Spencers’ Boat


It happens about the third day out, although you’re not aware of the actual hour on the clock. You look up from the deck that’s slowly rocking back and forth, the deck covered with slime and seawater, and you realize that you’ve become as much a part of the ocean as the fish scattered at your feet.

The monotonous blending of the engine’s roar, the motion of the waves, and the repetitious task of bending over, picking up flounder, putting them in baskets, and throwing out the trash fish has dulled you into apathy, mellowed you into acceptance.

Time has evaporated. There is no past, no future, only the present, a present of fish, sea gulls, and endless water. Your back hurts, your muscles ache, and you are slightly unsure that time ever existed at all. Time is a feeble excuse for the passing of night and day, a rude trick invented to keep you hoping that someday you’ll return to shore. Time is three hours of work followed by thirty minutes for meals and rest followed by three hours of work. Twenty-four hours a day. And sometimes you miss the break. Memories of home and family, of distant ports, fade into the mist like the gulls fade into the fog.

The catches so far have been meager, this morning only 3,600 pounds in the first net and 7,700 in the second. The work will only get harder when the 10,000- and 12,000-pound catches start coming, when the fish are so abundant you can’t get the deck cleared before the next full net is hauled in.

Metal sliding on metal causes a sudden pop, loud like a tree trunk snapping, followed by the whine of a banshee. The cable is fully extended and the hydraulic winches scream in pain as a crew member spins the lock wheel, then torques it down with a pipe wrench, balancing the iron lines that hold the net upright. Next, huge iron plates which funnel fish and water through the nets are unhooked, swung out, and dropped deep into the icy sea.

A boat pulling a net can go for a week without seeing another boat. Were it not for the work and the voices on the radio, you’d lose your mind wondering if there was anything more to life than this tiny raft.

This is a world of men and machines, of callouses formed by lifting and tightening. It’s a rough world of scratched paint and sour smells, of spikes and hooks, sharpening stones and sea sickness. It’s a world of loneliness, a world of beautiful sunsets, and sometimes when waves are high and the wind is howling, it’s a world of fear.

This is the world Mike Lee stepped into at age 16, when his father sent him out to learn about work.

Now, before you start picturing Mike’s father as some sort of hardhearted Captain Bligh, let’s set the record straight. His father’s act may have seemed at the time almost cruel, but in truth it was an act of love.

It was 1979. “I’d been having a lot of trouble in school, a lot of trouble in everything,” Mike explained. “I wasn’t a bad kid. I just didn’t know what I wanted to do.”

Mike’s father, W. Boyd Lee, was serving at the time as president of the Norfolk Virginia Stake. He loved his son and worried about him a lot. “Mike’s mother and I prayed constantly. I kept feeling that Mike should work on Spencers’ boat.”

Ira Spencer, Jr., a good friend of Brother Lee, was the branch president of the Manteo (North Carolina) Branch. Ira owned a fishing trawler that his son Duke piloted out of Wanchese, a little town near Kitty Hawk, where the Wright brothers first flew a plane. Ira and his wife Shirley also ran a seafood restaurant in Nags Head, and maybe Mike could help out in the kitchen when the ship was in port. Ira and Duke enjoyed having LDS crew members, because they had proven to be honest and dependable, and they didn’t use foul language or smoke on the ship.

“Still, he was only 16, and I didn’t want to impose on the Spencers,” Brother Lee explained. He talked the idea over with Ira.

“Mike seemed like a good boy,” Ira said. “Sometimes you’ve just got to give a boy incentive, and on his own he’ll move from where he is to where he should be.”

So Mike became a fisherman on the War Cry, a boat named after a line in the hymn “Hope of Israel”: “Sound the war cry, ‘Watch and pray!’” (Hymns, no. 64).

“It’s the hardest work I’ve ever done,” Mike said. “It’s not only skill that’s involved, but also a strong stomach and a desire to keep going. A lot of people can work hard for eight hours, but when you’re working almost twenty-four hours a day over a long period of time, you learn about endurance.”

At first Mike was in charge of small but important details. He had to make sure tools were always returned to the right place. He helped push trash fish overboard when the sorting was done. When the boat went after scallops, he learned how to cut the shells open and slice out the edible muscle.

“He was kind of timid at first, but pretty quick he showed us all what a good worker he was,” Duke said. “It got to where we’d trust him to run anything. He knew the gear and could do anything the rest of us could do.”

The basic crew included three returned missionaries, two others just getting ready to leave, a recent convert, captain Duke (who served a mission in Brazil), and an inactive prospective elder. “Working together, we developed quite a camaraderie,” Mike said. By the end of the summer the inactive member wasn’t inactive anymore, and Mike was ready for school again.

“Working on the boat gave me a chance to sort out my life,” Mike explained. “Even though you’re working, you’ve got plenty of time to think, and I thought a lot about the future. I thought about college, about a mission, about my family.”

He also said that being out at sea “made me love the ocean, made me respect its power. It helped me appreciate what God has created, the same way that getting out in nature helps you. It’s just a different kind of nature. The sea makes you appreciate the world that you’re a part of.”

