A well-worn fishing hat is as important a piece of fishing equipment as a rod and reel. Few Derby fishermen would think of leaving home without their hats. Sufficiently aged and speckled with fish gore, squid ink, and pizza sauce, or adorned with the pins the Derby awards for making the daily board, a good hat is a prized talisman.
One of the Island’s more distinctive style of fishing hats, one which has nothing to do with the Derby, but is anchored in Island culture, is the swordfish cap.
Years ago, when swordfish were plentiful and within striking distance of Island boats, Menemsha supported a swordfishing fleet that relied on the harpoon, a strong arm, and good aim to catch fish found lolling on the surface of the ocean on a hot summer day. Spotting a basking swordfish was not easy.
The swordfish cap features a distinctive long, pointed brim that once served a practical purpose other than making tourists look like geeks. It shaded the eyes, making it easier to spot fish in the sun.
Just as not everyone can wear a tank helmet (remember presidential candidate Mike Dukakis as Rocky the flying squirrel?), not everyone can carry off a swordfish cap. It take a certain physical bearing and presence.
Conrad Neumann of Menemsha carries it off. His faded Poole’s Fish Market hat sits on his head like it belongs there.
Unfortunately, one day while fishing off Aquinnah between Squibnocket Point and Philbin Beach, it sat on his head a little too lightly, and a gust of wind blew it off into the water.
His sister, Jane Slater, related the story in her weekly town news column for the Gazette.
“The old, red, billed swordfish cap was a treasured bit of his wardrobe, and was sporting a Derby button and a gold insignia pin given him in recognition of his descents in submersibles Alvin and NR-1, a nuclear research submersible,” Jane said. “Needless to say, this was a loss to regret.”
A little background is in order. Conrad is retired professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and conducted research “on the deposition of modern carbonate sediments in the lagoons, margins, and deep flanks of limestone platforms in the Florida-Bahama region, and used his findings to reconstruct the histories of ancient limestones and draw inferences about sea level fluctuations and climate change over geologic time,” according to the university website.
Among his many dives, in 1971 he descended to depths of up to 700 meters in the Alvin, to the base of Little Bahama Bank and northeastern Straits of Florida. In other words, he traveled almost half a mile in a can to the cold, dark bottom of the ocean. That certainly rated a pin.
The hat was at the bottom of the ocean. But Neptune favors those who visit his realm.
About 10 days later, even as Conrad’s hat was drifting in the ocean currents, Nick Wilbur, a new breed of young Island commercial fishermen, was teasing his friend Alec Gale, partner in Menemsha Fish House, a wholesale operation on Menemsha Harbor, about his catch during a recent tuna trip. Alec had hoped to also catch a swordfish, but only caught tuna. The obvious reason he was unsuccessful, Nick told Alec, was that he did not have a long-brimmed cap.
Later that day, Nick went spearfishing for tautog off the beach near the painted house, a local landmark just east of Philbin Beach. In addition to tautog, he found a swordfish cap on the bottom of the sea floor.
Nick brought the hat and the fish to Michael Holtham, manager of Menemsha Fish House. The fish were sold; the hat was put on a counter.
Let me back up just a bit. Longtime Derby fishermen have their favored registration numbers. Mike’s favorite number is 2323.
The day before Nick came in with his long-brimmed catch, Mike had gone into Menemsha Texaco to register for the Derby. “When I went to sign up for it, they said, ‘Sorry, that number’s been taken by Conrad Neumann.’”
Mike was not perturbed, and had his daughter pick a new lucky number.
The next day, when Nick came in with the hat, he saw an old Derby button pinned to it with the number 2324.
Mike had seen Conrad in his long-brimmed hat around the dock. The Derby number sequence, one digit off. “It was just too coincidental,” Mike said.
Mike returned the hat to Conrad, who was thrilled to get it back. Neptune smiled.
Twenty years ago, Richard McCauley established a Derby award in memory of his brother Thomas, an avid fisherman.
The award is unique in that anyone, Derby fisherman or not, is eligible who weighs in a fish under his brother’s favored badge number, 204. The winner is selected by luck of the draw.
Richard stopped in, and said that for the 20th year, he wanted to sweeten the prize, which this year will include a rod, reel, tackle box, and lures.
Humpback whale spotted off Menemsha
David Tilton and Lynne Silva were out fishing Friday afternoon in Vineyard Sound off the brickyard when they saw what they initially thought was a rock, until they realized the rock was well off the beach, and it was moving. When it spouted, they knew it was either a volcano or a whale.
The humpback was in about 24 feet of water. Lynne said they never saw its whole tail, and suspected there might be a problem. Upon closer inspection, it appeared to have a line around its tail. The whale never sounded, a further indication, Lynne thought, of a problem.
Lynne contacted the Coast Guard and the NOAA Entanglement Team based in Provincetown, and sent photos. Unfortunately, she said, given the time, the team was unable to make the trip to the Vineyard before nightfall, and decided not to respond. The Coast Guard kept an eye on the whale until it left Vineyard Sound headed west.
“It was pretty exciting, and pretty sad, the more I looked at the pictures,” Lynne said. “I couldn’t tell if it was a new entanglement or an old one.”
Humpback whales grow to a length of 62 feet, about the size of a school bus, and weigh up to 40 tons.
Humpbacks are found near coastlines, feeding on tiny shrimp-like krill, plankton, and small fish, according to National Geographic. They migrate annually from summer feeding grounds near the poles to warmer winter breeding waters closer to the equator. They regularly leap from the water, landing with a tremendous splash. Scientists aren’t sure if this breaching behavior serves some purpose, such as cleaning pests from the whale’s skin, or whether whales simply do it for fun.
Hopefully, the whale will be spotted again where an entanglement team can free it from the lines around its tail.