Something monstrous was about to happen. You could feel it coming. Boats were out trying to drag the biggest monster shark from the deep. A crowd was waiting, eager to see the apex predators that still swim in the deep of the Atlantic hung up for them to see. The scene was so retro it was like a black-and-white documentary on shark fishing was playing right there in 3D color on this pier in the now swanky, yacht-infested town of Newport, Rhode Island.
If you don’t know Newport, picture a Hollywood set of an idealized New England town running along the edge of the Atlantic. The main drag is all seafood restaurants with gaudy ship’s anchors and wheels as trimmings, and boutiques with glamor in their storefronts and pubs with dark wood bars and brass taps. Each cross street ends in a pier. A few have real fish markets on them. Most have yachts bobbing off them.
People were saying Celine Dion was on one of the big white yachts with those one-way windows and spacious sun decks—one of the boats without outriggers. Everyone nodded when they heard this, as if it must be true. How can you have a real American scene without a celebrity endorsement?
All around the extras were strictly upper class. You could tell from the brands of their vacation clothes. The men were wearing docksiders without socks, Sketchers or Lanvin sneakers and bright Abercrombie shirts and Patagonia shorts. The women were in Lands’ End skirts, Indigo designer jeans, Ann Taylor blouses and Laura Jean shoes and had Prada and Gouche bags. A few of the older men wore blue sport jackets and vintage white oxford shirts. Some of the men actually had sweaters tied around their necks. They were all coming off the chic street along the blue bay in hopes of seeing monsters.
Of course, hundreds of shark fishermen were in town, too. But few would make you think of the character Quint in “Jaws.” They were mostly men from New York and Boston who have the spare change to run a boat that can motor 50 miles off the coast for sharks or tuna for a day’s fishing with pals or family. Some fancy themselves as throwback, iconic playboys in an age when such men were cultural manifestations of class and manly appeal, to an era when Errol Flynn, Jack London and Humphrey Bogart took their big boats out to the blue water for giant fish.
Still, this is a kill tournament. Its captains might be mostly well heeled, but they’re not afraid of getting shark blood on their office-smooth hands. Well, I found that a few hired first mates with shark-fishing skills to make up for their lack of shark-fishing prowess. These types might pick up a rod after a shark is hooked, but then they might just as likely watch with a martini in their gold-ringed fingers. But, that said, most of these guys fish.
To add spice to the already flavorful scene there had been threats from PETA to show up and do who knows what. The year before—when the tournament was still in Martha’s Vineyard—20 “animal-rights” protestors picked a fight. It seems that some of the spectators started yelling things back. There was no fence separating them. Parents where putting their hands over their children’s ears.
I walked down the pier and passed cops waiting like bouncers for those jokers. But, oh hum, there weren’t any of those let’s-ban-reality types around. This pier had been rented for the “Monster Shark Tournament” so this was private property. Any protestors would be escorted off like Code Pink activists at a Republican convention.
An announcer on this little boom-box loudspeaker was telling everyone the monster sharks were coming. Fishing boats would soon pull up, one by one, with big dead sharks on them. These sharks would be hoisted up, blood dripping, by this crane with a long steel cable and hook. The sharks would be weighed on a scale that that was officially calibrated to satisfy International Game and Fish Association (IGFA) standards—records, after all, might be broken. The biggest mako, thresher or porbeagle would win the day, but not necessarily the event. There was still another day of monster shark fishing to be done in the waters that inspired “Jaws” and the weights would be added together.
Meanwhile, there was this deep, heartfelt undercurrent. A family from upstate New York was running the tournament. None of them are shark fishermen. None of them planned on doing this just six months before. They had this relative, Steve James, who was as famous as Frank Mundus (the guy “Quint” in “Jaws” was based on) in shark-tournament circles. James had been president of the Boston Big Game Fishing Club and ran this monster shark tournament for the past 27 years, but James died in a duck-hunting accident the previous January. He’d gone out into the mouth of the Westport River in a 16-foot aluminum skiff with two others. The boat tipped over on the back of a wave. Steve and Robert Becher drowned in the white-capped water on that 8-degree morning. Gregg Angell, a doctor, survived by miraculously swimming to an island. A Coast Guard helicopter rescued him. At the time of the rescue the water temperature was 35 degrees and the wind was blowing at 30 knots, creating a 3-foot chop.
Now Steve’s family—his mother, uncle, aunt, niece and nephew and cousins—had come to put on this tournament as a dedication to a man who’d always been larger than life. You could feel their love for him emanating from the scene. All the shark fishermen were telling stories about Steve’s safaris and shark tournaments and the times he went to state capital buildings to tell lawmakers why they should vote this way or that for the sake of the sharks and the world we are a part of.
“He was man’s man,” said one.
“There aren’t supposed to be men like Steve anymore. A total Hemingway type,” said another.
“Steve was an adventurer,” said his mother, Doreen James, as we looked out at a boat coming in with a shark. Her eyes were proud and moist with a mother’s loss as she said, “He’d hunted all over the world. He loved catching huge sharks on rod and reel. He was a gentleman. He was all that a man should be. He was my son.”
Steve had his moment of fame. In 2004 ESPN started televising this tournament. That year it attracted 245 entrants. The next year a boat in the tournament landed a 1,191-pound tiger shark. That got the attention of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). They began a national campaign to pressure Martha’s Vineyard to end the contest. Through all this Steve pointed out that the tournament was good for Martha’s Vineyard, that they operated within state and federal fishery laws and that they maintained limits that resulted in few sharks being brought dead to the dock.
Still, all the trouble convinced James to move the tournament to Newport and that’s just what his relatives did.
The shark in the first boat in was a disappointment—just a 100-pound mako. “I had to kill it,” said the captain in an apologetic tone. “It couldn’t be revived.”
Several biologists there waiting weighed and measured the shark and took samples. “I go to shark tournaments up and down the East Coast,” said Lisa Natanson, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), as she pulled on arm-length rubber gloves, slit open the shark’s stomach and reached in to see what it had been devouring. “Without these tournaments we couldn’t learn all we do about sharks. And the anglers don’t kill many sharks. These tournaments are good for sharks.” She pulled out a fish head. “Well, this one was hungry.”
More boats showed with threshers and makos. None were huge. Little kids pushed through the legs of the ogling adults. So many climbed onto the base of a nearby crane to see over the crowd that the dock’s owner begged people to get back, but then gave up as the tide of people washed over him.
This next boat in wasn’t like all the pretty white yachts in the harbor. It is had an open deck and a cabin without the plush bars and couches in many of the other boats. There were suntanned men in rubber fisherman boots on the boat’s deck. You could tell these men fish for a living. They came in slowly as the announcer threw suspense into a microphone and people pushed forward to see.
This boat was the Magellan captained by Frank Greiner Jr. They tied up and the crane hummed and dropped its hook. Up came a 429-pound porbeagle, a big-headed shark that likes the cold, deep waters of the North Atlantic.
Mouths were agape.