Michele Guihan: In Her Element — Quotes Magazine
Michele Guihan

In Her Element

Illustration by Evgenia Nikolova

Michele Guihan’s interesting life and professional path began in art school, followed by the turbulent seas, and currently the construction sites of Seattle. She shares with us how one gets used to the constant rocking of waves and not seeing land for days.

Tell us a little about your background: your childhood, your education.

I grew up in a small town in the most scarcely populated state — Wyoming. Basically in the middle of nowhere. Like in all those cowboy movies where you see the tumbleweeds blow through the fields and it is flat as far as you can see, no mountains no hills. That’s where I grew up. It was a safe place, but you had to create your own environment.

You had to have some sort of imagination, or you would just wither away and accept the dusty landscape as your own personal hell.

As for me, my bedroom window faced west, so I was able to enjoy the most spectacular sunsets of my life. Since we were so high in elevation, there was rarely any cloud cover, and the sunsets were rich in red and orange. Wisps of clouds to create these incredible landscape in the sky. I would sit at my window, watch the sunset, and dream of the sea. I’d only seen the ocean once on vacation, but I had a fascination with clipper ships since I was young. I had a small collection of ships.

Fast forward — I was 15, and my family moved to the West coast — Washington State. We lived in a small suburb of Seattle, but the city was always appealing to me. I graduated from high school in June, and July 1st I had my first apartment in the city of Seattle. I have lived in the city since. I love the city of Seattle. I think it is one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

I was awarded an art scholarship for my first year of art school there. It was a specialized Advertising Art/Graphic Design program, and they never usually took people straight out of High School. I had to go in front of a few boards to convince them that I was serious. And I was serious. I spent my senior year of high school interning at a top rate advertising agency, and they helped me get the spot. I ate, drank and lived for art. I internalized every emotion that I had by portraying it on canvas. I spent my senior year doing 44 pieces. That was exhausting! I had no social life. I just internalized everything and painted.

You graduated from art school, how did you decide to jump on a fishing boat?

Being in art school is not cheap. In fact, it requires more financial resources than for the regular student. So I was having a hard time working and going to school at the same time. After the first semester, I had to move back home to my parents’ house.

I needed a summer job, and I saw an advertisement for work in Alaska on a boat. That just hit me. I could work on a boat??!! I have always dreamed of what it would be like on a boat, so I jumped at the opportunity. I didn’t know what to expect and I couldn’t have been more excited. I flew into Dutch Harbor Alaska. The plane lands on a tiny strip next to a giant mountain with the water on the other side. You are told to go down into crash position, and once the plane’s wheels hit the ground, they put on the brakes. Once you land there is a huge round of applause! Then I took a taxi to a bunkhouse. On the way, I watched a young boy pump gas into a van from a drum. That was their gas station. It seemed so primitive! I spent a few days at the bunk house, and then eventually the ship arrived.

As we have seen on reality TV, dangerous situations can occur. Have you ever encountered any?

Yes. Fishing is a very dangerous job. You can’t predict mother nature, and

living inside a big steel container bobbing up and down in the middle of the ocean is a little daunting if you really think about it.

It was my second contract — I think I was 19-20 years old, and we were steaming from Dutch Harbor to Kodiak, Alaska. If you look at it on a map, it looks like a quick trip, but it takes days. The Gulf of Alaska is huge, and the Aleutian Islands, where Dutch Harbor is located, are way up there. It’s a 7 day non-stop trip to reach Dutch Harbor from Seattle. When you’re steaming, the ship is going too fast to fish, so we weren’t working at that time. The weather was normal — a little choppy but nothing unusual. The captain was in the wheelhouse listening to all the radio channels when a Mayday call came in. It was a woman’s voice, cutting in and out, so he was only able to get half of the coordinates. He immediately called out to whoever else was listening, and a tug boat and freighter both answered that they heard the Mayday call, but that they were only able to catch sections of it as well. The 3 of us worked together to figure out where the location was, and all 3 vessels headed that direction. We were all about 2 hours away. As we got closer, the captain sent the foreman around to wake everyone up. We were all told that a ship had gone down in the area, so everyone was to line the perimeter of the ship and look for debris, liferafts, people, etc., and to shout out if anything was spotted. We saw the sunk boat. Just the bow was bobbing in the water, so it looked like a 4’ triangle and we knew we were in the right area. An upside down aluminum skiff floated by us, but we just let it drift by. Then someone spotted what looked like a survival suit, so we launched our skiff, and the deckhands drove out to pull in the person. It turned out to be a young girl. Probably my age, but she didn’t make it. She was grayish-white with blue lips, her eyes were wide open, and under her survival suit was the yellow raingear we all wear. She looked like one of us. The tugboat pulled up the aluminum skiff, and there was a man tied to it underneath. The girl had a piece of paper in her sweatshirt pocket that had her name, the name of the boat and $1500 in cash. The 3 captains figured that, due to the size of the bow, it was probably just a small boat with only 2 people who got caught in a strong cross wind while trying to go between these 2 islands. We ended up delivering her body to the hospital in Kodiak — a day’s trip.

