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The Sea's Bitter HarvestThirteen Deadly Days on the North Atlantic
By Douglas A. Campbell
Carroll & Graf PublishersCopyright © 2003 Douglas A. Campbell
All right reserved.
SAILING through the cold, winter holiday darkness, a commercial clam boat--painted like Santa in crisp red and white--was three hours off the New Jersey coast with a full load when the clocks ticked past midnight and the celebrations began onshore for January 1, 1999. As it steamed ahead, the boat crossed a time line into what soon would become the deadliest year ever in the clamming industry. But on this night, none of the four bone-weary fishermen aboard the 84-foot Beth Dee Bob had any concerns. They were all headed for a fat payday after they reached the dock in Point Pleasant Beach. As was his habit, Ed McLaughlin, the captain, snoozed in his stateroom below the boat's wheelhouse. His first mate was on watch. An autopilot steered the boat. The mate had only to watch the radar screen to see that the path ahead was clear and to check two television monitors that showed what was happening below deck in the engine room at the rear of the vessel. The boat's high bow pushed through the modest seas, and white foam boiled along the hull's red paint, some of it splashing through the scuppers and washing across the deck, which rose only inches above the sea. At midship, in the hold under flat steel hatch covers, were 48 five-foot-tall steel cages, into each of which the crew had loaded 52 bushels, or 3,000 pounds, of quahogs, a black-shelled clam about the size of a hockey puck. Eleven cages were stacked on the deck near the stern. And eight cages were loaded and stacked on top of the others at the front of the hold, up near the wheelhouse, preventing the hatch covers from closing completely. This was the way the Beth Dee Bob always came into port, even though the naval architect who had surveyed the boat several years earlier had warned that it was unsafe to load this way.
In the 37 years leading up to this New Year's Eve, more than 100 commercial fishing vessels had sunk along the New Jersey coast. Among those were 19 commercial fishing boats that had sailed from Point Pleasant Beach, never to return to shore. Forty-five men on those boats were lost. But McLaughlin let personal history be his guide. There had never been a problem loading the Beth Dee Bob this way in the eight years he had been on the boat, four of them as skipper. He slept comfortably.
The Beth Dee Bob was not yet close enough to shore to see the lights that, observed from the water, decorate New Jersey's beachfronts like a glittering necklace from New York harbor south for 45 miles. But somewhere behind those lights, other members of the 48-boat clam fleet--a community of perhaps 200 regular participants--were engaged in their individual and innocent welcoming of the cruel year that would pluck ten men from their midst.
Consider the men of the Adriatic, an 86-foot clam boat that usually held a crew of four but was currently one man short. For two weeks, the boat had been tied to the dock in Point Pleasant Beach while major repairs were made to its machinery. These men would, before setting out to sea themselves, bear witness to events that would frighten even the bravest members of the clamming community.
The Crew of the Adriatic
George Whitely Evans, 51, had been the captain of the Adriatic since 1994. He was of average height and build, with dark, curly hair and blue eyes that crinkled at the edges when he smiled. Although some people thought he looked like movie star Tom Berenger, his voice was the first thing people noticed because it was quiet, with a refined Virginia lilt. His dress was reserved, his temper even. He might've been a banker or a concert violinist. Few would guess he worked on clam boats.
On December 31, 1998, Evans was in the Pilot House Restaurant in Brick, New Jersey, just inshore from Point Pleasant, as midnight approached. The place was nearly empty and the wait staff, by their restlessness, made it clear they wanted to close. Evans had come here with his New Year's Eve date, Joan Nowicky. She was luminescent in a black chenille sweater and black slacks. Her dark hair framed a face dominated by large, brown eyes. Evans was entranced, and it may have taken longer than necessary for him to notice they were the last customers in the place.
Evans had met Nowicky, 45, the night before in Moby Dick's Tavern. He had entered the raucous Point Pleasant bar in search of a place to spend New Year's Eve within walking distance of his garden apartment. As if guided celestially, he had found the empty bar stool beside Nowicky. Although he was known to his crew as a man who seldom spoke, Evans had found the words to begin a conversation. Despite the wailing of karaoke performers in the distant corner beyond the kidney-shaped bar, the hearty conversations of a capacity crowd and the undertone from seven wall-mounted televisions, he and Nowicky had talked. And talked. They had both been dating for many years, but the spontaneous reaction they experienced was extraordinary. At closing time, they carried their conversation into his Jeep Cherokee, and it was 3 A.M. when they parted, he with her phone number and a date for New Year's Eve.
