This is a collection of pictures culled from an exhibition about waterfront workers in the village of Greenport, Long Island. These people all share one thing in common; they are at the bitter end of a long maritime tradition in the village.
There was a time when such an exhibition would have been physically impossible to mount. So many people’s lives were tied to the waterfront, that to have all their photographs displayed, would have required a space many times larger than any available in this small village. It is probable, as well, that had such an exhibition been hung 20 years ago that it wouldn’t have attracted any notice, for in a community built of shipwrights, fishermen, ship-yard workers, who would have thought that they deserved special notice?
Ironically, it is only because these trades are at risk of disappearing that we care to champion them. Even if we can’t articulate the importance of their loss, we recognize that every time a boat-builder lays down his plane, or a fisherman hangs up his trawl, that another part of the collective tradition of the community vanishes.
For generations this community prospered facing the east and the water. Slowly it moved west until its gaze turned more to the city and away from the sea.
Now in the first decade of the 21st century Greenport barely sustains its maritime community. The numbers earning their livings from water-related activities has been reduced. It should be noted, though, that those few might be the best ever to have put to sea in a boat, or beveled a plank, or trapped for lobster, or built a dock. They have to be, in order to survive.
Though many of the people pictured here hope that their children would find an easier means of making a living, a surprising number of them have already taken on their children as co-workers.
It is the unyielding nature of time that has spurred this project. Many old friends are gone and the moment was right to record the names and photographs of some of those who are still working the waterfront. It is to the memories of those that came before them that this show is dedicated.
Joe Angevine: Harbormaster
Joe Angevine stands at the wheel of his 24-foot boat. The big Mercury engine idles quietly. Bunker, his terrier, sits on the dashboard, crowding out a collection of fishing lures, folded charts and a coffee cup. The boat looks lived-in, which is no surprise. From May through September, Joe and Bunker spend a lot of time aboard.
Given the popularity of Greenport for visiting boaters, the job of Harbormaster is more than just cruising around and socializing. There are some negatives. Occasionally, some people try to skip out on their mooring fees after spending the night. Others, with either too much testosterone, or alcohol in their systems, speed though the harbor as if they were racing. Despite the downside Joe says that he loves the job and the responsibility that goes with it. “I like being the man in charge,” he says. “I have to be stern but I’m a pretty fair guy.”
Angevine started his career on the water working for his dad, a commercial fisherman, and then joined the Navy. When he was discharged, he went back to fishing. “I love the water,” he says. “If I could I would live on the water.”
Steve Clarke: Shipyard Owner
If the Greenport waterfront has a hub from which all the maritime trades radiate, it is the Greenport Yacht & Shipbuilding Co. This shipyard–which under one name or another has been operating for almost 200 years at this site– is the heart of the commercial water-front in the village.
For the past thirty-seven years Steve Clarke has been in charge. Retaining the bearing of a former Marine Captain, Steve possesses the preoccupied air of a military commander under siege. “If you want to keep up with me,” he says, “you had better put on your combat running boots.”
Steve can be anywhere on the four-and one-half acre site but most often he’s hunkered down in his office, a tiny 100-foot square foot room set chock-a-block with stacks of paper, books and marine hardware. Two phones hang on the wall facing the only clear space on the desk. From here Clarke organizes the ebb and flow of ships that want his services. And many do: Clarke has the only remaining 350-ton marine railway on Long Island, and customers queue up for as long as three months in advance to be hauled out on the railway.
On this day, expecting a ferryboat, Clarke walks over to the cradle that supports the ship checking that the blocking has been placed correctly. When he’s satisfied he tells the crew foreman that he’s going back to the office. There he will tend to the ringing phones until he is called outside again.
John Costello: Dock Builder
Like a clutch of pick-up sticks scattered by some large hand, the 800 or so pilings 30 to 50 feet long, some as large as 14 inches in diameter, lay scattered on the east side of the shipyard. It looks chaotic but John Costello knows exactly where to locate the white oak, the black oak, the purpeheart, or the greenheart. He’s been in this business 44 years.