That was a long story, but a shorter one concerns the trip to Russia we took back in November 1992. We arranged a deal with the Russians to allow us to fish in their waters. Once we left Dutch Harbor, we just headed West for days and ended up hitting a big storm. The ship I was on was about 100 feet long and maybe 3-4 stories tall, so it was a fairly good size, but the storms in the Bering Sea dwarf even the big boats. The Captains steer the ships so that they bob up and down between the swells at an angle. If you are sideways, the waves would just tip you over, and if you go ahead the giant swells just pound the boat, lifting you up in the air and tossing you around like a toy.

We would run into storms all the time, so they weren’t really scary to me — more of a nuisance because it was hard to walk down the hallways without getting thrown all over.

Photo: Guliver Photos/Getty Images

You had to sleep with your arms and legs bracing you on the sides. No matter how much we tied down our books and movies, they always managed to end up on the floor. The Russian storm ended up lasting 7 days straight. At that point, you’re just fed up. It’s like riding a roller coaster for 7 days straight. I have videos of us playing cards in the hallway, sitting cross-legged, and one person would set down a card on the floor, and then we’d slide about 5 feet down the hall, put down another card, slide back again. It’s funny to watch because we were so used to the rocking by that point that no one even bat an eye.

Can you walk us through a typical day on such a boat? We guess it just never stops rocking.

A typical trip on the boat starts in Dutch Harbor where we would fuel up and load up on groceries, spare parts, factory packaging, repair any damage, etc. The backload would take about 2 days. Then we’d steam out to the fishing grounds which always varied depending on where the fish were. The experienced Captains always knew the hot spots depending on the time of the year. Also, we fished for Pollock, and the fish travel in huge schools, so it wasn’t unusual so see 10 factory trawlers fishing in the same spot.

I became a Quality Control Tech fairly young, so that was the majority of my fishing career. I worked 12 hours on/ 12 hours off. I could choose whichever hours I wanted since I was head QC, and I liked to work from 2 pm to 2 am. That fit my biological schedule best. The crew worked 16 hours on, 8 off.

We would catch bags of fish that were 60 tons, divide them into bins, and then drivers would put them into a Baader machine that would take 120 fish a minute and spit out 2 fillets without skins from each fish — total of 240 fillets a minute. It took about 2 weeks to fill the hold.

My job was to train the inspectors and do continuous checks on the machines, and on the inspectors. Every 6 hours there was a different lot code, so if we had problems for a prolonged period, I would just downgrade the entire lot so that the fish would be sold at a different price. It was pretty simple work.

They had really good cooks on the boat, and there was a meal every 6 hours, so that was a nice comfort. Also, the galley crew did all your laundry for you. Most of us brought tv’s and a ton of books and movies. We played cards, watched movies, played video games and just hung out. Probably what it would be like to live in a dorm. We would spend 3 months together so by the end we did feel like family. It was usually so cold that we didn’t go outside. Just the deck crew. We had windows in our state rooms so we could see out, or go up to the wheelhouse where the captain is — that’s all windows, but all you see is water in every direction.

How does one get used to not seeing land for such a long time?

