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‘Back her down a fathom, old dog’

As the ebb waned on a warm afternoon in mid-August, we spread the ashes of a colorful dragger captain who had been our friend since boyhood in a passage through the reefs off the Watch Hill Lighthouse in Rhode Island.

It was a fitting tribute for Capt. Bruce “Buck” Ladd, one of those true originals who come along about as often as a blue lobster.

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“The one and only,” says John Paul Sheerar, an old friend who arranged for Buck’s ashes and those of his beloved German shepherd, Agnes, to be spread out here. “His favorite spot.”

A lifelong bachelor, Buck was a big, smart, generous man who lived life according to his own rules. He was “Uncle Buck” to the children of his close friends; he told them sea stories, gave them their first taste of salty language, and vetted their boyfriends.

If you didn’t know him, his initial appearance could be intimidating. Buck stood about 6 feet, 4 inches and probably weighed 240 pounds in his prime. He had a scraggly beard and a full head of curly blond hair. Back when he was fishing, his uniform consisted of a T-shirt, jeans that hung low around his hips — held up, sort of, by a length of rope — and a pair of worn-out Top-Siders that usually smelled pretty bad. He wore a ball cap on his head promoting John Deere or Caterpillar or some such company, and he carried a marlinspike in his pants pocket attached to a lanyard running to a belt loop.

In the old days, if he was having a particularly good night, the marlinspike might come out, and the blade might even find its way into the top of a beer-soaked table — but that depended on whether he was drinking in a fishermen’s bar where they understood such impulses, or a more respectable watering hole where that kind of behavior was frowned upon.

His attraction to the sea came wholly from within. There were no other fishermen or professional mariners in his family; his father was an engineer. But at some point in high school, Buck decided what he did and didn’t want to do with his life. He said he could never work behind a desk or wear a suit and tie.

“No way in the world,” the future waterman said with conviction.

He determined early on that what he wanted to be was a commercial fisherman. So he enrolled in a two-year fisheries program at the University of Rhode Island and worked part time as a deck hand on a fishing boat out of Point Judith, R.I., while he earned his associate’s degree.

By the time he was 24, he was running a 72-foot dragger, fishing south of Block Island out to 100 fathoms. When he retired about 10 years ago, he was owner and captain of Ocean Gypsy, an 80-foot steel-hulled fishing boat. He couldn’t catch a cold with a hook and line, but he was a good draggerman. He was a prudent, careful captain who made a good living for himself.

A gentle giant, he embodied a raw-boned workingman kind of strength that came from picking deck and lifting totes of fish, different from today’s gym rats with their perfectly sectioned abs and inflated biceps. And Buck was always more comfortable playing peacemaker than brawler. Truth was, he eschewed fighting, although he was quick to step in if one of his buddies was being threatened.

One afternoon, someone accused a friend of stealing a quarter off a pool table in a bar. Words were exchanged, and the man raised a pool cue as a club. Buck quickly moved in and grabbed the stick with one large hand. The aggressor tried to wrestle it away with two hands. He couldn’t move the cue.

“Back her down a fathom, old dog,” Buck calmly instructed the aggrieved, who wisely decided to walk away.

We followed him into the toughest fishermen’s bars in Rhode Island, places we wouldn’t have ventured into without our large, swaying spirit guide. Tall, skinny, bespectacled John Paul remembers walking into one such joint in Point Judith years ago. One of the regulars quickly spotted him and snarled: “Who brought the professor in?” Once he saw Buck, everything was OK. They never held it against him for having friends like us. He didn’t have an enemy in the world that any of us knew of. And he had gathered quite a collection of good friends in his 55 years here.

For the last three years, Buck lived spring through fall aboard a 38-foot Repco commercial hull that he and a shipwright converted from a working lobster boat with an open transom into a lobster yacht. She was berthed at the same marina where I keep my boat, so we saw each other regularly.

He came to the world of “yachtsmen” a bit warily, which was reflected in the redundant systems and rugged hardware that Buck installed on the heavily built 19-ton Agnes, named after his canine companion.

All of us slow and mellow some with age, including Buck. But even in retirement, he retained the restlessness of one who spent years on the water, monitoring forecasts, checking fish movements, always looking to the next horizon.

After we spread Buck’s ashes, the 60-foot Hatteras motoryacht that carried our motley crew (one of the gang stripped down to a tartan loin cloth and black beret, but that’s another story) was overtaken by a small inbound commercial fishing boat that I know Buck would have appreciated. Handsome hull, with a nice sheer and flare. Clean looking. Very buttoned-up. Small pirate flag in the rigging. A young, tired mate sat in the sun on an overturned tote in the cockpit and waved. I’m certain he couldn’t wait to get into port. Buck would have understood it all so perfectly.

“… the spray-cursed cockpit …”

— Desmond Holdridge

This article originally appeared in the October 2009 issue.