This First Person column is written by Maisie McNaughton, who is a deckhand on a lobster fishing boat in Aldouane, N.B. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.
A sou’easter blew with force, stronger by the second, making the waves choppy and short. My mom, laughing as she tends to in these situations, said, “Ya gotta drive ‘er it like you stole ‘er!”
We were sailing at a good clip to keep her lobster boat steady and skip over the waves. A bit nervously, I laughed along with her, somewhat glad that we were cutting our fishing day short as we bounced among the tumultuous whitecaps.
I was sitting at the lunch table where we sometimes enjoy a meal together as a break from the day. All seemed relatively fine, albeit a bit rough, until we had to turn starboard at a point where one current meets the other in the gully. Rather than taking the waves head-on, we were suddenly being slammed port side.
“Hang on!” my mom’s voice boomed, as I snaked my arms tightly around the metal pole that runs from the ceiling to the floor through the middle of the table. The boat pitched sideways and lurched so aggressively that my feet went clean off the floor while my stomach somehow found its way into a place in my throat. I looked (literally) down at my mom with the wild ocean as her background, her feet braced against the hull of the boat where she stood in an almost upright position. The underbelly of the boat came up from its rightful place in the ocean, threatening to tip over. Mom was white-knuckled as she gripped the steering wheel to avoid going overboard and went hand-over-hand on that wheel to straighten us out.
Luckily, she did. We sailed from the Northumberland Strait toward the calmer Richibucto River (which means “river of fire” in Mi’kmaw), laughing the way one only does when they’ve just survived something together.
Later, we learned that a boat sank just five kilometres south of where we had been. In our small eastern New Brunswick community, where wharves pepper the seaside landscapes, word spreads quickly, and we were relieved to hear that the crew was rescued by a nearby boat. Still, an unsettled feeling creeps into my stomach whenever I reflect on that day.
Being on the ocean is not for the faint of heart.
By that logic, my family is made of strength — with saltwater somehow coursing through our veins. My brother is a deckhand on a container ship. My mom, Debbie Thompson, was one of the first female lobster captains in New Brunswick. She has 24 seasons under her belt. And for the past five years, I have been a deckhand on her fishing boat.
Being a female in this male-dominated industry has never seemed to be odd to me, because, fortunately, my mother has blazed the trail.
When she bought her rig in 2000, having a female captain was rare. Even as recently as 2023, there are only 33 female captains in the province — that’s about three per cent of all captains. “Bad luck to have a woman on a boat,” was a common superstition I heard grunted behind my mother’s back — as well as to her face.
Yet, through determination and pure grit, Mom bought The Toy, her first boat.
Two decades later, I heard that same calling for the sea that my mom had deep within my own soul as I geared up to fish on her newest boat, 13 Blue Lobsters.
Since that decision, I’ve come to equate fishing with my sanctitude — my holy place.
Sometimes, it feels sacred, sailing out while gazing at the infinity of stars or watching the sunrise paint the sky with glorious hues of colour — knowing that my eyes are among the first in Canada to welcome the sun.
Sometimes, it’s a “Holy [insert expletive here]” kind of day — as it was when Mom and I hit rough weather that day in August 2020.
At times, it’s a place of prayer — for a good catch, health or fine weather. Other times those pleas centre around the classic fisherman’s prayer: “Dear God, if you ever let me see land again, I’ll never come back out here again,” with a whispered “until tomorrow.”
As dangerous as fishing is — it’s ranked among Canada’s most dangerous professions — it’s also reflective of life. The sea is as beautiful and kind as it is ruthless and merciless. I’ve heard countless stories of times when the winds whipped up into a gale force out of nowhere and dragged innocent people into its depths, only to calm to a whisper shortly after, leaving the surviving fishermen to finish their season in grief.
We’ve all had days out there where we truly did not know if we would be lucky enough to make it home. That unsettling fear does not discriminate based on gender. Neither are lobsters able to tell if they are going to enter a trap left by a woman.
My mom now receives due respect for her endurance all these years and she has made it easier for young women like me to enter the industry. I always greet these women with a smile, knowing that we share the bond of being reckless enough to go on the ocean every day.
I haven’t had to shatter glass ceilings to step into fishing — wildly brave women like my mom have already done that for the rest of us. I feel like people give me respect when they learn about my choice of trade — and I think my mom now feels the same. What hasn’t changed between her generation and mine is the uncertainty of life at sea.
With rising expenses and fluctuating seafood prices, we never know for certain what each year will look like, but my mom and I are in it together. I know that as I continue my fishing journey, there will be more close calls, rough seas, and days when my knees will shake for hours when I finally step ashore.
And there will be more adventure, beauty, and victories than I can count.
You may call us fishermen, fisherwomen, or (my least favourite) fish harvesters. But at the end of the day, we are all just sailors, putting our lives on the line to make a living and bring a fine feast of lobster ashore.
One day, perhaps I’ll even be able to call myself captain.
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