I have had people ask me from time to time how I got so involved in boating. The answer is easy. My father was a commercial fisherman, who also worked as a mechanic and a pipefitter in the off-season. While in high school and college, I worked as a mate for him during vacations and in summer.
The first boat I remember was a sixty-five foot eastern rigged dragger that had seen the best days of its life before coming to us. Her name was Molly V, and my father never changed it, adhering to the myth that to change the name of a boat was to court disaster. This was something that didn’t need attenuation due to the fact that Molly V was already a disaster. There was no way to determine her age; the documentation for her registration was clearly made up. It was obvious she hadn’t been caressed by a paintbrush in years. She leaked so much that the bilge pumps ran constantly even when she was tied to the dock. Starting the engine was an adventure.
Molly V’s main engine was an ancient Fairbanks Morse diesel that, like the boat had seen better days. To start this thing was quite an adventure. First, me or whoever was the mate at the time would slither down the hatch located at the starboard after corner. Below, I would pull the lever that opened what my father called, the “After combustion chamber lever.” What this really did was to relieve compression on the cylinders for easy starting. Next, he would press a button that operated a solenoid that pressed against the top of an ether canister, squirting ether into the air intake. When he decided that there was enough, he shouted, “Hit it!” whereupon he pushed the starter button. The engine would turn over and once it was gasping the ether, white smoke poured from the stack, indicating low compression. He then repeated the command, “Hit it!” whereupon I would bang my hammer into the starter, causing it to release from the flywheel.
When the engine seemed to be in a state of running, I was ordered to “Close the chamber!” Pulling the compression lever the engine soon settled down and a light stream of black smoke was emitted from the stack. Once in this state, the engine would run for hours without a miss. Sometimes it took several attempts to achieve this state.
At the site where my father had decided fish, he brought the boat around giving a lee to starboard for deploying the big net. Lines were fastened to a boom that allowed the net to be swing over the side. At each side of the opening were wooden boards known as leeboards which would keep the net open, using pressure from the water against them.
Retrieving the net was much harder, depending on what it contained. Once out of the water, using winches and being careful not to get caught in a line, the net was swung inboard and dumped on deck. Now, the real work began, accompanied by the captain.
When the fish were dumped, we would cull, and send overboard what was not to be kept, like female lobsters. The rest were loaded into boxes that were then lowered into the hold and covered with ice. This scenario was repeated daily throughout the season. It was a relief to get back to school.
When it became clear that it was costing almost as much money to keep this boat afloat as it made, my father sold it to new dreamers and embarked into the world of charter fishing.
This boat was far different from the dragger. She was a Nova Scotia built sport fisherman, which at thirty-five feet was well suited for her job. Her power was an International Palmer V8, which at a listed horsepower of 225, pushed the boat along at a cruising speed of eleven knots, a good speed for her day. Protruding from the bow was a long pulpit that was employed for harpooning sleeping swordfish. Her name was Loretta.
The duties of a mate on a charter boat are vastly different than that of a dragger. First of all, there are paying customers who expect a lot for their money. This boat had a flying bridge which was the sanctuary of the captain, who was responsible for not only the safe navigation of the boat, but making sure those customers caught fish. Of course, if no fish were caught, it was the mate’s fault. Similarly, if the weather was bad, it was also the mate’s fault. The mate’s job was to smile continually, making sure the customers were always happy. He was also the one who coached the person who had a fish on, and obviously unsure of how to get the fish on board. The mate is also responsible for cleaning and packaging caught fish. It is also expected that clients make a substantial tip considering the services. Most of the trips were quite predictable, but one stands out.
It was the second year that my father had been in the charter business and my second year as a mate. We had caught several swordfish that summer by harpooning them as they slept on the surface, and the price at the fish market was an incentive. It was soon after the last one that my father got a phone call.
A lawyer from Boston had heard that we had been having good luck with swordfish, and he wanted to charter us for a trip. He wasn’t interested in harpooning, he wanted to catch one on rod and reel, which isn’t all that easy.
They agreed on a date, which was a Friday. The lawyer was to be the only person who made my job as mate a lot easier, having only one person to deal with. Seeing as we wouldn’t be crowded, I asked if my friend Ritchie McGill could come along. I’d known Ritchie since high school, and so did my father. “He’ll be good company.” He said.
We got underway for Block Island a little after one on a Friday. Unlike the fast charter boats today, our 12 knots was a bit too slow to get offshore early enough to put in a full day of fishing. This was explained to the clients and it was expected that they would sleep aboard, and if they were serious about fishing, would refrain from all temptations on “the Block.” Next morning, we got underway at six a.m., after a wonderful breakfast cooked by the Captain.
By nine o’clock we were a bit over thirty miles south of Block and my father informed us that, “This was the place.” He even climbed down from the bridge to rig the rod himself. I was amazed.
