Sea Hawk on the beeper buoy, and it's been
run over by a ship. There's bottom paint all over it. So I then knew
that my gear had been run over by a ship and towed across the line into,
you know, illegal fishing territory. So that answered a question for me,
you know, how did that happen?
So I go to court several months later and was found guilty on the
charges of illegal entry and illegal fishing. It was a very â I say
innocent but expensive mistake.
DAVIES: Thirty-five-thousand-dollar Canadian fine, right, as I recall?
Ms. GREENLAW: Yes, that's correct.
GROSS: Linda Greenlaw, speaking with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
We'll hear more of their conversation in the second half of the show.
Greenlaw is the author of the new memoir "Seaworthy." I'm Terry Gross,
and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the
interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with Linda
Greenlaw, the only woman captain of a sword fishing boat in the U.S. Her
new memoir "Seaworthy," is about her return to the deep sea after a 10-
year hiatus, during which she set lobster traps and wrote books.
Dave and Linda Greenlaw had been talking about her first deep sea
fishing trip after that hiatus aboard the Seahawk. It was 56 days of
trouble, including engine breakdowns, icemaker malfunctions and her
arrest for inadvertently trespassing and fishing in Canadian waters.
DAVIES: So, you managed to eventually get released from a Canadian jail
and get back to your boat and you get back out and you start fishing
again. Once you are fishing again, other issues arise, including a
terrible incident when you're in some rough weather and I thought I'd
have you read a passage here about this moment where a crewmember of
yours name Machado, whose job is to clean and cut the heads off the
swordfish and clean them as they come up. And at this point you're in so
much - you're bringing in the lines, but the sea is so rough that waves
keep crashing over onto the deck, meaning that the fish are floating and
he's trying to rustle them down and cut them up. You're all are having a
terrible time, and remember, there's this little door cut in a part of
the side of the boat that way you can bring the fish up. I wonder if you
could just read this little passage about what happens as things get
Ms. GREENLAW: Sure. And I'd loved to do that. And just as you were
saying, this was a really severe day of weather so we were all
struggling. I was struggling to keep the boat on the gear. Machado was
really struggling, chasing - we were catching fish which was great, but
the fish are, you know, washing rail to rail with the water, really
difficult. So I will read:
Just as I had the boat back on the gear properly, we took the worst
wallop yet. Green water pounded the halls smack on our beam and cascaded
like a giant waterfall over the rail. When the boat rolled to starboard,
the volume of water collected and rushed that way taking all that was in
its path with it. My back was pressed securely against the side of the
forecastle and I planted my feet to brace myself and avoid becoming part
of the reaction.
The boat rolled back to port and the torrent buckled my knees briefly. I
recovered and look aft to see two fish slide toward the open door
followed closely by Machado, who was floundering flat on his belly and
quite helpless. The first fish went through the door and overboard.
Machado's eyes were like saucers as he headed toward the opening through
which the fish had just vanished. Although everything was happening at
high speed, my memory of Machado is in slow motion. His arms and legs
were spiraling, much like the limbs of a turtle stuck on its back and
struggling to right itself to no available.
Thinking back, I imagine Machado as an astronaut out of gravity's grasp.
Machado's expression was the perfect picture of shear terror as he
looked desperately for something to grab to save himself. A second fish
splashed through the door that was now acting as a funnel for the deluge
of exiting water. There was no doubt in my mind that Machado would
immediately follow the fish and there wasn't a thing I could do to stop
I threw the boat out of gear to avoid moving away too quickly or
chopping him up in the propeller should the boat be blown down on top of
him. I wondered if one of the guys could throw the life ring quickly and
Suddenly, just as Machado's head went over the threshold, Timmy appeared
from out of no where. He dove on to Machado, pinning him hard to the
steel deck and stopping him just short of being a goner.
