Betty Roberts and her husband Vernon were commercial fishing in the days when salmon were plentiful and women stayed home with the kids. Betty was a hard-working woman who risked her life time and again to be with her husband. Her devotion, tenacity, and bravery are equaled only by her rugged feminine wisdom and patience. Her book is a collection of stories in her own words, as told to a friend in a candid conversation in the 70’s.
The Adventures of a Mendocino Fishwife
by Betty Roberts
The Yukon Gang, “No Woman on Boat”
And, uh, I remember . . . it was, like the second year, and we were learning to fish our own boat. At the starting of the season we used to have what they called the Yukon Gang, the fleet from San Francisco. They were little boats, probably ten or twelve of ‘em, that used to come up here every year, and they were mostly Italians.
Some of ‘em, they had their sons with them, who were young, but most of ‘em were the old Italian families. Anyway, they did not believe that a woman should be on a boat. It’s bad luck. So, when I started fishin’ with Vernon, and there they were . . . I mean, we were taboo.
And they really were angry that I was fishin’ on the boat with Vernon. They didn’t have anything to do with us, you know. They would say, it’s bad luck, they’d tell Vernon, it’s bad luck, the wife shouldn’t go, no woman on boat.
And Vernon would say, well, my wife’s going.
So we’d go every day and we did . . . just really well. We learned, and we caught fish, and we would catch as many fish as they did. We caught enough fish, and learned enough, they did start takin’ notice and they realized . . . well, maybe it isn’t bad luck.
And gradually they accepted me, and I think it started a change, just like everything else, you know, things changed, they accepted me, and just started talking and . . . like I was just another man on the boat. But . . . it was fun, learning all these things.
Getting Along Together
But, as I said, that first year is the toughest, for any couple, to be together on a boat. I mean, it’s so close. You’re constantly on top of each other. Especially as small a boat as we had, fishing. But we did pretty good not to kill each other, I guess. He’s hot-headed and I have a temper also. I don’t sit back and keep my mouth shut very often, once in a while I do, thinkin’ of some way I can get even with him.
I think, one of the first things I done to get even was, we were fishin’ out of Albion at the time . . . and I don’t know, we may have been fishin’ for a year and a half, and I used to holler at Vernon, because I was up on the bridge and I’d always watch the poles, to see if we were getting any fish, and we were in the fish . . . they were nice fish . . .they were big fish, and he was workin’ his butt off back there and anyway, I’d see one of the lines going, or something. I’d holler at him, and say, this side’s going or that side’s going. If he wanted to ignore me, he’d just ignore me, he wouldn’t say anything, and it used to make me mad, because I knew he was flat ignoring me. I knew he could hear me.
So I went . . we come in one evening, and I had to go to town and get groceries and stuff. I bought this bottle of Ivory Soap, and it has a great big blue whistle on it. Hey, that’s a good idea, I’ll just take that whistle with me! . . . And next time I wanted his attention, I’ll blow the whistle, you know.
So next day we go out, and I mean, it’s so thick a fog you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. I mean, it was thick. And, we were in the fish. We was right off Mendocino, outside of Mendocino. And Vernon was back there pullin’ in the fish, you know and jeez, one side of the pole . . . I mean, on the mainline, that thing started bangin’, and I just knew it was a big fish. I got really excited, and I hollered at him and he was busy, ‘cause he had lines comin’ up, and he was taking’ fish off, and so he didn’t acknowledge me. So, I blowed the whistle. I really blew it hard, too. He had a fish on the leader, and he was just workin’ the fish in, to gaff it and throw it on the boat, and I blew the whistle. Well, he dropped the fish, and I mean, he went straight up in the air . . . and he come out of the gaff hatch, and he was on top of the flyin’ bridge before I could even get the whistle out of my mouth. He thought a freighter was . . . as I said, it was so foggy you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face and the only thing he thought . . . was a freighter was comin’ down on us.
Well I mean, he seen me sittin’ there with that whistle in my mouth . . . I finally got it out, and he got so mad, he tried to get the whistle, told me he was gonna shove it, you know where . . . And I started laughin’, I couldn’t help it, if he’d a throwed me in the water, I’d a died laughin’. I couldn’t imagine anybody comin’ out of the gaffin’ hatch, and on the deck, and up on the flyin’ bridge, I don’t think he even had three steps before he was up on the bridge, and we had a ladder to get up on the bridge. I don’t think he used it. He just knew that a big ship was comin’ down on us, you know, in that fog you couldn’t see nothin’, and then havin’ me blow that whistle, it probably sounded like a foghorn. But, I didn’t have the whistle anymore, he throwed it in the water. Oh, that was a fun thing.
So after that, of course, I told everybody about me blowin’ the whistle on Vernon . . .so they, uh, from then on, they’d say, “You better behave, Vernon, or Betty’s gonna blow the whistle on ya.” It’d make him so mad. But you know . . . little things like that, I kinda got even with him, at times.
of a Mendocino Fishwife
by Betty Roberts