JAN 1, 2018 - A FANTASY ISLAND, WHALE OF A COD FISHING TALE – A COMMERCIAL FISHERMEN REMEMBERS THE TRIP THAT ENDED HIS SHORT TIME IN THE HEAD BOAT BUSINESS

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JAN 1, 2018 - A FANTASY ISLAND, WHALE OF A COD FISHING TALE – A COMMERCIAL FISHERMEN REMEMBERS THE TRIP THAT ENDED HIS SHORT TIME IN THE HEAD BOAT BUSINESS

Postby EC NEWELLMAN » Tue Jan 02, 2018 12:00 am

A FANTASY ISLAND, WHALE OF A COD FISHING TALE – A COMMERCIAL FISHERMEN REMEMBERS THE TRIP THAT ENDED HIS SHORT TIME IN THE HEAD BOAT BUSINESS


“I cannot remembered a time when we had a number of back to back freezing cold winters like we saw during the late 1970’s. It seemed that the last part of that decade was like we plunged back into the ice age up here in southern New England. It never let up, and by this time I was looking to do something different than working on my dad’s eastern rig dragger as my body just couldn’t tolerate the brunt of those bone chilling temperatures from December through April, but I’m getting ahead of myself here.”

“You asked me about how I started in the fishing business, and it was pretty similar to others here in southern New England after World War II. My dad and his family were from the Barnstable and Yarmouth area on the Cape, and he loved telling, or should I say reminding us while growing up on how lucky we were in not dealing with the car traffic when you had to travel to the mainland when we had the old Bourne and Sagamore drawbridge. He said the building of the new steel arch bridges was a real big deal just before the war, and that our area would eventually become like Boston in trying to get from our little part of the world to the mainland. Me and my sister were just young tots at the time and actually enjoyed just getting into the family car and going anywhere, while my middle and younger brother were born a few years after those two bridges were built.”

“The family had a small fish market and dad had been one who grew up on the water, working on small fishing boats that other locals on the Cape had before he got his first 25 footer to fish on his own. Now you may laugh about a man making a living from a wooden 25 foot sloop with a small Lanthrop engine that was rated under 30 horsepower. Clamming and netting fish around the Cape during the spring, summer, fall and early winter, and at times a little handgear fishing in Vineyard Sound, Buzzards and Cape Cod Bay. That was my dad’s world and our world for many years while growing up. He made a living, raised a family and bought bigger boats by doing that over the years.”

“I should mention that the first sloop was built up in Maine, and that was where dad met mom. Why he went up that far north on US 1 to buy a boat, he never did fully explain to us, but thankfully he met a woman who also grew up on the water in a small cove north of Portland. Moms family was similar to ours in that they farmed and fished, and it seemed most of the people we knew did one or the other or both, and they did that for generations. Getting back to Maine and boats, my dad through all the years of fishing and with the sales made at the small fish market, finally bought his dream boat built up in Gamage Shipyard in a small town east of Boothbay Harbor.”

“I know I am rambling a little here, but you asked me a few questions, and I am trying to put it all together as best I remember. The point with that last eastern rig boat was that we fished off Cape Cod for anything that we could catch, and by this time my father was in his latter 50s when he had that boat built, both me and my other brother who I will call ‘Fearless’, not my youngest brother mind ya, were his deckhands. My dad was just so locked into getting up and going fishing as habit, unlike me and my brother ‘Fearless’ who were there for the money.”

“Now the first part of this tale was how we normally cod fished around Crab Ledge, or up north towards Wildcat or out east along what they call the ‘Channel’ and along the Shoals. I know you’re interested to hear about that, but we also went out further east when my father put that loran navigation unit on the boat. Heavens forbid if we touched it too, as we had strict orders to not fiddle with the dials once he set it and gave us a wheel watch on the multi-day trips. This was during the 1970’s where we venture out to the deep near Cultivator, and then fish on Cultivator itself and a few times mosey up to the Northern Rim. Hellacious weather at times, but dad who was around seventy years old and starting to lose his hearing, enjoyed making some very large catches of cod, haddock and pollock, much of it depending on where we towed.”

"It was around the time of that first big fishery law, so I think it was 76 or 77, that we had an incident on the boat which gave me my first thoughts about doing something different than being the first deckhand and galley man on my dad’s eastern rig. We were making a tow in an area where we were consistently catching some steaker size and cow cod. It must have been close to a large shipwreck because at times the old boat would slow down, then stop, a yank, and then we return back to our slow towing speed.”

