By Diane Stulga. Photography courtesy of John Kauterman
Captain Bill Wasilewski smiles as he reflects on his life at sea, “I started working on commercial fishing boats out of Barnegat Light when I was 13 years-old. In the ‘80s, I worked on shrimp boats in the Gulf of Mexico, and even did some offshore drilling. I’ve been a captain for more than thirty-seven years.”
In 1973, after years of vacationing on LBI, Bill’s parents, Stanley and Marilyn, relocated their family from Rutherford, New Jersey to Barnegat Light. “I loved it,” said Bill. “I spent my days crabbing and fishing.” Living on LBI also brought opportunities to work on commercial fishing vessels and soon his weekends, holidays, and summers were spent at sea.
By age 15, he was working on Captain Larson’s Miss Barnegat Light, a local commercial fishing boat, when they encountered bad weather 100 miles offshore. “We were forced to dock in Montauk, Long Island for ten days to ride out the storm,” said Bill. “My mom was frantic.” Once safely home, Bill returned to school at Southern Regional High after a ten-day absence. He recalls being greeted by his favorite teacher, Mr. Waters. “He handed me a huge pile of makeup work and said with a big smile, ‘Welcome home Popeye’.”
Bill obtained his U.S. Coast Guard License in 1980. As an independent commercial fisherman, Bill has been running his boat, William & Lauren, out of Barnegat Light since 1990. No two trips are the same and that’s what Bill loves the most.
Over the years, Bill has dragged up more than scallops in his nets. Among the more interesting things brought onboard were prehistoric walrus skulls, cannonballs, and old liquor bottles that may be from the days of rumrunning. Some of his historic finds were donated to the Smithsonian Institute.
Bill has weathered many a bad storm which he attributes to good vessel maintenance, a lot of luck, and a crew that works together. Still the unexpected sometimes occurs. Once while dredging in stormy weather, the nets got hung up and had to be cut to break free. Another time, the ropes got caught up in the prop of William & Lauren and the Coast Guard had to tow her in.
Conservation regulations to rebuild scallop stocks have changed scalloping since Bill’s early days. Bill believes these measures are the best way to ensure the future of scalloping. In the old days, crews were larger, up to twelve men. Today, crews are limited to seven members. Because some zones are now off limits, all trips are monitored via satellite 365 days a year by The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, and every boat has an observer on board twice a year. In addition, dredging nets have larger holes to allow the baby scallops to slip through to continue to grow.
Each scalloping trip is about 400 miles out. Due to warmer ocean temperatures scallop boats travel further north. The length of the average trip is seven days: two days of travel and five days of scalloping. Catches can be up to 40,000 pounds per day. To ensure freshness, scallops are processed onboard the boat at sea. As soon as the scallops are hauled onboard, the crew of William & Lauren immediately begins to process them. The collected catch is sorted; the scallops are manually shucked, washed, bagged, packed in ice, and put in cold storage. An ice machine is onboard as is a backup generator in case of an emergency. Processing scallops is hard work. After shucking, the crew’s hands are sore and swollen. A standard joke among the crew is that they won’t be wearing button-down shirts for quite a while.
Back at the docks the scallops are sold to a wholesaler in New Bedford, Massachusetts at the Buyers and Sellers Exchange (BASE) Seafood Auction.
Bill loves to be at sea. And he loves to be at home with his wife, Gwen, and their three children, William, Lauren, and Daniel. He is thankful that Gwen is the captain of their home and his anchor. Being a fisherman’s wife isn’t always easy. Bill credits Gwen with helping him to pursue his boyhood dream of being a commercial fisherman.
Life at sea is different from life on dry land. According to Bill, occasionally one difference becomes apparent when sitting down to dinner with his family after a trip. He laughs as he recalls Gwen’s reaction when he suddenly stops eating and grabs his dinner plate. Living a life at sea, has conditioned Bill to hold onto his plate to prevent it from sliding off the table onto the floor. Welcome Home, Popeye the Scallop Man.