John, his brother George, son Jack, and 20 employees, daily extract from that pile timbers that become new docks, or bulkheads, from Montauk to Riverhead. Running a ﬂeet of 4 barges, and 9 cranes, Costello can still reminisce easily, recalling the people that helped him along. He began as a young man working for Ralph T. Preston and has named a barge after him. He named another after Charles Rackett, the foreman of his first crew.
On this sunny afternoon he relaxes on the deck of one of his barges. Tied up at the shipyard the big spud barge hardly moves to the westerly set of the waves. Costello walks though the barge checking the hardware store inventory of galvanized spikes and come-alongs, chain and rope. He stops on the deck to pick up some line, coils it and finds its proper space. The pitch-pine smell of creosote baking in the sun rises from the barges decks.
Rich Fiedler: Artist
Hunched over a small worktable at the rear of his gallery on Main St., Rich Fielder concentrates on his latest painting. With a small brush he patiently adds subtle coloring to the seascape before him. The shapes on the canvas slowly resolve into identifiable boulders. This is an artist at work: solitary; focused. When satisfied with his efforts, he lowers the brush and reveals another aspect of his personality: storyteller and informal historian of maritime Greenport. While wiping his hands he launches into a tale of harpooning a swordfish while on board one of his uncle’s boats. Animatedly he describes the chase, visibly in the moment of so long ago.
He once entertained the idea of living in Colorado, but the call of Greenport and saltwater brought him to his senses. Ironically, it was because it was too difficult making a living as a fisherman that Fiedler turned to a career in art. He had both the aptitude and the training. His paintings now are everywhere; in banks, dentists’ offices, private homes. Some of his most identifiable work comes from capturing the images of those of the draggers that used to crowd the docks at the end of Main St.
As he speaks, a group of visitors enters the gallery. They spread through the room, some standing before landscapes, others drawn to fishing scenes. Rich doesn’t identify himself, nor does he press them. He just lets them look.
Gabriel “Bumpy” Grilli: Dockmaster
It’s Saturday morning and Mitchell Marina is filling up. Bumpy Grilli, the marina dock master, is pacing back and forth like a boxer ahead on points in the third round. Clipped to either side of his belt are two portable radios. Attached to his shirt collar is an intercom micro-phone. A cigarette is in one hand, and a clipboard in the other. Visiting boaters enter into the marina calling the dock master on Channel 68. It’s a constant chatter of voices. “Mitchell Marina dock master, this is the vessel Yahoo. We need a slip.” Bumpy picks up the call. “Yeah cap. Do you have a reservation?” “Roger that,” comes the reply. Bumpy, with smoke from his cigarette curling into his eyes, squints at the clipboard looking up and down the list of boats. “Yeah cap come over to the B section. There will be a dock boy waiting for you. Fourth slip down.”
He takes the cigarette from his lips, exhales a dragon’s breath of smoke, and tells the waiting dock boy to get to the designated slip to assist. No sooner is he done with that call than another comes. The questions are the same all day long. Bumpy weaves up and down the docks, exhausted but victorious at the end of the day.
Bob Hamilton: Fisherman
Miss Nancy, Bob Hamilton’s 60-foot stern dragger, was a movie star for a time. Cast to type, Miss Nancy shared the screen with Harrison Ford and Brad Pitt in the movie “The Devil’s Own.” Like her owner, though, Miss Nancy doesn’t draw attention to herself and tied up along the dock hardly looks famous. At 51, she is still in her prime–built of long leaf yellow pine, and iron. She has served Hamilton, a 6th generation fisherman, well.
When he’s not out fishing for fluke or scup in the Sound or Gardiner’s Bay Hamilton, like many fishermen, spends his time fixing things. The nets especially take a beating as they are dragged along the bottom snagging on rocks and ripping.