DAVIES: Is that as close as you've ever come to losing a crewmember at
Ms. GREENLAW: That is absolutely as close as I've ever come to losing
somebody overboard. The weather was just so severe that if Machado had
followed the fish through the door there was very little chance that
we'd have been able to save him. I mean I could barely keep the board on
the gear and thinking that you'd be able to get the boat back to a man
who's in full oil gear - he's not even going to stay on the surface very
long. The wind's blowing so hard how do you even throw a life ring? I
mean a life ring is sort of like a Frisbee. You know, and the wind, good
luck with that. So it was extremely scary and, you know, obviously a
very close call. And although I enjoyed writing about it, I don't enjoy
that image sort of over and over in mind of Machado going towards the
DAVIES: And how was Machado?
Ms. GREENLAW: Machado was shaken, you know, as I think anyone would be.
He was a pretty unhappy camper. I don't think anybody likes to see their
own life flash before their eyes. Machado had been going to sea for a
long time and he knew as well as I did that if he had gone through that
door it probably would've been the end of him.
DAVIES: Do you know if he went back after this voyage?
Ms. GREENLAW: I know that Machado did not make a trip after that. In
fact, we landed our fish in Newfoundland at the end of that trip and
Machado was on a plane home. He's gainfully employed in Boston. He is a
fish dealer. So he's still dealing with fish but he's not on the boat
doing it. He takes care of them after we land them at the dock.
DAVIES: I'd like you to tell one story that you relayed in the book
about a case where you saw a swordfish take on a shark.
Ms. GREENLAW: Early in my sword fishing career we fished on Georgia's
banks and part of the fishery that we were doing was harpooning, which
is the most incredibly fun and exciting fishery. It's a sight fishery.
You're, you know, my part of that was being the helmsman. I climb up the
mast. I'm in the crow's nest. I'm driving the boat from up there and
looking for fish swimming on the surface of the ocean. It's one fish,
you know, you're not seeing schools of fish. You're looking around for a
Well, this particular day I was up in the crow's nest, I saw fins and I
was like wow, all right. Cool. I put the boat in gear and the captain's
running out to the end of the stand, to the pulpit from where you
through the harpoon. And as we approach the fins, which kept
disappearing, I noticed that there were two sets of fins. One set of
fins was the swordfish and a big one. And the second set of fins was a
gigantic mako shark. Well, we watched a struggle between a mako shark
and a swordfish and the captain of the boat is wanting me to get the
boat onto the mako shark so he can harpoon the shark or the swordfish so
he can harpoon the swordfish.
We get up to the shark, harpoon it and then look around for the fish.
The fish is gone. And, of course, we're very disappointed the fish is
gone. A little while later the fins pop up â bang. No. We miss it. The
fish is gone. So we missed a big fish. It was a huge fish. It was really
a day saver. We really needed that fish. So we haul back the shark, get
the shark on the deck, it's a big mako, and the guy cleaning the shark
is just amazed at this little tiny baby swordfish that was in the sharks
belly. And suddenly I felt okay about this big swordfish getting away
because I had a feeling that the swordfish and the shark were fighting
or, you know, struggling together, the swordfish was upset. I mean the
shark ate the swordfish's baby. So I felt good about killing the shark
and I felt kind of okay about the swordfish getting away.
DAVIES: Are you headed back out to the deepwater soon? Are you going to
write another book? What's next for you?
Ms. GREENLAW: A little bit of each. I will be writing another book. And
August 1st I am heading back to sea on the Hannah Boden. I'm going to
get my old boat back which I'm just ecstatic about.
DAVIES: Linda Greenlaw, thanks so much for spending some time with us.
Ms. GREENLAW: Thank you for having me.
GROSS: Linda Greenlaw spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Her
new memoir is called "Seaworthy: A Swordboat Captain Returns to the
Sea." You can read a chapter on our website, freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, we talk with Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Michael
Hiltzik about the Hoover Dam and how it changed architecture, the
American West and the environment. His new book is called "Colossus."
This is FRESH AIR.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
A Concrete 'Colossus': The Hoover Dam At 75
TERRY GROSS, host:
The American West would look very different today without Hoover Dam. By
harnessing the Colorado River, the dam brought water and
hydroelectricity to Los Angeles, Phoenix, Denver, Salt Lake City and San
Diego. But cities that owe their evolution to the dam have also become
its prisoners, writes Michael Hiltzik in his new book, "Colossus: Hoover
Dam and the Making of the American Century."