We trolled for several hours with nothing to show. My father had explained to the lawyer that the chances of catching a swordfish this way were slim, but that’s what he wanted. Half way through the fourth hour, he had a strike. The lawyer pulled the rod back and set the hook. It was soon painfully aware that this wasn’t a swordfish, and was most likely a shark.
The usual procedure when a shark is on the line is to have the fisherman reel it in close enough to see it, and then cut it, it loose. The lawyer got the shark close and I bent over the side with my knife to cut the line. “No!” the lawyer shouted. “I want to keep it.”
Sighing, I exchanged the knife for a gaff. My father came down and got the pole with a rope loop that allowed him to capture the shark by the tail, while I gaffed it. This let us control the shark, a ten-foot blue, hopefully preventing any injuries. We got the shark aboard without incident and soon had him hanging by the tail on the gin pole located on the starboard side of the cockpit.
After that bit of excitement, I re-rigged the lawyer’s rod and we resumed trolling. After two more hours, my father announced that in ten minutes, we would be heading back to Block for the night, before heading back to Connecticut in the morning. He reeled in and I cleared the rod and stored it in the overhead rack. “All this time and all we got was this guy!” said the lawyer, punching the shark, still hanging on the gin pole, in the side. I’m not sure who secured the line to the cleat on the gin pole, but it came loose and the shark fell to the deck. Sharks live a long time out of water.
He immediately began to thrash around. He broke a tackle box and one rod that hadn’t been secured in the rack. For us, in the cockpit, there was nowhere to go except over the side. Fortunately, there was a nice wide swim platform mounted to the stern that one could step on while boating a fish. There we all were, standing on the swim platform watching the convulsions of the shark. It was also a good thing that the boat was stopped and quite motionless in the calm water.
“Boy,” my father said looking at me, (he always referred to me as “Boy,”) you and Ritchie here swim to the bow, scramble aboard. Go below, get my gun out of the dinette drawer and put that poor animal out of its misery. He knew that both Ritchie and me could swim like fish and have since we were in grammar school.
Stripping to our underwear, Ritchie and I swam to the bow. He was smaller than me so it was decided that he would climb onto the bobstay of the pulpit with my help and do the deed. Once on deck, he threw me a line so that I could secure myself to the boat for the swim back aft. He disappeared below and less than a minute later I heard gunshots as he put the shark to sleep. My father’s gun was a .45 caliber, model 1911 military Colt. The magazine held seven rounds, and Ritchie fired all seven into the shark. Well, most of them. Swimming back aft, I climbed onto the swim platform where my father was waiting. Back in the cockpit, the shark was once more suspended from the gin pole. My father climbed to the flying bridge and we were soon underway. Ritchie and I cleaned the cockpit assisted by the lawyer who then went up to the bridge to sit next to my father. Ritchie and I went below to change into dry clothes. About fifteen minutes later, there was a call from above. “Boy,” he said. “Come up here and take over for a bit.” I scrambled up the ladder and settled into the helmsmen’s seat.
I knew instantly that something was wrong. The helm was sluggish and she seemed to squat more than usual. “Bring her down, Boy!” he shouted.
Bring the boat to a stop and looking below I saw that he had the engine hatch open and there was a lot of water sloshing around that shouldn’t have been there. “Turn on the other two bilge pumps,” he said, Loretta had four bilge pumps, two in the engine room and two forward under the cabin sole. Two were equipped with float switches and the other two manuals. It soon became obvious that even with all four going, it wasn’t enough to clear the bilge. But he had one more card to play.
Loretta’s gasoline engine was raw water cooled, which meant that sea-water was drawn in through a through hull fitting, and subsequently pumped through the engine cooling the same. Once through the block water, was forced through the exhaust manifolds and expelled out the transom. He had installed a ball valve ahead of the pump. Closing the through hull fitting and opening the valve caused cooling water to be drawn from the bilge rather than the sea. A screen filter at the end of a four-foot hose insured that no foreign material entered the pump. At 1800 rpm, much more water went through this pump than all four bilge pumps.
It took about ten minutes to lower the water level in the bilge to see what had happened. When Ritchie had dispatched the shark, not all the slugs met their mark. Now, there were five half-inch holes in the bottom of the boat. The trip back to Block Island was made by alternating the cooling water between seawater and bilge water.
Once in the great salt pond, my father beached the boat at low tide, and we whittled plugs to fill the holes until we were hauled out back on the mainland. The lawyer left us and took the ferry back to New London. He had us preserve the shark, and subsequently had it mounted, where it hangs in his office to this day.
Once I graduated from college, my father sold the boat and enjoyed years of retirement. I married my best friend who, as a structural engineer also has a degree in architecture. I took the so called golden parachute a few years ago, and do a bit of freelancing on occasion.
Never getting over my love of the water, we choose to live on a 40-foot wooden boat, built by Huckins Yacht in Miami. We have completely updated everything in the years we’ve had her. This was not a restoration; she was in excellent shape when we got her, being only the third owners.
Although living aboard isn’t for everyone, it works for us.