I tried not to look south. There was a long period between the swells, rising like ominous dull-green mountains against a gunmetal sky. It was ugly.
We had 30 miles to the shark grounds, but we’d come to an impasse. Capt. Joe DiBella, the owner and restorer of Capt. Frank Mundus’ legendary vessel, the Cricket II, had stopped the boat to speak with the man paying for the charter, my co-worker, whom we’ll call Andy. In DiBella’s opinion, it was too nasty to press on, but he left the decision of whether we should turn around to us. My heart sank.
Capt. Quint from the film Jaws — my all-time favorite movie — was based on Mundus, and I was sure I’d never get the opportunity to fish with him again. This was my one shot, but now it was time to make the call: spin around or forge ahead. I looked down the bow past Cricket II’s massive pulpit, watching the foamy swells blow closer, when Mundus walked out on deck holding a Styrofoam cup filled to the brim with coffee. “This is the most stable goddamned boat that was ever built!” he boomed. “There’s no reason to turn around.”
He put his cup down on the gunwale and looked sternly at the group. “If one drop of that coffee spills, I’ll refund this entire trip.”
We stared at the cup filled with black, rippling liquid as the boat rose and fell between walls of water. It held the power to end what could be the greatest fishing trip of my life.
In June 2005, I was 22 and out of college for less than a month when I took a full-time editorial position at Salt Water Sportsman. I’d just sat down at my desk in our Midtown Manhattan digs when editor-in-chief David DiBenedetto called me into his office. “You wanna go fish with Frank Mundus tomorrow?” he said with a grin.
I was so flabbergasted, I could only get out, “Umm, yeah.”
“Thought so,” he said. “Go pack your stuff, get on the train home, grab your truck, and haul your ass to Montauk.”
Andy, one of the magazine’s advertising sales managers, had arranged the trip to entertain a prospective client. Tom Rock, a journalist from Long Island who was covering Mundus’ triumphant return to Montauk, would also be on board. There was one more spot on the boat, and it was mine. I’ve never run to Penn Station so fast in my life.
Mundus and Cricket II were back in their historical home port for a limited time. The return coincided with the 30th anniversary of the release of Jaws. I don’t recall the exact rate Mundus was charging for a trip during this brief stay, but I remember being taken aback by the number — it was significantly higher than what you’d fork over to any other local captain. This was, after all, a publicity stunt.
I’d been monitoring the results of the charters since Mundus hit town. Almost every trip included someone from a big media outlet; almost all of them with photos of Mundus trying to look tough alongside dinky blue sharks, which was funny when you consider how he became so famous. Mundus earned his reputation during the era when people considered sharks dangerous, evil threats that needed to be abolished. Crowds gathered every time Cricket II returned to the dock, hoping to get a glimpse of a beast lifted onto the scales. On Aug. 6, 1986, Mundus hung a 3,427-pound great white, which still stands as the largest fish ever caught on rod and reel. He was nicknamed the Monster Man.
I knew that, at best, we might luck into a mako or a thresher, but even if we only pulled on lowly blue dogs, I didn’t care. The mindset about shark conservation had changed for the better, and regulations aside, sharking simply wasn’t as good as it was in decades past. But the stories on board had to be good. Mundus had, after all, taken Jaws author Peter Benchley fishing. The trip inspired the young writer to create Quint, and his fictional boat, Orca, was modeled after Cricket II.
Throughout the excruciating drive, I fought traffic in total disbelief about where I was going and what I was about to do. At 8 p.m., I slid into Montauk, just in time to sit down at the restaurant as two-thirds of my party’s dinner was arriving.
Andy was already wasted. The client, whom we’ll call Todd, was equally trashed. He was a small, wiry fellow with glasses, and after being around him for two minutes, I could tell he had no offshore fishing experience. I ordered a burger and a beer, which came just as Andy and Todd got their desert — tiramisu and two snifters of Sambuca.
This was the first sales dinner I’d attended in my budding career, and I quickly figured out two things. One, the objective is to entertain and schmooze the prospective client: If said client wants to get hammered, you get them hammered. Two, not everyone connected to the fishing industry is as deeply passionate about the sport as I am. In my naivety, I sat there appalled thinking, you’re going out with the Frank Mundus in nine hours, why would you risk ruining a once-in-a-lifetime experience like that with a hangover?
I excused myself the second I finished my burger to go and get some sleep. As I was saying goodbye, Todd ordered two more Sambucas.
I stepped out of my motel room at 5:30 a.m. in full foul-weather regalia — heavy green PVC bibs over my jacket and sweatshirt, with knee-high deck boots. Despite it being mid-June, the temperature was 57 degrees and felt colder with the wind. The clang of halyards banging against sailboat masts carried on the wind. A thick drizzle blew sideways, making everything squishy and dank.
I nervously walked down the ramp to Cricket II’s dock and saw Mundus standing on deck, talking to a big fellow clad in scuffed orange Grundéns. It was Rock. I introduced myself to the pair. Mundus was shorter than I had imagined, but he was a commanding presence. His flannel shirt was neatly tucked into his Dickies-style khaki pants, showing off his belt buckle made from a brass harpoon dart. Around his neck hung a huge great white shark tooth on a thick, gold chain. His pirate-like hoop earring gleamed in what little light showed through the early-morning torrent. We exchanged pleasantries, and Mundus moseyed back into the cabin. Rock, it turned out, was a quiet man, but he was as excited as I was, and while I’d already guessed it from the wear on his bibs, he was a serious angler.
