Unique volunteer rescue group consisted primarily of commercial fishermen
Unique volunteer rescue group consisted primarily of commercial fishermen
People on the beach in Napeague on Long Island’s South Fork on a fog-
saturated day in 1980 heard the drone of a small plane and then a crash into the ocean.
The police and Coast Guard responded, but so did another group — one that was unique to Long Island and possibly the entire country: the East Hampton Dory Rescue Squad.
It consisted of about 20 men, primarily commercial fishermen, who possessed a rare skill. They knew how to launch a motorized wooden dory from the beach and get through the surf.
The squad rescued two people that day. And it has responded to dozens of other calls to assist boaters, paddlers and swimmers in distress since it was founded 27 years ago.
But the squad will be making no more rescues. Its two dory rigs sit padlocked in an Amagansett garage because in January its members voted reluctantly to disband. The 10-6 vote was the result of traditional skills dying out and a sense there was no longer a place for the organization, just as there was no longer a place for fishermen who netted striped bass from small boats launched through the surf.
Stuart Vorpahl, 65, a longtime fishermen, founding squad member and the East Hampton town historian, said he and other members felt the demise of the squad was inevitable after a state ruling in 1985 that curtailed fishing for striped bass with nets set from dories launched off the beach.
“They banned ocean haul-seining, so that removed the everyday people from the beach,” said Vorpahl, who introduced the motion to disband the group. Before that, “Unless there was really bad weather, there was always somebody on the beach.”
With no one using dories anymore to fish, he said, the skill of launching a dory through the surf has been dying out. “It’s not learned by reading a book; it’s learned by doing. When we were 10 years old, we were down on the beach,” he says. “You learned by observation and eventually it’s your turn to come and do it. That’s how you had a continuous line of people who knew how to put the dories in the ocean.”
As the fishermen switched to other types of fishing or other livelihoods, the squad filled its ranks with men — there were never any female members — from other backgrounds. But while they could help, they couldn’t launch the boats. Only the experienced captains could do that.
“We were running out of captains,” Vorpahl said. “That’s the biggest thing. It takes a minimum of three people with split-second coordination to get the boat in the ocean, so you have to have a captain, you’ve got to have a sternman in the dory and you got to have the person running the truck. The three remaining captains just didn’t want to do it anymore.”
Vorpahl said that without the striped bass to lure them to the ocean beaches, the captains were now fishing or lobstering up in Peconic Bay or Gardiners Bay. “There was nobody on the beach anymore. If we got a call for an ocean rescue, we might have guys come to the barn and get the rig down on the beach, but there’d be nobody to put the boat in the ocean.”
Another problem was that some members felt there was no longer any need for the squad. “In the last couple of years, we haven’t been called at all,” Vorpahl said. “Sometimes we have two or three calls in a season. The last call we had was to look for a drowned swimmer off Bridgehampton.” (The squad handled calls into Southampton as far as Mecox Bay.)
While the number of emergencies doesn’t follow any pattern, squad members believe the lack of recent calls was probably at least partially related to the fact that a squad of ocean rescue swimmers formed over two years ago, and they could respond more quickly than a boat crew. The ocean swimmers, who number about 20, in their first season got about 10 rescue calls the first year, but only a couple last year.
“If it’s one swimmer or couple of swimmers in the surf, it’s actually more efficient for a swimmer to go in and perform the rescue,” says Tim Treadwell, the dory squad’s secretary and also a member of the East Hampton Volunteer Ocean Rescue Squad, the swimmers’ group. Treadwell, manager of East Hampton Point Marina at Three Mile Harbor, had been a member of the dory squad for four years but had never fished from a dory.
“Being an ex-lifeguard, I’ve always been interested in ocean rescue,” he says. “When I heard that the dory rescue squad was looking for new members to pass on the traditions, I jumped at that because I’ve always had a lot of respect for the squad and what they do.”
Another factor that swamped the squad was rising liability insurance costs, which got up to $14,000 a year. “It got to a point where we could no longer afford to insure ourselves, so the town brought us under their umbrella two years ago,” Treadwell says. But to keep the insurance costs under control, the town insisted the members have more training, which took more time. And that meant fewer people had the time to be members.
“That’s part of the problem with the incentive for a lot of guys to continue is that they’re afraid that after all of this training we’re required to do, they’re not going to get the calls unless it’s something like a recovery mission like trying to find a body,” he says.
It was a search for bodies that was the impetus to formation of the squad by members of the East Hampton Baymen’s Association. In 1961 an American Airlines Boeing 707 on a training flight crashed in the ocean off Amagansett and the haulseiners volunteered to search for the bodies of the six crew members and wreckage.
“The dory fishermen did all the work,” Vorpahl says. “My brother, Billy, was one of them. He was a captain of an ocean haulseine crew.”
After they pitched in informally for later emergencies, a commercial fisherman, Milton Miller, raised the idea of forming an organized squad at a baymen’s meeting in 1978. “He said that since we were the only ones who knew how to launch the dories in the surf, we could form a squad and it would be a continuation of what had been here for a long time, the Coast Guard lifesaving stations, which closed down around the time of World War II.” The U.S. Life-
Saving Service, which became part of the Coast Guard, used dories to rescue crewmen from wrecked ships.
“There were six or eight of us in the beginning,” Vorpahl says. “We used one of the ocean haulseine dories. There was always five or six crews [out fishing], so there were always boats and trucks available. In case something happened, we’d be down there and going.”
At its peak the organization had four or five squads of five men each — all fishermen.
The biggest rescue operation the squad handled was the 1980 seaplane crash off Napeague. “It was absolutely thick fog,” Vorpahl recalls. “You couldn’t see a hundred feet and we got the call that some witness had heard the plane crash in the ocean.”
A squad crew headed by Richard Lester responded. “When we got down on the beach, the people who heard the plane crash were there and Richard asked them to point out on the ocean in the general area of where they thought it went down,” Vorpahl says. “As soon as we launched the dory, the dory just disappeared in the fog but we know our bearings and Richard ran the dory right to the plane. A man and woman were hanging on the pontoons, which had busted off and were up floating. We brought them back to the beach ... and took them to the hospital. Both of them recovered.”
Over the years, the squad searched for victims of boating accidents, rescued two men in a canoe that overturned in the winter in Gardiners Bay, a sailor from Connecticut in distress in the bay off Napeaugue, and two children missing on Gardiners Island.
Now other agencies and organizations will have to handle future cases.
“I can’t imagine the dory squad not being there,” says Ed Michels, the town’s senior harbormaster. “There’s no one who can replace them as far as boat operations. It will take time for boats to go around the point,” from Montauk Harbor, whether they are dispatched by the town or the Coast Guard. “They can’t get there as fast as those guys did because they would come down the road and launch off the beach.”
“We could use Jet Skis — the town life guards have Jet Skis — but you’d have a hell of a time if a boat was sinking out there and you wanted to run equipment back and forth or bring people back in,” Michels said.
“Either the Ocean Rescue Squad or a separate squad will have to be formed to utilize personal watercraft,” Treadwell speculated. “It will help, but it is still no substitute for a dory in the event of an emergency such as a plane crash where you have multiple victims in the water far away from the shore. The watercraft is certainly quicker and you have more control in the surf zone, but you can’t pick up a lot of people like you could with a dory. A lot of guys on the ocean rescue squad liked knowing that a dory could back us up.”
East Hampton Supervisor William McGintee, a former town police lieutenant, said that between the police department, life guards and the ocean swimmers and the Coast Guard, swimmers and boaters would be protected.
But, he added, “They certainly will be sorely missed. It was a tradition that was an integral part of East Hampton.”