He says as astonishing and durable as the dam has proven to be, a modern
perspective requires us to ask dark questions, including whether it was
right to even build the dam. His book examines the architecture,
politics and environmental impact of Hoover Dam. Hiltzik is a Pulitzer
prize-winning journalist who has written for the LA Times for more than
Michael Hiltzik, welcome to FRESH AIR. When I went to see the Hoover
Dam, I was expecting to not be very interested. I was nearby, so I
figured I'd stop by and take a look, you know.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: It was amazing. It was just so architecturally amazing. I just
found it overwhelming. Do you want to describe for our listeners who
haven't seen the Hoover Dam what the experience is like and what it
Mr. HILTZIK: Sure. It's this beautiful smooth wedge of alabaster
concrete set in the middle of this harsh gorge and in the most
unforgiving landscape you can imagine. And it's got this machine beauty.
It's a great exemplar of a style of architecture that became very
popular in the '20s and '30s - machine age architecture. So it projects
this great bulk and this great power and at the same time, it's got a
tremendous elegance. And that was the product of its architect - its
exterior architect - a man name Gordon Kaufmann who was brought in to do
that. And Kaufmann looked at the original plans for the dam, which were
full of all sorts of decoration and architectural gingerbread and he
stripped that all away and what he left is this sort of svelte, elegant
product that really is striking in this harsh rough-hewn environment.
GROSS: So, in looking at the Hoover Dam, what did Herbert Hoover
actually have to do with the creation of the Hoover Dam?
Mr. HILTZIK: Herbert Hoover's role in creating the dam is really
equivocal and so equivocal that when his name was placed on the dam by
his own Interior secretary, it was a very controversial step. But he did
have a very important role very early in the dam project, and that was
when the seven states had to come together and reach an interstate
compact - an interstate treaty. They sat down - these were seven states
that had been squabbling over water rights on the river for 20 years.
Hoover was Commerce secretary at the time. He was appointed by his
president, Warren Harding, to serve as sort of adult supervision of
these negotiations. And he arranged - he really managed the negotiations
so that they got a compact in 1922. Now without that, Congress would
never have approved the dam, so it was really crucial. So his role can't
be minimized. But in later years, he overstated his role because he
understood that this was such a magnificent project and such an
important project that he wanted to make sure that his role was well
GROSS: Hoover Dam was built in spite of the public utility companies.
The Federal Trade Commission exposed that the utilities tried to prevent
the dam from being built back in the 1920s. What was the utilities'
campaign to prevent the dam from being built?
Mr. HILTZIK: The utilities at the time that the dam was being conceived
had already been engaged in a 10- or 20-year campaign against public
power. Now, Los Angeles had really drawn a line in the sand against the
private utilities by seizing the power grid of the Edison Company and
operating it as a municipal utility. And the private utilities were very
concerned that once a dam like Hoover Dam was built, because it would be
producing so much hydroelectricity, that the power it produced would
become a benchmark for their pricing and their rates and their methods
of distribution, and that's one thing they really did not want to
But there was a very powerful campaign for public power at the same
time. And over the years the utilities and the public power advocates
fought tooth and nail to gain advantage over each other.
Now, the utilities, they spent millions upon millions of dollars to
defeat not only Hoover Dam, but the Muscle Shoals Project in the East,
which became part of the TVA. They paid for textbooks to be written to
promote the advantages of private power. They paid off college
professors. They bribed lawmakers in state Houses and in Congress with
thousands upon thousands of dollars, and they did this all sub-rosa.
They created all sorts of front organizations that had to be
investigated before you understood that these were really utility
fronts. And as you say, it was the Federal Trade Commission, much to
everybody's surprise, because the FTC was not known as an aggressive
regulator, that finally exposed all this.
GROSS: So what happened after it was exposed?
Mr. HILTZIK: Well, it was such an embarrassment for lawmakers to be
exposed as having taken bribes from the private utilities that that
exposure actually helped the dam get approved by Congress. It was touch
and go right up to the point that all of these disclosures came out. And
these disclosures really tipped the scales.
GROSS: The building of Hoover Dam, and this is the largest federal
contract ever, coincides with the Great Depression, so what impact did
the Depression have on the building of the dam?