To check the net, it is lowered from its spool, until it spills out on the deck. Standing in its midst, he appears to be the catch. Surrounded by buzzing flies attracted to the smell of fish scales, he attacks the ripped sections, netting needles in hand, moving with the sureness of a surgeon sewing up a wound. When he is satisfied that most of the holes are repaired the net is raised back onto the spool. “It’s important to keep the nets in good shape,” he says, wiping off the fish scales that have fallen onto his shoulders. “My job, after all, is to kill fish.”
David Hardy “Diesel Dave:” Mechanic
Lugging a 50-pound sack of tools, and trailing an odor of stale diesel fuel, Dave Hardy descends into the depths of a boat like Ulysses descending into Hades. He works in engine rooms. Like secret caves they are the places where the beast lives; the beast that Dave Hardy knows how to tame. “I can tear apart a huge diesel with what’s in this bag,” he says, “You learn to use the tools you have.”
As if to prove his statement Hardy crawls into a cramped space with a big spanner, contorting his body like a sideshow circus performer, bending and twisting, almost disappearing under the engine. A half-hour later he resurfaces, shakes out the kinks in his back, smiles and says “All done!”
As befits his vocation Hardy dresses in dark clothes: black shirts and jeans provide less contrast to the grease and oil that invariably finds its way onto his clothing. He accepts the fact that he is always dirty. “You want to know what my e-mail address is?” he asks laughing. “You can find me at Dirty Dave.”
Kerry and Tim Heaney: Dock Builders
The sound of a muffled generator backs up Lynyrd Skynyrd blasting from the boom box. Kerry Heaney, and his 14-year-old son Tim, each with shoulder length hair, and identical bandanas strapped across their foreheads, are wrestling with a 30 foot, 8 inch diameter, length of white oak that has a mind of its own. Giving them an assist, Jeff Clark controls the vertical motion of the timber, operating the boom, attached to the stiff leg crane. Together they manhandle the piling into position. There’s not much talk, just some grunting, as the piling is finally convinced that the will of the men is stronger than it is.
Once in position, Kerry turns on the water blaster, sinking the piling 15 feet into the mud. After about one half hour of steady work they are satisfied. One down, twenty more to go. Taking a short break, Kerry says that was easy. “Come back in the winter,” he says straight-faced. “That’s when we really work.”
Warren “Vanny” Horton: Lobsterman
On a warm summer morning Vanny Horton is dressed for work; slickers and tank top. He’s on the deck of the 40-foot Mariah Lee threading stinking racks of flounder as bait for his lobster traps. With one hand Vanny pulls four or five fish remains from a plastic barrel while with the other, he runs a spike through them, threading them together with line. Each bundle will go into a trap as bait for the lobsters. Years of the smell of dead fish permeate the boat adding an almost palpable dimension to the fiberglass and wood.
Vanny is oblivious to the odor. He threads the fish with the ease of a tailor sewing a seam. He works quickly and even while talking never misses a stitch.
The Mariah Lee–named after the middle names of his grand-daughters–looks battered, but not into submission. The fiberglass peels back from the gunwales exposing the wood underneath. There is crack in the front windshield secured by a strip of duct tape. “What would happen if a boarding sea broke the glass?” Vanny is asked.” I’d get wet,” he responds.
Today the wind is picking up from the northwest and the Sound where Vanny sets his traps is too rough to work. He stands in the deckhouse, and methodically baits his traps.
Christine “Chris” Kuhlmann: Bar Owner
The bar is called the Whiskey Wind Tavern. It’s named for the wind that blows from the east, the one that keeps the fishermen at home, and hopefully in the bar. On this late afternoon the sun is shinning outside and there are only a few patrons, none of them fisherman. Only one of the two televisions, at either end of the long bar, has the sound turned up.
In another time, when Greenport hummed with the menhaden fishery, this was Meyer’s Bar and Grill, the favorite for the fishermen working the local waters. It was a rough place in those days.
