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Technology helps fishermen contact wives while at sea

By BERNARD VAUGHAN Staff Writer, (609) 978-2012/Press of Atlantic City

BARNEGAT LIGHT - When commercial fisherman Bill Wasilewski left for a tilefish expedition during summer 1980, he left behind his wife, Gwen, and their healthy, newborn son, William Jr., the couple's first child.

While at sea, rough weather broke the antenna for the single sideband radio on Wasilewski's boat, severing communication with the mainland. Wasilewski, 45, returned two weeks later to learn William Jr. was in the hospital, fighting for his life against an infection he had caught during his father's absence.

"It was scary. I almost lost my first-born son," Wasilewski recalled. William Jr. recovered, and the couple went on to have two more children.

Recent advances in technology have rendered such communication lapses almost nonexistent. They also have enabled fishermen and their loved ones to communicate regularly in a profession that requires long trips away from home that can strain relationships.

"We pretty much dropped off the face of the Earth when we went out," Wasilewski said, recalling communication with his family in the early days of his career.

Wasilewski said comparing today's communication technology with 25 years ago "is like comparing the Pony Express to Federal Express"

It wasn't until World War II that the Navy outfitted local commercial fishing vessels with VHF radios in order to alert them of German U-boats, according to various local fishermen and Ev Collier, 77, a retired electrical engineer in Lynnfield, Mass., and a contributing writer for National Fisherman magazine.

Prior to that, there was no communication between fishermen at sea and their families. And even with VHF radio, they could only pass messages to loved ones through marine radio operators.

"Those were not private conversations," said Collier, who comes from a long line of fishermen in Nova Scotia. "When I called a marine operator, any other boat nearby could hear. As you can imagine, the conversations got pretty colorful."

Pigeon delivery

Before radio, charter boats in Beach Haven, Ocean County, trained homing pigeons to carry distress messages to port, as well as messages saying they would be staying out longer because the fishing was good, said Lou Puskas, 74. Puskas has been a commercial fishermen for more than 50 years and is part owner of Viking Village dock in Barnegat Light, Ocean County.

Port for 20 scallopers, three longliners and about 14 inshore-fishing vessels, Viking Village packs out about 4 million pounds of seafood per year distributed throughout the East Coast, and employs close to 200 people.

"(Wives) could go to the coup to see if the pigeon returned," Puskas joked.

The inability of fishermen to consistently communicate with their wives, coupled with the fact that commercial fishing is consistently listed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health as one of the most dangerous occupations, could - and still can, despite advances in technology - strain relationships.

Tracy Raffa, 40, said her husband, Charles, recently told her that he will be going on two 12-day fishing trips this summer.

"He tells me as much in advance as he can because I panic," said Raffa, a nurse at Arcadia Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Little Egg Harbor Township, Ocean County.

Absence makes the

heart grow nervous

"Lack of communication makes the mind wander," said Chris LaRocca, 44, first mate on the Kathy Ann fishing vessel based in Viking Village.

When LaRocca's wife of two years, Avalon, first met him, he was primarily going out on day trips. Last March, LaRocca began going on eight- to 12-day fishing trips on the Kathy Ann.

On the fourth day of LaRocca's third trip, the Kathy Ann lost e-mail capability. Then his trip got extended and he had no way of telling Avalon.

"I ended up getting sick" because of nerves, Avalon LaRocca said. "After he got home we had to have a long talk about things."

LaRocca paid close to $1,000 for his own satellite phone - a small price, he and Avalon said, to be able to speak every day.

"One day we talked for 20 minutes just about what the day was like," Avalon said. "It's just good to hear his voice and tell him what's going on around the house."

John Larson, who owns six boats docked at Viking Village, and his son, Barnegat Light Mayor Kirk Larson, outfitted their two newest boats with Globalstar satellite phones for use by the crews. Larson said he pays $100 per month for 400 minutes under his Globalstar package.

"The guys like to call home once in a while, and they work hard, you know," said John Larson, 71. "Kirk and I say 'Go ahead - just don't take up too many minutes.'"

Cell phone signals have also improved to the point where fishermen are often able to use their cell phones when they are 25, even 30 miles out at sea.

But as with any technological advance comes the law of unintended consequences. Collier, the contributing writer for National Fishermen, said satellite telephones have rendered the shoreline marine operator industry obsolete.

Locally, there is no longer a need for volunteers like Mary Louise Cook, the iconic operator of the "Sand Dollar" radio station in Harvey Cedars, Ocean County. For decades, Cook, now approaching 90, was an invaluable conduit between fishermen and their families. John Larson said he often ordered flowers for his wife through Cook, and her daughter-in-law, Gayle Cook, credits her with saving numerous marriages.

"I just told a fisherman that their wife just had a baby," Cook said in a 1992 article in The Press of Atlantic City.

Still, for some fishermen and their wives there is no substitute for the more tactile forms of communication employed for centuries.

"I put little 'I love you' notes in his sea bag and in his socks, so he doesn't find them all at once," Tracy Raffa said. "It's silly, but I know he must be lonely out there."

Chris and Avalon LaRocca keep journals in which they write notes to each other. When Chris returns from a trip, they switch notebooks, write responses, then switch again when he goes back out to sea.

"That's just something cheesy we do between us," Chris LaRocca said.

To e-mail Bernard Vaughan at The Press:

[email protected]
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