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TV extra or ballast? At sea with Linda Greenlaw

For a few hours Sunday off the coast of Maine, I was an extra on a Discovery Channel reality show about swordfishing.

Or just plain, old ballast, a role I have performed admirably on many a fishing trip.

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Mostly, it was a case of staying out of sight while a black helicopter buzzed the deck of Capt. Linda Greenlaw's swordfish boat, Hannah Boden, getting the footage to fill out the third season of "Swords: Life on the Line."

The casting call was simply a matter of having a drink in my hand (and Greenlaw having one in hers) the night before. Fulfilling my responsibilities was even easier: be on the dock at 9 a.m.

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Greenlaw is in her third season of the Discovery show, on her third boat. The first year, it was a horror-show of a vessel called Nighthawk, which the crew changed to something I can't repeat here. The second season was aboard Bjorn II, which sounded more like an ABBA reunion than a fishing boat.

TV extra or ballast? At sea with Linda Greenlaw

For this fishing season (which will air next year), the captain was reunited with the 100-foot-long Hannah Boden, the sister ship of the Andrea Gail, which went down in the "perfect storm" of 1991. Greenlaw got her big break when author Sebastian Junger called her "one of the best sea captains, period, on the East Coast."

She ran with the opportunity and turned out a couple of New York Times best-sellers, two murder mysteries and a cookbook with her mom, Martha. She tried lobstering near her home on Isle Au Haut, just off the Maine coast, but the deep waters of the Grand Banks called.

Now, re-established, she has introduced her own line of swordfish--caught by her--in one of New England's largest supermarket chains and in specialty shops. More about that in a moment.

The swordfish season is brief--about three months, and the Hannah Boden steamed into Portland, Maine, for the final time last week. The boat's two owners, Jon Williams and Angelo Ciocca, threw their skipper a big welcome home party.

It was at that party that Greenlaw suggested I join her and a few other old friends aboard the Hannah Boden the next morning. A model of efficiency, the captain decided she could do some catching up while driving her boat around in miserable weather.

Cold, windy and grey, the day promised to disintegrate into a gale. Just as we were about to bag it in favor of mugs of hot coffee inside, the helicopter buzzed over the spot on Custom House Wharf where the boat was tied up.

"Anyone who doesn't want to go out for three hours--and the weather is not good and getting worse--get off now," Greenlaw hollered.

A three-hour tour? The weather started getting rough? Where had I heard that before?

The big, green boat nosed out into the harbor, past seals, lobster pots and Portland Head Light. All the while, the helicopter strafed the boat with a video camera mounted in the nose, shooting close-ups. Like, nose-hair close-ups.

TV extra or ballast? At sea with Linda Greenlaw

"Um, Linda, can you tell the guy in the cap and curly hair to get down?" asked the director over the radio. "And no flash pictures."

We crouched lower. Any movement around the wheelhouse was done in a combat crawl. Some people crouched in the head or perched on Greenlaw's bunk.

Freed from the weight of thousands of pounds of swordfish in her hold, the Hannah Boden did a drunken roll as the seas and winds built on a patch of water known as West Cod Ledge. Greenlaw and her crew pointed the boat this way and that so the production team could get some dramatic footage to supplement what six cameras aboard the Hannah Boden captured.

From above, the director posed Greenlaw on the bow of the boat, first port side, then starboard, while inside and warm, her friends hooted in delight.

TV extra or ballast? At sea with Linda Greenlaw

"Where's my stunt double?" Greenlaw shouted over the wind.

Meanwhile, below deck, a visitor got sick.

"At least the guy can say he puked on the Hannah Boden during a Discovery Channel shoot," said Greenlaw, waxing philosophical.

Fame hasn't changed the skipper of the Hannah Boden much. She loves her job: "I like the way I feel on the ocean and I'm passionate about catching fish." She still hates writing: "stepping into your hell" is how she described it to me on the way back to Portland harbor.

But there are changes. She is the legal guardian of a bright, funny 17-year-old girl, Sarai, a story that will be the centerpiece of the book to be hammered out this winter. And, like Charlie the Tuna, Greenlaw has her own brand of fish.

She hopes "Linda Greenlaw hand-selected swordfish" will kick off a trend to keep Maine stores filled with fish caught by Maine fishermen. And she hopes her success will spread the word that swordfish, a once-threatened species, is a healthy species again.

"It is the future," she said. "People are into traceability. They see the fish coming out of the water on the Discovery Channel and now it's on your plate."

The Hannaford Supermarket chain sold her first catch in September--34,000 pounds--in a week. Other high-end shops scarfed up the rest and sold it locally and to specialty shops in Florida, Beverly Hills and Las Vegas.

For the moribund Portland swordfishing industry, Greenlaw's deal may be a tonic.

"For us, we've cut out the middleman. We ended up getting the long dollar back to the boat [owners] and the crew," she said. "That's the name of the game in anything: getting more money for your catch."

Discovery hasn't announced whether Swords will have a life beyond the third season. Greenlaw would like to return.

"I'm having a blast. Why would I change?" she said, grinning. "I might do this a little while longer. It's working pretty well, don't you think?"

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