CHATHAM – The gleaming white boat was trailered down to the ramp at Ryder’s Cove and eased into the water on an April day so windy it brought tears to your eyes.
“Swing it,” said Mike Davis to the crew at Chatham Boat Company. “Go, Go Go!”
Captain John Our quickly reversed the Miss Fitz and raced off to the Chatham Fish Pier.
“She feels like a brand new boat,” Our said.
Miss Fitz is in Chatham Harbor now, but she spent the last several months being remade.
“Not many people spend the money on boats anymore,” said Our. “She has been a good boat to me.”
When he first had the boat built by Andy McGeoch at Cape Islands Boats, things were different. That was in 1992, people were catching a lot of fish and Our was doing particularly well.
That said, re-investing is still happening; about a half dozen fishermen have bought new boats in the past year or so or put significant money into older ones.
Our made his decision last summer, when the engine was giving him trouble. It had given him 18 years, 25,000 hours, which is an impressive feat.
So several days before Christmas, Davis, who fishes for dogfish and is a skilled builder, stripped the Miss Fitz—removing the fish box, exhaust, antennas and a host of items—and got her ready for her trip across the roads. The day before Christmas, the Miss Fitz went into a bay in Enterprise Park in Chatham and Davis, Bruce Kaminski and Don Baker went to work. After the engine was out there were two weeks of just prepping the boat, fixing all the dings and holes.
“It’s not a small process,” said Davis.
Baker did the bulk of the sanding; into February he was still at it. That takes a certain kind of temperament, and a pathological attention to detail.
“You can solve all the world’s problems,” Baker said of his sanding meditations.
Our dropped by many times, watching it transform, helping Baker airgun dust off his clothes, watching Kaminski work.
“He has given me 50 hours a week for four weeks,” Our said of Kaminski, a successful captain himself. “I stay out of the way for the most part.”
When she was perfect for painting Our’s friend came up from Rhode Island to lay five coats of primer before Baker sanded it again.
They don’t make the engine for his boat anymore so he scoured around and found an engine taken out of a yacht. He ended up buying two. His cousins with Robert B. Our Company went to Rhode Island and helped him pick them up.
He worked the engine while the others did the topside work.
Our isn’t overly sentimental about his boat, but he appreciates her. She is only his second boat, remarkable for a man who went fishing before he was in kindergarten.
Our’s father, Jack, was an integral part of the fleet and before John was born he had groundfished mainly for cod with hooks and lines. But when John came along he was lobstering inshore. When John was five he joined. Not too far, though; John’s mom, Eileen, a schoolteacher, insisted that if John was going they would stay close to shore.
“She would hear us get up, and ask if he was going inshore or offshore,” Our remembers.
Eileen, who later became a selectman, tells a story of John getting a pair of hip boots when he was five and loving them so much he slept in them.
“I wanted to be with my dad,” Our said.
A couple things happened that prompted Jack to change back to tub trawling when John was about 12. His boat sank in the harbor, for one. The other was that before the Magnuson Stevens Act in 1972 (which pushed foreign boats 200 miles off shore) there were a lot of Russian boats where the Chatham guys were lobstering. One of them tore through the grounds and destroyed thousands of dollars of gear.
“He never financially could recover from that,” said Our.
The hours and environment could be brutal. But fishing is what the younger Our wanted to do and he ended up going to Cape Cod Tech for marine mechanics, graduating in 1980.
“I was fishing the next day after graduation with my dad.”
By 1980 everyone was gillnetting, focusing on cod and pollock. Catches went up to 10,000 pounds a day or more.
“The guys had fun back then,” Our said.
John was gillnetting with his dad on the Wee John and his dad talked, often, about retiring and giving the boat to him. He would tell John that he could run it for a few weeks and then after a couple of days Jack would be at the dock wanting to get back out. John understood the push and pull, but it did cause friction.
“We fought a lot, mainly about him giving me the boat but not wanting to let go,” Our remembers.
So he would fish with other fishermen and did a stint with the Kavanaugh fleet out of Woods Hole, learning a lot.
But on Feb. 2, 1985 he caught his arm in a winch and was in the hospital for six weeks, unsure if he was going to lose the limb. When he healed he went back to work for his dad, but they were at loggerheads again. It was John’s mom who finally addressed the issue.
“Mom said, ‘Go buy a boat,’” Our remembers.
He bought the Miss Molly from the Pike brothers around 1988. Jeff Pike, who later worked for Congressmen Gerry Studds and Bill Delahunt before founding a government relations firm in D.C., said she was a good boat, real “fishy.” With 100 or so nets, Our got her for about $35,000.
“Johnny did a few minor repairs and started fishing. It was tuna time and he caught so many tuna that I think he paid off the entire boat in just a couple of months,” Pike said. “I was so happy that he got the boat.”
That was until the infamous “No Name” storm broke her mooring and she wrecked on the rocks.
Our decided to build a boat. He had bought a house for $58,000, then dropped about $135,000 on the new boat, an investment to pay the mortgage.
He had toyed with the idea of naming her Miss Fits, for him and his crew, but his fiance Jean Marie was a Fitzgerald so Miss Fitz seemed preordained, and the boat did well.
We could catch fish 11 months of the year,” Our said. “February was really the only one we couldn’t.”
About 15 years ago it started to go the other way. Traditional fish stocks seemed to fall off a cliff, and many left the fishery.
“I wish I was born 10 years sooner,” Our said.
He didn’t build the Miss Fitz thinking he would be 100 miles offshore hauling monkfish. But rebuilt, that’s where he’s likely headed this spring. At least the ride will be more comfortable.