Now they were on that date. She looked into the brilliant blue of his eyes and saw a gentleman. His smile was unforced and genuine. After the meal, she smoked. He did not. He paid the bill, and then, with his arm around her, walked her to the Cherokee and drove to her town house, not far away. The neighbors were outside, banging pots and pans together, and they wished the couple a happy new year. The brightest of fireworks were going on inside Evans and Nowicky. They sat on her couch and talked until 5 A.M. They hugged. They kissed. And then they planned to meet again the next day, Saturday. They could feel the future. It was glorious!
George Evans had reached a point in his life where his financial concerns had been eliminated. He had worked hard and invested wisely. And now, with a woman capable of appreciating him, it looked as though his life might come into complete balance.
Evans's two regular crewmen had found no such equilibrium in either their financial or their romantic lives. But then, Evans was more than 20 years older than either of them.
Frank Jannicelli was Evans's regular deckhand on the Adriatic, which normally sailed with a captain, a first mate, and two deckhands. The other hand had quit in the fall over a pay dispute, and since then Evans had hired a fill-in crew member for each trip until the boat docked for repairs in December. Jannicelli had been on the Adriatic for a little more than a year. It was his first job on a clam boat, and the work had changed him from a boy with baby-fat features to a 24-year-old man with a strong, chiseled jaw and a lean body. The work of deckhand on the Adriatic was pure and unending physical labor, and Jannicelli did not consider the job a career. Still, he had no other plans for his future. A high school nerd who had studied electrical engineering in college, Jannicelli had dropped out of the New Jersey Institute of Technology five years earlier to follow a young Point Pleasant woman home. Now he was spending New Year's Eve with that woman, Amy Cavanaugh, in the apartment they shared in Brick. Although Jannicelli longed for a relationship with Cavanaugh, this was not a date. She loved him like a brother. They shared debts. They owned a two-year-old, gray-and-white, in-your-face cat--Cinder--and an older gray cat--Patches. But there was no romance. Cavanaugh had a boyfriend. On this night, Jannicelli and Cavanaugh sat innocently in front of the television with a couple of bottles of champagne, waiting to see the madness as the ball dropped above the mayhem in Times Square while her boyfriend, Dominic Ascoli, worked the midnight shift in a gas station 15 minutes away.
But then the phone rang. It was Ascoli. He was alone in the kiosk-style office of the four-pump-and-a-car-wash gas station. He wanted company. So Frank and Amy grabbed their champagne, jumped into Jannicelli's aging Buick, and joined Dominic in his cramped quarters to welcome the new year.
The kiosk had a front room, about six feet by eight feet with windows on three sides. Racks of cigarette packs formed a curtain over one window; air fresheners were stacked on one counter, and the controls for the gas pumps sat on another. A wooden stool with a ripped red rag over its tattered foam seat shared the floor with a cane-backed chair. The other room had no windows but did have a toilet, a sink, and, on a counter, a cube-style refrigerator with a tiny microwave placed on its top. A typical night out for Jannicelli, who could make up to $900 a week on the Adriatic, was to accompany Cavanaugh on a visit with Dominic in this gas station. It was so tiny there that to pass someone, you had to turn sideways. A typical New Year's Eve for Jannicelli included a requirement to watch the Times Square ball drop. But there was no television in the kiosk, and so they went outside, opened the Buick's door, turned on the car radio, and listened to the countdown to midnight, hugging each other in celebration. They opened the champagne and drank until they got a buzz. Then they hung out until three in the morning, when the buzz had worn off enough for Cavanaugh and Jannicelli to drive back to their apartment. Earlier, Cavanaugh had put a tape in the VCR and set the machine to record the televised Times Square chaos. They watched the video in the company of Cinder and Patches. Jannicelli's New Year's Eve was complete, so he and Cavanaugh went to their separate beds.