Mr. HILTZIK: It's important to understand that the dam was not
originally conceived as a Depression-era project. Its conception goes
all the way back to 1905, when Southern California was subjected to
terrible floods from the Colorado River. And then the efforts to get it
approved by Congress really started back in the early '20s.
But when the Depression started and Hebert Hoover was president, one of
the programs that he did believe in in terms of fighting unemployment
was to build up public works. He urged states and municipalities to step
up their construction and he was willing to put federal money behind
Now at the time, federal construction budget was tiny. It was $150
million a year. Hoover Dam or the Boulder Canyon Dam Project, as it was
known at the time, was going to cost 165 million all by itself. But when
Hoover wanted to jumpstart a public works program, he looked around and
because the federal budget was so small, there weren't a lot of shovel-
ready projects, to use a current term, but there was this dam project
which had been approved by Congress. The project had been signed into
law by Calvin Coolidge. The engineering had all been done, so he cleared
the way. The dam wasnât going to be started until sometimes in the mid-
30's but Hoover ordered it started early in 1930.
GROSS: Hoover Dam has an incredible amount of concrete and itâs just
amazingly and beautifully poured and designed and itâs almost
hallucinatory when you gaze down from on top of the dam and you see the
slope of the concrete and the symmetry of it. As remarkable as Hoover
Dam is as a work of design and architecture, part of it actually really
didnât work. And this is like the grout curtain, and you'll have to
describe what the grout curtain is. But this part had to be rebuilt and
you say it was rebuilt kind of secretly because they didnât want the
public to know that there was such a massive problem.
Mr. HILTZIK: That's true and this something that still doesnât get
talked about very much. It's well-known to the engineering community and
itâs well-known to anybody who looks at the technical records of the dam
because it was necessary to document what they were doing. But,
essentially, when you build a dam there's a phenomenon that dam builders
understand called uplift. And what happens is that as water seeps under
the dam, under the foundations and around the sides, it presses up on
the bulk of the dam and it reduces the dam's effective weight and
Now, that was a phenomenon that was very well understood but what wasnât
understood was what the geology really was like underneath the
foundations of Hoover Dam. So what happened was that the designers
designed what's known as a grout curtain, and that means that they
drilled bore holes into the foundations under the dam before the
concrete was actually poured, some of them 150 feet deep into the
bedrock. And then the idea was to pressure fill them with grout, which
is essentially cemented water, so that the grout would penetrate the
faults and the cracks and the flaws in the underlying geology and keep
water from seeping under the dam and keep uplift from happening.
Now, this was such a new technique and this was such a big dam that they
didnât get the grout curtain right. Workers didnât really understand how
important their job was in building and filling the bore holes, so if
they ran into problems, if they ran into a void that was taking just too
much grout they would stop. If they ran into a hot spring and the grout
quickset they would stop and they would move on to the next bore hole.
So instead of this even line of filled holes, you had what I described
as sort of a mouth with a lot of teeth missing.
Now, this wasnât a problem until Lake Mead started filling behind the
dam and the pressure of all that water forced water under the dam and
out to the sides and the dam sprung a leak. It was leaking from the
cliff sides, water was pouring into the galleries inside the dam. They
were taking hundreds of buckets out every day. And then when they
started measuring the uplift, they really got alarmed because the dam
was threatened. The uplift was so bad and the seepage was so great that
they feared for the dam's stability.
GROSS: So they had to redo it?
Mr. HILTZIK: They had to redo it. They had to go in, they had to re-bore
all those holes. They bore them three, sometimes four times as deep as
they did originally. They made sure that all of the grout got absorbed
into the bedrock. And they had to do it, of course - now the dam is
built, they had to do it from the interior galleries. And weâve got
photographs in the book of some of the workers sharing this tiny space
with their pumps and their drills to get that grout curtain done right.
But eventually they did and they were able to reduce the uplift to below
the original specifications. But that did take nine years. It took
longer to fix than it took to build the original dam.