“Now on an eastern rig you have the gear coming up in front of the captain in the wheelhouse, and lifted and placed onto the middle of the boat unlike what they call western rig style. My father could not understand why anyone would pull their gear off the stern of a boat if you could not easily watch it at all times. Anyway, the winch is straining and the gear comes up, doors and net, and as it is being dropped to the deck I hear my brother cussing, and mind ya, he cussed pretty hard most of the time, but this was different.”

“He is screaming “Silver, Silver, Silver,” and in between one bad word and then the next. Silver was actually our hard working and only non-family member we ever had working on my dad’s boat, Antonio ‘Silva’ but we always seemed to call him by the word for the precious metal and rarely by his first name. Silva is trying to calm my brother down and told him to hold still as had been accidentally hooked by a large chrome-like fishing jig with massive hooks, three in fact or what they call a treble style hook. The hook in fact was on the side of the net and as the bag came down somehow caught my brother on his shoulder and piercing right through his oilskins.”

“My father had dropped the one half window we had on the side of wheelhouse and was leaning his head out with his face cocked to the side in order for at least one of his ears to hear the commotion. I know he heard it because his pipe was going up and down in his mouth which meant he was enjoying it, but didn’t say a word throughout the next few minutes. I also got the brunt of the foul language, and not that I haven’t used my share of bad words over the years but I couldn’t do much more than what Silva was doing at this point twisting that jig out of him.”

“By the time I came over, Silva had removed the jig from my brother’s shoulder and handed it to me. It was heavy, maybe 2 or so pounds but I could be wrong. After we sorted through the catch and sent it down below where Silva was packing the fish in ice, I took it up to my father who asked what had caused the commotion on the deck, like he didn’t know. I asked him if this was some commercial gear, and he said possibly, but more likely was left there by some headboat fishing in the area which he come to hear about from other local commercial fishermen.”

“I actually started to think about it, that being running one of these headboats since I really was getting tired of the ice cold feeling in my body, and not being home for dinner on all too many days when my dad wanted to fish. Worse though was my brother ‘Fearless’ who always seemed to think about money before the weather. He would always complain when my father would say last tow, and he would tell him to put the flat net on to make just a few tows for tails along with a couple ‘chicken’ halibut, or during the Lenten season when all fish was in big demand, after we caught the bigger groundfish he wanted dad to make a few ‘trash tows’ over rocky bottom. Now we would catch a nice mix of fish for our little fish store, but the time we had to spend mending nets and holding that twine needle after the trip was something I no longer looked forward too. I did not mind too much when we went up along the deep off Wildcat which is east of Provincetown for inshore whiting since we did have a connection for selling them to a company that made the finest breaded fish sticks. The point, and which I would fight over with my brother since you had to stuff the fish hold as the return per pound most of the time was literally what you stuck into a pay phone, that being ten cents. This was regardless of the fact of all the sharp finger cuts you would somehow get when packing out inshore whiting due to those sharp nipper-like teeth that even the smallest ‘pencils’ have.”

“It all just happened at one time as my brother ‘Fearless’ wanted to be the full time captain and boss, my mom pestering dad to spend their remaining years together in the store, and the Navigator tragedy which had occurred during the last months in 1977. I know you’re interested in wrecks from what I see written from the stories you wrote, but the Navigator was a nice sized scalloper that just disappeared during a snow storm as a full-blown, late fall gale came up and the vessel was never located. Over a dozen good men were lost with only one body recovered a month later.”

“At that point I was telling my father that a few of us needed a change in life and I broached the idea of studying for a captain’s license and buying a headboat. My youngest brother and sister wanted no part of working with my brother ‘Fearless’ on dads boat or in the fish store, and at this point I was the odd man out if I did not want to go back as the senior deckman with Silva on our eastern rig.”

“Fate does come into play if you are a spiritual person, which in fact I am, and somehow due to my mom who was always on the phone selling seafood to other businesses in New England, that one call she made would change my life. She was speaking to one of our relatives who lived up near Newburyport, Massachusetts and they asked how I was doing. Mom who was always direct when speaking with everyone mentioned that I was a middle aged man looking for a new line of work and wanted to take customers fishing. I just like to remind you that I was not a young man at this point and had a family and did not want to be away from home for days at a time. The relative told her about a fishing family in the area whose father owned and ran a ‘party’ boat, but he took ill and the son wanted nothing to do with the business. They had the boat tied to the dock and were trying to sell it for the past year.”