Michael Scott Hager, the Adriatic's first mate, had financial strains and romantic woes, just like Jannicelli. He was a tall, broad-shouldered, lanky man who, at 31, had already spent 13 years as a commercial fisherman. Hager loved what he did, even though it had led to his breakup six months earlier with the mother of his five-year-old son, Mikey. He would take almost any opportunity to work at sea. Indeed, he had been offered a chance to work this very New Year's Eve, sailing on the Beth Dee Bob. The economics of the trip made sense. While the Adriatic, on which he was second in command, was undergoing repairs, Hager earned only $350 a week doing maintenance on the boat and assisting with the repairs. But he would earn more than $500 on the Beth Dee Bob spending less than two days at sea. And Hager needed the money. The Adriatic had been in port since mid-December, and Hager's expenses--rent on his two-bedroom ranch house in Brick, support for Mikey's mother, Susan Cornell, and all the rest--had continued. So when Capt. Ed McLaughlin had asked Hager to fill in for three trips in December and January, he had jumped at the offer. He made the first trip, cut short by foul weather, just after Christmas. The Beth Dee Bob had caught 28 cages, less than half its normal load, and McLaughlin headed for port to avoid the windstorm and rough seas that he knew were coming. Crewmen and captains alike are paid a share of the catch, so the trip was a financial disappointment for Hager. But Hager, the son of a clammer, had experienced the effect of short trips all his life. A clam boat captain will go to sea if the winds are predicted to be less than 25 knots, but rougher seas make the work impossible, so Hager knew McLaughlin's decision was the prudent one.
The next opportunity for a trip came on December 29, but when Hager got the call, he decided to stay home. There were two important things in his life: clamming and Mikey. And on this occasion, he decided to stay with his son.
There was an added incentive. Susan Cornell, 28, had told Hager she would spend the evening with him and their son. There was one thing Hager wanted most of all: a home and family to return to when his trip at sea ended. He and Cornell had shared their lives for several years before the breakup. Now there was a chance for at least the illusion of Hager's dream--an evening at home with woman and child.
But the dream evaporated shortly before the new year arrived. Hager fell asleep with Mikey in his living room in front of the television, and Cornell walked out of the pale blue ranchhouse with the cream-colored trim and spent the last couple of hours of 1998 talking with the fellow next door. Perhaps, Hager thought later, he should have gone with the Beth Dee Bob.
The choice to work on a clam boat is a decision to engage in the most deadly occupation in the nation. Commercial fishing took 380 lives between 1992 and 1996, a rate of one of every 714 fishermen, 28 times as dangerous as the average for all industries. Fishermen were washed overboard, taken down with their boats, drowned, frozen to death, or assaulted by their machinery.
Through good fortune, the East Coast clam industry had, by 1998, experienced a run of six consecutive years without a fatality. The last two boats to be lost, taking eight men with them, went down in 1992. But in that year, the industry was just beginning to operate under new regulations designed to make the work safer. At one time, the federal system that limited the number of clams harvested had encouraged clammers to head to sea when the weather was bad. Allowed by law to work only on a specific day of the week, the clammers went out on that day regardless of the weather conditions. The new federal rules instituted in 1990 gave the clammers complete latitude in choosing when to work and when to stay in port. The quantity of clams they could catch was still restricted by a rule requiring them to attach a numbered tag to each cage of clams they landed. But they could gather those clams at any time. And for six years, no clammer had been killed at sea.
Little else had changed, however. The boats were still floating factories made of steel or wood. They gathered quahogs or, closer to shore, surf clams, shellfish that were used by processing plants to make chowders and clam strips. These were not the dainty cherrystone clams served in restaurants as appetizers. They were larger animals whose meat was in constant demand by canning plants up and down the coast. Summer or winter, there was always a need to catch clams.
To "catch" a clam is something of a misnomer. Clams can maneuver along the ocean floor, but not at great speed. Unlike a scallop, which can squirt this way and that, a clam buries itself in the mud or sand of the ocean floor to await the arrival of food at its open shell. A clam boat gathers its catch by lowering a steel cage, called a dredge, in 50 to more than 200 feet of water and dragging the dredge through the sand or mud. The dredge is lowered on a heavy steel cable. When the dredge hits the ocean floor, the cable goes slack as a fixed length of polypropylene rope thick as a big man's wrist and made fast to the stern of the boat takes over the towing. The rope, which unlike a steel cable can stretch, protects the boat from sudden impact should the dredge snag on the ocean floor. When the clam boat captain thinks his dredge may be full, he begins collecting the steel cable on a powerful winch, raising the dredge from the sea and dumping the clams on the boat.
Dredges can get tangled in wrecks or communications cables or other obstacles on the sea floor. They can get tossed from the boat's deck by violent waves, yanking the vessel precariously. Machinery can break. Engines can malfunction. Fires can erupt. But in most cases, these are not the problems that will sink a clam boat.
