With his gruff voice, stocky build and full white beard, Peter Lamia could’ve have strolled out of the verses of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner. And like the salty old sailor from the epic Coleridge poem, Peter has no shortage of tales to tell about his time at sea.
If Peter looks the part of a storybook sailor, it could well be down to a lifetime spent fishing the Atlantic waters. As a child, his uncle took him fishing on open boats off the Long Island coast, where he still lives. When he was twenty two, fishing became a career.
It all began one January, when a bout of pneumonia forced him to take some time out of his political science studies at Columbia University. As he slipped further and further behind with his college assignments, he decided to find some paid work to tide him over. A friend suggested he head down to the docks at Long Island’s Captree State Park, to see if any of the charter fishing boats needed crew.
“I got there late, most of the boats had already gone out fishing already. But one guy was still there working on his boat. I said ‘do you need any help?’, and he said, ‘can you fillet fish?’ and I said I couldn’t, then he said, ‘if I put a knife in your hand will you cut yourself?’ and I said ‘I don’t know,’ and he said, ‘you’re hired!’
Peter didn’t go back to college. Instead, he found another education on the ocean. That first captain was Eddie B. Although he was a great teacher, showing the young man everything he needed to know, he wasn’t the best boss, Peter remembers. The boat crew earned tips from the passengers who’d hire the boat for the day, and the captain had the “inglorious habit” of putting his hand into these earnings. One summer with a tip-skimming captain was enough, and Peter soon moved on to his next job: a bluefish charter boat.
Bluefish bite after dusk, and Peter’s shift was 7pm till 4am. It was arduous work–which wasn’t all due to the fishing. “The kind of people that night fishing attracted back in the seventies were a little rowdy, and they had a tendency to have a few too many beers on their fishing trip, and it could get ugly.”
Since they run in large schools, bluefish are fairly easy to catch. However, adult fish are strong, fast and aggressive, with low-slung jaws and sharp teeth which won’t hesitate to snap at careless hands. An adult can easily weigh twenty pounds–a sizeable catch for any angler.
“You’re talking about fish that could take your finger off, fifty people on a boat with fifty lines in the water… tangles, screaming, yelling, and confusion.”
“Bluefishing can be a nightmare: you’re talking about fish that could take your finger off, fifty people on a boat with fifty lines in the water, and twenty people trying to get their fish onto the boat at once. There were tangles, screaming, yelling and confusion.”
Almost forty years later, Peter looks back fondly on those early days out on the Atlantic. While he still gets out whenever he can, his life has been different in the last ten years, since a Type 2 diabetes diagnosis sent his health downhill.
His first inkling something might be wrong was a good twenty-five years ago, when a blood sugar test came back on the high side. But he ignored the symptoms – an easy thing to do with diabetes, he says.
“That’s the horrible part about diabetes: there are no symptoms, you feel nothing. But even though you feel nothing there’s a degradation happening within your system.”
Ten years ago, in his early fifties, Peter returned to Columbia to finish the political science degree he’d begun three decades earlier. He’d always regretted not seeing it through, and at the urging of his girlfriend Abby he took the entrance exam, placing in the top two percent of students. The rest, he said, just fell into place. During those first few months of study, he went for a checkup at the campus clinic. He wasn’t feeling great, and the nurse took a blood sugar test.
“My result was off the chart, I blew past the highest number. The woman that did that test said, ‘I can’t believe you’re not in a coma.’”
These days, Peter’s retired, but he still gets out on the ocean whenever he can. Unfortunately, fishing competes with other, more pressing matters: like twelve hours of weekly dialysis, and diabetic retinopathy, a common problem for diabetes sufferers, who are at risk from a host of eye-related diseases.
“One morning I woke up and it looked like a Rorschach test in front of my eyes, I was terrified. I went to the eye doctor and they told me it was blood leaking from my eyes.”
Doctors treated Peter’s eyes with laser treatment and steroid injections, but when these didn’t work, Peter went onto an Iluvien implant, a slow-release steroid which should last up to three years. The next step is a new kidney, which his brother has offered to donate.
That’s the horrible part about diabetes: there are no symptoms, you feel nothing.
Peter’s the stoic type, though, not one to complain or dwell on hardships. It’s hard to say whether this stoicism is a product of his years at sea, or an innate quality that naturally drew him to the kind of hard work you only find on fishing boats.
And those early saltwater days were hard, he remembers.
“On the bluefish boat, I would get sick every night. I never threw up, but I’d get green around the gills. And since I was the new guy, I was the chum boy. The chum was in a five gallon barrel, a mix of ground up fish and blood. I’d take a ladle and spray it out every fifteen seconds onto the water, to create a slick to attract the bluefish. There I am, sick in the first place and every time I ladled it out, a little bit of breeze would spray some of the chum into my face.”
Like the Ancient Mariner, Peter has tales of ocean disaster. The most devastating involved an accident with a flat-bottomed clam boat.
“The boat had been hired for a charter cruise one night. This teenager had a clam boat, he and his friends were playing chicken with our wake, jumping over the waves with the boat. They turned into us and buried the entire thing into the stern of our boat.
“One of the kids was never found. Another kid was thrown onto our boat. His head hit the rail coming in, he split his skull open. The charter we had that night happened to be doctors and lawyers, and the doctors used the boat’s garden hose to do an emergency tracheotomy to try and save him but the kid died.”
After a lifetime spent on the ocean, Peter still says he’d go fishing every day, if he could.
“The season has started and I’m dying to go out. Lovely, crappy, it doesn’t matter–I got rain gear. It’s not just the fishing, you’re out in an expanse of water and it’s just absolutely gorgeous. No place I’d rather be.”