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The Final Voyage of the Fishing Boat "Pelican"
By Tom Clavin
The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.Copyright © 2005 Tom Clavin
All rights reserved.
On Tuesday, September 4, 1951, a board of investigation convened at the United States Coast Guard Third District headquarters, 80 Lafayette Street, Manhattan, to seek the causes of a tragic accident. On this sunny late-summer day, the meeting room's blinds were drawn against the glare and the noise of city traffic outside. Already it was stuffy in the crowded room, with all thirty or so chairs filled. Cigarette smoke drifted toward the ceiling. Some people murmured, some shifted impatiently but were quiet. A few, their faces pale and taut, stared straight ahead as if seeing terrifying images on the far wall.
A sudden silence cloaked the room when three men in dress whites entered from a side door. The men sat in straight-backed wooden chairs at a dark wooden table at the front of the room. The expanse of bare white wall behind them was broken by a stand bearing an American flag, only a dozen or so of its forty-eight stars visible.
Rear Admiral Louis B. Olson, commander of the Third District and one of the most experienced officers in the Coast Guard, occupied the middle seat at the table. To his right sat Captain John Roundtree, the district operations officer. To Olson's left was Captain Lewis H. Shackelford, the district marine safety officer. After chatting briefly among themselves, the officers rose, the signal for all present to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
Seated again, Olson and his colleagues surveyed the room. At the back were reporters and photographers. Every one of New York's dailies had sent someone to cover the inquiry's opening day. Olson disliked having photographers present—grieving family members deserved all the privacy he could afford them—but at least a deal had been worked out so that pictures would be taken only of those who testified.
Neither was he happy that it was already afternoon. The inquiry was to have begun at 10:30 A.M. sharp, but not one of the summoned witnesses had appeared by then. The morning had been wasted—an inauspicious beginning to what promised to be a difficult proceeding.
Between the officers' table and the press sat the survivors of the tragedy and their family members, the victims' family members, and witnesses called in from Montauk to testify. Survivors and victims' family members all wore dazed expressions, as though they were somewhere else.
Olson shuffled a short stack of papers in front of him on the table and cleared his throat. "We are here," he announced, "to conduct an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the tragedy of the fishing boat Pelican this past Saturday."
Olson nodded to Commander Joseph De Carlo, seated on the other side of the table, next to two empty chairs—for the sequence of witnesses and their attorneys. De Carlo looked tired. He had spent much of the past seventy-two hours in Montauk supervising the Coast Guard investigation. "Call your first witness, Commander," Olson told him.
A man stood up. "If we could just wait for that, please," he said.
Olson scowled. "You are ...?"
"Joseph Meehan. I'm an attorney representing Captain Edward Carroll and the rest of the Carroll family."
"Mr. Meehan, this is a Coast Guard court of inquiry, not a criminal or civil trial."
"Yes, Admiral, I'm aware of that. I'm here to observe and then advise the Carroll family based on the testimony of others."
Olson looked at Shackelford, then Roundtree. Both shrugged slightly. Captain Carroll's family might, indeed, have reason to fear a deluge of civil suits, and they had a right to have an attorney present. Olson turned back to the lawyer, who had stepped closer to the table. "Thank you, Mr. Meehan, for introducing yourself. Now we'll continue."
"Admiral Olson, I ask the court to empty the room of any persons representing the press."
"Why, Mr. Meehan?" Shackelford asked, irritation obvious in his voice.
"Sir, we don't know the contents of the testimony that will be given here, and how detailed it will be. Because of the tragic nature of the event being investigated ..."
"Thank you, Mr. Meehan," Olson said. "We have already made an arrangement with the members of the press, and we're not inclined to change it."
"But Admiral, if I could ..."
"Please resume your seat, Mr. Meehan."
As Meehan reluctantly stepped back, Olson collected his thoughts. The days of testimony ahead would, the admiral hoped, give them the answer—or answers—to the question of why sixty-four people went out into the Atlantic on the Pelican, and only nineteen came back. Olson nodded at De Carlo and repeated, "Call your first witness, Commander."
Though it was the easternmost point in New York State, Montauk was still dark at 4:30 A.M. on Saturday, September 1. It would be another half hour before the first tinge of pink began to define the seaward horizon for anyone awake and at the Montauk Lighthouse to see it.
The hamlet was stirring, though. Lights shone here and there at Fishangri-la, the whimsically named sportfishing mecca that included the Union News Dock, the Eat and Run coffee shop, a bar called Liar's Lair, and a tackle shop built into a former airplane hangar. The hangar had been stocked with torpedoes to be tested by the navy in Fort Pond Bay during the war, but the war had been over for six years, and Montauk, like America, had other business to pursue.