GROSS: If youâre just joining us, my guest is Michael Hiltzik. We're
talking about his new book "Colossus: Hoover Dam and the Making of the
American Century." Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If youâre just joining us, my guest is Michael Hiltzik and he's
the author of the new book "Colossus: Hoover Dam and the Making of the
So, after Hoover Dam is completed in 1936, you also have this big
manmade lake - Lake Mead - that's created as a result of the dam and
it's the world's largest manmade body of water. You say that the
creation of Lake Mead actually affected climate and the weather.
Mr. HILTZIK: Well, Lake Mead affected more than climate and the weather.
Lake Mead - the weight of the water in Lake Mead is so great and, of
course, it's focused in such a small part of the topography that Lake
Mead created earthquakes in that region. So it's not only the climate
but itâs the seismic conditions of that region that are affected by Lake
GROSS: You say the weight of Lake Mead, you say it's 41.5 billion tons
Mr. HILTZIK: Yes, 41 billion tons of water on a very small patch of
land, so, yes, it deforms the crust of the Earth underneath.
GROSS: So is there proof that that's what caused this big 1939
earthquake across the desert floor between Boulder City and Vegas?
Mr. HILTZIK: I think that's well understood. Seismic experts, yes,
theyâve determined that it wasnât really the size of Lake Mead but it
was the process of filling it, draining it, filling it and draining it,
that's what created the earthquakes. Now, after some upstream dams were
completed and Lake Mead, the filling and draining slowed down, they got
a lot fewer earthquakes.
GROSS: FDR did the dedication when Hoover Dam was opened. He presided
over the final part of the dam construction. What was his role in the
building of the dam?
Mr. HILTZIK: Well, he had very little role. The dam was in fact
conceived by Theodore Roosevelt. It was enacted and signed into law by
Calvin Coolidge and then it was launched by Herbert Hoover - all
Republican presidents. One of the ironies of the story is that during
the 1932 presidential campaign, Roosevelt attacked Hoover for his public
works spending. This was all deficit spending. In one famous speech
during the campaign, Roosevelt really took off after Hoover for
overspending the federal budget.
Now, of course, once Roosevelt came into office and this was his
project, he took full ownership of it. He came out to dedicate it on
September 30, 1935, and it was well noticed by Republicans, certainly at
the time, that when he dedicated it, the name of Herbert Hoover was
never mentioned in a full day of ceremonies.
It's important to remember also that within a couple of months after
taking office, the Roosevelt administration took Hoover's name off the
dam and for 14 years the dam was known as Boulder Dam.
GROSS: And how did Hoover's name get back on it?
Mr. HILTZIK: Well, Hoover's name got back on it in 1947, when there was
a Republican Congress in Washington for the first time in 14 years. Now,
at that point, the memories of the Depression had begun to dim and
Hoover himself had - his reputation had improved somewhat. He had
resumed his role as the chief of war relief, which was the sort of thing
that had brought him to national attention during the First World War.
So he had much more of a humanitarian reputation by 1947. So the
Republican Congress moved to put his name back on the dam and Harry
Truman, who was president at the time, and happened to be a friend of
Hoover, decided to get out of the way. So his name was restored and it's
been on that dam ever since.
GROSS: The building of dams has fallen out of fashion. What are some of
the problems that environmentalists now say are created by dams?
Mr. HILTZIK: Well, this is one of the issues that was never considered
when Hoover Dam was being built, but when you dam a river, basically,
you reduce the flow downstream. That's going to affect wildlife
habitats. In certain rivers youâre going to destroy the spawning grounds
for fish like salmon. Youâre going to destroy wetlands. Youâre really
interfering with a lot of ecological balance when you build a dam.
That's not the only reason that dams have sort of fallen out of favor.
Dams are very expensive and the water that they provide for users is
very expensive water because of the capital expense of building a dam.
These days, it's much wiser - it's seen as much wiser to look for other
sources of water supply, including conservation and reclamation. And
this is what we try to do now because it's much cheaper, much more
efficient and much more ecologically friendly.
GROSS: Well, Michael Hiltzik, I want to thank you a lot for talking with
Mr. HILTZIK: My pleasure.
GROSS: Michael Hiltzik is the author of "Colossus: Hoover Dam and the
Making of the American Century." You can read a chapter on our website,
freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.