Scalloping Under Sail: The Saga of Shell Raiser
Back in late 2014 and early 2015, in my Ask Capt. Gary column, I briefly mentioned that my buddy, Capt. Ed Densieski, and I, had decided to build a sail scalloper. “Why?” some of you asked. Well, we wanted to prove that catching scallops by sail was still viable — that and we’re both married and would rather build boats in our off time! Aside from marital conundrums, environmentally speaking, if the crop was not as plentiful as it once was, dredging by sail rather than motor might actually help things, right? In 1898 some 103,063 bushels of scallops were landed on Long Island. It was worth $49,960 at the time, translating to $1,519,500 in 2018 dollars. Since the brown tide event of 1985, the take has averaged around 3500 bushels a year. There was an unusually high landing of 45,200 bushels in 1994 (this jiggled the average; take out the 1994 haul and you have a 1250 bushels-a-year average). Some more history. Apparently, scalloping started on Long Island’s Peconic Bay in 1857 when locals watched a Connecticut boat dredging just northeast of Robbins Island. The next year, an unnamed New Suffolk resident sent seven gallons of whole scallops (unshucked, in other words) to the Fulton Fish Market, which had no idea what they were. Our unsung hero shipped a box of product to the market at their request, got $3 in return ($111 dollars today) and the rush was on. New Suffolk became the epicenter of scalloping with shucking houses all along the bayfront. In 1896 there were 26 sloops, each operated by two men, with a host of smaller catboats and sharpies, working the bay. By 1907, the number was “around 200” boats, most running three men, with an average catch of 35 bushels a day. In cold weather (the season ran from September to May 1; today’s runs from the first Monday of November to March 31), they stored the shucked meat in snowbanks for later shipment. The state became involved sometime in the early 1900s, ticking off the sloop fishermen (whose boats cost $500) who found themselves in competition — quota wise — with the regular Joe, whose boat cost $15. Needless to say, there were plenty who evaded and avoided the quota, there were conflicts with oystermen (does any of this sound familiar?!), those pesky pirates still came down from Connecticut, and thus we arrive at the post-World War II years, when scalloping was on the rise again. In the 1950s, the state ruled scallops could only be harvested by sail (some would rig a phony sail and cover the outboard with burlap to fake out the three conservation officers and their two helpers ashore). After the 1950s, powerboats were allowed back on the grounds. “In the 1970s and 1980s, during the first few weeks of seasons in which the scallops were abundant, from 300 to 400 boats, mostly driven by outboard motors were harvesting scallops: about 100 in Northwest Harbor, 100 in Orient, and 100 in Flanders Bay (Calf Pasture; now known as the Cow Yard) at the far western end, and some in other parts of the Peconic Bay system. About one-fourth of the 400-500 fishermen were full-time fishermen, while the remainder consisted of part-timers. Harvests were best for about a month, and nearly every fisherman got a full limit. When 2 men were in a boat, 20 bushels could be harvested in 3-4 hours. In succeeding weeks, harvests of 5 bu/person/day were closer to the norm.” So that brings us up to date. Jump a bit ahead and … It’s the winter of 2015 and Capt. Ed and I are harking back to 1857. We’re gonna’ build us a sail scalloper to go after New York State’s Official Shellfish (as then-Governor Mario Cuomo, so declared on August 1, 1988).
Genesis What would become Shell Raiser, was originally an American 26/27, a fractional-rigged sloop with an eight-foot beam and tiller steering. The boats were manufactured from 1979 to 1981 by American Mariner Industries and it - along with numerous others in the company’s line - was designed by Arthur S. Henry. She carries a 1500-pound shoal keel, and that, along with the hull is pretty much all that is left of the boat which became Shell Raiser. We liked her for her nearly vertical sides, which we figured would be ideal for pulling dredges. From Pleasure Boat to Scalloper She was fully rigged when we got her - head, cabin, kitchen, bunks, etc. - so the first steps were gutting her, which took considerably longer than we figured. Eventually (I’ll use the word a lot in this tale) all the deck fastening were drilled out or unscrewed, and with the loan of a friend’s frontend loader, the deck and cockpit piece came off in September 2014. There ensued a lot more salvage work - there were lots of parts and pieces we’d probably need - and then the 2014 scallop season intervened and she sat through the early winter until January 2015, when we finally had her stripped and moved to Ed’s parent’s place and wedged her into the garage, thanks to some nice driving by Kris Luniewski, who also fabricated the dolly for her and would later craft the heftiest bowsprit you’ve ever seen. The boat’s designer patented the concept of building a cavity for the cabin sole into the keel in order to achieve more headroom. Since the top was gone and the interior exposed to the elements, it had filled with water, which was now a single block of ice, and its removal occupied some time. It was the first of many little ‘gotchas’ the conversion would throw our way. But she was now indoors, on her cradle/dolly (that didn’t roll; we’d gone with pneumatic tires and they couldn’t handle the weight), but she was warm and drying out. We had some more de-construction to do, and once done we started on the rails. The boat was going to have sandwiched oak rails and if you’ve ever tried bending oak … well, it doesn’t. We finally made a steamer out of an old metal outboard gas can, a propane burner and some six-inch PVC pipe. If you’re gonna try this here’s