At the Eat and Run, cooks heated griddles for the charter boat captains and mates who would start swaying in at five o'clock. By 6 A.M., the coffee shop would be packed, every counter stool and table seat occupied. The air would be filled with the sounds of spitting bacon and percolating coffee, waitresses kidding groggy customers, the striking of matches, and pancake batter and scrambled eggs hitting hot metal griddles.
A brief lull would follow the departure of the charter boat boys at 6:30 to make the two-and-a-half-mile drive to Lake Montauk, from which a dredged channel gave access to Block Island Sound. The captains would board their customers there, then negotiate the channel and head twenty miles or so out into the Atlantic. It wasn't exactly offshore fishing, but it was plenty deep and far enough out for green-horn and experienced customers alike. Then the lull would end as the open- boat captains filtered in. These men would have until 7:30 to savor breakfast and coffee, because their business wouldn't start until the Fisherman's Special train from New York City pulled in. Then all hell would break loose.
After periodic setbacks, Montauk had finally made it as both a commercial and recreational fishing capital of the country. Its big wooden draggers, eighty to ninety feet long, could pursue herring and groundfish hundreds of miles into the Atlantic, although they often didn't have to go that far. They returned regularly with holds full of fish, which were packed in wooden boxes, as though in ice-lined coffins, and shipped by train to the city. Although Montauk's draggers had always done all right, even during the grinding Depression and the long war that followed it, now—in the summer of 1951—recreational fishing was hot, and anglers from the city could find plenty of it in even half a day at Montauk.
Leisure-time fishing was a lot younger than commercial fishing in Montauk. During the 1920s, people from up-island and New York City had begun arriving by automobile with rods and tackle boxes and brown-paper-bag lunches, asking for the chance to go out on the draggers to catch whatever was running that week. Some of the dragger captains, such as Frank Tuma Sr. on the Junior, would let them fish off the stern during one-day trips. Later the Union News Dock, built on Fort Pond Bay in the late 1920s, allowed anglers to put out in small boats or simply fish off the dock.
In the early '30s a few dragger captains, hedging their bets in a plummeting economy, had refitted their boats for charters. Among the pioneers were brothers Frank and Charlie Tuma, Gus Pitts, Harry Conklin, Carl Ericcson, and Henry Sweeting. Not all of New York high society was broke, and with charter prices so low anyway—in 1932, Gus Pitts was charging $18 for his boat for an entire day—the Montauk captains did a steady business. (By the time Pitts retired in the late 1950s, his rate would be $100 a day.)
One by one, captains built houses and brought their wives and children out from the boroughs and Nassau County to live full-time in Montauk. The houses were small wooden structures, not much more than shacks, expanded and improved year by year as cash permitted. Many families built on the south side of Fort Pond Bay, on the two-and-a-half-mile-long spit of land that separated the bay from Fort Pond and carried the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) tracks and a parallel dirt road. When a couple married, they built their own shack on the next available open lot on the beach.
For a time this settlement was the center of Montauk. Shops sprang up along with icehouses, fish markets, and a post office. There was even a schoolhouse, where the hundred or so families sent their younger children until they were old enough to ship as a mate on a boat or find fishing-related work shoreside to augment the family income. It was, in a way, like homesteading on the prairie 1,500 miles to the west, with fish instead of fields to tend. By 1951, most of the charter captains were sons or grandsons of those firstcomers, berthing their boats next to the Montauk Yacht Club on Lake Montauk.
Whereas the charter captains hired out to small parties by the day or half day, "open" or "head" boat captains charged their passengers individually. Open-boat fishing was a post–World War II development in Montauk, offering—from the Fishangri-la docks on Fort Pond Bay—a less expensive, more informal fishing experience for a blue-collar market than the charter facilities in Lake Montauk, over two miles east. The opening of Fort Pond Bay to Block Island was two miles wide, which made navigation easy for pleasure and fishing boats, and the high bluffs ringing the bay provided shelter from the southerly gales that buffeted Montauk's Atlantic side. It took a few minutes longer for a boat leaving Fort Pond Bay to round the Montauk Lighthouse and venture into the Atlantic, but that was all right with customers if they could enjoy a whole day of fishing for only a few bucks, even on summer weekends.
So at 4:30 A.M. this Labor Day Saturday, the head boats awaited the arrival of the Fisherman's Special, still hours away. The train would pull in at the Union News Dock, and disgorged passengers would have their choice of boats to board—first come, first served, no reservations. There were always at least a dozen open boats tied up at Fishangri-la, sometimes as many as twenty.
Frank Tuma Jr., a second-generation charter captain, maintained gently that the choice between open boat and charter was "whatever the captain preferred to do." But the fact was that the established captains—many of them sailing alongside or having taken over from their fathers—preferred chartering because they didn't want to share their income with Fishangri-la or deal with the mob craziness when the Fisherman's Special arrived. They could afford to be independent, having built up a client list for a quarter century. But a skipper new to the area, having arrived since the end of the war, positioned himself as an open boat at Fishangri-la; it took years to build a good reputation and a steady charter business.
