Sea Change

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

"She's gutsy," he said. "And she's a good fisherman ... fisherwoman ... fisherperson ... whatever."

Lewes transformed

Lewes, the oldest town in Delaware, keeps getting younger.

While it will turn 375 next month, the town that was once a center for commercial fishing and processing has been losing pieces of its crusty heritage for decades. Its transition to tourism is close to complete.

Bed and breakfasts and day spas now dot a main street of mostly spruced-up old houses. The odor that used to emanate from the menhaden processing factory -- where oils from the fish were removed and the rest was ground into fertilizer and livestock feed -- is long gone. Exclusive waterfront condos rise from where factories once stood.

Some of Lewes' old flavor remains, though, especially along the docks, where dogs still lumber about searching for fish heads; where, until his death in June, a homeless cat with half a tail and chewed-up ears named Bad Ass Bob served as honorary mascot; and where you can still find sailors who think a woman's place is in the home, not on the boat.

Joan Muldowney, who four years ago bought a tackle shop on the dock and renamed it Old Hookers, has run into her share of know-it-all men unwilling to take fishing advice from a woman.

"Sure, there are still lots of sexist guys," she said. "We don't really encourage our girls enough to get involved in fishing and things of a marine nature. But the ones I've seen, they were better at fishing than boys. They're a lot more patient."

While fishing organizations estimate that one of every three anglers is a woman, the numbers going out on charter boats is probably less. While females may be bonding over flounder fishing outings, it is still, Cheyney said, "mostly a guy thing."

"Historically, women stayed home and made supper while the men went to sea," Cheyney said. And the only place you'd find them on a boat was on the bow as a figurehead -- "usually a very busty woman."

Cheyney met Firuta in 1999, when she and a friend were customers on one of his striper trips. It was a gray and choppy day and when Firuta's friend became ill, she took her to the cabin of Cheyney's 50-year-old wooden boat, the Stephanie Anne, so she could lie down.

Firuta immediately became intrigued with the ship's instruments, and spent much of the trip asking him questions and peering into his radar screen.

Firuta was already studying to be a captain, and she told Cheyney it was her lifelong dream. She had left her private practice in Philadelphia the year before and moved to Delaware, wanting to live near the beach and work on getting her license.

She had already had her first boat by then, the Bobber Ann docked in New Jersey -- not far from where her father, who would usually rent a boat during family vacations on the Jersey shore, used to take her and the rest of the family.

Not long after moving to Delaware she got a new boat, the Hook 'Em 2, and went to work as a first mate on Cheyney's boat, enabling her to accumulate the hours she needed to log as a mate before qualifying as a captain. Other than using his daughter, Cheyney had never hired a female mate.

"Having a woman on the boat makes the women on the charter more comfortable," he said. "And she's into it. Whether it's cutting bait, baiting hooks, she'll do anything a man can do."

In 2000, Firuta received what's known as a "six-pack" license -- allowing her to take up to six customers -- and started her own charter business, one of about 25 operating out of downtown Lewes.

She continued working for Cheyney, and he continued to advise her on everything from the purchase of her third boat, the Miss Sunshine, to suggesting that she upgrade her license.

About three years ago, she retook the course and earned her master's license, allowing her to pilot boats up to 25 tons.

"I was just very lucky," said Firuta, "lucky that I was at a point in my career where I had the flexibility to even entertain the idea. Not many people can say, 'I just want to work 30 hours a week.' Plus, I was already an entrepreneur so I understood the business end."

Nobody, she said, was too surprised when she left her private practice in Philadelphia to pursue a dream about fish.

"I had always said I wanted to move to the shore and become a captain," she said. "Most people kind of looked at me and tilted their heads, but, knowing me, they didn't think it was that far out."

On the 'Miss Sunshine'

"Welcome aboard the Miss Sunshine."

Firuta has six customers aboard this day -- five women, one man. After a safety briefing and a 30-minute ride, they are drifting far out in the Delaware Bay, their hooks baited for flounder and whatever else might come along.

Croaker after croaker is being reeled into the boat, by everyone except the man.

When he finally hooks one, and starts reeling in, Firuta shouts, "Don't horse it, don't horse it!"

The man asks for an explanation as he continues to reel in, apparently in too dramatic a manner.

"Don't act like a man," Firuta explains.

"Lose your testosterone," another customer offers.

On the Miss Sunshine -- a boat named after her two dogs, Missy and Sunshine, both of which died last year -- female anglers are often in the majority. All-female trips, unusual on most charters, are a mainstay with her.

"It's a man's world, and people see me as someone who is breaking into that and creating a different environment for it," she said. "Some come because they want to support that, but also I think women are inclined to want to fish with a woman."

She also gets a lot of husbands and wives, and families with children -- both on charters and in her fishing school.

"They know Captain Holly Ann's Fishing School is the school of no yelling," she said. "Women don't want to be barked at, and women wanting to learn fishing or boating are usually taught by men who yell."

But those days are changing, she thinks.

"What is really cool in my observation, is that the baby boomers I meet are encouraging their children to have the same experience, regardless of sex -- dads who are as willing to take their daughter out as their son, mothers who are bringing their daughters to learn to fish."

In addition to specializing in taking out women and children, she also caters to people with physical disabilities and other special needs. Firuta has carved out several niches and is constantly looking for new ones -- many of which have nothing to do with fish at all. She operates Eco-tours, with a first mate who is a biologist. She's done sunset cruises, moonrise cruises, full moon cruises and fireworks cruises, and next month she'll take customers out for a closer look at the tall ships arriving in town for Lewes' birthday celebration.

She and Cheyney have become unofficial business partners -- she continues to work as a mate for him and, when she books a large group, she uses his boat.

"She's constantly trying new things and always experimenting. Her mind's going a mile a minute. She's always thinking what can we do with the boats to make money here," said Cheyney, whose boat, the Stephanie Anne, is named after a daughter who died at age 3.

Firuta is not making huge profits. She's lucky, she says, to make any at all, especially this summer, when high gas prices have hit the charter business hard.

"Gas prices are killing us. People who used to come out to the beach three times a summer, now are coming only once," she said. On top of that, rising diesel costs are increasing the already high overhead involved with running a charter boat.

But most charter captains aren't in it for the money, Cheyney said. "It's for the love of the sea and the love of the boat that you do it. It's not to get rich, because you won't."

"I just enjoy being around people who are excited about fishing and being on the water," said Firuta, who still relishes her childhood memories of boating with her father. He died 25 years ago of a heart attack, but Firuta doesn't lament the fact she was never able to take him out on her boat.

"Actually," she said, "I take him out every time I go."

john.woestendiek@baltsun.com

For previous installments in the series and to view a photo gallery, go to baltimoresun.com/shorestories.

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