Mike is now 20. Last summer, he was home from his freshman year at BYU. His family, which had moved to Germantown, Tennessee, was planning a trip back to Virginia and North Carolina to visit friends.

One night the phone rang. It was Ira Spencer.

“We hear ya’ll are headed this way,” he told Mike. “Me and the boys are going to take the boat out as a family. Would you like to tag along and make a little money for your mission? Bring your dad, too, and we’ll show him what life’s like out on the water.”

And that’s how Mike and his father ended up on the War Cry, this time sailing out of Newport, Rhode Island. “The fishing’s better up north right now,” Duke explained. Dave Spencer, 18, (Ira’s son and Duke’s brother) and Duke’s nine-year-old son, Sam (nicknamed “Hambone”), rounded out the crew.

After walking along the same Newport streets that George Washington traveled, past clapboard cottages and governor’s mansions as old as the American colonies, and stopping for five grocery carts full of food, the crew made its way to the wharf, climbed over a neighboring ship’s deck, and finally set foot on the War Cry.

Mike started remembering. “First I noticed the smells—the salt water, the fish. Then I saw the hooks on all the doors, even on the refrigerator, to keep them closed when the ship rocks, then the iron rods you use to clamp pots and pans in place. Then I looked in the sleeping quarters and remembered the narrow, hard bunks that seemed like heaven when you got a chance to use them. Then Ira and my dad fired up the engines and I remembered the noise. You have to run the engines to run the generators, and you have to run the generators to operate the rest of the equipment, the radios, the fridge. After a while you get numb to it. But at first it seems like everyone’s deaf. You have to shout to be heard.”

Noise or no noise, everyone slept aboard ship that night. And they were up early the next morning, winding miles of iron cable onto the winches, inspecting and mending nets, pouring oil by the drum into oil tanks. Seventy-five dollar filters were removed and replaced. Weather reports and market prices were checked. Eighteen tons of ice, used to keep the fish fresh, were pumped into the hold.

By late afternoon, the War Cry was underway. Sam sat on the bow and waved at a lighthouse. With David and Mike he read names of other boats as the trawler passed them on its way to harvest the sea. The Captain Ralph, the Iron Horse, the Mikentodd, the Harry Glen. The Ramona, the Skylight, the Venus, and the Chief Wanchese. Soon the city was far behind, then the shore; then there was nothing but a flat horizon. The three young men were called inside for dinner, followed by stories, jokes, and laughter, followed by sleep.

The first “haulback” came in the dark of the night. A haulback means the net is full and it’s being pulled out of the water to be dumped on deck. When the captain calls, you’ve got about five minutes until the fish come in. Like zombies from some old horror movie, fathers and sons together rose from sleep, pulled on heavy boots and overalls, pulled on yellow sea bonnets, and stumbled outside into the mist.

“Sometimes the salt air revives you,” Dave said. “Sometimes all it does is give you a chill.” This time it did a little of both. Yawns were universal. But the work went on. With Ira in the wheelhouse keeping the War Cry on course, David, Mike, and Sam positioned 16-foot, two-by-ten deck boards to hold the catch in place. Duke pulled hydraulic levers to raise the dripping bundle out of the depths and position it over the deck. Brother Lee tugged a rope that opened the bottom of the net, spilling the squirming contents out into a flat, flapping pile.

Instantly the sorting began. It takes quite an eye to be able to pick out and size the different types of flounder, and the talent of a Dr. J. to consistently flip them into the right basket. For Mike and Dave, it was an old routine. Like a power forward, Dave worked with both hands, flinging fish over his shoulders without looking up, shoveling trash fish between his legs. Like a center fighting for rebounds, Mike preferred to work close to the basket, loading it with one type of fish, then pulling up another basket to start all over again. For Sam, the sorting time was an adventure. He would waddle nearly knee-deep in fish, mud, and seaweed, picking out lobsters, crabs, and scallops, isolating them in special pails of their own. He was the guard on the team, carefully selecting his shots, working from the outside, calling for help when he needed it like an open man calls for a pass.

Brother Lee was amazed at the entire operation. “I felt totally outclassed. These guys were real pros, and I felt like a rookie in his first training camp.” But like any eager player would, he made up for inexperience with hustle.

To make the analogy complete, Duke would have been a player-coach, offering advice and assistance, jumping in to do some sorting himself as necessary. And Ira would, of course, have been the team owner, reassuring others with his presence, keeping the entire operation in order. (It was his boat, after all.)

Soon another net had been hauled back and sorted. Then another, then another, then another, then another. At what point today blurred into tomorrow blurred into the next day and the next, nobody was quite sure. The sun went down; the sun came up. Meals, at first looked forward to as a break in the monotony, finally became part of the routine.

“We ate snacks instead of lunch and took cat naps instead of sleeping,” Mike said. “You know, I really loved this when I was 16, but I’d forgotten how dead-bone tired you get. My back is starting to kill me.”

