EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

October 14, 2013

A life on the water

Newburyport's Bob Yeomans fetes 45 years at sea

BY DYKE HENDRICKSON
STAFF WRITER

---- — NEWBURYPORT — Veteran boat captain Bob Yeomans has a saying about life on the Atlantic: There are no 401(k) plans to be had by fishing Jeffrey’s Ledge.

So Captain Bob continues on, taking out the Erica Lee II on fishing trips and coastal discoveries as he has for decades.

He recently observed his 45th year on the water. Family, friends and crew mates from over the years threw him a party Saturday to mark the occasion.

Close to 100 attended, and they may have been celebrating a man — and a career — that will be difficult to replicate.

The season is ending, and Yeomans is finishing another campaign in which he took his 48-foot craft out almost every day.

Sometimes Captain Bob takes out a dozen or so fishing; on other occasions he’ll host a crowd of youngsters, as they learn more about the bay, marshes and ocean.

His tenure includes 25 years of Coastal Discoveries, a summer marine program for kids. Or, as is said on the website, “We take kids fishing.”

Most every day is different, but they add up to a unique career in which he made a wage — in changing ways — on the water.

“I’ve done what I wanted,” said Yeomans, a certified ocean captain who started his career in the Coast Guard. “To be on the ocean, and make a living from it has been a great experience.

“I’ve enjoyed hosting our guests, and now am seeing children of former crew members and regular customers. I’ve enjoyed the people.”

All vocations have changed over the years, either through technology, market forces or a combination of the two.

Fishing has been affected more than most by foreign ships, the disappearance of fish and by government controls.

Enormous factory vessels, carrying modern sonar and mammoth freezers, dragged away much of the fish stock of the North Atlantic over the years.

When the numbers of fish decreased, the federal government put landing limits on American fishing crews with the hope of rebuilding.

It is unclear whether the numerical limits have worked, but it did a number on the small-boat fleet in New England.

Scores of boats have stopped going out, and those that remain have often converted to taking out bait-and-beer fishing parties and/or entertaining kids and families.

It is difficult to engage in a conversation with an old salt who does not fulminate against managers of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who set the limits on how many days boats can go out and what can be caught.

Yeomans has done commercial fishing but now is more of a consumer captain. Still, a lack of fish can be problematic for a helmsman taking out a boatload of hopeful anglers.

“In past years there were a lot of tuna,” said Yeomans, who blames large trawlers for taking baitfish (herring) out of the sea these days. “Now there aren’t many.

“And the whales have gone somewhere else. Local captains have to go out much farther into the ocean to show them to passengers; sometimes there are whalewatching ships in our waters that come all the way up from Boston because there aren’t any to be seen there.”

When taking out a party of a dozen fishermen, bringing in 80 fish (perhaps cod and haddock) would be a fair day. Filling the ice chests with 220, as has been done, is cause for celebration.

Lee Yeomans, Bob’s wife who helps run the business, said, “When the baitfish disappear, the larger fish don’t stay in the area.”

She said that huge ships come into port in Gloucester and use vacuum hoses to transfer enormous hauls of baitfish to waiting carriers.

Lee Yeomans is a key factor in the business. Once the owner of State Street Candle and Mug, she now works in the health-care field while helping to lengthen the life of the Erica Lee II.

She jokes that Bob reminds her of the stolid protagonist in the story “The Old Man and the Sea.”

At least one difference: In Hemingway’s famous tale, the captain landed a huge fish but lost it to predators on his way back to shore.

Captain Bob Yeomans generally returns with the goods: happy kids, contented fishermen and the satisfaction of another good day on the water.