ALWAYS SECOND MATE
By Debbie Tuma
My father is standing at the kitchen sink, trying to wash fish blood out of his khaki pants. Someone handed him a flounder and it bled all over him. This is nothing new for a charter boat captain, except that I couldn’t understand why, after 50 years of fishing in Montauk, he didn’t know how to get out of the flounder’s way.
“How come you let it bleed all over you? I ask him. “Why didn’t you stand back?”
He curses the dead fish because these are his $90 pants. Even his shoes have stains. He gives me one of those looks that I always interpret as, “Women don’t know anything about fishing,” and mutters, “Somebody handed it to me.”
“Well, I say in my smug, practical way, “if someone handed me a dead flounder, I wouldn’t stand there holding it over my Topsiders. Anybody knows that.”
People have always asked me what it’s like growing up as the first-born girl in a long line of Montauk charter boat captains. I sit at the kitchen table and study my handsomely weathered, 77 year-old father, who has spent his whole life at sea. “What if he’d been an investment banker, or a college professor, or a brain surgeon?” I wonder. It struck me how being the daughter of a sport fisherman has affected my life.
I was supposed to be a boy. It was only logical, as my father is the second generation of charter boat captains in Montauk, that his first-born be a boy, to take over the boat or at least be a mate. My grandfather and great uncle started the charter boat industry in Montauk in the 1930’s, when there was only commercial fishing. They got the idea to take tourists from the Long Island Railroad sport fishing, and help them to bait the hooks and reel them in. They then started Tuma’s Dock in the 1940’s, with only about 14 charter boats. Today, there are over 150 in Montauk.
In the 1950’s, all the evidence pointed to me being a boy. My mother gained so much weight that if I wasn’t a boy, they were afraid I’d be a smaller version of a giant tuna. Back then, all big babies were usually males, so they ordered me a blue baby bracelet, and started dreaming up good mate’s names like, “Ahab,” “Jonah,” “Sharkey,” “Porgy,” and “Chopper.”
When I arrived two weeks late, weighing in at 9 pounds, 2 ounces (like a good-sized striper), everyone was shocked that I was a girl.
No one was ready. Besides having nothing to name me, Dad had already bought size 2 Topsiders and given his mate a 10-year termination notice. His 36-foot charter boat had already claimed the name “Dawn,” after the sunrise, so they randomly named me Deborah. I could never understand why they didn’t name me after the boat, since that’s a girl’s traditional place in fishing, having her name on the transom. Strike two.
Wendy was strike three, another daughter three years later, when they tried again for a mate. They gave up, and the blue baby bracelet remained unopened. My mother said she wanted to spend the rest of her life canning tuna.
I think my mother, an artist and model from Boston, got turned off to fishing when my parents took their honeymoon in the height of bluefish season in 1949. My father refused to go any farther from Montauk than New Jersey, so my mother forfeited her dreams of a Caribbean island for a week in Atlantic City. To make matters worse, every night of the honeymoon, Dad called his brother in Montauk to “see how the blues were running.”
And Mom’s been competing with fish ever since. She loves the arts and culture scene, and happened to meet my Dad vacationing in Montauk in the summer of 1948, while he was in college studying civil engineering. When he graduated, to everyone’s surprise, he came back to Montauk and took over his father’s boat, and has been fishing ever since.
My sister grew up caring only about horses and boys, but I couldn’t let Dad down. Our family outings consisted of Mom sunning herself on the bow of the “Dawn,” my sister reading or eating, and me fiercely trolling off the stern. I always caught the most fish, and I loved the feeling of the salt air in my face, and watching the whitewater fan out behind the boat. The only part I didn’t like was when my father or his mate yanked the hook out of my fish’s mouth, and threw it into the hatch, half-filled with water.