Ashley Mullenger, aka Instagram’s The Female Fisherman, reflects on her experience of being a woman onboard
Tap into a Google search: “Are women on boats bad luck?”, and this is what you get: “Women were bad luck onboard because they distracted the crew, which would anger the sea, causing treacherous conditions as revenge. However, conveniently for the male crew, naked women calmed the sea, which is why so many figureheads were women with bare breasts.”
I’m currently sat at anchor in a fresh westerly breeze just off our harbour fairway due to an engine breakdown. Luckily I’m waiting for a tow from a fellow fisherman, rather than stripping off, as Google would recommend – but I am thinking: ‘Is it me?’
I sincerely hope I’m not the reason for what seems to be a never-ending cycle of repairs and maintenance on the boat, because quite frankly I’ve never worked anywhere that’s felt so liberating.
I spent over 15 years of my working career in logistics planning and management. I was fairly good at it, but it felt like an endless cycle of stress and frustration, with the same routine day in, day out. I was living for the weekend, and feeling doomed out by the week ahead on a Sunday night.
I fell in love with being at sea around 14 years ago, when I booked an angling trip on a charter boat. The skipper couldn’t get rid of me. His son, who was crewing for him, went to work on a local crab boat, so I spent my weekends and annual leave from work gutting fish and untangling mackerel feathers as his crew.
Sadly for me, he eventually sold his angling boat and began skippering a commercial fishing boat in Wells in Norfolk. We stayed in touch, and in 2016 he bought his own commercial vessel. In 2018, he asked if I would like to come back and work for him, mainly ashore – he could see I was miserable in my office job – so I took the leap, and wound up being drafted in one night to bait and stack the pots.
In 2019, we went into partnership to buy Fairlass, our 11m wooden whelk boat, which is run by his sons, who are working towards buying her from us. In 2020, we also bought Saoirse, an 8m Cygnus, with which we work both whelk and crab gear, and do a small amount of finfish too.
The next step for me is my skipper’s ticket, which I am planning on working towards this winter.
Despite desperately wanting to pursue a career at sea for many years, I was always put off because I was a girl. I thought that being a woman (and having little to no maritime experience) meant that I would not be physically capable or skilled enough to do the job, and that I would potentially endanger others onboard.
Looking back, that notion was foolish: your sex has nothing to do with your safety! In my opinion, it’s more about your awareness, your training, and your skipper knowing your personal capabilities and limitations.
There is no denying that men and women are completely different creatures, but does it matter when it comes to holding down a job in this industry?
Yes, there are certain physical drawbacks to being a woman aboard. For example, we have no toilet, so while a man can pee wherever he likes, I have to pick the least splashy spot on deck, squat and hope for the best (apologies if that was too much information).
Trying to find a lifejacket that’s comfortable and practical to work in is a nightmare – particularly for those of us who are ample in that department. Simple things like boots and oilskins are all in men’s sizes, and don’t cater for things like slender ankles and smaller waists. Of course it’s not a fashion parade, and I’m not complaining – for me, it’s a small comfort sacrifice compared to the satisfaction the job gives me. This is a male-centric industry, and these things didn’t even enter my mind when I first started out, but they could play a part in deterring other women from feeling welcome.
I often get asked: “You have to be pretty strong, though, right?” Yes, it helps, and I’ve gained strength and muscles in places I wouldn’t have thought would be important. Some of our pots have had quick repairs, with drawstring buttons made of twine to pull them closed; these can get jammed tight when grit has got in the drawstring, and when I first started, I didn’t have the strength in my hands and wrists to slide them shut. It used to drive me wild! But I was surprised how quickly my body adapted and built the muscles I needed.
Stamina, in my opinion, is just as (if not more) important. The ability to keep going, and conserving your energy to last you the day, is vital.
Mental strength is crucial; this job tests you. A large part of your day is spent with a small handful of other people, isolated in the same space for long periods of time in what can be a hostile environment, where one person makes most of the decisions and their word is absolute.
Add fatigue, and maybe a smattering of foul gear and awkward weather, and the atmosphere can get tense quickly. Trying to hold your tongue can be the hardest thing in the world, and I’m no saint; I’ve had my fair share of ding dongs with the skipper.
But in my opinion, having a woman onboard does not change the dynamic – so I do wonder why this industry still has so few female crew. Maybe it’s a perception that we are not welcome – but I’ve found it has been exactly the opposite. I started an Instagram account as @thefemalefisherman just over two years ago as a means of meeting some of the 12,000 other fishermen in the country.
I wanted to get to know them, learn how they were finding the job, with Brexit on the horizon and the ever-changing regulations, and gauge their thoughts on the future of the industry. What I didn’t expect was the diverse range of skippers, boat owners, processors and deckhands reaching out and sending me messages of support and encouragement from around the world.
Getting a message from another fisherman saying that they love watching what I post, or that they think it’s a great page, really outshines any of the negative stuff (which is truthfully very little) – so to all of those who have stopped by to say hi, thank you for making me feel like I’m in the gang!
Meanwhile, I can see my tow’s masthead light on the horizon, so I had better get my kit on and haul the anchor.
This story was taken from the latest issue of Fishing News. For more up-to-date and in-depth reports on the UK and Irish commercial fishing sector, subscribe to Fishing News here or buy the latest single issue for just £3.30 here.