Of Sharks and Men

“Are you otsy fotsy?”
A blue shark was carefully measured on the Star Island Yacht Club dock on Saturday. Iris Smyles

My favorite part of “Jaws” is when Quint is introduced. The small town of Amity, which looks a lot like Montauk/Amagansett, is imperiled. A great white shark who’s been stalking its shores during bathing hours has eaten a small boy, so the townspeople have gathered to discuss the need to close the beaches and what that would mean for local businesses who depend on summer tourist money. 

Amid a frenzy of argument, a 50-something man at the back gets everyone’s attention when he scratches a blackboard (perhaps the scariest part of the movie — the sound still gives me chills). And so we meet the grizzled, lone figure of Quint, played to perfection by Robert Shaw. Inspired by Montauk’s own late Frank Mundus, famous for having caught the world’s largest great white in 1986 — a replica of his 3,427-pound prizewinning shark hangs on the dock outside Montauk’s Star Island Yacht Club — Quint, the townspeople all know, is a shark hunter.

For $10,000 Quint offers his services, a paltry sum when compared to the $391,200 in total prize money the competing crews stood to win in Montauk last weekend at the 32nd annual Star Island Shark Tournament. But “I don’t want no mates,” Quint stipulates. “There’s too many captains on this island. Ten thousand for me by myself.”

“For that, you get the head, the tail, the whole damn thing,” he explains in front of the blackboard he’s just scratched, on which someone has drawn a picture of a shark in profile, its mouth open wide with a boy, like a gingerbread cookie, in its jaws. Did Quint draw this? It’s his artistic tendencies, among other things, that cause me to relate so strongly to him.

“Are you otsy fotsy?” asked Kevin at the Captains’ Beer Bust Thursday night, recognizing the grizzled shark hunter in me. 

“Otsy fotsy?” 

We went back and forth a few more times before I figured out he was saying artsy fartsy. Kevin, a 57-year-old master plumber by trade, had come from Sharon, Mass., with five of his childhood friends. He’s been entering his boat, Reel Passion, into the tournament for the past eight years.

I didn’t know how to answer and was spared having to when applause broke around us — the eight ice filled garbage bins dotting he center aisle were being restocked with beer. The men rushed the bins. 

At 7:30 p.m., we stood for the pledge of allegiance, then sat for a reading of the tournament rules, punctuated now and then by festive heckling.

“Contestants must return to the dock by 6 p.m. each day to qualify.”

“What about 6:01?”

“Only shark species specified in your folder are permitted entry.”

“What about Porbeagle?”

“Federal regulations allow only one shark per boat.”

“What about one and a half?”

“Some of these guys are crazy. A few years back one guy came in with a great white, which is protected, and the cops were waiting for him at the dock,” Kevin whispered during the raffle drawing, before his own number was called. David, his second mate — “He was first mate, but I demoted him today, because he won’t quit smoking” — ran to the stage to collect the crew’s prize. Posing for a photo, he raised his arms in mock pride.

“Whadwe get?” they asked Dave upon his return. 

“$500 gift certificate in the Star Island store,” Dave read.

 “I want beer and ice cream!” Spike, the cook, pleaded mock-petulantly. 

“I want a shark cage!” added Billy, the deck boss. They’d had shirts embroidered with their respective titles.

“We’re not really serious fishermen,” Kevin told me. “We just come for the camaraderie, to hang out on the water for five days with our buddies. It’s like a vacation. We all grew up together.”

Noticing my number, 75, Keith asked if I was going out in the morning too. I was carrying my number having just come from the registration office where Sam and his sons John and Kevin Gershowitz, the owners of Star Island Yacht Club, sat under a framed poster of “Jaws,” busily taking side bets, called Calcuttas for reasons no one seems to know, which has in the past brought the total prize pool listed in the contest advertisement (Star Island awards $30,000 for the largest qualifying shark, along with smaller cash prizes ranging from $2,500 to $5,000, totaling $60,000) up to half a million dollars. 

“What kind of boat are you in?” Dave asked. “You’ve probably got a charter right?”

“Just a little lobster boat. It’s not really equipped for open seas, so I won’t be going out too far. But the orca in ‘Jaws’ was built out of a lobster boat. ‘Jaws’ is basically my Bible.”

