The young man and the sea


The charter shows up at 6:15 p.m. on a hot day at Orient Marina, five middle-aged men with fishing rods, boots, coolers and three six-packs of Ballantine ale, eager to spend a night on the sea chasing striped bass. Cap’n Robbie Spitzenberg, though only 30 years old, is a veteran of the sea, and has taken these guys out before. This will not be the charter from hell.

“The charter from hell,” Spitzenberg says, “is guys having too much to drink, falling down, getting sick and out of control, someone trying to light up a joint. I’ve stopped and gone back in a few times when it got really dangerous.”

Spitzenberg’s a slight but wiry man, his skin burned copper, his blonde hair whitened from day after day under the sun. His strong hands look puffy from working with hooks, knives, fish spines and monofilament line. He looks like he could handle just about everything, like a recent evening lightning storm on the Sound.

“I had to go right through the middle of it to get in,” he recalls. “It was really cracking. Hitting the water on both sides of us. The noise. Oh yeah. Pretty hairy. But my worst experience was when a guy was reeling in a fish, said he wasn’t feeling too well, and fell. I worked on him for 15 minutes but couldn’t bring him back. Heart attack. That was worse than any weather I’ve been through.”

Long days are merely routine. He got up at 5 a.m. today to take a charter out from 7 until 3. Then he and mate Charlie Manwaring, 24, cleaned the boat and Spitzenberg went home to Southold for a quick shower and meal. Then, back to Orient for his second charter of the day (at $575 a trip). The Caterpillar turbo diesel on the 36-foot Harris Cutty Hunk is already growling as the five fishermen climb on board.

Up on the bridge, he eases out of the marina, past the New London ferry and into Gardiner’s Bay. This has been Spitzenberg’s life. “We moved to Southold from Massapequa when I was 12,” he says. “My mother always loved the water. Her father made some money on the side as a bayman. That first summer I went out porgy fishing on a party boat. My mother was late picking me up and the mate asked if I wanted to clean some buckets. After that I came every day. Worked summers and weekends when school was in.”

Mate on party and charter boats, he got his captain’s license at 19. He’s worked boats in the winter out of Montauk, but says, “I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t have to. It’s rough. Fishing in winter. Four or five guys on a 57-foot boat for 10 days at a time.” Some winters he’s gone to Florida to work as a mate for friends. “The best time I had was a buddy of mine and I took a private boat from Miami to Cancun. The owner wanted to fish that winter. And you know what? Out of three months we saw the guy twice. We lived on the boat there in Mexico. Went sailfishing. It was a good winter.”

A long necklace of blurred lights defines the Connecticut coast. Under a full moon, bluefish are hitting, and the big stripers are taking bucktail lures and live eels. Striped bass are one of the great sport fish of the East Coast. Once nearly extinct because of over-fishing, they’re back in huge numbers because of protective laws. Sport fishermen are allowed to keep only two stripers of more than 28 inches in length per trip on a licensed boat. Commercial fishermen are allowed only 104 for an entire season.

“Restrictions have worked wonders,” Spitzenberg says. “Sometimes it seems unfair to the commercial guys. They’ve got to make a living, too. But political power is in the sporties’ hands. There are a lot more of them, with more money, than the commercial guys.”

The boat comes alive with shouts, 15- to 30-pound fish flopping all over the deck before Manwaring wrestles them into a big cooler. At one point a guy has a fish hooked but is not gaining on it, rod bent double, the reel difficult to crank. Spitzenberg comes off the bridge and stands next to the struggling fishermen, saying, with a smile, “He’s only a fish. You gonna let him kick your ass?” When the fish is finally landed, Spitzenberg shakes the man’s hand. “Nice fish. Nice job.”

At midnight everyone’s happy. As Manwaring fillets the blues and stripers, a couple of guys watch him the way people observe a mason or a carpenter at work. Efficient, quick, no false moves, a thing of beauty. His tip is $100.

“I’ve never been stiffed,” he says. “But sometimes I don’t get too much. You got your working class and you got your class with another agenda.”