Aboard the Captain's Lady Head Boat

 

The sun had already begun its quick ascent over the Delaware Bay when the Captain’s Lady set out from Bowers Beach, leaving the 18th century bayside town receding into what was left of the morning fog.
 

Twenty minutes earlier, a handful of fisherman had loitered in small groups on the dock outside J.P.’s Wharf Restaurant & Bar. There were round-bellied men who waited with a familiar ease that could only mean many mornings of sunrises and fishing poles. Without garnering disapproving looks, some hocked phlegm – mid-conversation – over the dock with finesse. There was the couple with two little boys who already displayed nascent man traits: the wide-legged stance; the studied indifference; the curt nod; sometimes a determinedly deep-throated grunt of agreement.

 

Then there was my Dad, whose dosage of gruff manliness somewhat fit in, and me, who did not fit in at all: the big-haired girl hailing from the north in an old, frumpy pair of jeans, whose fingers slipped while baiting a line.

 

Multiple docks jutted into the water around us, offering a hint of what the town used to be. Founded by the Bowers family in 1734, it was a fishing haven in the 19th and 20th centuries, with flourishing hotels and restaurants. In the 1980s, six head boats and eight commercial boats left its shores each morning. Now the number is down to about three.

 

The town of 335 residents seems undeterred, however. Its website touts the nostalgia of the beach and the sea:  “The Way Life Used To Be! Remember when walking the beach filled your whole day... Fishing with Dad was the whole summer. The sun was warmer, the air sweeter, time went by a little slower...It’s Here. Come Try Us.”           

             

Around 7 a.m. the captain stepped onto the dock from the boat. He wore a neon green “Captain’s Lady Head Boat” t-shirt, and I think he was chewing tobacco. “All right,” he said, “we got a problem. Gather ’round.”

 

The group converged, and he explained that because there were only nine of us he wouldn’t make enough money to break even. He offered to “call down to Lewes,” which had a boat going out in an hour, or we could all pitch in a lot more money. He waited for the group’s answer, seeking our eyes. I shifted uncomfortably. Thankfully, just then a few more people showed up and we headed out for $70 each instead of the usual $60.
 

The next seven hours were long.

 

The Captain’s Lady can comfortably fit 80 passengers. It’s fresh-faced but sturdy and austere, the only extravagance the boat’s name scrawled in italic lettering on the bow.   

 

A cold breeze left me shivering in my sweater as we made our way through the waves about five miles to our destination above a man-made wreck of concrete on the bay floor, which was designed to attract fish.

 

The first mate, Bruce, offered Dad and me a container filled with complimentary fresh bait that came from a nearby basket of live crabs. Throughout the day I avoided glancing over, but can still recall images of Bruce, who had been doing this since he was 14, methodically hacking live crabs to pieces.

 

When baiting my hook, crab parts oozing with orange stuff, I looked somewhat helplessly at the gunk on my hands. With raised eyebrows, Bruce wordlessly offered the towel he kept hanging at his belt.
 

Most men kept to their corners, but at one point I leaned as casually as I could against the rail next to an older man who sat on the bench watching the bay unfold before us. Raising my voice above the whipping breeze, I asked what kind of fish we were trying to catch that day. Yeah – apparently you can’t just toss out your line and expect to catch just anything.
 

I missed his soft-spoken response, because just then Bon Jovi cracked the silence on the radio above our heads. Any other place, Bon Jovi at 8 a.m. would be unbearable. Here, it somehow worked. I joined the man on the bench.
 

“Tog,” he repeated his answer. 
 

He introduced himself as Dan Dean, 73, often seasick, he said, but a life-long fisherman. Tan slacks, checkered button-down shirt, loafers – he’d fit in just as well on a church pew, save for a baseball cap and the thickest fishing hook I’ve ever seen, slid onto the cap’s brim like a casually-placed paper clip.


He told me about his fisherman’s life. He worked on a Staten Island ferry at the age 12, got his working papers at 14, and was a mate on multiple fishing boats, later owning his own. 

 

He moved to Millsboro three years ago with his wife and has spent much of his time fishing. His favorites are the Princess Head Boat and Monty Hawkins’ party head boat out of Ocean City, Md., Fisherman’s Wharf head boats in Lewes, and some that sail out of the Indian River Inlet. And every Friday during the season, you can find him on the Captain’s Lady.

 

“The thing I like about this boat, it’s family-friendly,” he said, adding that he appreciates the typically calm waters, which are easy on the seasickness he’s endured all his life.

 

After about 10 minutes, all his words seemed used up, and I left him alone with his far-off stare. “I’ve talked more than I have in a couple months,” he laughed.

 

As the afternoon lagged on, the rest of the passengers grew talkative and began exchanging stories. One group got into comparisons: “My wife will get up with me every dawn and make my lunch before I head out to fish,” said one. “Yeah, my wife used to have the cooler and the boat ready for me before I left,” replied another. “Now, that’s a woman,” marveled the first. “Yeah, well, then she divorced me.”

 

“Who the hell had a banana on here?” the captain yelled, and from the sound, he apparently had hurled the offending fruit overboard.

 

Standing outside the group, one of the two little boys watched the men while clutching a baggie of Cheerios. He crept up to the first mate, cleared his throat and asked a very confident fishing question. Satisfied with the answer, or maybe with himself for getting an answer, he tripped away happily, reaching into the baggie.

 

By noon, nobody had caught anything. My Dad and I were hanging out in comfortable silence when there was an outburst from the captain’s cabin, followed by a small splash.

 

“Who the hell had a banana on here?” the captain yelled, and from the sound, he apparently had hurled the offending fruit overboard.

 

“No wonder we’re not catching anything!” and “Bad luck,” was the consensus among passengers. My Dad and I just shrugged at each other. But the superstition, or whatever it was, seemed to hold true: Just two fish were caught that day.

 

Later, after disembarking, Dad and I stopped at the nearby Bayview Inn for a beer and some fries. The few patrons stared silently as I made my wind-blown, severely sunburned entrance into the tavern, but the bartender spoke up. “Y’all just getting off the head boat?” she asked.

 

We nodded, and I felt proud to so briefly feel like I fit in, like it was just another day on the water for me.

 

A bearded man from the other end of the bar asked if we had caught anything.

 

“No?” He gave a grave, “Hmm,” sliding a bottle between his hands. “Musta had a banana on board.”

 

Author’s note: The taboo about bananas on boats isn't clear, but it stems from a few possible theories. Banana oil rubs off on hands and the scent spooks fish, and during voyages, crates of bananas would also contain snakes and spiders and tarantulas. And of course, one could slip on a banana peel and fall overboard.

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