“Mom tells me about the call and said for me to take a drive up north on 95 to see the family. Sure enough it becomes one of the last family trips that my dad and mom make with me and we drive barely a few hours to where the son meets us. I don’t want to bore you with what happened, but the father had the boat built in Maine with two engines, a rarity at the time, and just fished off Cape Ann and never went further than Tillies and Middlebank. I forget which is which, but their father was like our father, one who built up a small family fishing business from something barely bigger than a nice size dory.”

“Maybe it is the way people in New England are, at least some, and a very fair deal was made to sell me the headboat. Looking back, I think they wanted to be rid of the boat, and yes it was a good deal for both of us at the time. I still can’t get used to the term ‘party’ boat as I had now just purchased one, and rarely have called my boat a party-type of boat.”

“I also worked pretty hard during this time to pass the mariners licensing exam. It took a while, in fact a year, but during that time I had to find a place to run a headboat from. My sister knew a fellow who had come to our fish store a while ago and they had hit it off, but nothing more than good friends. He returned back to his home on the east end of Long Island, but had told my sister about a location to dock the boat and where numerous paying customers would always show up to. The fellow, a tall and very lean fellow who had the initials J.R. just like on that tv show, even volunteered to work for me as long as he was the head mate if I brought the boat there to sail. At the time, I did not know much about fishing off the east end of Long Island, but he said he would help out, and I was just feeling my way along at this stage of my life in trying a new endeavor. "Sure I said," and I just want to point out that it was a good thing having J.R. helping me at that time.”

“The year seemed to go by in a whirlwind as I earned my license on the first shot and finally had the boat safely in her new homeport. I had to relocate my family to the east end, and even though New York was just a few hundred miles by car away from the Cape, it was a foreign place to me, one in which we had never ever packed out fish in all the years when I worked on my father’s dragger.”

“During this time J.R. had rounded up a crew for me, one a snappy, and as sharp as a tac female who I called ‘Ponytail’ due to her having her blond hair always made up in ponytails. She brought along her ‘so called’ companion who got the initials J.P. when I first met him. Now how he got those initials was due to the first time I saw him on my boat. I had dropped down to the boat and J.R., Ponytail and the new J.P. where doing an oil change on the engines and when he got up quickly to shake my hand, knocked over the pail. "What a mess and 'Jesus Please' don’t get up in that tight space," just blurted out of my mouth and Ponytail repeated it as all of them now had to clean up the gooey mess and that was how he got his name. I would never say “Jesus Please” as I did not take the Lords name in vain, but did just one other time and that is with the incident which I am going to tell you about in a few minutes.”

“In a sense I was pretty fortunate to have that crew as J.R. was extremely knowledgeable about the waters on the east end and as much south of Pt. Judith where he was originally from. Ponytail was a hoot, and for the short time I had the boat, she always made it an interesting day on the water or at the dock with the give and take with customers. She was well known for wearing flip flops and a tank top while the weather was warm, and was the first person to cut her Helly Hansen skins at the knees. I asked her why she would do such a silly thing and she said that it was easier to wash off with a hose after cleaning down the boat and only needed to keep her shorts clean. She was a rip when it came to cleaning fish, and she had a Dairy Queen tip cup which was actually made out of glass in which customers would put their fish cleaning tips. I also asked her why she would use a tip container out of glass and said to me that she could hear customers dropping coins into it. It so happened that J.P. who was a very handy fellow, made a nice box in which the Dairy Queen glass was held, and sure enough whenever a customer put coins into this jar, it made a sound. She would stop cutting fish, clean her hands and go into the tip container and pull out the coins and hand it back to the customer and tell them loudy, “you need this more than I do,” and the customer would now literally be embarrassed into giving her a dollar or two.”

