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On the waterfront, a special breed of Long Islanders toils in winter

No matter the weather, the water calls to these brave souls.

Matt Ketcham of Cutchogue talked to Newsday on Jan. 28 about his profession as an oyster farmer working for Peconic Gold Oysters in Cutchogue. “Winter presents extra problems when it comes to handling our oysters,” Ketcham said. But "for now, it’s a good gig," he said. (Credit: Randee Daddona)

Working on the water sounds like such a great idea. After all, you’ll have a bay or ocean for your daily view, a fresh sea breeze and plenty of sunshine throughout the year. Many watery jobs will also keep you in shape. Imagine lifting crates of oysters, hauling fishing nets, building bulkheads or working as a party-boat mate. For those who love to be outdoors, these jobs hold special allure.

Then winter rolls around. And sunny skies, warm weather and inviting breezes morph into roiling waves, sleet, snow and ice, and bone-chilling winds that roar day after day.

To be sure, winter work on Long Island’s bays, the Sound and ocean waters is a different tiger from the summer routine. The cold months have their own pace, special challenges and, yes, rewards. Almost anyone with a seafaring soul can labor above deck through the summer months, but it takes a special breed to grind on through the winter season.

As John Tyrrell, a dock builder who installs bulkheads and helps raise waterfront homes atop pilings, says, simply: “It helps to be a little bit nuts.”

Most who share his passion for working through the cold-weather stretch between Thanksgiving and Easter would surely agree. Here’s a look at some of the brave souls who toil on and around the Island’s waters in the winter.

‘Some days are better than others’

Name: Anthony Rispoli

Occupation: Commercial fisherman, eastern Long Island

Hometown: Hampton Bays

Age: 39

A second-generation commercial fisherman, Anthony Rispoli fished for lobster with his father on the Sound as a boy. Although he graduated from Dowling College in Oakdale with a history degree and was intent on teaching, he’s been working daily on the ocean, the Sound and local bays since getting married when he was 25.

“It’s fishing,” he says. “So some days are better than others, of course, but I love the day-to-day variety. If you need a change of pace, you can always work in a different area or change your target species from scallops to clams, whelks or fin fish.”

You might think the cold is the biggest challenge of winter on the water, Rispoli says, but wind is often the real problem.

“It has to be extremely cold before the bay can freeze me out of work,” he says, “but if there is too much wind you have to make adjustments like finding a place to work in the lee” — that is, sheltered from the wind — “or switching to clamming, where you can use the wind to help pull a rake.”

But, he says, there’s an upside to plunging temperatures. “There’s no place to hide from the heat,” he explains, “but you can add an extra layer of clothing to defeat the cold.” He's prepared with extra sets of dry gloves and boots.

From November through March, Rispoli spends most of his time scalloping. He’ll tow eight scallop dredges behind his 19-foot open-skiff fiberglass boat, powered by a 90-hp outboard engine. He’ll lift and empty the dredges, weighing up to 50 pounds full, by hand, and use a GPS chart-plotter to help adjust his position, based on the success of each few hauls.

When he can’t get out because of ice or wind, he paints buoys for conch pots or services his 34-foot downeaster to make ready for spring fishing season.

There are no insurance or pension benefits when you choose this lifestyle, notes Rispoli. “There’s nothing reliable about fishing whatsoever. Fish stock populations increase and decrease, restrictive regulations take their toll, and the weather can crunch productivity. Still, it’s what I want to do as long as I can.

“My goal is to have this remain my lifetime career.”

‘For the love of family’

Name: John Tyrrell

Occupation: Dock builder, DRG Construction, Freeport

Hometown: Seaford

Age: 64

“Imagine sitting in the cab of a crane for several hours straight in the dead of winter. It’s like driving a car with no windows and no radio at 5 miles an hour from Freeport to Albany. You can go stir crazy doing this job if you don’t have the right mindset.” So says John Tyrrell.

The 15-ton crane he speaks of sits atop an 18-by-34-foot steel barge. He got started building bulkheads, piers and jetties when he stepped off a Navy ship in 1976 and signed on at the now-defunct Seaford Dock Builders. For a while, he had his own company. These days, he works for DRG Construction, which also does dredging and lifts oceanfront homes so they can be set on pilings. His son John and brother Rob often work with him on the same crew.

“I learned the trade from the older guys when I first started,” Tyrrell says. “Great mentors, they were. . . .  The owners treat me well, so I’ve been here nine years.

“That’s a long time in this business, where guys come and go after every polar vortex.”

According to Tyrrell, his is the sort of job you start by the time you’re 25 — or not at all. Once you’ve settled into office work, he says, you’ll never make the transition to heavy manual labor, especially in winter.

“We’re out there in 5-degree temperatures,” Tyrrell says. “We use the crane to rip out the old planks and replace them with new.” In the past, he says, it was all timber work; these days they install vinyl planks, which can last twice as long.

Working winters hasn’t been bad in recent years, though, says Tyrrell.

“When I was younger, the ice on the creeks would be a foot thick, and our barges would get frozen in place until we got laid off,” he says. “These days we see less ice on Long Island. I think climate change may be having a warming effect on our winters. That’s also why we raise the docks we replace up to 18 inches. With a warming climate comes sea-level rise.”

