By Doreen Leggett
The parking lot at Ryder’s Cove boatyard was virtually empty on a cold March morning when several pickup trucks pulled in and waited with engines running.
Soon a trailered boat so white it was temporarily blinding in sunlight pulled around the corner.
“I don’t even think she was that white when I originally had her built,” said John Our of his boat Miss Fitz. “They call it Snow White.”
Alan Cohen and his dog Chester had walked over from the boatyard to admire the nearly 30-year-old boat that had spent the winter being refurbished.
“Told you I spent all my money,” Our joked, as another small sedan pulled in to check the work.
Although more people will undoubtedly be at the fish pier when the Miss Fitz splashes later this spring, the lure was plain to see.
“Not many people spend the money on boats anymore,” said Our. “Some people will never do it.”
When he first had the boat built by Andy McGeoch at Cape Islands Boats, things were different. That was in 1992, people were catching a lot of fish and Our was doing particularly well.
That said, re-investing is still happening; about a half dozen fishermen have bought new boats in the past year or so, or put significant money into older ones.
“This is a business. This ain’t a f*&#ing hobby,” said Captain Mike Russo, who put close to $100,000 into a boat recently, not including 400 man hours. “It’s a necessity. You’re talking about people’s lives.”
Our made his decision last summer, when the engine was giving him trouble. It had given him 18 years, and had 25,000 hours on it, which is rather remarkable.
“She has been a good boat to me,” he said.
So several days before Christmas, Mike Davis, who fishes for dogfish and is a skilled builder, stripped the Miss Fitz – removing the fish box, the exhaust, antennas and a host of other items – and got her ready for her trip across the roads. The day before Christmas, the Miss Fitz went into a bay in Enterprise Park in Chatham and Davis, Bruce Kaminski and Don Baker went to work. After the engine was out there was a solid two weeks of just prepping the boat and then fixing all the dings and holes.
“It’s not a small process,” said Davis.
Baker did the bulk of the sanding; into February he was still at it. That takes a certain kind of temperament, and a pathological attention to detail.
“You can solve all the world’s problems,” Baker said of his sanding meditations.
Our dropped in on his boat many times, watching it transform, helping Baker air gun dust off his clothes, watching Kaminski work.
“He has given me 50 hours a week for four weeks,” Our said of Kaminski, who is a successful captain himself. “I stay out of the way for the most part.
“It’s the first time it’s been in a building for 26 years.”
They would continue to work through mid-February, making sure she was perfect for painting. Our’s friend was coming up from Rhode Island to lay on five coats of primer before Baker sanded it down again.
“To me and a lot of people it’s a new boat,” Our said.
They didn’t make the engine for his boat anymore so he scoured around and found an engine taken out of a yacht. He ended up buying two. His cousins with Robert B. Our Company went down to Rhode Island and helped him pick them up.
He took out the engine while the others did all the topside work.
Our isn’t overly sentimental about his boat, but he appreciates her. She is only his second boat, which is remarkable for a man who went fishing before he was in kindergarten.
Our’s father, Jack, was an integral part of the fleet and before John was born he had, like most, groundfished mainly for cod with hooks and lines. But when John came along he was lobstering inshore and when John was five he began going. Not too far though; his mom, Eileen, a schoolteacher, insisted that if John was going they would stay close to shore.
“She would hear us get up and ask if he was going inshore or offshore,” Our remembers.
His mom, who later became a selectman, tells a story of John getting a pair of hip boots when he was five and loving them, and fishing, so much he slept in them.
“I wanted to be with my dad,” Our said.
A couple things happened that prompted Jack to change back to tub trawling when John was about 12. One was his boat sank in the harbor. The other was that before the Magnuson Stevens Act in 1972 (which pushed foreign boats more than 200 miles off our shores) there were a lot of Russian boats where the Chatham guys were lobstering. One of them tore through the offshore grounds and destroyed thousands of dollars of gear.
“He never financially could recover from that,” said Our.
