Greenport’s waterfront and an industry that’s changed with the tides

04/18/2014 8:00 AM |
Brewer Yacht Yard & Marina worker Eric Scharpf applies varnish to a Cape Dory-brand sailboat in the Greenport yard's maintenance area. (Credit: Paul Squire)

Brewer Yacht Yard & Marina worker Eric Scharpf applies varnish to a Cape Dory-brand sailboat in the Greenport yard’s maintenance area. (Credit: Paul Squire)

About two weeks before the Greenport fishing season begins to ramp up, the docks downtown remain quiet, save for the whipping wind and driving rain.

On Tuesday, dockhands were preparing to wrap tires with canvas to use as bumpers for the docks at Claudio’s Marina. “It’s a little cold to do anything else,” said owner Jerry Tuthill. But come May 1, when the docks open for business, Greenport’s historic working waterfront will be bustling again. It’s a part of Greenport’s identity that shows no sign of drifting away. 

“Tradition never goes out of style,” said Claudio’s Clam Bar manager David Hensley, a former bayman.

The fishing heritage of Greenport dates back to its earliest settlers, who hunted whales in rowboats. Whaling took off in the late 1700s and lasted into the mid-1800s, and the village’s prime location near fertile ocean waters helped to grow the port town.

Though whaling declined, Greenport’s fishing industry still grew. More than 5,300 ships were moored in Greenport harbor by 1881. Shipbuilding yards became essential to the village, and even served as the focal point of bootlegging operations during the Prohibition era.

But as fish stocks began to shrink in the 1950s, Greenport began to reinvent itself as a tourist destination, and not just a fishing town.

A view of Peconic Bay from Sterling Street in Greenport. (Credit: Rachel Young)

A view of Peconic Bay from Sterling Street in Greenport. (Credit: Rachel Young)

In a cramped office up a set of narrow stairs above Claudio’s Clam Bar this week, Mr. Tuthill pointed out the window to an olive green fishing trawler bobbing in the wind-swept, unsettled water.

When Mr. Tuthill and his family first opened the Clam Bar more than 25 years ago, commercial fishing boats docked in the harbor were a common sight. Now, they’ve gone south, following the schools of fish to warmer waters near North Carolina.

It may be diminished from its heyday, but the fishing tradition is still a part of Greenport’s culture, he said. Greenport has changed, but Mr. Tuthill believes it’s changed for the better.

“It’s a place to go now,” he said with pride. “It’s the diamond of the North Fork.”

Though tourism is a growing part of Greenport’s revenue, the baymen haven’t left. True, Mr. Tuthill said, the large-scale oystermen and flounder ships are gone, but dozens of ships still make their living out on Greenport’s waters.

In early May, fishermen will park off the docks and begin the hunt for doormat flukes. Charter and open boats fish for striped bass and bluefish in the bay and surrounding waters.

Dave Brennan, owner of the two-ship Peconic Star fleet of open fishing boats, knows that business well. He came to Greenport in 1980, initially sailing out of Mitchell’s Marina.

He’s seen the same decline in commercial fishing fleets.

“When we first came out here, there were a lot of draggers. The whole place leaned toward fishing,” Mr. Brennan said. “Now you see mega yachts.”

Mr. Brennan’s 80- and 90-foot ships — outfitted with radar systems, generator, heated cabins and other amenities — journey out every day during the season at 7:30 a.m., taking along whatever eager anglers have arrived for the journey. In May and June, the ships will stay near Greenport Harbor, venturing farther out later in the summer.

But fleets like his offer more services than just fishing. The Peconic Star fleet will go on seal-watching tours and circle the area’s lighthouses in cooperation with an East End Seaport Museum program. Mr. Brennan has also held weddings, birthday parties and funerals on board.

They’re not just fishing boats, he said, they’re “boats carrying passengers” for hire.

“We’re very versatile,” Mr. Brennan said. “If someone wants to do something exotic, as long as it’s not breaking the law, we’re there.”

The Greenport Village Board hopes by adding electrical upgrades to the east pier at Mitchell Park Marina, it can lure mega yachts. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)

The Mitchell Park Marina. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)

The nearby shipyards also cater to the growing tourism industry, while continuing to support the commercial fleets. At Wooden Boatworks, unique private yachts are restored and repaired. Across Stirling Basin, Brewer Yacht Yard is busy doing maintenance on the hundreds of vessels stored there for the winter.

By summer’s end, roughly 1,200 boats from Connecticut and other East Coast locales will have docked at the Brewer marinas in Greenport, said manager Mike Acebo, a former president of the Greenport Business Improvement District.

“Greenport has that attraction to people,” he said.

In response to the growing popularity of recreational boating, the yard has grown to provide space for 200 boats at its piers, he said. Brewer Yacht Yard also services some of the local commercial ships, an increasingly year-round task.

“The scope of the work changes through the seasons but we’re working all year,” Mr. Acebo said.

Perhaps most encouraging for local fishermen is the way younger generations are taking to the working waterfront. High school and college students still spend their summers working the docks, just as Mr. Tuthill did when he was young.

Some of those teens go on to other professions, he admitted. But some dockhands stay on board, carrying on the village tradition.

David Hensley said that bodes well for the waterfront’s future.

“It’s actually a way of life that’s looked upon no differently than as a cop, a fireman or a dentist,” Mr. Hensley said. “It’ll always be here.”

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