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Background photo by Tom Lyons

Alex Brown

Reel Lifer

I was born and raised in Port Washington on the north shore of Long Island. Tom Kaelin used to be a former harbormaster, and he was a bayman, as they called them down there. He had a big Garvey, and I used to go out with him all the time to haul lobster traps. Anything you could do on the water, he did it, and I just started learning with him.

Think of something that absolutely fascinated you as a kid. Then you found out that you had a chance to do it and make some money.

Alex Brown

Within a block of my mother’s house, there was a boatyard—a few of them—and Tom said, “Why don’t you go down there and see if you can be a yard boy?” This guy, Bill Zoller, hired me at 13, and I started working in his boatyard as a dock boy, yard boy, a gopher. And that’s what started me working.

My grandfather was a fisherman. He came from Stavanger, Norway, and he worked out of one of the southside seaports in New York . . . He believed in fishing. But my father? Absolutely not.

No matter what I’ve done, I’ve always kept coming back to the water. And in the great scheme of things, you have to think, there’s a reason why you keep coming back.

•••

A good friend of mine got a job at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and he and his wife moved to Falmouth . . . My former wife and I were not seeing eye to eye, and Long Island seemed a little small. They offered me a room up here if I wanted to start a new life. In 1980, I came up here full time.

I lived in Falmouth for eight years. The fishing community there was very scattered . . . You had guys in the East Falmouth-Waquoit area raking clams, guys in North Falmouth raking clams, you had fishing draggers in Woods Hole. They were around, but it was very scattered. There was no central location like in Provincetown or Chatham. But it piqued my interest again.

In ’88, I met my the woman who is now my wife. Her family is from Provincetown. They were originally from San Miguel in the Azores, and the whole family migrated over here in the early 1900s. Then I came here to be with her.

I’m not a one-dimensional guy. I do outboard motor repair for some of the local people, I do trap building and trap repair. I do net mending and a bunch of other things. But I’m gradually getting out of the lobstering business and leaning more toward aquaculture. My oyster grant is off the Provincetown Inn, off the west end breakwater.

Cotuit oysters are phenomenal. Same with Wellfleets and Long Island oysters—they’re great oysters. But you’re a product of your environment. If you’re growing in the mud, you get a certain taste. Since mine are in the sand, they have a briny taste. Have you ever seen a wild oyster, where it comes out and it’s muddy? Mine are white.

I get a lot of people that tell me they don’t want to put any sauce on them, or any anything on them. They want to eat them just the way they are.

Oysters give off spat. Spat goes into eddies and other places and grows into more shellfish. It repopulates private areas, plus it’s cleaning the water at the same time. It’s a win-win situation for a lot people. Then there are some people that might say, “There’s a boat out in front of my house. I can’t have that.”

•••

You’ve got to know what it’s like to starve. You’ve got to know what it’s like to sit here when there’s a mortgage payment due, and you’re looking at your small boat and thinking, It’s blowing 25 today. Am I going to go out and haul in my rinky-dink lobster traps and possibly make some money? Am I going to go out and work on the oyster grant today and get the living snot beat out of me? Or am I going to sit at home, twiddling my thumbs, and going, “Oh, poor me”?

One day it was blowing 25 or 30, coming out of the southwest. I was down off Truro pretty far, in my old 22-foot custom lobster boat. It was rolling out there. The further away you got from Wood End Light, the more you were wide open. I was hauling in the gear and thinking, Oh man, I hope there are no more lobsters. But lobsters were coming up left and right. I’m going from side to side, water’s coming up over here—that was probably the only day I was praying out there.

I didn’t come walking in with my chest puffed out, going “Look at me.” Instead people asked, “You went out in this?” Yeah. “Good for you. Nice haul.”

•••

I can walk to work. Provincetown is something like half a mile wide, three miles long—you don’t have to go too far for anything. And back then, if you ever needed help, Joe might not like me, maybe he can’t stand me, but if I needed help and was in a bad way, he would show up to help. It doesn’t mean they have to talk to you, but they’re here to help you.

The town has always been a mix. The artists, the fishermen, the whalers—it’s always been a mix. No one cares what you do as long as you work hard. And to say “You’re a hard worker” is the best compliment you could ever give a Norwegian.

One of the marketing slogans for the town is “Provincetown: Like Nowhere Else.” I have to say, they’re right.

About

Jeff is the Managing Editor for Cape Cod Life Publications.

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