The hours and environment could be brutal for a 12 year old, even one who wanted to fish.
“I just didn’t like being up at midnight. I got seasick,” he said, adding that baiting line didn’t jibe well with the smell of burned coffee and smoke from cigarettes that filled the deck and wheelhouse.
Turns out Our wasn’t so much seasick as horizon sick; if it was night or foggy it was brutal.
“One time it got so bad my dad stopped hauling and waited for daylight,” said Our. “As soon as the sun came up I was much better.”
Our went to Cape Cod Tech for marine mechanics, graduating in 1980.
“I was fishing the next day after graduation with my dad.”
His father was born in Harwich, fished when he young, joined the Navy, came back and returned to fishing. People caught fish but didn’t get much money for them, so Jack also drove a truck for fisherman John Tuttle’s granddad, and they were close friends. When he went fishing it was first with Amon Liska, also known as Pegleg. They fished out of Wychmere in Harwich and then the fleet moved to Chatham.
By 1980 everyone was gillnetting, focusing on cod and pollock. Catches went up dramatically to 10,000 pounds a day or more. Most were doing well, but as usual some were doing better than others. The fishery was competitive.
“The guys had fun back then,” Our said.
Some thought that maybe gillnets were too efficient. John remembers his dad trying to hold the line and continue catching with hook and line, but back then if you wanted a crew you needed to gillnet because that’s where the money was.
John was gillnetting with his dad on the Wee John and his dad talked, often, about retiring and giving the boat to him. He would tell John that he could run it for a few weeks and then after a couple of days Jack would be at the dock wanting to get back out. John understood the push and pull, but it did cause friction.
“We fought a lot, mainly about him giving me the boat but not wanting to let go,” Our remembers.
So he would fish with other fishermen and did a stint with the Kavanaugh fleet out of Woods Hole, learning a lot.
But on Feb. 2, 1985 he caught his arm in a winch and was in the hospital for six weeks, unsure if he was going to lose the limb. When he healed he went back to work for his dad, but they were at loggerheads again.
“They are both hard workers, short on bullshit,” said Russo, who said that when he first started fishing, the elder Our would always help him when his boat broke down.
It was John’s mom who finally addressed the issue.
“Mom said, ‘Go buy a boat,’” Our remembers.
He bought the Miss Molly from the Pike brothers around 1988. Jeff Pike, who later worked for Congressmen Gerry Studds and Bill Delahunt before founding a government relations firm in D.C., said she was a good boat, real “fishy,” and he wanted to sell her locally. So with 100 or so nets, Our got her for about $35,000.
“Johnny did a few minor repairs and started fishing. It was tuna time and he caught so many tuna that I think he paid off the entire boat in just a couple of months,” Pike said. “I was so happy that he got the boat, fished it like hell and made a good amount of money.”
That was until the infamous “No Name” storm.
“When I heard that she had broken loose from the mooring in Aunt Lydia’s Cove and went up on the rocks, my heart was broken. They don’t make’em like that anymore,” Pike said.
Our decided to build a boat. He had bought a house for $58,000 but dropped about $135,000 on the new boat, ready to make a bigger investment in what would pay the mortgage.
He had toyed with the idea of naming her The Miss Fits, for him and his crew, but his fiance Jean Marie was a Fitzgerald so the Miss Fitz seemed preordained.
“We could catch fish 11 months of the year,” Our said. “February was really the only one we couldn’t.”
About 15 years ago it started to go the other way. Traditional fish stocks seemed to fall off a cliff, and many left the fishery.
“I wish I was born 10 years sooner,” Our said.
His boat can handle a lot, although he didn’t build it thinking he would be 100 miles offshore hauling monkfish.
“I’ve never been scared in it, which is unusual, except for the bar maybe,” Our said, referring to the notorius Chatham Bar crossing.
If he built her today she would cost close to half a million; now she is waiting in the parking lot by Ryder’s Cove, gleaming, ready to go back out.