From the Dan’s Archives: An Interview with a Montauk Boat Captain

the ship is moored to a dock ladder rope chain 3
Photo: 123RF

For the July 1, 1962 issue of The Montauk Pioneer, Dan went aboard a Montauk captain’s boat to learn about the fascinating life of this mystifying man of the sea. The Captain tells of snow-covered classrooms, four-hour drives to East Hampton, building telegraph systems, the Silver Dolphin and more.

I found the Captain aboard his boat at the present fishing harbor at about three in the afternoon last week. He was busy working on his sonar system in the cabin, and he had the whole thing apart all over the floor.

“See this little wire here?” he said pointing at tome complicated looking apparatus. This spins around and makes a couple of burn marks on this piece of paper as it moves through this guide.

“Uh huh.”

“See. And the marks indicate how deep the water is under the boat. There’s two of them. One is at zero, and the other is so much down the paper on the scale. Right now, we ain’t getting’ a reading.”

He pressed a switch and the little wire began spinning around. It only made one mark on the paper, the mark at zero. I looked over the side for him.

“Yes, there’s water out there.”

“Maybe we turn this thing just a little bit, we get a reading.” He was fidgeting something. “There she goes,” he announced, and I saw the second mark appearing under the first, at about 10 feet. “Got a reading,” he said. “All fixed.”

I had an idea.

“What if the boat sinks, captain. We’re sittin’ on the bottom. What kind of a reading do we get?”

“Now now, you just tell me why you came aboard and what I can do for you, my friend, and enough of this nonsense.”

“Well, Captain, I understand you were living here at the time when the old fishing village was here, and I just want you to tell me what it was like living there then.”

“Sure. But I’m warning you, once I get started there’s about no stopping me.”

“Okay by me,” I smiled. “Talk as you like.”

“Well, you know, we were originally French Canadians and when I came down here from Nova Scotia, I was a little kid and I couldn’t speak a word of English.”

“Uh huh.”

The Captain settled down in a deck chair and put his hands behind his head.

A map of Montauk from the July 1, 1962 issue of The Montauk Pioneer
A map of Montauk from the July 1, 1962 issue of The Montauk Pioneer

“We had a shack down by the beach then, and I used to go to school in this little schoolhouse almost right on the water. I recall we had to bring firewood to school every day for the stove—it was just one room downstairs and upstairs, the teachers lived upstairs—and sometimes when it was good and cold, we would just stay home and to hell with the teacher, let him get his own wood. In the winter sometimes, we’d go and the whole first floor would be full of snow, so we’d turn around and go home. I was there till about fifth grade, I guess, when the village got kind of up in arms with the Amagansett School Board people—we were in their district then—having snow on the floor and all, and through eighth grade we went to a new schoolhouse on higher ground, which today is the old firehouse (K6 on the map). Not far from there, by the way, was an old building we used to call the Silver Dolphin. I can’t describe it, but it was sort of a general town meeting type hall where we’d have our dances and scout meetings, and we’d have church services there. There was a minister and his wife who gave a Sunday service there—they lived on the beach too—and it was a service for anybody who believed in God because we didn’t have any separate churches then. Before that Silver Dolphin was built we didn’t go to church at all unless we went to East Hampton, or unless—I remember a time some battleships came into the harbor from the Navy on maneuvers during the war, and we went to church on the battleship. That was a great thing for me, I was a little kid and never’d been on a battleship before. And that was before the Silver Dolphin.

“The minister at the Silver Dolphin, he was our scout master as well—his wife had the girl scouts—and we went on hikes and all kinds of things. Once, I recall, the scoutmaster got us together and told us we were going to build a great telegraph system. Of course, there was no electricity or telephone then, and we had to make our own batteries and everything. The minister never actually suggested it, but he was no dope. He knew the only place we could get telegraph wire was by ‘borrowing’ it from the railroad, which we did. That was one hell of a system we had set up. I think it must have been more than two miles of wire at one time and the minister taught us all Morse code so we could use it. Most every kid in Montauk was in that thing at one time or another, secret messages, the whole works. Probably the greatest thing we ever did.”

The Captain paused and thought for a minute.

“Did you ever steal any coal from the railroad yard?” I asked.

“Hell no,” he said. “We never stole coal, we TOOK coal, not stole coal.”

More silence.

“I ever tell you about the first car we ever had?” he asked.

“No, you never did,” I said.

“My father got it so’s we could sell fish in East Hampton. That was a big event then, going to East Hampton. I recall my father would pack the back seat of the car with fish boxes—she was a big open touring car—and we’d all us kids pile in and we’d head for East Hampton. That fifteen miles must have took us about four hours what with the engine breaking down one minute and the wheels getting stuck the next. The road wasn’t paved then, you know, she was all cinders and whenever we’d get going the dust would rise so high you couldn’t see at all behind you. If the wind was wrong we’d all wear masks to keep from chokin’ to death driving through the dust. Every time the car would get stuck we’d take out this anchor we had along, jam it in the cinders in front of us and winch ourselves out with a block and fall. It was like horizontal mountain climbing. Anyway, eventually we’d get to East Hampton and the fish would be meltin’ but it would still be cold, and me and brothers would get out of the car and walk along in front of it yellin’ like hell for people to come see. And we’d be out of fish in no time.”

The captain paused again. He sat back a little further in his chair and thought some more. I looked around the cabin and saw all these sonar parts strewn about like so much unfinished business. He had been talking nearly an hour. I looked at my watch.

“I guess I better go about now Captain, let you finish up that sonar set.”

“Well sure, if you want to.”

“Hell no, I don’t want to. I just want you to finish up that sonar set.”

“Yeah, I been trying to do this for three days now.”

“So long now, Captain.” I said, backing out the door.

“Anytime you want more stories for your paper, you just stop around and get me started again. I love to talk.”

“Sure will, Cap.”

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