The Lost Boys of Montauk
“See what you think of this one,” said Susan Bush, the owner of Island Bound Bookstore. I was checking in her car at the ferry when she handed me a galley of a book titled “The Lost Boys of Montauk,” by Amanda M. Fairbanks. Susan has never flipped me a book that I didn’t like; however, this particular title grabbed me so hard that I read the book in three quick sessions; two of the which were at the Point Judith Lighthouse, where I looked south toward Block Island and Montauk while turning the pages of this tragic maritime story. (The geography of this book is very visceral if you’re reading it near the ocean.) Moreover, about a half-mile from the lighthouse, there stands a south-facing memorial for the fishermen who hailed from the Port of Galilee who were lost to the sea. Both of these elements are a
testament as to why I couldn’t leave this book alone.
After reading this book, which deals with the 1984 sinking of a commercial fishing boat from Montauk, Long Island, I felt compelled to track down author Amanda Fairbanks via email and cellphone. I had a question that had nagged at me throughout her impeccably-researched book, which begs many questions of the competitive coastal fishing cultures in the United States.
This story deals with the sinking of a fishing boat - a longliner - called the Wind Blown, and the question I had dealt with the general design and subsequent changes that were made to the boat that was owned and captained by the late Mike Stedman. When we talked the first thing I asked her was what could motivate - besides financial gain - a fisherman to take a boat like the Wind Blown well offshore to Atlantis Canyon to long-line for tilefish, in March. We both agreed that when you change the inherent design of a boat the physics can change; especially if you raise the center of gravity and the boat can become top heavy. This was one of the changes that was made to the Wind Blown - a longline drum was placed on top of the wheelhouse of this 65-foot boat from Texas. This, in addition to stability questions, as well as changes to the overall length of the boat, hovered over the entire narrative. In my view, after living and working around a fishing port for most of my life, it seemed like this was a boat that you wouldn’t want to be on in a storm offshore. In her research for this book Amanda came to a similar conclusion.
A m a n d a Fairbanks was working as a staff writer for the East Hampton Star when she first heard of the sinking of the Wind Blown and the loss of her crew. Her
editor had informed her of the story and after some typical journalistic twists and turns, Fairbanks found herself doing what journalists are wont to do; they ask questions, and Fairbanks asks lots of them. After doing some initial research for a possible long-form magazine story she found that this fishing tragedy had a
broad foundation of cultural material to explore. Moreover, said material could inform the reader not only of the fisheries of Montauk, but also to the historical demographic mix of the east end of Long Island for over the last 100 years. This book is filled with perspective regarding the changes that happened in Montauk
as a result of the LIRR, the Long Island Expressway, and coastal development. The aforementioned perspective lends itself to understanding how four men from various backgrounds ended up on a canyon trip aboard the Wind Blown.
A m a n d a Fairbanks is a savage researcher. Her journalistic capability is center stage in this story; she interviewed over 100 people for this book, which lays bare the complexity of a local working culture, as well as an entitled one that can be seen currently emerging in many coastal communities on the east coast.
Fairbanks, who grew up in California, and has solid educational and writing credentials, was the right person to write of this Montauk tragedy, as she could bring an objective point of view to the story. For example, the varied backgrounds of Mike Stedman, Mike Vigilant, Scott Clarke and David Connick are closely examined. All
of the men come from very diverse backgrounds; however, there is a commonality that brought them all together to be catching a boatload of tilefish, and then getting caught in a severe and freakish record-breaking storm south of Montauk. Fairbanks leaves no stone unturned regarding the depth of these men.
Fishing is a dangerous business and perhaps even more dangerous in boom times where people may be prone to stay out longer while the weather may dictate a different agenda. I remember seeing draggers coming into Galilee Harbor heavily laden with butterfish when that species was in heavy demand in Japan. The draggers would stay out until the fish holds were full—chances were taken and the rewards were substantial. A local fisherman whom I’ve known for years in Point Judith recently told me that he was dragging for tilefish in the early eighties, and then he said the longliners “cheated” us out of the fishery. It was probably cheaper and more cost effective to hunt in the canyons using the longline fishing technique rather than towing a net. Competition is a big part of any fishery and along with
this comes the reality of risks versus rewards. All of these elements are in play in Fairbanks’s book.
What Amanda Fairbanks does in this heavily-researched story, is inform the reader of the inherent danger of going offshore to catch fish and what happens when a tragedy occurs and there is a loss of life. Most important, she gives a glimpse of those left behind and how their grief evolves. When someone is lost at sea there is no closure for those left behind and this truth drives this powerful narrative. When Mike Stedman and his gang left Montauk on 22 March, 1984 they were going out to simply do their jobs. When the weather system unloaded on this region of the east coast the Wind Blown started steaming back to Montauk; however, the accelerating intensity of this storm caught four fated souls who were just trying to get home.
Finally, Amanda Fairbanks wrote a powerful book, which without question, will help foster in the reader a new found respect for anyone in the fishery.
“The Lost Boys of Montauk,” is available at Island Bound Bookstore.