“We watch it every night in the boat.”

“ ‘You ever seen a shark’s eyes. Dead, like a doll’s eyes,’ ” said Spike, doing his best Quint, before I countered with mine.

“That’s fine. Just don’t wear that on the boat,” Kevin instructed, referring to my striped dress. It’s true that mine was the only dress under the tent, as almost all those present were men who, a moment later, were gone. 

I looked at my watch: 8:30 p.m. The men had retired to their boat cabins, needing sleep in preparation for the 6 a.m. race out of the dock. 

Alone, I walked to the yacht club parking lot, got in my car, and started home. Pitching into the dark, the trees now shadows, I switched on the radio and felt like Quint as I sang along with it: “No promises, no demands. . . . Love is a Battlefield. . . .”

Following my own Saturday at sea — I did not catch a shark, but five porgies and, inexplicably, a cluster of mussels — I returned to the dock at 4 p.m. to see the big boats back into the harbor where their sharks could be weighed before a crush of onlookers. Off to one side, a few sharks lay cut open as a team of researchers sorted their organs. And in the center, a few feet away from the model of Frank Mundus’s prizewinning great white, a much smaller 334-pound mako was raised up by its tail. I stood behind a rope with adults and children both, as a young boy, helping, brought round a severed fin for the crowd to touch. 

At home, I selected my outfit — a fluorescent orange sequin skirt with a sky blue sweater, silver loafers, and my new shark tooth necklace (purchased at the club shop for $10) — then hit the road, feeling like Quint as I sang along to the radio: “Don’t forget me when I’m gone, my heart will break. I have loved you for so long. . . .”

Under the tent, the previously unadorned banquet tables were now festive with balloons of red, white, and blue, and surrounded by sunburned faces alive with excitement. I walked the gravel floor, passing the stage and looking for a seat, when the crew of Reel Passion waved me over.

Robby, Spike, and Keith told me what they caught and showed me pictures of what they let go. “It has to be at least eight feet to bring in and weigh. We came close,” said Billy, referring to the picture Kevin was showing me of the blue shark on their line, still in the water. “That’s a seven-footer.”

The crews of the winning boats — Alexa Ann, Professional Cryer, Out Cast, Over Spray, Stacy Jane, Marie E, and BattleAxe — were summoned to the stage and given trophies while the Gershowitzes called out stats about the winning fish and the prize money it fetched. The prize for the heaviest shark went to the crew of Alexa Ann who’d brought in a 417-pound mako and took home $105,000. 

Waiting for ribs and sausage at the buffet, I asked Kevin which character in “Jaws” he most relates to. 

“A little bit of all of them probably. How ’bout yourself?”

“Quint.”

“Why?”

“Isn’t it obvious?”

The awards dinner invitation had promised dinner and dancing, but seeing as there were almost no women, I wondered with whom the men were going to dance. The band was set up off to the side, under a second tent where the food had been served, and as the main tent emptied, the music grew louder: “Tell it to my heart, tell me I’m the only one, is this really love or just a game. . . .”

By 9 p.m., the dining tent was all but deserted. The balloons swayed weakly, and the garbage cans, once filled with cold beer, were empty. The boisterous crews had retreated to their boats, which lay tucked, now silently, in their slips. I said goodbye to the crew of Reel Passion and then, feeling like Quint, followed the music to its source. 

“ ‘I don’t want no mates,’ ” I said to the air. “ ‘There’s too many captains on this island.’ ”

Under the second tent, surrounded by picked over buffet tables, the gravel dance floor gaped empty. I stood alone in front of the band, playing only for me.

Aboard Reel Passion, Kevin Campot (captain) snapped this photo of Billy McDonald (deck boss) and Keith Jones (swabbie). Crew members not pictured are Dave Baxter (first-second mate), Robbie Baxter (chummer), and “Spike,” a.k.a. Michael Ford (cook).Kevin Campot
Billy Erbe caught this 334-pound mako aboard the Outcast, good enough for second prize.Iris Smyles
Sharkers celebrated.Iris Smyles
The crew of OutcastIris Smyles