“She reminded me of my brother ‘Fearless’ and not because she was fearless, but because she always was working money angles on how much she could make each day. Before the season started, she had J.P. make a nice wooden sign which had a cute cutout of a cod on one side and a bluefish on the other, and a piece of wood that would cover one or the other and the words on top of the sign, ‘WE BUY’ and the fish that she was buying would be seen and the other covered with that sliding piece of wood. When I first saw that sign hanging up on the stern rail of the boat, I started to question her and immediately Ponytail cut me off and said, “Well you’re getting a cut of the fish money too.” Okay I thought and at that time before all the regulations, this was legal to do and she would walk around the deck during the day and remind customers who didn’t want their fish and make a few bucks to pay for their trip to sell her the fish they had caught. Unbelievable, but she would have made some business partner with my brother ‘Fearless’ as they looked at fish as they were dollar bills, little more than that. She would have probably told ‘Fearless’ to stay out until the boat either ran out of ice or the holds could not sock away another fish.”

“I know I am boring you with my crew, but I have to tell you a little about J.P. and that is what we ended up calling him after the mess he caused in the bilge of my boat. His name was actually Stewart and for most of his life he was called Stu-e and he hated it. I came to quickly find out that he was what they call a ‘functional illiterate’ and I only learned about it when I started sketching out some plans for him to build a fish box, and he asked me to just explain what I wanted him to build. We went back and forth and I would keep telling him that I would do all the paperwork and he said not to bother that he could build it by eye, which he did. During this time I asked him how he met up with Ponytail and J.R. and he said that those two knew each other for years and that he connected with Ponytail after the big accident. I asked him what big accident since I was not from around the area. He said that he had a problem in indulging just a wee-bit too much with the adult beverages and one night while he had the bag on, proceeded to play bumper cars in his small town. Over 15 General Motors, Ford and Chrysler vehicles were banged up, and him three sheets to the wind with no driver’s license and a family who knew the mayor of the town, it blew over within a few weeks. From that point on, he had abstained from alcohol and somehow Ponytail who felt sorry for him, would pick him up and drop him off each and every day.”

“The first season was better than I expected and I credit J.R. who was a gifted fishermen for guiding me to the right spots, and Ponytail who the customers seemed to enjoy. I also had luck with J.P. who kept doing little projects on the boat and I was pretty impressed with the galley and booths he had built in the main cabin. As I look back, it was not until year three and the winter weather that I first mentioned that came around during this time period. Unrelenting harsh fall and early winter weather, and most times we kept the boat tied up. Even though my boat was a heavy framed hard wood New England built boat, I did not want to bust her up in order to make a few hard earned dollars fishing off the Point. I picked my days, called J.R. when I saw a little weather window and told him to get Ponytail and J.P. to shape up when we could get out.”

“During those years we had massive schools of sand eels around, and of course they brought the codfish around in such large numbers and ultimately led to fishermen coming down to the dock eager to catch our favorite fish, that being cod. The problem was that we had times where we lit up, had enough people to go and then sadly had to tell them to go back home as I full well knew I couldn’t comfortably get to where I needed to go to fill peoples burlap bags.”

“It was a tough few weeks as the winter was not even into the New Year, and a very strange weather pattern developed. The month of December had been one of the windiest on record as temperatures dropped and then would shoot up into the 50’s and proceed to go back down. Of course with the wild swings in the temperature along with the subsequent heating and then cooling, the wind speeds would be dialed up when the next system would come through. The few multi-passenger boats, and I don’t like using ‘party’ as you now know, were making some impressive catches of cod and pollock and Ponytail was letting me know it each and every night on the phone. How many times she would call me up and badger me into going, and I backed off and was unable to pull the trigger because I knew it was going to be an ugly ride out along with laying out the customers with sickness.”

“Then the weather forecast opened up a small window and I told J.R. to get Ponytail and J.P. down to the boat the day before to start knocking all the ice off along the waist of the boat that built up over the last few days. It had been ice cold for the past week, but the temperatures gradually eased up and the wind forecast was surprisingly mild, too mild in fact and that should have been a subtle clue to the next monster of a front that was coming our way.”

“The bait was ordered and it was easy and as much, cheap to get bushels of surf clams, sometimes thirty bushels dropped off by the local ‘clammer’ to the boat. J.R., Ponytail, and J.P. made up a shucking crew as customers stood around at the dock that morning. I had taken notice of two things while they were entertaining with their shucking skills. There was a blowout tide where the stern of the boat and my wheels were resting in the mud, and the customer's cigarette smoke just waffled straight up into thin air, indicating barely a breath of wind.”

“My father who grew up at a time where a good time piece and compass were the only mariner’s tools would talk from decades of hard learned experience about times such as this when you saw such conditions and to beware. Of course when I stuck my hand into my money pocket and rubbed those dollars bills, all sense or lack of common sense would fade away. I yelled out we’re going fishing and actually pulled away from the dock extra early as we had more than a full boat of fishermen.”

