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The evolution of a L.I. waterman

One of the most popular summer destinations on the east end of Long Island is Sag Harbor, and one of the most popular attractions in the old whaling village is the red-brick American Hotel on Main Street.

One of the most popular summer destinations on the east end of Long Island is Sag Harbor, and one of the most popular attractions in the old whaling village is the red-brick American Hotel on Main Street. Celebrities, yachtsmen and wealthy vacationers who dine in the hotel’s fine restaurant may smile at the menu listing for “Howard Pickerell’s Excellent Hog Neck Oysters served with Sauce Mignonette.”

If the diners think “Howard Pickerell” is another clever marketing character from Madison Avenue, they’d be surprised to know that the distinctive name belongs to a 60-year old bayman who has made his living on Long Island waters since he graduated from high school. That was quite a while ago, and Howard Pickerell has lived many lives since then as the fishing and boating industries changed dramatically and he changed with them. He doesn’t complain about the recurring challenges. “As long as I can be on the water, I’m happy.”

Pickerell has been on Long Island waters for more than 50 years at various times as a clammer, a builder of garveys treasured by baymen, a designer and driver of outboard racing hydroplanes, a consultant to the manufacturer of Class A stock outboards, an oyster cultivator, and a builder of rugged commercial and pleasure boats.

Pickerell has built more than 550 boats in a variety of designs — more than half were garveys for clamming in the Great South Bay and Peconic bays of Long Island. His garveys also work for nearly every township in Nassau and Suffolk Counties where they get hard use inspecting bridges, servicing marinas, testing waters and doing any other 24/7 jobs that are needed. On a river in Alaska an 18-foot Pickerell garvey salvages logs that break away from logging rafts being floated down to a sawmill. (The boatman gets $100 for each log he retrieves.)

Pickerell also builds 32-foot, lobster-style vessels. One is taken offshore by a tuna fisherman out of Shinnecock Bay; another serves as a dive boat in Antigua. His popular 24-foot version of Down East boats can be seen along the coast from Long Island to Maine. The Nynex communications company uses one to service telephone lines on the Casco Bay Islands out of Yarmouth.

A bayman at 7

During the 1930s and ’40s, Pickerell’s father raised a family on his income from clamming in Huntington Bay on the north shore of Long Island. When young Howard asked for a nickel to buy a candy bar, his father handed him a clam rake and told him to earn the nickel. So Howard became a bayman at age 7.

When he graduated from South Huntington High School in 1962, he decided he wanted to work on the water, and furthered his knowledge at diesel school. In a night course on aquaculture he learned to read bathymetric maps of the waterssurrounding Long Island.

Pickerell may possess genes that pointed him toward the water. The name Pickerell can be traced back to England and Scotland, and might have referred to a fisherman or fishmonger.

When still a youth Pickerell built his own clam boat, basing the design on a New Haven sharpie, and soon began getting orders from baymen working the north and south shores. Many of the clammers working the Great South Bay had migrated from southern New Jersey, and were more comfortable with a traditional, blunt-bowed design called a garvey. Gradually, north shore clammers, too, began preferring the garvey to the skiff. Pickerell developed his garvey from the square and boxy southern designs of lower New Jersey and Delaware. He added “New England salt” to their construction with a slightly tapered bow and traditional shear.

In those days, littleneck and cherrystone clams teemed in the bays and shellfish wholesalers paid top prices for them. By the early ’70s, in Huntington Bay alone, some 1,200 baymen held licenses and Pickerell decided the water was getting too crowded.

He moved east to the hamlet of Watermill in the Town of Southampton. He still lives there today in a heavily wooded section, surrounded by the mega-mansions of the Hamptons.

Pickerell wasn’t too familiar with the waters of the Peconic estuary between Long Island’s forks, and local baymen were typically tight-lipped about their shellfishing spots. He soon realized that no one was working the creeks that feed the bays, and that’s where he started. “I can find clams on the sidewalk,” says Pickerell.

Built to last

Pickerell’s reputation as a builder of tough workboats preceded him, and he took orders from baymen harvesting the lucrative and abundant scallop beds. These were mostly flat-bottomed skiffs with high freeboard and less flare for hauling aboard. Pickerell’s biggest scalloping boats grew up to 32 feet with a wheelhouse at the stern and a large, open sorting deck forward.

Howard continued to build garveys for clammers in Great South Bay, which is formed by barrier beaches on the south shore of Long Island. What made the garvey so popular was its stability and carrying capacity, plus the rugged durability that Pickerell built into it. For clammers, he kept the freeboard low so that the boat would lay well and drift with the bow heading up to weather. “George Washington crossed the Delaware in a garvey. That’s why he could stand up without tipping the boat,” Pickerell says, adding, “ But it wasn’t one of mine.”

