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HUNKY DORY : Plucking Fish From a Dangerous Ocean in a Small Boat: 'This, It's Not Easy, You Know?' Says One Who Does It

May 06, 1989|PATRICK MOTT | Patrick Mott is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

Onshore, the bright orange morning sun has just begun to show behind the towers of Newport Center, nearly 4 miles to the north, as Nick D'Amato falls into a relentless, flailing working rhythm aboard his tiny boat.

He exhales sharply and his features pinch as he jerks fish after thrashing fish from the rising line with his gloved right hand and flings them into the stern of his boat with his ungloved left. The winch pulling up the line grinds on and on.

Every minute or so, two or three hooks in succession come up empty, giving D'Amato a few seconds to sag back against the gunwale and make the most unnecessary pronouncement of the day:

"This, it's not easy, you know?"

Hauling several hundred pounds of fish out of the channel that separates Catalina from the mainland and into a boat only 18 feet long--and doing it nearly every day--may qualify as one of the least easy jobs in Orange County. In fact, from an outsider's perspective, it looks to be slightly less cushy than dismantling unexploded bombs.

But for 14 years, it has been D'Amato's bread and butter. During that time, he and his little boat have motored out into the channel in fair and foul weather, often working in darkness and fog and wet cold, in high waves and cutting winds and through hours of lonely, muscle-straining work.

Still, D'Amato said, it would have been unusual if he had not turned to the fisherman's life when he arrived in Orange County.

Born and raised in the Sicilian town of Porticello, near Palermo, D'Amato, 42, said that when he came to live in Costa Mesa with his American-born wife, Julie, in 1974, he worked for a time for a local electronics company assembling computer boards. Then he discovered the dory fleet and his heritage was revived. His family, he said, has produced fishermen for many generations--"all of them, all the way back."

"When I saw they were fishing here, I said, 'That's what I do. That's my job.' "

And with that, he began his tenure as a doryman, giving up late sleeping, certain income, safe working conditions and unscored hands.

Abstractly, D'Amato's job is simple. He catches fish and sells them. No time clock, no bosses, no one telling him how to run his business.

In reality, however, D'Amato and his fellow dorymen must obey two of the grimmest taskmasters known--nature and public demand.

Some days, the waves are too high, or the fish won't bite, or they catch fish that won't sell. And even if they have a good day, maybe the customers will stay home and opt for chicken, or they may not want the kind of fish caught that day, or they may not feel like coming out in the wind and the spray and the cold, gray weather, even if the dorymen did.

But early in the morning, in the dark, when most people have been asleep for only 3 or 4 hours, D'Amato tows his dory, painted with the Italian tricolor stripes, down to the surf near the Newport Pier to begin another day.

Dory fishermen have been performing that ritual in Newport Beach since 1891, when a Portuguese fisherman began selling fish at the beach out of his dory, rather than having them hauled to market. The only substantial difference over the nearly 100 years is that oars have been traded for powerful outboard motors on the boats.

Currently, there are 16 fishermen in the dory fleet, and they are likely unique in California. Don Schultze, a marine resources supervisor for the state Fish and Game Department, which licenses the dory fleet, said: "I don't believe there's a comparable fleet elsewhere in the state. It's a pretty unique operation, launching directly off the beach like that."

On this day, D'Amato's lines have been set only about 3 miles off the Newport Beach shore, and it takes less than 10 minutes to motor out to the marker buoy he has left the day before. (Depending on the season and where the best fish can be found, the dory men sometimes venture 20 miles out to sea.) However, he must first launch his craft and drive it through the shore break at the pier.

This morning, the waves are slight, but D'Amato said larger ones do not keep him and his colleagues from their business. Ask about them, though, and you get a quick shake of the head and a groan.

"Pretty big," he says.

His flat-bottomed dory is a quick boat in the calm water, making an estimated 22 knots. D'Amato stands holding the wheel, steering into the gentle oncoming swells, immobile, as if he has been nailed fast to the deck. He wears a knitted cap to keep the wind off but keeps his face into the spray.

His hands are so cracked and calloused from years of handling lines and knives and gaffs and fish that a hook wouldn't dare to try to lodge in them. Several hours of exposure to cold and sea water can soften them and turn them raw, however. The palms and fingertips will soon turn nearly ivory white, especially those on the ungloved left hand.

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