Now Chris walks the length of the bar greeting the regulars with a hearty “How ya doin’?” A bar stool scrapes the floor as someone rises to go to the jukebox. Clapton comes on. On the far side of the room a couple gather around the pool table, and the clacking of balls striking one another signifies another game beginning.
Somebody comes in with his small dog and Chris, taking a break, lifts the small animal up to say hello. The dog wags its body in delight. A customer calls from the bar and Chris puts down the dog and goes to serve another drink.
Anders, Erik and Christian Langendal: Boat Builders
Anders Langendal, his sons Erik, and Christian, his nephew Truls and employee Emmanuel, are each at their own projects in the big old boat shed. Broken-down wooden boats are wheeled into this space like patients on their gurneys, only to reemerge weeks or months later into the sunlight, restored by their skills.
Christian is fairing a damaged hull with a six-foot long sanding board. Erik is painting the hull of another. Anders is grinding a bronze propeller down to size, while Emanuel and Truls crawl around the bottom of another boat refastening planks. Everyone is absorbed in his own work. Keeping them company, echoing throughout the shed, Bob Marley laments about living in Trenchtown. The staccato rhythm of the reggae guitar keeps time with the noise of the shop.
Even though it is midday, sections of the large shed are in shadows, and portable lights are erected where the men work. The sliding rear doors are open and a short distance away Peconic Bay beckons with a siren song. The men, all inveterate sailors, ignore the call for the time being, at least. It is Wednesday, and no matter what the job they are doing, they will knock off at 5 so they can race their small sharpie schooner in the weekly races.
William, Jamie and Bobby Mills: Sail Makers and Canvas Workers
The showroom of the Mills sail loft looks like a maritime museum. There are sweat-stained oak fids in one corner, large enough to displace the strands in three-inch hawser. Hand-sewing needles and brittle sail palms rest on a shelf alongside big grommet punches.
For five generations the Mills family has been making sails and sewing canvas. They began at a time when coasting schooners were as common as today’s trucks; when Egyptian cotton and not Dacron was the material of choice. Located in the heart of what was the Greenport waterfront district, the Mills Sail Loft was then at the corner of Front and Main Streets.
Their present loft encompasses 15,000 square feet and employs 22 people. The large open space is divided into sewing and layout areas. On one side of the room, standing on a raised platform of worn plywood, a barefooted worker lays out a big sail. A short distance away, a frame for an awning is assembled. Along the perimeter of the room employees work at sewing machines, stitching fabric at alarming speeds.
Always striving for perfection is what has kept the Mills family in business. Jamie points to a large sign on the wall. It reads: “There will always be a conflict between good and good enough.”
Pat Nelson: Ship’s Carpenter
Pat Nelson leans over the thirty-nine inch throat band saw at the Greenport Yacht & Shipbuilding Co. He’s helping George VanEtten rebuild a 100-year-old clam boat, and has spent the afternoon cutting hardwood frames to fit the shape of the hull.
He is working in the carpenter’s shop at the shipyard in a shed that has been the carpenter’s shop here since the Second World War. In one corner is an old 6-foot clam hopper converted into a woodstove that once heated the drafty loft. Woodworking tools lie in a random fashion on benches. Large table saws and planers stand in a row. Alongside the band saw is a pyramid size pile of scrap wood.
During the hot days of August, the corrugated steel, covering the building, heats in the sun, creaking and groaning as it expands in the heat. Nelson wipes the sweat off his face and out of his eyes as he continues working on the frames.
Mark and Mary Bess Phillips: Fishermen and Fishmongers
The fish dock opens on one side to the water, and on the other, to the road. In one corner is a big ice machine and some stacks of nesting, waxed cardboard boxes, waiting to be filled. The rusted diamond plate floor is crazed and worn thin from years of foot traffic. A scale with a big round face reading up to 100 pounds is suspended from the ceiling. The buzz of a refrigerator fan mixes with the sound of running water. “Mark’s Dock,” is what the local fishermen call it; this is where they have their catch boxed and shipped. And when he’s back home from the winter fishery, off Georges Bank, this is where Mark Phillips, for whom the dock is named, unloads fish from his 83-foot stern dragger, Illusion.