Then he looked over at his father. “We don’t get to spend a lot of time together,” Mike said. “I’m sure this is difficult work for him. He’s more the type who would rather teach or be in an office. But it’s helped him understand what I went through. He’s already told me that.”

And Brother Lee, an oral pathologist and dental educator, agreed. “I’ve never worked so hard in all of my life. Even the two-a-day workouts when I played college football are pale by comparison. But if it helps me understand my son, it’s worth it. This time on the boat is something we’ll always share.”

Later that day, Mike and his father were seated on an old plank next to each other, opening scallops, tossing the shells overboard. The shells would skip as they hit the water, then sink, spinning shiny white loops as they drifted out of sight. The conversation was pleasant, intimate. They talked of school. They talked of the other Lees back home. They talked about Mike becoming an elder soon, about his going on a mission. They talked about another fisherman, from Galilee, of how he called Peter, Andrew, James, and John to leave their nets and cast for the souls of men.

All around Mike and his father were the sounds, the smells, and the ocean. In this realm of rust and motion, of motors and commotion, they had found a moment of peace.

The first fistful of ice hit Sam softly on the shoulder.

“Hey,” he shouted, but he could see Dave coming. Soon Sam had a handful of his own, and the great ice fight was on, with both uncle and nephew flinging pieces of frozen water at each other. It was a short-lived battle. Sam ended up with ice down his chest, but he got a hug from Dave in return.

That’s the way the Spencers are. They work hard. They play hard. They love life, they love each other, and they love the Lord. They represent on a family scale what it means to be a Latter-day Saint in North Carolina, what it means to be a Latter-day Saint at sea.

The Spencers make up a sizeable portion of the 70-member branch at Manteo. Ira’s son Jesse is the branch president. A missionary couple lives in a home belonging to the Spencers. Other missionaries have stayed in an apartment behind their restaurant. It would be hard to count the number of free meals Ira Spencer has given to visitors from the Norfolk Virginia Stake of which Manteo is a part.

But other boat crews know the Spencers because of their honesty and high standards. “Duke is always giving people a hand,” Ira said. “Sometimes he’ll help them get a torn net untangled from their blades; sometimes he’ll just loan them spare parts. One time he helped save a boat stranded on a sand bar,” Ira said. Duke was also cited in a national nautical magazine for his heroic role in an all-night rescue effort.

Fishermen along the wharf will also tell you that the Spencers have strict rules on their ship. “Somebody new might think we’re a little different at first, when they find out we don’t drink or swear and that we pray before we eat,” David explained. “But the word gets around. People know what we expect of our crews.” They also know the Spencers can be trusted to work hard and bring in a good catch.

With the exception of one great-grandfather who was a farmer, even the Spencers’ ancestors worked near the sea or out on the waters. It only seems natural, then, that Dave is attending a marine occupations class at his high school, where he studies sailing, seamanship, boat safety, lifesaving, intercoastal waterway travel, net mending, crab pot construction, plant life and shore erosion, electronic navigation, cooking, and just about anything else remotely related to the sea. Along with Duke, Dave seems like one of the children most likely to carry on the family tradition.

“I like it here,” Dave said. “If I were to move, I’d have to be around water. I love fishing so much I couldn’t stand to be away.”

Except, perhaps, for when he serves a mission. “My brothers have come back and they’ve told me you don’t lose by going on a mission. You gain. My testimony is pretty strong, and it makes me feel good when I can share it with other people.”

Mike, whose own mission call is just around the corner, nodded his head in agreement. “I don’t care where they send me,” he said, “so long as I can get to work soon.”

Both young men realize that the mission field will be a place full of hard work, but that’s something they’re used to. Just tell their companions to holler “Haulback!” in the morning, and watch them go to work.

[photos] Photos by Richard M. Romney

[illustrations] Illustrated by Ron Peterson

[illustration] … as the flounder grows, it adjusts to life on the ocean floor by shifting its eyes to look upward.

[photos] Three generations of Spencers and two generations of Lees labored together to harvest fish—and lessons about life—from the sea.

[illustration] … to protect unhatched eggs from predators, a mother lobster carries them beneath her tail …

[photos] Conversations took on a fuller, deeper meaning as crew members worked side by side, learning skills that only experience can teach. Out on the boat, fathers, sons, brothers, and friends discovered that each person has something to contribute, even when it’s just a listening ear.

[illustration] … spiny dorsal spikes toughen with age providing certain species of fish with built-in defense …

[photos] Muscles tensed, backs bent, and tools and men were tested to their limits every time a catch was hauled in. Down in the hold, fish had to be stored in bins and iced down. Then the trash fish had to be shoveled off and the deck washed clean. And in half an hour, it was time to work again.

[illustration] … fanlike radiating ribs of the scallop’s symmetrical shell are beautiful and strong …

[photos] Few things are as peaceful as the ocean when it’s calm. “I’ve worked out on the water most of my life,” Ira said. “I’ve always found it to be a place of wonder.” Patterns and colors are woven into the texture of a fisherman’s memory, constantly luring him back to the sea.