Sea Change

Boat captain Holly Ann Firuta and other women are charting new waters in male-dominated fishing circles

Shore Stories


LEWES, Del. -- Like many childhood disappointments, this one remains stamped in Holly Ann Firuta's memory -- as fresh as today's catch, as lingering as the smell of menhaden that once wafted over this 375-year-old fishing town.

Growing up a tomboy in a Philadelphia suburb, Firuta was the daughter of a boat lover without a boat. But her father had the next best thing -- a friend with one. And when that friend would invite him on a trip, he'd usually extend the offer to her father's offspring as well.

"Bring the boy along," he'd say.

Firuta would be dying to go. She'd been fishing since age 10, when she got her first fishing rod, a gift from her grandfather. But, more often than not, she'd stay home while her father and brother went -- left to pass the time by gardening or getting up a game of kickball with friends in the street.

"I wasn't a `doll' kid," she says. "I always enjoyed being outdoors, and especially fishing, but as a woman, it was harder to get included."

Today, Holly Ann Firuta is one of the boys, having penetrated the salty old fraternity of charter boat captains, in the salty old fishing town of Lewes, no less. Her 29-foot boat, the Miss Sunshine -- the only working charter boat in town regularly captained by a female -- bobs demurely at a dock harboring mostly much bigger ones.

Nearby, there's the Martha Marie, with a male captain and an all-male crew; the Miss Kirstin, with a male captain and an all-male crew; the Lewestown Lady, with a male captain and an all-male crew. Half the boats, it seems, have women's names.

Yet women haven't exactly been warmly welcomed into the fishing industry, neither the commercial nor charter ends. Both have long been, and remain, predominantly male, in large part because of the legacy of an age-old, high-seas superstition holding that women on boats were bad luck.

Even though boats were seen as female, females weren't seen on boats.

But more and more women like Firuta -- a physical therapist part of the week, a charter boat captain the rest -- are breaking through the teak ceiling and operating their own charters. And more, too, are taking other jobs on the sidelines of the $36 billion-a-year industry, from hauling bait to selling tackle to fixing boats.

Today, it is possible for a fish -- that creature that has for centuries served as the basis for much male bonding -- to be pulled from the sea with virtually no male involvement.

Here in Lewes, for instance, worms delivered by SherryJo's Custom Bait in Virginia to Joan Muldowney, owner of Old Hookers Bait and Tackle, could end up being put on a hook by a female mate, and dropped in the water by one of the many female customers that regularly charter Firuta's boat.

"Holly works harder to get you fish because she wants to prove herself," said Kathy McClure, a repeat customer from Lititz, Pa., who spent a recent Saturday afternoon reeling croakers out of the Delaware Bay aboard the Miss Sunshine.

After eight hours of serving as mate on her mentor's boat, Firuta had returned to the dock that day to take her own charter group out on a four-hour trip -- the kind of 12-hour-plus workday that isn't unusual for her on weekends.

Firuta, 43, works three days a week as a physical therapist. She has started her own company that helps make houses more functional for their aging owners. She is a certified "aging in place specialist." She serves on a state fishing advisory council. She invented a portable weight training system that uses water for weight. She is the president, dean and headmaster of Captain Holly Ann's Fishing School.

If she sounds like a workaholic, dream-chasing overachiever, maybe that's what it takes for a woman to break into the charter fishing business.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, about 6 percent of people who operated boats for a living in 2002 were women. Women make up about 18 percent of total employees in water transportation, 15 percent of those in boat building and repair, and 11 percent of those in boating sales.

A spokesperson for the National Association of Charterboat Operators said that, while it couldn't provide a breakdown of its members by gender, the number of female captains has grown in recent years.

Firuta isn't the first woman to captain a charter fishing boat in Lewes. Others have come and gone, most often wives or daughters of captains. But that didn't keep the boys on the dock, some of them anyway, from a few elbow nudges when Firuta first hung up her sign for Hook 'Em 2 Charters six years ago.

"Originally, I think she was looked down upon," said William Cheyney, 68, a lean and leathery charter boat captain who has been running fishing trips out of Lewes for 38 years and who served as Firuta's mentor.

"As men, they will gossip," Cheyney said. "Some of them pooh-poohed the whole idea of a female captain at first. But when I took her on as a first mate and they saw how hard she worked, they started to gain a lot of respect. There's a lot of respect for her on the dock now.

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