While he’s away, Mary Bess runs the shore side operation at the dock and at the adjoining Alice’s Seafood Market, where fishermen from both the North and South Forks sell their catch. “The marriage,” she says, “is the business and the business is the marriage. You know,” she continues, “a lot of people think that fishing is romantic but it’s also hard work. Fishery management has become full of rules and regulations. For wives like myself, it’s a challenge to stay in business.” With that she excuses herself to head back into the fish market where someone is inquiring about the price of lobsters.
Arden Scott: Boat Builder
Aboard her 28 and one half-foot schooner, Annie, Arden Scott is happy. She built this schooner over a period of about 8 years, comparing the experience to learning to play the bagpipes, only longer. “The bagpipes,” she says, “only takes 7 years of blind determination.”
The boat is imbued with the history of her friends, most notably, perhaps, Annie Barstow, for whom the schooner is named; she, with her husband, Del, owned Barstow’s Shipyard. But it was another friend, John Barron, owner of a shipyard on City Island, who gave her the inspiration to build the boat in the first place. “After watching me battle with the dry rot in the wooden boat I owned at the time,” Scott recalls, “He said I should just build a boat. I found the design in National Fisherman.” A few years later, after receiving a Guggenheim fellowship, she finally had the money to construct a studio on Main St.— and to build Annie there.
Often during the summer Arden rows from her home to the anchorage in Sterling Harbor where Annie swings gently on her mooring. Even in the crowded anchorage, one can see in the tilt of her bowsprit, and varnished wooden spars, a pride and grace that sets her apart.
Valerie “Val” Shelby: Canvas and Sail Repair
A sign on the door reads “Val’s Custom Design.” Inside, crowding the shop four industrial sewing machines are set up in different areas of the small room. Swaths of fabric cover the floor as if a big wind had scattered them. A large jib sail, in need of repair, hides one corner. Marvin Gaye is on the radio singing “What’s Goin’ On,” while the hum of the walking foot sewing machine adds an almost snare drum effect to the tune.
Val works from the corner of the room closest to the door, bracketed by two large windows with drawn blinds. She gets up from her chair manhandling the big jib onto the sewing table; expertly lining up the section that needs patching. Like a card sharp, her hands quickly maneuver the sail into position.
The workspace is small and the sail large, but Val knows just how to compress the resisting material into a size compact enough to work on. Deftly the sail is moved through the machine, and when one side is stitched, she gets up out of her chair again to move the sail into its next position. She does this half a dozen times; rising, sitting down, sewing, before the patch is finished. When the job is done she takes a deep breath and gets ready for the next one.
Joey and Fred Schoenstein: Metal Fabricators
The static crackle of the MIG welders accompanies the sparks of light that explode as metal is joined. The fabricating shop is filled with leviathan-sized equipment used to tame steel into desired shapes. A fine dusting of powdered metal coats the concrete floor. There is a radio playing somewhere but it is only heard when the welders stop their work to go to the next piece.
Today the brothers have left the shop to go to the railroad dock in Greenport to work on a fishing boat. They are installing a new hatch door. They drive one of their big trucks, heavy with equipment, down the dock and drag the long hoses of their welders to where the boat is tied up. They don’t often work together on the same job but today their crews are all busy. “We see jobs in different ways,” Freddy says. “It’s like climbing a mountain. Joey will go one way and I’ll go another but we’ll both be at the top at the same time.” The new hatch is installed and the brothers gather their tools and drag the hoses to the truck. Then its back to the shop to see what the rest of the day brings.
Otto Schoenstein: Maritime Craftsman
Otto works out of Ray Ciacia’s old boat shop. Ciacia was a Greenport boat builder who built his last boat, Rampart, in the 1970’s. Some of his old plans still hang on the wall. The shop smells like a hamster cage with the fragrance of freshly sawn cedar. The perimeter is lined with drying stacks of wood. Closer to the center of the room sits the band and table saws. Assorted hand tools line the benches.
