GETTING ONE’S FEET WET.
orking as a mate on a fishing boat, where you crease the inlet in the morning, watch the sun rise, breathe fresh salty air and get paid to do it, is one of the best forms of employment on the planet. My first paying job was washing a half-day fluke boat. The mate paid me a dollar to scrub the bait buckets and toss a few pails of salt water to wash the decks, while he sat on the dock watching me and talking to teenage girls. It was not much but I could ride my bike to work and those girls were cute. I am sure the man who invented epoxy must have understood the tenacity of dried squid tentacles, but I was thinking ahead, wondering how to get a mate’s job the following summer.
Unfortunately, when I got the opportunity to go fishing one afternoon on the boat, I was doubleplayed by the stench of the 6-71 Detroit Diesel and a rolling southeast swell, which made me a better candidate for chumming bluefish than netting fluke. It took a while but I finally overcame the drama of mal de mer and eventually got a spot as a second mate on a party boat fishing for porgies, sea bass, and blackfish. My stomach liked the idea of anchoring as opposed to drifting, and as my sea legs developed I was sure I had found my calling for future summers.
One of my friends worked with his dad on a charter boat, and in short order I discovered a whole new world of fishing out where the horizon met the sky. I worked for the experience but made a few bucks every now and then by selling extra fish left behind like false albacore that I hawked as “silver tuna.” By summer’s end I knew what I wanted to do the next June. Sure enough, I talked myself into a job on a charter boat but I only lasted a month. I had been told the skipper was tough to work for but hadn’t realized dock semantics meant the boat spent more time in the slip than out fishing. So while I was sanding and painting the boat and polishing Squid Spoons, I watched my buddies come back with fish and get paid and tipped every afternoon. Another skipper two slips over grabbed me one morning for a walk-on party. By the time we got back that afternoon my old boss was on the dock scowling; I was through. A mess of fish and the wad of dough in my pocket told me a different story, made fatter and sweeter when
WI refused his offer to come back and work with him. I wanted to fish, not sit at the dock. By the time I was in college, I had made it to the top charterboat dock in the sleepy little town of Brielle on the Jersey Shore. I fished almost every day from the time classes ended until I went back to the books. Unlike my classmates who needed part-time jobs during the school year, I didn’t have that problem. Trolling bluefish May and June, chumming for them in July, switching over to tuna, bonito, and skipjack in August, and spending September and October weekends catching everything that was left was a wonderful life. I made school money but also picked up a few tricks along the way. I learned how to talk to people and how the right attitude and being friendly could help get better tips. Having good stories helped, too. When the fish were not biting, other mates would tell their customers they should have been there yesterday, but I would joke that they should be on the boat tomorrow. I wore ripped up canvas TopSiders and sometimes explained that business was slow and often tips would improve. This was when the pay was $15 a trip and considering it was a 12-hour day you could make more at other summer jobs, but getting paid to go fishing was priceless.
Spending all these hours on the water also meant I was collecting sea time that would come in handy when I wanted to get an ocean operator license and move from the cockpit to the bridge, which I did eventually. But running boats is not the same as working in the cockpit. The skipper holds his hands on the wheel and the radio button. The mate gets his hands around every fish. Truth be told, it is one thing to spin the shiny steering wheel of a big sportfishing convertible, or show off backing into a tight slip at 8 knots, but the moment you put your gloved hands around a taut monofilament leader attached to a massive bluefin tuna at the other end, your life changes forever. Pulling on something that big, or releasing a frisky white marlin, or just waiting for the angler to bring his fish to the boat where you can net it never grows old. For my money, a mate’s job is like winning a lottery. And then you get to raise the flags on the outrigger!