Today Montauk, NY located on the eastern tip of Long Island finds itself in the middle of a major transition. First, it is a vacation/tourist spot with million dollar homes and easy access to the Atlantic Ocean, Block Island Sound, and numerous freshwater ponds. Second, are the locals who try to maintain the quaintness and hope to prevent the “Hamptonization” of their town. It is a struggle as the commercial fishing boats still ply the waters that surround the area, but also it is exposed to more and more people who either settled in year round because of Covid-19 which allowed them to work virtually from anywhere, or others who used their second homes to escape the pandemic that overwhelmed New York City.
In her new book, THE LOST BOYS OF MONTAUK: THE TRUE STORY OF THE WIND BLOWN, FOUR MEN WHO VANISHED AT SEA, AND THE SURVIVORS THEY LEFT BEHIND, Amanda M. Fairbanks, a former reporter for the East Hampton Star and New York Times creates a history of the Montauk region as she presents the lives of Michael Stedman, David Connick, Michael Vigliant, and Scott Clarke who perished at sea on March 29, 1984, and the ramifications of those deaths for those left behind. Fairbanks examines the profound shift of Montauk from a working class village. “a drinking town, with a fishing problem,” to a playground for the wealthy. In addition, the author explores why a fishing accident forty years ago still resonates so strongly in the minds of locals.
MONTAUK, NEW YORK – OCTOBER 13, 2013: Montauk Lost at Sea Memorial by the Montauk Point Lighthouse at the edge of Long Island, New York.
The book is a heartwarming and judicious account of the accident, what led up to it, how the different personalities involved interacted, and the implications for the future for survivors. The motivating force in the story is Mike Stedman, a young man who was married to the water. Whether he was surfing, running a party boat, or becoming a commercial fisherman, Mike was an intense individual who seemed to know what he wanted and did not want anything to get in his way. His goal in life was to own his own boat and stop working for others, and in 1982 he purchased the “Wind Blown,” a commercial boat out of Freeport, TX. His wife Mary felt bad karma from the outset, and many believed that the boat which had three previous owners and suffered mechanical difficulties on the trip back from Texas, was not seaworthy enough to engage in commercial shipping in the North Atlantic.
The crew of the Wind Blown formed a brotherhood despite their varied backgrounds economically and socially. Michael V. and Scott C. were young deckhands from a hardscrabble background while Michael S., and Dave C. came from a privileged background. Mike and Dave bonded easily as they shared poor relationships with their straight laced fathers and just wanted to be part of the water which their parents could not accept. The four men worked as a team, many times to exhaustion as bringing in tilefish was very lucrative in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Fairbanks does a marvelous job explaining the rigorous life of commercial fishermen and its impact on their families.
On March 28, 1984, the National Hurricane Service in New York posted a gale warning, later it issued a winter storm warning as the Montauk Light House reported wind gusts of over 100 mph. The Wind Blown which had been out to sea for a few days headed back to Montauk and ran into a full blown nor’easter, the worst since 1962. In describing how the crisis transpired, the author relied on extensive research that included interviews with family members, friends, and local townspeople. What was clear is that the four young men were well liked and respected throughout the community. This was highlighted by many contributions that helped pay for the search and rescue operations performed by private groups once the Coast Guard had pronounced that the ship and men had vanished.
(Mary and Mike Stedman and their first child, Chris, in about 1974)
Fairbanks integrates a study of the socio-cultural nature of the region, even providing a history of the tilefish’s migratory patterns and the money it brought to commercial fisherman. She also focuses on the Maidstone Club and its history to highlight the economic dichotomy that existed as well as racism and anti-Semitism. It was a club the Connick’s belonged to and it was the epitome of “old money.” Fairbanks provides insights into many of the characters who spent most of their lives in Montauk and its environs. Most were fisherman, bar owners, surf shop owners and the like who formed a special bond who resented many of the interlopers that began to pour into Montauk. Throughout one must keep in mind that Montauk is the largest commercial harbor in New York State. Its home to the greatest sports fishing on the east coast – species such as shark, tuna, and marlin proliferate at certain times of the year which attracted many outsiders.
The issue of closure for survivors is an important theme that Fairbanks develops. It is a very complex situation emotionally when no bodies were located, though parts of the Wind Blown and its crews’ personal effects were found. The Coast Guard did conduct a full five day search that included the Air National Guard and the US Navy. Twenty fishing boats, five planes, and three helicopters scoured the 25,000 square miles of ocean between Block Island and the Delaware coast to no avail. Once completed the privately funded search continued for another ten days, but is that enough for closure? For many to this day the snuffing out of four promising young lives is still hard to accept.
To Fairbanks’ credit unlike other books on boating disasters she focuses more on the living than the dead. She also is able to seamlessly integrate the cultural upheavals of the 60s and 70s and the impact on the crew and their families, in addition to the rift between townies and the weekend set from New York. Fairbanks writes that she “wanted to understand how tragedies become imprinted in our memories, how trauma and grief wend their way through generations and become a kind of inheritance bequeathed to our descendants.” If this was her goal, she has accomplished it with a well written and poignant book that exhibits a great deal of love, but tremendous sorrow and grief.