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Free: one lobster boat to an Iraq vet

A Connecticut lobsterman will give his 24-foot Pickerell to the first returning war veteran who wants it

A Connecticut lobsterman will give his 24-foot Pickerell to the first returning war veteran who wants it

Some memories fade with time; others leave indelible marks.

Commercial lobsterman John Niekrash, 52, of Mystic, Conn., wears a watch that has an inscription on the back: “I.O.U. Life.” It was given to him by a man he saved 15 years ago while lobstering aboard his 24-foot Pickerell, Krasher III, on Long Island Sound. Ready for a larger and faster boat, Niekrash wants to make another good turn and donate Krasher III to any veteran from the war in Iraq interested in cultivating a career on the sea.

“I have been lobstering for 20 years,” says Niekrash. “I love this boat, but now it is just time for something a little larger.”

Howard Pickerell, a native of Long Island, built Krasher III for Niekrash in winter 1991, and the boat is entering its 18th season. Something of a nautical jack-of-all-trades, Pickerell has spent most of his life as a clammer and has built garveys, designed and driven outboard racing hydroplanes, and cultivated oysters. He has built more than 550 boats for commercial fishermen.

“I do lobstering commercially but only part-time,” says Niekrash, who is also vice president of national accounts for a liquor distributorship in Mystic, Conn. “With the fisheries down in the area, it’s not worth it to do it full time. But this is a tremendous boat and can go out on the water all year round, and [it] goes about 10 to 12 knots. The money would be nice to have, but I’d rather give someone something they can make a living off of.”

Niekrash got the idea to donate the boat after attending a golf benefit last spring in Stonington, Conn. “There was a young [Iraq] soldier, who had lost a leg due to a roadside bomb, that was invited to speak about his experience,” says Niekrash. “These soldiers are coming back altered; they have to pick up and redo their lives. No matter what your politics are, they are heroes.”

Niekrash recalls how Krasher III assisted him in saving the life of Bristol, Conn., resident Patrick LaBlank, who has since died. “I remember back in 1993, my brother-in-law [Mike Budd] and I were cruising in Long Island Sound off New London near Fisher’s Island when we saw a man flip out of his fishing boat,” he says. “The boat had an outboard motor going at full throttle, and so it was spinning around in a circle close to [LaBlank].”

They got as close to him as possible, and Niekrash dove into the cold May water wearing shorts and life jacket. “It was very, very cold; the temperature of the water was probably high 40s,” says Niekrash. “[LaBlank]wasn’t wearing a life jacket, and I grabbed him just as he was going under. Between the two of us, we got him into the boat. I hit my head on [Krasher III] in the process, and there was blood all over, but we called the Coast Guard as we pounded on [LaBlank’s] chest and got the water out of his lungs.”

Afterward, LaBlank, who at the time was in his mid-60s, and Niekrash became good friends. When LaBlank died six years ago from cancer, he left Niekrash the inscribed watch. “I always wear it,” says Niekrash. “We were the only boat within miles from the man.”

Niekrash says Krasher III will be given on a first-come, first-served basis, and he hopes his act will inspire others to do the same. “This boat has been everything I ever thought it could be for me, and hopefully it can be that for someone else,” he says. “This way, they are not just getting a boat — they are getting a way to make money.”

For more information, call Niekrash at (203) 887-5642 or (860) 536-0769.