Nfld. & Labrador

From fancy coifs to hauling pots: How a hairstylist is carrying on her father's work in the fishery

It's a cold day in June, with drizzle and fog, as Stephanie Lights hoists crab pots on her father's fishing vessel. And she wouldn't want to be anywhere else.

Stephanie Lights is the woman in the wheelhouse

Stephanie Lights worked as a hairstylist for more than a decade before she started fishing on her father's boat. (Jane Adey/CBC)

The sun is just coming up on the horizon as Stephanie Lights hoists a bright orange crab pot over her head and stacks it neatly on top of a dozen or so others at the stern of her father's fishing vessel.

The boat heaves with the swell on the water about a five-hour steam away from Port de Grave on Newfoundland's east coast.

It's a cold day in June, with drizzle and fog.

Still, Lights wouldn't want to be anywhere else. 

"I love everything from the time we leave the wharf to the time we tie up again — there's not one thing I don't like," says Lights during a recent filming of an episode of CBC's Land & Sea

I love the challenge. It's empowering, really.- Stephanie Lights

Lights hasn't always hauled pots and emptied bait cans for a living.

She started off in a hands-on industry with a lot more glamour. For a dozen or so years, she worked as a busy hairstylist. 

But, after Lights started a family and had two young children, she found working full-time was a challenge.

That's when her father, Wayne Russell, invited her to join him on board his boat, fishing part-time.

Russell had spent his entire working life on the water.

Sadly, in July 2018, that's where he died — he had a heart attack while out fishing for capelin.

Wayne Russell died in July 2018, while fishing for capelin. (Submitted)

Lights was there when her father dropped to his knees on deck.

"I thought he was just getting ready to go under the ropes … and he just stayed there. I knew then he was in trouble." 

Lights and her father hadn't fished together for even two full seasons before he died. She treasures every memory.

"He was just so happy when he was out to sea. I got to see a side of Dad that I've never seen before ... he just loved it."

Stephanie's mother, Sandra Russell, remembers how impressed her husband was by Lights's effort aboard the boat. 

"He said she could box crab as good as any man, he said. I could hear the pride in his voice. He was beaming," says Russell.

Fathers and daughters fishing together is probably a rare combination, but in Port de Grave, at least, there are a few examples of women following their dads into the industry.

Sandra Russell says if her husband were still alive, he'd be proud of his daughter's efforts. (Jane Adey/CBC)

Jim Porter has been fishing with his daughter, Chelsea, for three years.

Porter and Wayne Russell were good friends. So now, instead of just teaching his daughter about the workings of a fishing boat, he's also giving her a lesson in loyalty and how to help other fishers when the seas of life get rough.

Jim Porter has taken Lights under his wing and is picking up where her father left off. 

"We gotta keep going. I gotta finish something," said Porter.

I kind of think that women are going to be taking over this sometime soon. Very soon, I hope.- Jim Porter

Porter now fishes his own licences on his own boat with his daughter and they both go to sea with Lights aboard her late father's vessel.

Porter is passing on everything to Lights that her own father would have wanted her to know. 

"I'm very grateful to have them. I'm envious for Chelsea that she gets to do this with her dad and I know it would've been the same with my dad if he was still around," said Lights.

"It's nice to know they cared enough to come and help me." 

Before he died, Russell told Porter that he'd fish with Stephanie for five years and then see if she would still be interested enough to continue and take over the inshore licences herself.

Porter said that by stepping in to help, he's giving his friend's family time to heal while Lights continues to fish part-time.

Jim Porter has taken Stephanie Lights under his wing and has picked up where her father left off. (CBC)

Loving the challenge

Lights now has her Fishing Master 4 certificate and is gaining experience with each trip at sea. Fishing is a far cry from her old career as a hairstylist but the 35-year-old is determined to stay on the water. 

"I love the challenge. I love to be able to say I can do this as good as man or … I can do this just as well as anybody else. It's empowering, really," says Lights. 

See the episode: Jane Adey profiles Stephanie Lights for the Land & Sea episode Woman at the Wheelhouse: 

As for Jim Porter, he's proud to see his own daughter and his friend's daughter follow in their footsteps. He said he expects to see double the number of women fishing in the next five to 10 years and he welcomes that change in the industry.

"I kind of think that women are going to be taking over this sometime soon. Very soon, I hope," said Porter.

Posing for a group photo, from left: Chelsea Porter, Jim Porter, Lori Porter-Puddister, Raymond Porter, and Stephanie Lights. (Jane Adey/CBC)

Sandra Russell said if her husband were still alive, he'd be extremely proud of the efforts of both his daughter and his friend, Jim Porter. 

"I think Wayne is smiling," she said. "He's smiling on her and she's keeping it going, his love of the fishery."

As Lights steams back to port on that cold day in June, she looks out at the waves and remembers the times she stood on deck with her father.

Lights says there are times when she looks into the wheelhouse and feels her father's presence.

For her, this fishing boat is a place where she and her dad felt a true connection. 

"I know he loved to do it and I know … that he is with me when I'm fishing."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Jane Adey

CBC News

Jane Adey hosts CBC Radio's The Broadcast, and has worked for many other CBC programs, including Here & Now, Land & Sea and On The Go.