19 August 2013

Divorce, Montauk Style

If you want to get a sense of what Montauk is all about, ignore the local newspaper, which is politically to the left of the New York Times but lacking that paper’s occasional efforts at objective reporting.  

The real good stuff is on VHF channel 19, monitored by all Montauk fishermen.  (I refuse to write the word “fisherpersons”. Two reasons: i) it sounds stupid, and ii) I have never heard a woman on Channel 19. Never. Sue me.)

Mind you, the channel 19 chatter is mostly gossip, golf scores, and some tactical fishing related information, such as, “Gotta slow down, I got bottom”, “Yup, Bill, you can pass me uptide”, and “Bluefish are killing me today.”  But there are occasional newsworthy discussions that liven up a slow fishing day. I am not talking about pinpointing the location of fish,--a discussion you will NEVER hear in the clear. On that subject, you hear only stuff like, “Hey Charley, you on this one?  Fish are stacked up here, two miles southsouthwest of where we fished on July 4th, 2008, remember?” and stuff like that.

This past month was exceptional because there were two truly newsworthy events discussed that involved fishing and Montauk waters:

The first occurred some three weeks ago,-- a near-miracle.  The Montauk lobster boat Anna Mary was returning to port after days tending deep water pots. The crew went below at 9 PM to rest, leaving one crewman on watch. While the boat was on autopilot, the watch guy was arranging some large igloo coolers topside, and when he pulled on one to slide it across the deck, the handle broke off and he toppled backward into the sea. For hours, the boat travelled on.  Eventually, when the crew realized the boat was not slowing as it neared the Point, they discovered the absence of their comrade and radioed the alarm.  The Coast Guard sent out helicopters and boats, and many Montauk fishermen joined the search.  While the searchers knew the route the Anna Mary had travelled, they had no idea where along that line the lobsterman went over, and could only estimate how wind and tide would affect their search efforts.

But the crewman was incredibly resourceful.  He knew he could not last more than 12 hours or so in the 75 degree water, and lacking a personal flotation device (I have never seen a commercial fisherman wear a life jacket. Never. Coastguardsmen always, fishermen never. Culture.), he removed his long rubber boots, lifted them out of the water and turned them upside down to drain the water and fill them with air, submerged them upside down, and clutched them in his arms as added flotation.  He was then able to make his way to strings of lobster pot buoys where he ingeniously fashioned a buoy cradle of sorts and sat on it until, after 11.5 hours in the water, he was spotted 43 miles off the coast and rescued by a Coast Guard helo.  Much drama.  Channel 19 crackled with the story.  Many of the charter boat guys knew the boat, and knew the crewman.  Exciting stuff.

But a week ago, another overboard story brought vastly different reactions from the Channel 19 guys, and, sadly, a different result.  Here’s that story:

A 51 year old recreational boater from New Jersey (true), with a name ending in a vowel (true) and said to be in the “sanitation business” (false, I think. Papers said he was a “contractor”) borrowed his business partner’s 45 foot cruiser, rented a slip in Montauk for a week, and took his 39 year-old wife of four years out for a “midnight cruise to watch the meteor showers.” To escape the light scatter of the town, he traveled five miles east along the coast, and then went two miles northeast off Montauk Point and dropped the anchor in an area of the sea where the Atlantic Ocean meets Block Island Sound. The spot is renowned for its choppy rips and fast moving currents-- the very conditions that make it a productive fishing area.

Shortly after midnight, the husband called the Coast Guard and reported his wife had apparently fallen overboard.  He said he could not see her but heard her screaming, and threw lifejackets overboard in the hope she could find one, and then he waited for help.  The Coasties arrived within 13 minutes of receiving the Mayday call, but could not find his wife in the pitch black.  A recreational boater discovered her floating corpse the next morning, 3-5 miles from where the cruiser had been anchored.

The channel 19 verdict was swift. There were comments about New Jersey, the Sopranos, the decision to go two miles offshore into a dangerous rip area of the Atlantic Ocean to look at the sky when the husband could have accomplished the same thing in the much quieter waters of Block Island Sound north of Montauk Harbor, etc. The general conclusion was one of surprise the deceased was not clad in “cement overshoes”. For days thereafter the event was referred to locally as “Divorce, Montauk Style.”

The boat was impounded and the husband was reported to be entirely cooperative with the authorities. So far, it appears that an intensive investigation by the Coast Guard, the Town Police, County Police, State Police, DEA, FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security has revealed no evidence of criminality. I assume the boat has now been released by the authorities because I recently saw it motoring out of Montauk Harbor.  The boat was unmistakable --  as I passed it I saw the name clearly painted on the transom: In The Clutch. (I have wondered from the beginning what that means.) A man was at the helm on the flybridge and a young woman was reclining on the cockpit deck.

I did not inquire further, but I am assuming the helmsman was not the widower.

Next week, the channel 19 chatter will doubtless return to golf scores and complaints about the striped bass hunger strike. I am eager to get back to normal.

A bientot.

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