Pickerell likes to show off a 1968 garvey in the little boatyard behind his house. It toiled for nearly 20 years servicing moorings and doing salvage work for the town of Amityville. After another 15 years at a variety of hard jobs, it retired to a marina where Pickerell found it. Though it looks like it’s been in a street fight, he says it’s solid and ready for more tasks.

In the ’70s Pickerell built as many as 30 garveys a year, but now makes only five or six for die-hard clammers. A flat-bottomed garvey (which actually has a vee bow and a slight deadrise forward) now costs about $4,500. Depending on their size, they are powered by 25- to 40- hp outboards. One of his 24-foot Down East picnic boats runs $44,000 with only basic instrumentation. Pickerell says that his old boats sell for more than their original price.

Brown tide

A premonition of hard times came in 1985 when a brown tide invaded the Peconic Estuary. That incursion didn’t last long, and scalloping and clamming stayed strong into the mid 1990s. Then the brown tide struck in two succeeding years and, since the scallop life span is only 24 months, that was long enough to wipe out the multimillion-dollar scalloping business and destroy the livelihoods of hundreds of baymen.

Almost simultaneously, the clam harvest in Great South Bay dropped off dramatically, and remains nearly non-existent today.

Environmentalists point to a wide variety of reasons. Pickerell believes that a combination of population growth and attendant run-off of toxins is a major cause. He also feels that over the years the opening and dredging of inlets through the barrier islands admitted a greater volume of higher salinity ocean water, making the bay less hospitable for juvenile shellfish, which prefer brackish water.

From work to pleasure

Pickerell says some sport fishermen, whom he calls “pin hookers,” had admired the Spartan ruggedness and salty good looks of his skiffs, and asked him to add a center console to turn them into fishing platforms. His 24-foot lobster-style workboat, powered by a Volvo Penta 140-hp gasoline sterndrive, fit right in with the Down East picnic boat designs that were growing in popularity. So Pickerell began producing pleasure craft using the same basic designs and tough construction. It took him a while to move off the sparse outfitting of his workboats, which dispensed with “unnecessary frills.”

One early purchaser of a 24-foot picnic boat asked for a Dorade ventilator to be installed in the roof of the small forward cabin. Howard suggested a simple vent, and said he would hang a funnel under the vent. He’d attach the funnel to a slender, plastic tube and lead rainwater through the side of the cabin trunk. The customer had to insist to get his Dorade.

The same buyer wanted electric windshield wipers. Howard said he would install the wiring but not hook it up. “You won’t be going out much in bad weather, and a hand-operated wiper is more reliable.”

Over the years Pickerell softened his stand on such matters as he built more and more pleasure boats. Now there’s a backup in orders for Pickerell boats because he insists on building the vessels by himself in his garage and backyard. Years ago he tried farming out parts of the work, but says he wasn’t satisfied with the quality he got back.

Peconic oysters

Besides building pleasure boats, during the last 10 years Pickerell has become a major cultivator of Peconic oysters.

As part of its efforts to alleviate the effects of the brown tide on scallopers, and with the assist of a New York State appropriation, Cornell University initiated a pilot program to educate baymen on oyster farming. Pickerell had heard that oysters were being grown in containment in other countries, and he began testing the technique for Cornell. He found that the bivalves grew well in the bay, and with proper care could reach maturity within 18 months rather than two or three years.

Besides attaining marketable size sooner, the fast-growth oysters are protected early in their life from MSX and Dermo diseases, which crept north from southern waters.

Though oysters are not native in Peconic bays, more than 35 years ago dredge boats from Connecticut took young oysters from Norwalk and Bridgeport, and carried them to the clean waters of the Peconic for grow out.

Today, working from one of his 32-foot oyster boats Pickerell hauls up plastic mesh cages linked together on a trot line, cleans the bivalves and vigorously shakes the container to break off their feather edges, which results in a fatter oyster with a tougher shell. Some 40 baymen now work Peconic waters

Pickerell owns a trade name, “Peconic Pride Oysters,” but they are featured on the American Hotel menu as “Hog Neck Oysters” since they are raised in that section of Little Peconic Bay. Ted Conklin, owner of the popular Sag Harbor hotel, sought out Pickerell because he wanted to serve locally grown oysters to his clientele. Quality bivalves are so coveted that they are now sold by the piece instead of the bushel as in the old days. Pickerell owns some 350 acres on the bottom of Little Peconic Bay.

He starts with disease-resistant seed oysters purchased from Frank M. Flowers and Sons, a hatchery on the north shore of Long Island. (“Seed” is one size up from larvae and spat.)

Pickerell’s pleasure boats and oysters remain in demand, and he still makes a few garveys and skiffs for baymen — so he’s busy. In reference to the chocolate craving that led him to start working at age 7, Pickerell jokes that he’s now able to buy candy bars whenever he wants.

But he isn’t complacent. He says something else will come along to challenge people who make their livelihoods on the water, and when it does, he’ll find a way to cope with it.