Seconds after a rogue wave capsized a commercial fishing boat on its way into Shinnecock Inlet on Sunday, fisherman Scott Finne saw the key to his survival in the form of an orange net-float bobbing nearby in rough seas.
Finne, 42, of Eastport, was able to cling to the float and a piece of wood for precious minutes while Coast Guard vessels and, finally, a Sea Tow boat piloted by Lester Trafford braved the turbulent waters of the inlet and plucked him from the sea, he said Monday.
"He charged right out there to save life and that's exactly what he did," said Finne.
Longtime commercial fisherman Stian Stiansen, 85, of East Quogue, died after his boat, the 45-foot stern trawler Pauline IV, overturned. His body washed ashore on the beach to the east of Shinnecock Inlet some 45 minutes after the 2 p.m. accident.
Finne, who had known Stiansen all his life, praised his mentor's ability as a captain and fisherman, and said there was no sign the seas that day were significantly more difficult than any they had ventured into before.
"We got hit by a wave and it turned us over," he said, adding the wave hit even before the vessel turned north to navigate the choppy waters of the inlet. "There was never any reason for concern."
The two men had gone out fishing from East Quogue early Sunday, and had a good day trawling for fluke, flounder and squid, Finne said. It was not unlike numerous weekend excursions in their 13-year fishing partnership. Finne's grandfather and father had also fished with Stiansen, as had his own son, he said. "Some people would be skeptical about going out on the ocean with an 85-year-old man," he said. "At no time was it ever a concern."
Suffolk County Parks Police Sgt. Thomas Schiliro said the vessel was flipped as it attempted to navigate through the inlet.
The U.S. Coast Guard is continuing an investigation into the accident, including the possible causes and any environmental impacts, said Petty Officer 2nd Class Jetta Disco. The agency will examine reports of Stiansen's medical condition and any possible mechanical issues with the Pauline IV, which was named for Stiansen's deceased wife. A relative at Stiansen's home in East Quogue declined to talk to a reporter Monday.
Disco said there was a small-craft advisory in effect on Sunday, with winds at 16 knots and seas at 5 feet. A Coast Guard spokesman said Sunday the advisory would not have prohibited a vessel of that size from going out safely.
Finne praised Stiansen not only as a fisherman and captain, but also as a man of generosity, good humor and encyclopedic knowledge. "He never considered it [fishing] work," Finne said. "It was just what he did."
Stiansen often told stories at home with lots of people around him. Finne referred to him as the "old man."
"He'd have you in his house. He'd give you his food," he said. "He'd give you his rocking chair. Everything was open. He loved to share. He was very concerned with helping the little guy."
Fine said he and the Sea Tow pilot remained in the water for some time after he was rescued looking for Stiansen, who had been in the wheelhouse piloting the boat when it capsized. They were unable to locate him. "I wanted to find him in the worst way," Finne said.
Neither man was wearing a life jacket, and Finne said he regrets it. "There was one in the wheelhouse," he said of the personal flotation devices that are required to be on board for crew members of all fishing boats, although few wear them. "I beg every fisherman, put a PFD on. There's no reason to risk your life for something so stupid."
Finne, who works at Otis Ford in Quogue full time during the week, said he will continue to fish commercially. "I'm not at all afraid," he said, adding that Stiansen would want him to continue. "I will be more cautious in terms of not wearing a personal flotation device."