Gregory Mayhew

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Gregory Mayhew was a well-known Vineyard fisherman. He died on April 11. – Courtesy Jeremy Mayhew

Gregory Mayhew, 72, died peacefully at his home in West Tisbury on Wednesday evening, April 11, enveloped by the love of his family. Greg battled chronic illness for many years, although this was rarely apparent, due to his ready smile and upbeat nature.

Gregory was born Sept. 19, 1945, at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital. He was the third of Benjamin C. Mayhew Jr. and Eileen (Sullivan) Mayhew’s five children. He grew up in the family home on Nashaquitsa Pond, Chilmark, spending most of his time outdoors. Greg attended Chilmark School, Tisbury School for middle school, and then graduated as part of the first class to complete all four years at the new Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. After graduation, he attended the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, for two years. He was drafted and went to the U.S. Army’s Officer Candidate School before serving a tour in Vietnam as a 1st lieutenant. Within months of his return home in 1969, Greg’s father died while serving as the Martha’s Vineyard/Nantucket state representative to the Massachusetts legislature. Greg completed his father’s term, and was re-elected, serving from 1969 to 1972. At 24 years old, he was the youngest Massachusetts state legislator at that time.

Although he enjoyed his years as an advocate for the Islands, Greg’s heart was never in politics, but always out at sea. He returned to the Vineyard to run his commercial fishing business, fishing with his brothers Skip and Jonathan on the Eileen and Ben, which docked at their fishing shack in Menemsha.

In 1973, Greg met his wife Lois through the efforts of his future brother-in-law Stephen Bell, who was a Coast Guardsman stationed at Menemsha. Lois was a summer girl from Pennsylvania, whose parents, the Rev. Richard and Ruth Bell, had owned the Bell Buoy cottage on Trinity Park in Oak Bluffs since 1958. Lois had always wanted to spend a full year on the Island, and her wish came true when she married Greg a week after graduating from college in 1975. Together they raised five children in Chilmark, building a house on the water just down the road from Greg’s family home.

Fishing was in Greg’s blood from birth, and was a family affair. The Mayhews ran a lobster market out of their shack in Menemsha, and all children old enough were involved. He and his brothers grew up practicing “striking” swordfish with harpoons by throwing paper plates into the ocean and seeing who could pierce the middle. Greg’s skills were quickly apparent, and later led to his becoming the most prolific swordfish striker on the East Coast.

In 1976, he and his brother Jonathan bought their boat Quitsa Strider in Texas, and steamed it home by way of the Gulf of Mexico to Lake Okeechobee, Fla., then on to the Atlantic Ocean. The open sea was too rough and they lost a stabilizer arm, so they went inland and used the inland Waterway up to Norfolk, Va. From that point, they were able to steam on open sea all the way to the Gay Head Cliffs and Menemsha Harbor. Greg’s brother-in-law, Dominique Penicaud, joined the business when his family moved to the Island from France in 1976. With three families now to support, the brothers decided to add a second boat, which was the iconic Unicorn, named for the Mayhew family crest. Greg and Dom owned the Unicorn and Jonathan owned the Quitsa Strider. The brothers continued to fish together, even with separate boats, and Jonathan piloted their plane for spotting swordfish in the summers. Flexibility to switch to other fisheries throughout the year made commercial fishing a very good life, until government regulations began stressing New England’s fleet. Needing to go further out and sometimes chance risky weather conditions to make a living was bad enough, but the loss of the harpoon swordfishing industry to drift-netting truly made no sense to Greg, who believed harpooning was the most environmentally responsible way to harvest swordfish.

While Greg was a well-known commercial fisherman, it was his family life that gave him the most joy. This is best summed up in his own words, memorialized in his son Jeremy’s documentary film, “Striker’s Passing”: “You have to make a conscious decision about whether or not you want to be the top dog … to be a top dog fisherman, you really need to spend a lot of time out at sea … and I’d much rather not be the top dog, but be the top dog at home … to be a better family man than someone else who’s, say, a highline fisherman. I’d rather be a highliner at home, with the family.”

He was a man who loved to be with his wife and children, always ready to build an igloo in the snow all day, create a water slide down the hill, bake with them in the kitchen, be the cheering section for all their school sports and musical events, and enjoy chaperoning school trips. He would cart everything necessary to make homemade ice cream to the beach in the summer, and bundle up to make it for them on the deck in the winter. He took them out on the Unicorn for fishing trips and pleasure trips to Tarpaulin Cove. His son Todd loved the fishing life, too, and eventually became Greg’s crewmate, a true joy for his father.

He was warm, funny, and very social. Although he was not raised with music lessons or much singing, Greg loved to dance and sing, much to his family’s amusement. He had music to pick fish to on deck, music to dance to with Lois in the kitchen as she cooked, and eventually, sacred music when he joined his church choir to be with his son Galen and Lois, who were choir members. He found another family in that very accepting group of singers and choir director Garrett Brown.

Gregory is survived by his wife of 43 years, Lois of West Tisbury, his son Jeremy Mayhew and wife Michele of Chilmark, his daughter Kathleen (Katie) Christianson and her husband Derek of South Dartmouth, his son Todd Mayhew and wife Audrey of West Tisbury, his daughter Gwendolyn Hanson and her husband Thomas of Canaan, N.H., and his son G. Galen Mayhew, a senior at Princeton University; as well as eight grandchildren. A sister, Eileen (Mayhew) May predeceased him in 1999; surviving siblings are Benjamin C. Mayhew III (“Skip”) and wife Cris of Edgartown, his sister Margaret Penicaud and husband Dominique of Chilmark, and his brother Jonathan Mayhew and wife Anne of Chilmark.

A celebration of Greg’s life will be held at 11 am on Saturday, April 21, at Trinity United Methodist Church in Oak Bluffs, followed by a reception at the adjacent Parish House. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in his name to the Martha’s Vineyard Fishermens’ Preservation Trust, P.O. Box 96, Menemsha, MA 02552.