“We slowly made our way out east with the lighthouse at our stern and gradually growing smaller as we passed south of Southwest Ledge, than Sharks Ledge and eventually past East Grounds. The paper machine was turned on and both J.R. and my-self watched the bottom readings appear harder, than fall off, before popping back up and again growing darker and finally, jagged as the rocky pinnacles of the Rhode Island Ledge were now seen. It looked like torpedo’s were going through the salt and pepper readings, and I grew excited to what would eventually be caught on this day.”

“I doubt it mattered where I would toss the jug to mark the spot, but it was close enough to what I considered my best drop. Other boats, both commercial, head and charter, were all around and from the sounds we heard in the distant, it seemed fish were coming up. I gave J.R. the signal to just drop the anchor and as we came back as he was letting out line, the sounds of “mate, mate, mate,” and thankfully Ponytail and J.P. were at the ready to gaff the first few fish of the day that turned out to be very large pollock. I shouldn’t say few, as fish were starting to come up so fast, and I was not worried about sliding away from the spot as the anchor line had gone slack as there was no wind to hold us in place.”

“It seemed that as the pollock were gradually picked off, codfish were making their way into the catch. Fishermen were hooking into some large fish and one customer was yelling about his rig hung up in the bottom until Ponytail yelled at him to start cranking as the line was moving away from the boat and rod now pumping up and down. That turned out to be the biggest cod of the day too.”

“I know you like tackle but all we had for rental rods were made by a company I remember as Southbend which was close to rods made by Harnell. I had acquired, and thanks to J.R. a nice collection of ‘Black Penn Senators’ of the size they call 2/0, 3/0 and 4/0. We normally put pink 60 pound line on them and that was changed during bluefish season where I lightened it up to 50 pound line. We never used those Dee-wa or Daiwa reels and I had never seen a Newell Reel at that time. I have read about them in sport fishing magazines but I never took notice of a customer using one.”

“I had noticed that we were just sitting like a duck with no tension on the anchor and had J.R. put the hauler on and take in the anchor. We continued to fish and it was so good that the heads of the big cod and pollock were starting to poke out of the burlap bags and customers were now tying another burlap bag to the rail. I shook my head and point, to which J.R., Ponytail and J.P. would just go around the boat and cut off the first full fish burlap and asked them to just put it to the side as the deck was getting cluttered between the fishermen and all the fish we now had.”

“I had just bent down to pick up a coffee cup that fell off the bench and was struck by a harsh unforeseen blast of cold air. I thought it was strange and noticed the boat was starting to move as the lines were now starting to scope out at an angle. One of the customers yelled to Ponytail to get them a heavier sinker and two other customers than asked J.P. to do the same. Strange I thought, but I was caught up in the fishing instead of paying attention to the weather. My dad had years before, taught me to watch out for these signs when you have very calm winter weather which he called precursors to a quickly moving severe weather front.”

“It was still early in the morning, but the codfish had grown noticeably smaller and we started to see a few red hake come up in the catch. I told J.R. to get at the ready on the anchor and I pulled the horn for everyone to pick up their lines. I slowly motored up to some heavy readings and ran up past and into the wind before I gave him the sign to dump it. I now noticed I was a little distance away from the original buoy I had dumped, but wasn’t worried about leaving it on that spot. I would pick it up when we were leaving. As the boat settled up, I turned the engines off and walked out of the wheelhouse and then noticed that we had a cold breeze blowing at this point.”

“Fish were coming up again, but it was nowhere as good as the start of the trip, and in now thinking back to those moments, I wish I had the courage to blow three horns and go home, but I didn’t. The wind seemed to ratchet up and the seas now started to build with the first white caps of the trip seen. I watched as customers rocked back and forth and tried to remain steady on their feet as they swung at bites, with some still hooking fish. The bow started to now ride up and down and I called J.R. and J.P. upstairs for a little pow-wow. Back in those days, you caught fish until it was time to go home as you well know, but I sensed it was time to get on going, and wanted for both of them to concur with my decision to leave what was pretty decent cod fishing. That was a mistake in the concurring part with the crew since I knew better as it was my boat, with the customers the captains primary responsibility.”

