Todd Hnis, captain of F/V Deborah Lee, comes from a legendary fishing family and builds boats that win exceptional praise, even positioned alongside Bentleys to help showcase the luxury car.
Still, Hnis has trouble describing what he does.
“I don’t feel like a commercial fisherman, or a captain, or even a boat-builder,” he said with a chuckle.
That statement was one of the few the talkative Hnis paused between as he sat in his bay in Chatham’s Commerce Park, a boat or two in various stages of fiberglass work nearby.
Although both Fishy Biz-Hnis and Brewster Custom Boats are successful, he figures his reticence defining himself comes from the highliner captains he grew up around and how he has pretty much taught himself the art of fiberglass.
Hnis, born in 1982, grew up in Truro and went to Provincetown High School. His dad was a Czech from Queens, New York and his mom is Portuguese, from Provincetown.
“Her dad, Sylvester Santos, of the F/V Frances Marion, was a fisherman during the golden age of fish dragging in Provincetown,” he said.
Hnis’ great grandmother Pauline Souza lived until she was almost 100 and was a gregarious dynamo, her house on Pearl Street filled with intricate models of draggers. His grandmother, Vivian Santos, had a similar big personality and people stopped by her house all the time.
“I used to bring that woman quahogs. She would open quahogs at 80-something years old,” Hnis said.
Hnis did a lot of fishing, but he didn’t have big aspirations to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps.
He went rod and reel fluke fishing with his parents in elementary school and as he got older he slung a fishing rod across his handle bars and went to Pamet Harbor, just down the street.
Hnis worked on the head boat Naviator and CeeJay when he was in middle school, went lobstering a bit. “I was always selling bluefish,” Hnis remembered. “We use to fish the beach at night.”
Spending time in Provincetown he was able to rub shoulders with great fishermen like the late David Dutra, who had the F/V Richard and Arnold, one of the last wooden trawlers.
“I was lucky enough to fish on it a couple times,” he said.
And there was Joe “Flounder” Francis, who captained the Nauset and the Pamet, and still runs a charter business. Hnis considers him the real thing. His uncle Mike Santos, a career fisherman, was the cook on the boat.
He looked up to his uncle as well.
“Provincetown was a super cool place,” he said, adding that the older fishermen always had a way with words, for example: “The romance is gone as soon as the lines leave the dock.”
Francis still sees Hnis at the harbor and said Hnis reminds him a lot of his uncle.
“I never saw him down and he had the toughest job on the boat,” Francis said of Santos.
Although, Hnis, is perennially upbeat, Francis said that Hnis is more known for his intelligence.
“He was the smartest guy in the class,” Francis said.
Francis has stopped by Brewster Custom Boats a time or two.
“I’m impressed with what he can do as a one-man band,” said Francis.
Hnis’s path to fishing went through his father, which surprises him. (Hnis’ younger brother, Erik, also became a lobsterman.)
“My dad starting fishing accidentally,” he said.
The elder Hnis had a mooring, a lobster permit and some traps, and it happened the state was allowing Outer Cape lobstermen to convert their permits and his allotment went from 130 to 800.
“That happened to be a great year for lobsters and he did well. He built the business organically and he bought a boat and named it after my mother, the Deborah Lee. It’s the cutest little boat.”
After high school, Hnis headed for the University of Rhode Island but left after three years, deciding it wasn’t for him. He came back to the Cape and worked for the Cabral family on their wharf in Provincetown, driving pilings and doing other jobs.
“I remember the tuna fishing scene, the Japanese would come down in limousines, wearing the finest suits.”
He also did some lobstering on the Laura E. out of Provincetown, “my first taste of making money commercial fishing.”
After a few years, he was talking to friends who were going to the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. He figured he would try that. It took awhile, but he did end up graduating.
He is still talking about the gap year he took because it was quite eventful. Hnis got work on an offshore lobster boat. The work is dangerous; you have an immense knife taped to you at all times, so you can cut yourself free of gear if you need to.
“I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but that is the hardest job on the planet,” said Hnis, laughing.
He said none of the crew used real names, leading to one memorable moment when a trap (which can weigh more than 65 pounds) hit a guy in the face and he almost went overboard. Hnis grabbed him right in time.
The captain turned around and said, “Hey Vinnie, thank F#ckface for saving your life,” Hnis laughed.
After graduating from MMA at 25, he started working on tugboats and, at second in command, was making pretty good money. He married in 2009, his wife had a young son Christopher (now a lobsterman at 21).
“I fished every single day I could,” he said, explaining his schedule was three weeks on the tug and three weeks off. “Seabass, scup, tautog … I’d sell anything.”
Around the same time, he had built his first boat. He had bought one for $200 and completely redid it.
“I taught myself fiberglass work,” he said.
Trying to spend more time at home with his children — daughter Eva and another son, Andrew – he got a job at the Steamship Authority during his divorce.
“Things fell apart, but that leads me to where I am now,” he said with a smile. “I got sober and started rebuilding my life at 36.”
But he found that every spare moment he was building boats, so he left the Steamship Authority and hung up his own shingle in Yarmouth. He later moved the company to Chatham.
In 2016, he met his wife-to-be, Jessica, who he credits for much of his happy turnaround. By 2019 they were married and living in Brewster and the shellfish department had just launched a razor clam pilot, so the two signed up. Hnis remembers struggling to get his two and a half pounds to Alex Hay at Wellfleet Shellfish Company. He swore then he would be successful at it and he was.
Hnis said he has always had a weakness for making a living off the water and feeding people, it’s even more of a draw when he can take his wife and kids along.
“It is the most beautiful thing in the world. We were all out there. Sometimes I get romantic and philosophical about it,” he said. “You can harness the romance of the fishery and do it as a family. I am not taking them to Georges Bank to risk their lives.”
Building boats can also generate profound feelings. When he started working on boats and building what people want and need it was satisfying.
“I started looking at boats a different way. You look at every boat like it’s a project. I want to say it’s like a blank canvas, but I sound pretentious,” he said.
The majority of work Hnis does is on recreational boats, although he does help out commercial fishermen.
“Most fishermen are the kind of people who do everything themselves, although I do give advice,” he said.
Hnis helped a young fisherman refurbish a boat he was taking to the edge of Georges to catch yellowfin tuna. He needed a more substantial wheelhouse, so they added a 14-foot one. He taught him how to build a mold, which they bolted to the old roof, filled in the walls and glassed it up.
He posts a lot of his work on his business page and in the winter and early spring he is busy. He often works with people who, as he says, are “mental” for boats like him.
People find him in his bay doing his version of “boat yoga.” Along with bigger boats he has earned a bit of fame building oyster “boats,” the kind that are popular at raw bars.
He has spent time recently working with an old-time lobsterman who has to move 800 pots, so they converted the vessel from a center console to more a practical design to make it easier for him and his wife to move traps.
Hnis has known him for decades.
“I had fiberglass questions for him when I was young,” he said.
When lobster season starts back up again he and the Deborah Lee will be back at the Pamet.
“My boat is perfect for the job. I can run it by myself. I fish singles, 600 traps,” he said.
Tony Jackett, Truro’s harbormaster, smiles when he hears Hnis’ name.
“He is a cool dude, a hot ticket,” said Jackett. Whenever visitors come down to the harbor and want to ask questions or learn about the industry, Jackett looks for Hnis, saying “that is the guy you want to go talk with.”
Check out some of Hnis’ boats on instagram, @brewstercustomboats.