“Stay in the bay or go offshore and make a hell of a lot more.”Fisherwoman Kelly Lester took that advice to heart a few years ago when she started fishing offshore on her boyfriend Captain Billy Carman’s boat, Billy the Kid. Prior to that, she kept to the inshore bays and harbors like her late father Calvin Lester and brother Paul Lester. Unless the ice prohibits it, she still oysters inshore during the winter months, but this time of year, she is on the open waters of the Atlantic.
“I always wanted to go dragging,” Ms. Lester said one day last winter. The waters were iced over, allowing her a rare free moment.
She takes advantage of her off-season time by visiting people she hasn’t seen in a while and cooking for her family.
The hardest part about going offshore, she said, is the guilt of not being able to spend more time with her son, Will, who inherited his mother’s red hair and love of fishing. When he’s a bit older, he’ll realize everyone has to make sacrifices to put food on the table, especially mothers. For now, Will has a mother who does what she loves to do and never backs down from a challenge.
Ms. Lester was working on the docks shucking clams, when a friend finally agreed to take her fishing offshore. The wind was blowing northwest 20 to 30 knots and the greenhorn was deathly ill.
“How are they even standing up,” she said she asked herself of the crew, while she was puking. “It was a shitty first time,” she said.
There’s no escaping when you’re seasick. You can’t eat and lying down in the bunk won’t help. Nothing makes it better. Except maybe taking a Dramamine before leaving the dock. You live and learn.
Back at the dock, her friend told her, “Well, I figured I’d take you on a terrible day so you wouldn’t want to go back.”
Even though she was embarrassed about throwing up, Ms. Lester did not let a little seasickness stop her.
“Being a woman in the fishing industry is always interesting,” she said. You have to prove that you are capable of doing the work, in a man’s world. Most fishermen will tell you ‘girls on a boat are plain bad luck,’” she said.
She was told to “Stay home and play with my oysters.”
No matter what, Ms. Lester has a can-do attitude.
“I wanted to figure it out,” she said.
At first she was a “fill-in lady deckhand,” which got the attention of Captain Carman, who told her she was the best deckhand he’d ever had in his life.
“That made me feel pretty good,” she said, “Hauling and setting that many pots, you have to be coordinated.”
Being on a boat is dangerous for obvious reasons, like being in the middle of nowhere, at the mercy of the weather. Add in the work itself, and there’s danger in a rope snaking around your ankle, under your pant leg, unnoticed, which happened to Ms. Lester on one early trip.
“That scared me good,” she said, “Hell, you go overboard and if you don’t cut yourself out you’ll die.”
You can lose a finger if one gets stuck in the net mesh so she’s learned to work open-handed. “Never grab a net,” she said.
Experienced crew members gave her tips that she now passes onto other greenhorns. The best advice when working on a fishing boat at sea is simply, “pay attention.”
Like any other job, offshore fishing has its good and bad points. When you have a pile of fish and no one is there to bother you, it’s the most peaceful place on earth. On the other hand, the vertigo can get bad and the heat oppressive.
Lifting big ocean pots in the heat of the summer is not easy for anyone. Ocean fish pots have growth on them like millions of mussels, adding to the heft. As romantic as the job is, fishing takes a toll on the body.
“No one works as hard,” she said.
The job is hard enough but when the wind is blowing, it’s super hard.
“No one could believes how shitty it gets out there, even in summer,” she said.
One time, the wind came up howling off the stern of the boat while they were catching dog fish and things got nasty. Billy the Kid went around the Montauk Lighthouse but the supposedly safe harbor wasn’t safe enough.
“My whole kitchen is rocking back and forth. Oh my God this is horrible,” she remembered, “Everything went flying. Even the dog was puking. Safe harbor. Yea right, safe harbor.”
Still, Ms. Lester craves going offshore for days at a time. The smell of diesel fuel, fish, seawater and coffee is addicting and the beauty of the sea is beyond compare. There’s no sense of time and no set schedule.
“You could be eating dinner at 2 a.m., get a nap for three hours and be back on deck picking fish,” she said, “No phones, no traffic, no people, just us, captain and crew.”
During the summer, she does miss out on family barbeques and get-togethers and when she is home, she is usually sleeping. After coming in from a long trip, it’s hard to get back on schedule, especially with a child, but Ms. Lester seems to juggle things just fine.
“I’m doing what I always wanted to do and am going to continue,” she said.
“Now that I’m older, I’m not as crazy. If the weather is bad, I won’t go. I’m still a girl.”