What keeps Tyrrell sane while stationed in the crane on a long winter shift?

“The love of family and a good woman at home,” the father of five says proudly. “They inspire me to keep going day after day. I wouldn’t trade places or jobs with anyone in the world.”

‘I hate the cold’

Name: Saul Gonzalez

Occupation: First mate, Captain Lou Fleet, Freeport

Hometown: Baldwin

Age: 30

Saul Gonzalez jokes that he’s “living the dream.” He’s first mate on a Freeport party boat and he works hard every day — summer or winter. The big difference, he says, is that the summer customers are more touristy and the trips are shorter.

“I hate the cold,” says Gonzalez, who emigrated from Honduras at age 13 and began working on party boats. “But it doesn’t stop me or our crew. During the winter months, we sail to offshore wrecks and canyons, sometimes five hours away and more than 100 miles offshore.

“That’s a pretty long trip, compared to the four-hour, half-day fluke ventures we take during the summer months.”

Gonzalez, who started working on the Captain Lou Fleet after meeting owner Capt. Mike Dannon when he  moved to Long Island, says winter trips require extra preparation before sailing and extra work on the way home, too. Mates have to arrive an hour and a half before the 11 p.m. departure. They drag aboard 20 or so 50-pound bags of skimmer clams for bait, chip ice off the rails with a hammer, spread deicing mixture around the boat so the passengers don’t slip, and perform regular maintenance — cleaning cabins, seats and restrooms, plus shucking clams for bait. Summer work is easier, he says, with shorter daytime trips and prepackaged bait.

“In winter we’ll start fishing around 3 a.m.,” he says, “and that’s when the fish-cleaning begins.” That’s not so bad on tilefish trips with up to 25 anglers who can take home seven tilefish apiece.

“On mixed-bag winter trips for porgies, sea bass and hake, however, the limits are more liberal,” Gonzalez says with a chuckle. “Anglers can keep up to 45 porgies each . . .  Multiply that by 25 fishermen and you’ve got five to seven hours of fish cleaning ahead of you. Some winter anglers will stay at the rail, pulling up fish, even if they are getting sick in rough water.

“The whole process makes you tough,” says Gonzalez. “But this is the only job I’ve ever had, and I love it.”

How cold is it on the ocean in winter? “Back in December,” he recalls, “fishing lines were freezing inside the reels. I had to make hot water to pour on the reels to loosen them up.”

‘I’ll always have a hand in this’

Name: Matt Ketcham

Occupation: Oyster farmer, Peconic Gold Oysters, Cutchogue

Hometown: Cutchogue

Age: 30

Long Island native Matt Ketcham has been on the water most of his life. From recreational and commercial fishing to owner of Peconic Gold Oysters, Ketcham says serendipity has played a role in his success. That and good mentors, he says, naming Capt. Mike Boccio, of the Prime Time fishing fleet in Orient Point, who passed on plenty of knowledge about working on the water while Ketcham served as a mate; and farther afield, Perry Rasso of the Matunuck Oyster Farm in South Kingston, Rhode Island.

“I was lucky, too,” he says, “to have gotten a degree in aquaculture and fisheries technology at the University of Rhode Island just as shellfish farming was catching on. I always had an interest in working on the water, so I was ready for the challenge when I managed to get a 10-acre lease on Peconic Bay from the Suffolk County Aquaculture Leasing Program to start my own oyster farm.”

According to Ketcham, a lot of people dip their toes into oyster farming only to discover it takes a substantial investment in gear to grow and sell oysters efficiently.

Using savings, he went all-in in 2013. He bought commercial-grade tumblers (to roll the oysters around), which results in cleaner shells and more even growth, and lifting gear to haul the cages on deck, among other equipment. He plants more than 1 million oyster seeds every year and sells both retail and wholesale across Long Island and beyond.

“Winter presents extra problems when it comes to handling our oysters,” Ketcham says. “Often, we’ll raise 50 pounds or more overhead. We try to use our equipment as much as possible, but there’s no way to avoid the need for pure manpower.”

And the frigid cold makes things slippery.

“There’s a lot of moving around on deck, so keeping our balance while shifting all that weight can be a problem,” he says. “Everything seems just a little harder when it’s cold out. Your body takes more abuse, so does your gear. I can already feel the wear and tear.”

Long Island’s oyster farmers also face the uncertainty of whether they can get out on the water once things start freezing, Ketcham notes. “The ice can catch and drag entire oyster sets, and it can be scary to see that power in action. I’ve seen 6-foot-tall oyster cages simply crushed flat.”

Ketcham says he’s also lucky to have knowledgeable, hardworking baymen on his team — like First Mate Chase Hale, who was working with him on a recent January day when the air temperature was 25 but wind chills were in the teens.

It’s an exciting time to be in this game, he adds, because demand for oysters is rising, and the industry is growing.

“I might be doing something else for a full-time job at some point in my life,” he said, “but I’ll always have a hand in this. For now, it’s a good gig.”

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