Dangerous Business: A Tough Year for East End Fishermen

Paul Lester found a historic anchor
Paul Lester found a historic anchor, Photo: Richard Lewin

A survey last year by the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics listed the job of commercial fisherman as the most dangerous job in America. Second were logging workers, third were pilots and flight engineers, with farmers and ranchers fourth and miners fifth. I haven’t been able to confirm this, but I have heard that one in three commercial fishermen will either die or become injured during their lifetime working the seas.

Here on the East End, about 100 commercial fishermen work out of Hampton Bays and Montauk trying to make a living in the sea. This summer, one died and one was miraculously rescued from the sea after 12 hours in the water.

The man who died was Stian Stiansen, age 85 of East Quogue. He was negotiating his commercial fishing boat Pauline IV through the Shinnecock Inlet late in the afternoon of May 12 when a rogue wave capsized the boat. His mate, Scott Finne, was rescued after being found holding on to a flotation device and Stiansen’s body was recovered on the beach about half an hour later.

Late one night in late July, two commercial fishermen were out in their ship Anna Mary, heading through the Atlantic to haul up the lobster pots they had put down a week earlier. The ship was on autopilot as night fell. One man, John Aldridge, age 43, stayed topside to keep the first watch. The other man, Anthony Sosinski, went below to sleep. The plan was that John would awaken Anthony, known as “Little Anthony,” at 2 a.m. and Anthony would take the second watch.

But it didn’t happen. Instead, at 5:30 a.m., Little Anthony woke on his own, wondering where his mate was. He went up onto the deck and found nobody else on board. John had apparently been swept overboard. And the ship was still steaming toward the lobster grounds. The ship was now 60 miles out to sea from Montauk Point.

In the case of the East Quogue fisherman, a funeral and burial were held by his family. Before his death, Stian had filed forms with the DEC asking that when he passed on, whenever that might be, his fishing licenses for striped bass, fluke, crabs, lobster and conch should be passed down to his nephew Norman Stiansen. Commercial fishing licenses are hard to come by these days. The government controls overfishing in many ways, and one way is to limit the number of commercial fishing licenses.

When a fisherman dies, it’s okay to turn it over to a family member, but if that doesn’t happen, the license is withdrawn. In this case, though, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) refused to honor the transfer. Although the nephew, Norman, had long been expecting he would get these licenses someday (he had hoped to transfer them on to his son), the DEC declined to allow them to be transferred on a technicality. The law says that the recipient of the license, if not immediate family, has to be living in the same household as the giver of the license. Stiansen lived in East Quogue. Norman lives in Hampton Bays.

Norman Stiansen has appealed this decision, but so far there has been no swaying the bureaucrats. So at the urging of other fishermen, State Assemblyman Fred Thiele was asked to see what he could do. Thiele has proposed a bill that, if it becomes law, would allow a fisherman to designate which family member he intended to leave his license to without this restriction. The bill also asks that the law be retroactive to apply to Stiansen.

As far as the fisherman who fell overboard was concerned, a quite remarkable thing happened. Little Anthony, hysterical at not finding his friend, called the Coast Guard for help. The Coast Guard at first asked if he left a suicide note. Little Anthony told them there was a cooler that had been moved, and one of the handles had broken off. He was sure it was an accident. He was sure John had been thrown overboard when the chest was moved. A massive search then got underway, with urgent calls not only to other commercial fishermen but also to sports fishermen. Please bring your boat out and join the search. Boats came from Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Even Jimmy Buffet was reportedly out there in his boat from North Haven.

For eight hours, nothing was found. But then, suddenly, John Aldridge was seen hanging onto a buoy, waving to an aircraft above that had discovered him.

After the rescue, John confirmed what had happened. The handle broke. It sent him careening backward out over the rail and into the sea. He had no life preserver.

But watching the ship sail away, John came up with an ingenious idea. He had heavy rubber boots on. They were on his legs underwater now, but if he reached down and took them off, raised them up and poured the water out of them and then put them under his armpits upside down, they could serve as makeshift floatation devices.

“I never gave up for a minute,” he said about the next 12 hours. The water was warm. There wasn’t much of a chop. And he had come upon this buoy, which he had cut loose with his pocket knife to be able to use it for further floatation.

In the end, there was a tearful reunion with his friends and family and after that one of the most fabulous beach parties ever in Montauk.

Since that time, there have been further developments involving some of the commercial fishermen. Three local Bonackers (the affectionate name original fishermen families in East Hampton call themselves)—Danny and Paul Lester, and Nat Miller—were out on the Atlantic Beach in Amagansett near the lifeguard stand, dory fishing. This consisted of these large rowboats called dories brought to the beach in the backs of four-wheel-drive pickup trucks, launched through the surf and into the sea with fishing net in tow to catch fish. But then the net caught something heavy. The fishermen tried to drag whatever it was in ashore, but the rope wasn’t long enough and the dory not strong enough.

People on shore appealed to the lifeguards to help out and several went over, including Kelly Kalbacher of Springs, who attached a heavy rope to the end of the anchor and then, with the help of a truck, the fishermen were able to drag whatever it was up onto the beach.

A huge crowd had formed. What it turned out to be was an enormous ship’s anchor, eight feet high with a wooden crossbar that experts later said likely identified it as a “Rodgers Anchor.” What they hauled in they thought weighed 400 or 500 pounds, and later research determined it was very likely the anchor for the Daniel Webster, an oceangoing schooner that had shipwrecked on March 25, 1856 at Amagansett with a cargo of salt, rice, nuts and fruit being brought to New York City from the Canary Islands. This anchor, when new, probably weighed close to 1,000 pounds.

In the end, with the help of some of the beach goers and lifeguards, the anchor was hauled up on the back of the pickup and driven to the home of the Lester Family on Abraham’s Path just south of the railroad crossing, where it was unloaded and placed on the front lawn, where it is today.

There is a long story about that ship, how it came to founder and how it went down and how many mariners were saved and how many lost.

But that story, perhaps, is for another time. Commercial fishing is a life-threatening occupation.

As we go to press, we learn that another local fisherman has died while on the job. Donald Alversa of Montauk, a graduate of East Hampton High School, was out at sea on Saturday, working aboard the 298-ton, 90-foot commercial fishing boat Jason and Danielle out of Montauk and Cape May when, 45 miles northeast of the Kill Devil Hills on the Outer Banks off the coast of North Carolina, a wire aboard the ship snapped and cut his head and neck. As a result of this injury, he was, according to the Coast Guard, taken by rescue helicopter to the Sentara Norfolk General Hospital in Norfolk, Virginia, where he was pronounced dead.

Alversa had been a working fisherman for some time, for the past two years aboard the Jason and Danielle. According to his Facebook page, his education continued after high school at the “Hudson Canyon University,” which is not an institute of higher learning, but, as Newsday described in reporting his death, “a joking reference from a professional fisherman to the fish-rich canyon that extends from the New York Harbor 400 miles out to sea and 10,500 feet down.”

A funeral will be held Friday morning at St. Therese Lisieux Church in Montauk.

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