“Both hobbled up the stairway and wondered what was up and I told them my feelings which met with wonderment about leaving good cod fishing. I agreed and said “Let’s give this another thirty minutes and we will see how bad it is at that time.” It was the first words I wish did not come out of my mouth that day, and I had now given up the chance to make up some distance to our dock before a full blown cold front would come barreling through.”

“I didn’t have to wait the whole half hour as a number of customers had tied up their fishing rods to the rail and had gone in the cabin. Ponytail had stopped cutting fish and was rounding up the bait pails that were sliding down the deck. I had watched at first charter boats steaming back north and west, and then one of the headboats right behind them I figuratively ran into the wheelhouse and blew three horns and started up the engines. I don’t know what I did first, blow the horn or start the engines, but you get my point. J.P. now was up in the bow with J.R. as they were trying to not only get the anchor in, but the anchor cable in the line locker. Slipping and sliding and ‘me’ kicking the boat ahead and it falling off one sea to the next. J.P started to point in the direction of where the jug was last seen and I said to forget it. Then I yelled out the wheelhouse window for him to come upstairs since I wanted to give him instructions.”

“As I powered the boat around we took a pretty bad uncontrolled roll, the first of many that we would experience on our way home, or as I thought at those few moments, hopefully to get home. J.R. first came in dragging Ponytail by the top of her skins and then the door slammed open when J.P. came into the cabin. He had enough sense to tell the customers to stay in the cabin and brace themselves for the ride. The wind speed must had now gone over 40 mph an hour at this time and we were going right into the teeth of it as the seas were now working into the wind. I knew I had 30 plus miles of a horrific ride ahead and loudly told my crew that regular engine room checks would have to be made every 15 minutes because the boat was coming down so hard in these cresting seas and I wanted to know immediately if there were any problems in the most critical part of the boat.”

“My attention was of course drawn to what was in front of me, and I was now having flashbacks to a time back on my dad’s old Gamage built eastern rig with the speed we were averaging possibly reaching around six knots, if that fast. Something fell off the dash and as I reached to pick it up I now noticed the red bilge lights, first coming on and then going off. At first I thought it was a good distraction to what lay ahead, but as the sight of Block Island started to come into view, a few of the red bilge lights stayed on.”

“I now raised my voice indicating that one of my crew has to make their way down not only to the cabin to check on the customers, but to pop into the engine room to see what amount of water was jostling around in the bilge. All quiet ensued from my crew, so I asked once again and added not only to pop the hatch cover, but to put their body inside the engine room to do a proper inspection. Then it happened with the words just sputtering out, ‘Jesus Please’ and still no response.”

“I swiveled my head and saw J.R. pressing his boots into the boots of Ponytail as they laid amongst tackle, fare tickets, towels and other trinkets I had in the wheelhouse. I stared at Ponytail and saw that her and J.R. we’re applying so much pressure into each other’s boots, that the paneling was split right down the middle where Ponytail was sitting. But there was something else as I was looking at Ponytail, she had her head fixed straight ahead but her eyes were first looking at me, then down to the wheelhouse floor, or so I thought. She was actually signaling to me that J.P. was there, and sure enough, unbeknown to me he was now wrapped around and holding onto my leg for what seemed dear life.”

“I couldn’t understand it because I grew up fishing on commercial boats off southern New England and wasn’t worried about myself, but for my crew and the passengers onboard. For over an hour, none would venture outside the wheelhouse and check on the customers, but in one sense they could not as it had become unsafe for anyone to do so. As luck would have it, as we approached the east side of Block the sea heights lessened as well as J.P.’s grip on my leg.”

“I made a slight route change to use as much of the lee of Block to lessen the pounding seas that I was heading into. It helped, but also added extra distance and as much time for an already unbearable ride home. The crew did scamper down the ladder to the cabin where many were laid out and all too many sick from the first part of the ride. Cod, pollock and the other species caught, were now sliding up and down the deck and no one could imagine how many had already washed over the rail and ended up as crab food. The engine room hatch cover was carefully lifted up and slowly the crew went down the ladder. When they returned up to the wheelhouse, J.R. said there was more water in the bilge than he has ever seen since he started working on the boat, but he used another pump to get as much out of the bilge as he could, and all finally left the engine room and just placed the cover carefully back over the hatch.”

“I was now cringing as we were passing on the north side of Block and an area which the old timers nicknamed ‘tugboat channel,’ as it was the informal - centuries old shipping lane where tugs with barges as well as steamers and other vessels, passed through over the years. The reason why I make note of that was due to a number of those tugs and barges that would end up pulling each other down to the bottom within this small area off southern Rhode Island during severe weather.”