The job calling for Otto’s attention is the modification of a small boat. He’s adding handmade cleats and perfecting the steering system. When it comes to projects, there isn’t much that will faze Otto. He can build a boat, sew a seam, weld steel, rebuild an engine or frame a house. He is the ultimate tinkerer: always adjusting, usually making it better, perfecting. In another time he would have been building airplanes in his garage.
Tom Wells: Shipwright
At 7 PM the shipyard is quiet save for the annoying slapping of a halyard on an aluminum mast. Inside one of the big sheds, under bright halogen lights, Tom Wells works quietly and methodically on the hull of a wooden sailboat. The sweet mournful fiddle of Alison Krauss playing on the radio keeps him company as he primes the hull. He works fast so that the paint will dry before the humidity rises. Stooping on a scaffold beneath the boat, Tom appears covered in a fine layer of dust; it is the result of his last sanding of the hull before painting.
On the scaffold beside him, laid out with precision are his tools: Planes and chisels recently honed, paint brushes and pages of sandpaper. The bright lights radiate upward where birds flap around in between the steel roof trusses.
Occasionally he stops, stretching his body to full size. Stepping off the scaffold he goes to his van, as neatly packed as a seaman’s trunk, and gets another tool.
Pete Wenczel: Whelk Fisherman
It’s 5 PM and the day has turned cloudy. A 15-knot wind is blowing from the southwest and the air is damp. Rain is coming.
Pete comes into the creek, the stern of the 26-foot Miss Emeline filled with the days catch. He swings the boat wide and backs effortlessly into the slip. The whelks are already bagged. He walks off the stern to tie up.
Once the boat is secured Pete puts on a brown vinyl apron and lifts the oak traps off the stern that need repairing. He goes ashore and backs his pickup to the edge of the dock, running a line to the bagged whelk on deck from the hoist at the rear of the truck. Each bag weighs about 60 pounds and he hoists 3 bags at a time up into the bed of the truck. He does this 5 times.
When the whelks are loaded, Pete hoses the boat down. He stacks buckets scrubs bulkheads. Three-quarters of an hour after his arrival he’s ready to make the 38-minute drive to the buyer. Then he can go home.
Dean Yaxa: Oysterman
Close to the shore, Pipes Cove is in the lee. Further out in the channel the current is running against the wind and the waves are rising. At 10 in the morning the autumn sun is almost due south. The bay is radiant.
The morning train to Greenport hisses its whistle as it passes to the north. A great blue Heron, interrupting it’s feeding, looks up, and takes off, big wings barely moving as it gains altitude.
Dean Yaxa is out on his 21-foot oyster boat. The bay is silent save for the sound of the powered winch hoisting up the oyster cages. When the cage is out of the water Dean maneuvers it to the boat, opens it, and the oysters spill onto the deck. Sitting on the thwart, knife in hand, Dean scrapes the shells clean of barnacles and squirts, culling them by size. He works at a calm steady pace, the sound of his knife scratching against the hard shells of the oysters. Those over three inches are ready to go to market; the others will go back in the cage to be dropped back into the bay. Once in a while he opens one of the larger shells, then swallows the meat with relish. He does this a couple of times a week.
David Berson: Author
Juliana and writer David Berson first worked together almost 15 years ago when they both were on assignment in the Greek Islands. After a couple of false starts, David Berson finally settled in Greenport in the mid-1990’s. Eight years ago he bought GLORY, Long Island’s only electric-powered tour boat and went into business.
Berson holds a 200-Ton Ocean Sailing License and has been the master of many well-known schooners, sailing between the east coast and the Caribbean.
Berson is the former Northeast editor of Sailing Magazine and currently writes celestial navigation columns for Ocean Navigator Magazine. When not writing about navigation, Berson conducts seminars to those who think they might get lost.
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