Rodney Bart, a friend of Ed McLaughlin's who captained the quahog dredger Victoria Elizabeth in January 1999, explained that the greatest danger faced by a clam boat is the water on which it floats. "Someone asks you to carry a two-hundred-and-fifty-pound man across the parking lot on your back, you can do that," said Bart. "That's a clam boat with a full load of clams. If they ask you to carry a second two-hundred-and-fifty-pound man on top of the first, you can't do it. That's a clam boat with a full load, taking on water."
In Bart's example, the extra water is the problem. But first there is the full load. On a boat that carries 70 full clam cages, each weighing 3,500 pounds--about 500 for the cage and 3,000 for the clams--the boat's total load weighs a quarter of a million pounds. Each extra cage adds nearly two tons to the load. For safety's sake, fewer clams on board would be better.
But both the captain and the crew are paid according to how many clams they bring ashore. More clams, more dollars. Consequently, there is greater incentive to overload or, when the weather would suggest otherwise, to continue to harvest clams.
Clam fishing is not a free-for-all, however. Only boats with federal or state fisheries permits may harvest clams. In federal waters more than three miles offshore, where most of the surf clams and all of the quahogs are taken, the entire fleet is limited by government rules in the number of bushels that may be taken in any year. Each licensed boat owner is allocated a portion of the total annual catch based on his catch prior to 1990, when the new regulations went into effect. The more successful the owner was prior to 1990--the more risks they, their captains, and their crew members took and survived, or the more laws they broke--the higher their allotment is. These quotas can be sold, but the total allotment of clams the fleet may harvest remains unchanged in any given year.
The result is that a boat's captain and crew know on January 1 precisely how much they can earn by the end of the year if they bring back all of their allotment. And they can go to sea whenever they want. Only the weather--and the boat owners and the clam processing plants--influence a clam boat captain's decisions. Processing plants have production schedules and need clams on a regular basis, regardless of weather. And owners, who are paying the huge fuel and repair bills that keep their boats at sea, have an incentive to make each trip count. The more clams that reach the dock, the more profit is made.
These were the factors that governed the lives of captains Evans and McLaughlin and crewmen Hager and Jannicelli as the year 1999 began. These and one other: opportunity. Evans, McLaughlin, and Jannicelli, although they each had a year of college, were not so much different from Hager, who dropped out of school at age 16 and went to work on the docks until he reached 18, when he could go commercial fishing. Each of these men had found a way to make more money at sea than they could onshore. A clam boat captain can do as well as a high school superintendent, and an uneducated deckhand can earn as much as a teacher with a masters degree. In weighing the inherent dangers of their trade against the income, these men felt they had but one choice--to reap the sea's harvest.
So they would head out again in 1999. Before the year was 18 days old, it would become the deadliest in the clam fleet's history as the ocean exacted its bitter price. In sickening succession, four boats would be lost in the Atlantic. Six men would survive. But ten men would lose their wager with the sea and their lives.
A fill-in on a clam boat is a person who is not part of the regular crew but who, for one trip or from time to time, does the work of an absent member. This could be a fill-in deckhand or a fill-in captain. Michael Hager had been invited by Ed McLaughlin to be a fill-in because the Beth Dee Bob was short one crewman after Christmas, and on New Year's Eve he was to have been the fill-in first mate, but chose to stay onshore. The Adriatic would be calling on a fill-in once repairs were finished.
Allow me as you read this story to serve as a fill-in, a voice that comes when it is needed. This is a tale at times of riveting terror and at others of human strength and frailty. Yet for a complete understanding of the world in which these daring men work, one needs help at times with arcane information about the clamming industry--its regulation, for example--or some technical aspect that is relevant but that may not be easily understood. I would also like to use these sections to fill you in on why this reporter came to think this story should be told in a book.
I had arrived at work at the Cherry Hill, New Jersey, office of the Philadelphia Inquirer at nine o'clock on Monday, January 11, and was talking with my immediate editor, Porus Cooper, when his phone rang. He listened for a moment and then handed me the receiver.
"You know about the clam boat that sank?" asked Robert J. Rosenthal, the Inquirer's top editor. I did not, having been out of town for four days. Rosenthal gave me a general outline of what was known. Then he said he wanted the complete story behind the headlines. "I don't care if it takes a week or a year," he said.
Rosenthal knew that I wanted to work on the longer, more complicated stories that take time to develop. And the Inquirer had a history of going after those pieces. I took him at his word, got in my car, and drove to Point Pleasant Beach, a town about 60 miles to the east.
Excerpted from The Sea's Bitter Harvest by Douglas A. Campbell Copyright © 2003 by Douglas A. Campbell. Excerpted by permission.
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