As dawn approached, a few workers carrying lanterns hosed down the Fishangri-la docks. Every few minutes, streaks of headlights piercing the dark signaled the arrival of more charter captains and mates, the bobbing red glows of their cigarettes marking their progress from cars to coffee shop. Later, when the head-boat skippers began their breakfast shift, some would simply stagger up the dock from their boats, where they slept. Houses, money in the bank, community standing—that was what many head-boat skippers hoped to find in the pot at the end of the Montauk rainbow.
Word on the docks for Saturday, September 1, was that striped bass would be in good supply for the charter boats and porgies for the open boats, thousands more of them than there would be hooks to snare them. Chances looked good for tuna and cod too. Unfortunately, sharks might also be caught. Sharks were a nuisance: no one wanted to eat them; it was nerve-racking when they came near; and sometimes they cruised along under the boats snapping up bait and snipping off lines and hooks in the process. (One of the head-boat skippers, Frank Mundus, had just begun to think about pursuing sharks with charter customers as a way of graduating from the head-boat business. Eight years later, he would be making a success of that idea.)
The 1951 summer season had been a good one. Just the previous Sunday, Captain Bill Reichert, on the charter boat Kingfisher, had sailed into a large school of tuna. The day before, a charter customer on the Fortenate, captained by Carl Darenberg, had hooked a blue marlin. The 700-pound monster had fought for four hours. Leaping and diving, it had taken the boat another twenty miles into the Atlantic. Bad luck, though: the fifteen-thread line gave up before the marlin did, and the mighty fish got away. The Margaret III, captained by Ralph Pitts, had begun the Montauk Yacht Club Invitational Tournament by catching a 315-pound mako shark. Sure, sharks were a nuisance, but a mako that big was a trophy catch. The next day, the same boat hauled in a 390-pound tuna. And on the third day, an angler on the El Pescador, skippered by John Sweeting, fought and landed a 531-pound tuna. Within weeks, a charter customer on the Scamp II, captained by Buster Raynor, would set a record with a 961-pound tuna. On the last full weekend in August, all the charter boats in Lake Montauk had been hired out.
There always seemed to be good luck to go around for those fishing aboard the Pelican with Eddie Carroll. On Thursday he had hosted a busload of people from Sayville, up-island, one of whom was Mrs. Sadie Schelzo. Off went the Pelican, and when the boat hove-to, the anglers dropped their lines. Sadie hooked bottom—or so she thought because of the way her rod bent when she pulled up.
But Eddie knew better. He helped Sadie reel in, and sure enough there was some give, then some more, and the battle was on. The stubborn and inspired Sadie knew she had something, but what a discovery it was when the fish came into view over the side. She was fishing two hooks on one line, and she had a big cod on each.
As Sadie gave a last heave, the line parted, but Eddie and his mate each had a gaff ready, and they snagged both fish. One weighed "only" seventeen pounds, the other twenty-eight. The East Hampton Star, the local weekly, predicted that the Schelzo family would be eating cod until Halloween.
All this boded well for anglers and their chosen boats on the first full day of the Labor Day weekend. Six years after the war, people in the New York City area were doing okay—making a living while building modest but comfortable houses in modern subdivisions such as Levittown. The postwar baby boom was still under way, and it seemed as though everyone's neighbor was bringing home a television to watch the Milton Berle comedy show and the Douglas Edwards news reports. There was some worry about the boys getting killed and wounded over in Korea, but the consensus was that the war was going pretty well so far, as long as the Chinese didn't decide to pour over the hills by the millions.
On this Saturday morning ushering in September, the breeze freshened a bit, heralding dawn, but it remained from the southwest, a sign of settled summer weather. The forecast that Gene Goble, owner and dockmaster of Fishangri-la, had tacked to the bulletin board just outside his office the evening before was still there:
A cold front north of Toronto is moving toward this area and should reach Montauk early Saturday afternoon. We will have increasing south-southwest winds as the front approaches this area, and the maximum will be reached early in the afternoon, at which time we may have south-southwest winds, 25 to 35 miles per hour. We can see possibly, even storm activity during that period with winds shifting during the early evening to northwest, diminishing, however, to 15 to 20 miles per hour. The winds will continue to shift during Saturday night to the north, bringing a dry cold into this area. Sky conditions during Saturday night and Sunday morning should be overcast, and partly cloudy during Sunday. Winds Sunday are forecast to be north-northeast, 15 to 20 miles per hour. Visibility Sunday will be good.
Excerpted from DARK NOON by Tom Clavin. Copyright © 2005 by Tom Clavin. Excerpted by permission of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc..
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