a hint: steam will bend PVC, so brace it along its length. The idea was to put a one-inch strip on the exterior with four on the interior, then through-bolt them to stiffen the hull. Once done - it was time and effort consuming work - it was onto the interior. We got some framing done, but time flew by, scallop season ended, spring was nigh and not much work got done on the boat once summer boating season reared its head. Then it was time to get Outlaw — our powered scalloper ready for scallop season 2015-16; mend netting, straighten dredges, check the rigging and go through the cycle again. At different times friends would drop in to chat and get put to work at various jobs. Tom Lassandro was a frequent visitor who always helped, but numerous people, kids (and even wives) stopped by, if not to help, certainly to kibbutz or drop off a piece of sail rigging or sailboat hardware they’d found. All save a few left shaking their heads and inevitably asking, “why?” Slowly but surely things got done, nonetheless. The floor went in, the culling table went on, the mast step was fitted, pumps and plumbing and electrical systems were fashioned and installed, etc., etc. As the annual cycle repeated itself, Ed ended up doing the bulk of the work with only Tom to help. Aside from the seasonal cycle, life intervened now and again, bringing work to a screeching halt sometimes. But Capt. Ed persisted and stayed at it alone much of the time. Nothing like a man with a vision! As the 2018-19 scallop season neared, a sense of urgency rose to get the now-named Shell Raiser, ready for opening day ‘for sure.’ The boat was out of the garage, painted, on her customized-to-her trailer, with just odds and ends - always odds and ends - left to do. We got the mast up in early-October 2018, and she really looked like a proper sailboat. We still had some things to sort out, but by-and-large she was ready to taste saltwater. The Maiden Voyage of Shell Raiser On October 20, 2018, Capt. Ed, me, Leroy Barnes and Kris Luniewski convoyed up and headed east to a Greenport ramp, where we were joined by Dave Cullen for Shell Raiser’s first splash. “Um,” asked I as we raised the mast, figured out how to get the mainsail rigged somewhat properly, and threw gear and dredges aboard, “Does anyone know how to sail?” Turns out my two-year bout with Hobie 18 racing was it, although Ed admitted he’d read a 1940s edition of Chapman’s the night before, and Dave fessed up to watching a video pre-sail. We all agreed with Leroy’s, “Well, no matter how old the Chapman’s was, sailing ain’t changed!” Kris just laughed and shook his head. Nobody was gonna’ miss this. A few little hiccups getting her off the trailer, and lo and behold she was floating at the dock, as pretty as you please. She was sitting a bit above her old waterline (five 200-plus pounders would take care of that), but she was slate-pool-table stable. We looked at each other and Capt. Ed gave a thumbs up … “Well, what’re we waiting for?” While we’d toyed with not having any power aboard, saner heads prevailed, and we motored out pushed by a surprisingly powerful five-horsepower (yes, five) Honda kicker on a bracket. Once away from the ramp, we all looked at each other with looks that brought back to me memories of my jump school days when they first open the door of the plane; everyone’s face is saying the same thing: “Are we really gonna’ do this?” Yup. The mainsail hoisted (we had the jib, but we figured why tempt fate), and the boom’s traveler adjusted (we’d shifted it from the top of the cabin to the very aft of the boat) and Shell Raiser got a taste of the wind blowing out of the west and we were off. I don’t know which one of us was more surprised, but it was grins all around. Paraphrasing Bob Wiley (Bill Murray) in “What About Bob?” … “We’re sailing!” The guys fishing off the Greenport breakwater that day probably got quite a kick watching us trying to master sailing into the forecasted 30-knot-west gusts (and an outgoing tide… you don’t necessarily think of this stuff when you’re a powerboater) and wondering why we were circling mid-channel between the jetty and Shelter Island. Eventually we sorted things out, didn’t cause the ferries to alter course, and actually stayed somewhat even with a $300,000 Beneteau for a couple of minutes (well, maybe that was my imagination). As we neared Conkling Point - we were headed for Brick Cove Marina - we stowed the sail - “stowed” is too nautical a word for what we did - but we did get it down, fired up the trusty Honda and motored into the docks. Yeah, But Can She Scallop? November 5, 2018, was opening day. Me, Ed and Leroy were geared up and on the boat at 0530, headlamps and flashlights aglow; sun-up was 0625. We motored out of the harbor, set the mainsail, killed the motor, and headed for where we planned to scallop. Once there we practiced tacking as we waited for sun up. As the opening bell figuratively tolled, we dropped two dredges (we run eight on Outlaw, which was working the same grounds as us with Kris and his son Arthur aboard) and …well, I’ll be damned! We were dredging for scallops just like the old days. And, damn, if the first haul didn’t actually have scallops in the bag! Yeah, we’ve got a lot to learn about sailing, tacking, not getting hit by that damn boom, putting up the jib, pointing into the wind, and dragging dredges under sail, but we came away six hours later with three bushels of what we’re calling “organic scallops” … no petroleum products were used in getting them! So, yeah, Shell Raiser can scallop for sure. Just like the old days … and it don’t get better than that. And next up are oysters! The source for the historical information in this piece came from: www.allbusiness.com/agriculture-forestry/fishing-hunting-trapping/11897183-1.html#ixzz1XCtsDssP. A video of Shell Raiser’s maiden voyage can be found at: vimeo.com/296509404.