Not seeing land never bothered me. The ocean is hypnotizing, so it’s very calming to look at the waves for hours. I was so in awe of being on a boat, being in the sea, that sea-sickness wasn’t an issue for me. I fact, I didn’t even know that people got seasick. So I never suffered from that. To this day, I still feel that seasickness is all in the mind (except for cases in little boats). I started out working in the factory doing mundane work, but it was the greatest experience I had ever had. In the factory, I got to work side by side with people from all over the world.

When the person next to you is dressed exactly as you are, class barriers break down, you get to learn about the person, not their lifestyle.

You work in construction now: how did this happen and what is it that you do exactly?

I was getting older, and I wanted a plant, and I wanted a pet. So I left the fishing industry.

I met my husband on the boat, he was a deckhand, and we decided to buy a house. We couldn’t afford anything where we were renting, so we headed a little south — still in the city though, and found a fixer-upper.

The kitchen needed a makeover, but they wanted $150 for a door. So I looked at what it would take to build it ourselves and figured out we could do it for a fraction of the cost. We bought a bunch of tools and started building the cabinets ourselves.

I guess one thing led to another, and someone told me about an apprenticeship program where they teach you how to become a carpenter. I thought it would help me with my home projects — and then it turned into a career.

I entered the apprenticeship in 2007 and finally journeyed out in 2013. It took me longer because I only specialized in finish carpentry. I pretty much work on high-end condos, schools and as of late — have been doing a ton of Amazon offices. I love the work. It is very challenging, and finally allows me to have my creative outlet.

Photo: Guliver Photos/Getty Images

Have you ever felt any different attitude towards you in this field, just because of being a woman?

As far as being a woman on the job — the guys take care of me. I have never been discriminated against in any of my careers. Regarding the carpenters — we all work together so closely that we are like family. They will come to my aid even when I don’t want it. We’re all just friends. They are like my brothers. I think they would say the same. I love the guys I work with, and I think they like working with me as well. Who else would they have to ask for female advice?

To this day, the fields you worked in are mostly occupied by men. Still, are there more and more women entering them?

When I worked in the fishing industry, the largest crew I worked with was about 100 people, and there were 11 women on that trip which was a record. Most of the time, the Galley crew, who did the laundry and cleaned the boat, was all female. Half of the time, the cooks were female, so that would account for 4 women. I always had the same assistant QC who worked the opposite shift as me, and she was a female, and once in a while there were female processors. But overall it was rare to see women on the boats.

As far as the Carpenter’s Union — they are trying really hard to recruit more women. They have trade fairs and different organizations who try to reach out to women to join. The company I have worked in for the last 7 years has only me. I did hire 2 different women on the last job I was on, but they couldn’t do the work. I also had to let go of a few men who couldn’t do the work, so I don’t think it’s a gender thing. In my opinion,

women who join the trades pretty much know that they have to get their hands dirty, and if that wouldn’t have been appealing to them, then they wouldn’t have joined.

All men think they can swing a hammer, even if they can’t, so the few women I’ve seen through the years have all been really good.

There are a lot of electricians who are female — you can spot them easily because they pull wire all day, they don’t get dirty at all, so they always have long painted fingernails and glittery jeans. They are the most feminine girls on site. There are also a lot of female laborers who do a lot of clean up. I see the double amount of women now as compared to when I started in 2007.

What do you like to do in your free time?

When I’m working, I don’t have much free time, so when I do I just like to relax — have some beers, watch movies — just boring stuff. I always have an ongoing house project. I used to tackle them with much more vigor, but now I just take my time and maybe do a couple of hours a day. My last project was remodelling a bedroom — painting, new flooring, etc. I also repurposed an old headboard into an industrial style desk for the room, using pipes. I like to build my own furniture because I can make it out of real wood and it would be cheaper than buying.

What’s next?

I would like to continue in the Carpenter’s Union. I need a little more experience to feel comfortable running jobs, but that’s the natural progression. As I get older, I’d either like to be a finish foreman or a project manager running things from the office. I do like being in the field though. I have had office jobs and they just bore me. I like the activity and camaraderie of working in the field. The guys I work with are funny, and we laugh and joke around all day. It makes it fun to go to work.

Published 22.02.2016