“The sea heights started to pick up and the wind was whistling once again through the antennas. The crew wouldn’t leave the wheelhouse, and it seemed that the conditions were even worse than the ride up to Block Island. I was now pulling the engines in and out gear to ride over one wave and then the next. Big rollers continued to assault the boat and the angle home would put the boat in a situation where we would be taking them both in the teeth and then on the beam as I slowly crabbed towards home. Then there was a period of waves with walls of water where I would temporarily lose sight of land as we bobbed along. Worse was that my wheelhouse windows had water pouring through like someone was deliberately aiming the deck hose at them.”

“Then there was the one wave which many fishermen talk about, and I did see it coming. It seemed that J.R., Ponytail and J.P. levitated from the wheelhouse floor and into the air as I was now doing. The beautiful fish box that J.P. built, also did the same thing, with a number of burlap bags in them. Somehow the fish box had dislodged from its holding pins and ended up coming down and slamming into the deck with the explosive sound that had to spook everyone onboard. It spooked me that a sound so loud didn’t result in the fish box going right through the front deck.”

“As the Point grew closer, the seas again started to once again come down in height, but still I would have never sailed in this boat with the seas so high. I held a course to the mouth of the inlet and by this time J.R. and Ponytail had left the wheelhouse and J.P. soon after without saying a word. A few minutes later I again grew a little worried when I had to make that hard turn into the ‘shoot’ and received that one final whack in the backside as a reminder to pay attention to when you have a hard breeze come up out of nowhere on a breathless wind day.”

“Pulling into the dock was like hitting the lottery. I should say just coming up to the dock was like hitting the lottery, with tying the boat up as if I had collected the payoff. Customers were pretty weary as they walked off and past the locals who had come down to the dock to see how we faired. The boat appeared to be beaten up in part due to the big fish box coming loose and spilling its contents. Rods were broken, some in three pieces while others were gone. Ponytail and her fish cleaning table was still there, but her Dairy Queen tip jar was gone. She wouldn’t be needing it anymore as I was done with this boat, and it is the reason why I never say ‘party’ when you have to worry about customers onboard. It wasn’t the boat which had thankfully held more than its own, it was the mistake I had made as a captain. I guess it was one reason why I never pushed harder to be more than the first mate while on my dad’s eastern rig, while my brother ‘Fearless’ always wanted to run the boat and be one to pick the spots to find and catch fish.”

“Without the internet at that time, news was pretty contained to what occurred on that trip. The locals who were there heard the stories, but that was about it as far as the news getting out. After the trip, J.P. cheerfully spent the next few months repairing and then prettying up the boat. I saw the work progress and I told him that I would hold paper if he wanted to buy the boat. He said he couldn’t do it, and it was not because he could not, it was just that he could barely comprehend the information needed to pass the masters licensing exam. The shame was that he would have been a very good day boat captain especially if he had Ponytail and J.R. with him.”

“I was fortunate because during the early 1980’s, fishermen were buying headboats and mine passed from my hands to a young fellow out of a mid Long Island port just after J.P. prettied her up. Good for him since he bought a great boat, and at a very reasonable price, just like I had a few years back.”

“Shortly after I sold our home here on Long Island and returned back to the Cape. My brother ‘Fearless’ had sold dads eastern rig after one season running it, and built a large steel western rig boat. Of course with him, it was to stay offshore and catch as many fish as he could each and every trip. My dad and mom were in the store together for barely a year and left the business to my sister and younger brother to run as they please, which they did. Dad, a man of habit who still ate his fish sandwiches in the fish store during the day just the way mom normally prepared them, and he always had his black coffee at hand to wash it down.”

“I did end up working for those last years until I started collecting social security at 65, a laborer than manager at one of the fish houses in New Bedford. Those were the last of the glory days for the groundfish boats, and everyone started to get a sense that it was going to make a major change by the time the mid 1990’s rolled around. I had no desire to fish or run boats and thankfully found that it was easier working the landside part in getting the fish from and off the vessel to seafood businesses and consumers.”

“I realize I took a good amount of your time explaining the major points in my life when I was in the fishing business. I have never thought about telling this tale in the way I did, but it seemed to come out alright, don’t you think?”
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EC NEWELLMAN
 
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