Andy arrived next, and if he was hungover, you’d never know it. Andy was in his late 40s, rail thin and a bit hyperactive. He liked to fish, but only went when he had to for the job. Clearly, he’d looked at the weather forecast, though I questioned whether the Eddie Bauer rain suit he was wearing would be enough against the gales of Montauk. Andy, however, wasn’t concerned about the elements; he had bigger issues. We were already 15 minutes past our departure time, and Todd was a no-show.
Andy was dialing Todd for the third time when he suddenly appeared in the marina parking lot. He was standing more than 100 yards away, but you couldn’t miss him. His screaming red Hawaiian shirt popped against the gray mist. As the light shirt flapped in the breeze, his pasty stomach poked out. Todd’s legs were bare to the upper thigh until you reached the khaki shorts that finished off the ensemble. He wore leather sandals. No hat. No rain gear. Not even a hoodie or windbreaker in hand. By the time he fumbled his way to the boat, he was wet and shivering. I was mortified.
As Andy walked Todd inside, I heard Mundus mutter, “Oh, Christ.”
Cricket II was built to catch big sharks, not for comfort. The boat measured 45 feet to the long pulpit stretching off the bow where the harpoon man would position himself when it came time to stick a giant shark. Tiffany Yachts of Burgess, Virginia, built the vessel in the style of a classic Chesapeake deadrise wooden workboat. The builder used heavier 2½-inch wood planks, per Mundus’ request, instead of 1-inch wood. The boat weighed 40,000 pounds and was originally powered by a 671 Detroit diesel. The cabin was stark, with a dinette table like the one in Quint’s Orca, some storage cabinetry, a small galley and a coffee maker. There was a forward V-berth stacked with anchors, ropes, chains, old electronics and life jackets. The one thing missing aboard was a private head. I assumed this was because Mundus had plenty of buckets, and in his mind, a bucket was all you needed.
DiBella, who used the boat to run charters in North Carolina, understood that times had changed. Creature comforts mattered. There wasn’t room for a proper head below, so the only option was to install a potty in the middle of the salon adjacent to the dinette. To create some privacy, a shower stall made of ultra-thin plastic was erected around the commode.
Before Cricket II’s unmistakable bow pulpit even poked out of the harbor, Mundus began flipping through picture books and narrating. There was a photo of him standing on a whale carcass while a great white nipped at the blubber. On the next page, he was pictured beside a 1,000-plus-pound mako. One photo showed him in a full-brimmed hat, his face framed by a set of great white jaws. Rock and I drank it all in.
Mundus was essentially reading from a script — every charter before and after heard the same stories. Afterward they’d have the same chance to buy a signed photo or a book, stacks of which sat in a box on the bench seat next to Mundus. I bought both.
I went outside to have my picture taken in Cricket II’s fighting chair with Mundus posing behind me. I was so enthralled that I barely noticed as we passed Montauk Light. Cricket II was such a tank that I didn’t feel her connect with the first sets of heavy rollers coming head on. But Todd felt them. When we returned to the cabin I saw him in the berth, curled up in the fetal position between an anchor and a toolbox. Good, I thought. Stay down there all day.
One thing you were not going to do aboard Cricket II was get anywhere fast. She was a slow, old girl, but she took a sea so well we could sit in the cabin comfortably — usually the last place you want to be in rough water — sipping coffee and eating breakfast sandwiches while the Atlantic raged. Andy tried to stay engaged in Mundus’ yarns, but I knew he was thinking about his comatose client.
Eventually, the conversation shifted to Jaws, and much to my surprise, Mundus made it clear he wasn’t a fan. “I walked out of the theater laughing hysterically,” he told us.
The Greener harpoon gun Quint used was worthless, according to Mundus. He claimed he tested one, and it was so powerful the dart would pass right through a shark. The idea of using piano wire as leader was nonsense. The reel was wrong. The harpoon barrels were wrong. It was all wrong. I was just about to ask what the film got right when Todd stumbled out of the berth, white as a ghost, grasping for anything to stay upright. Mundus stopped talking to watch as Todd made a beeline for the coffin-sized head. The sounds that came from behind that millimeters-thick veil of plastic were straight out of The Exorcist.
“You OK, Todd?” Andy softly asked, but there was no reply. There was just the cacophony of vomit hitting the walls like it was being pumped from a garden hose. In these close quarters, there was no escaping the smell. Mundus started to chuckle.
“What did you guys bring for lunch?” he cackled. “I hope it’s liverwurst and onions!”
When Todd finally emerged from the clam shell of despair, he was wearing nothing but his stained skivvies. Drained of strength, his arms could barely clutch his clothes, which were sopping wet and freshly tie-dyed in shades of pink, orange and brown. Andy held Todd’s arm and helped him back to the V-berth dungeon. Someone graciously tossed down a sweatshirt and a bottle of water. About this time, Cricket II throttled down, and DiBella appeared in the cabin, wanting to have a word with Andy on deck about the mounting seas. Mundus had just poured himself a fresh cup of coffee.
The cup never flinched. With the bow pointed into the waves, Cricket II gently lifted and lowered, but there was almost zero roll. Mundus watched the cup of joe for 30 seconds, then snatched it back up and headed inside, lofting a, “See, I told you!” as he settled back into his corner of the dinette.
Andy made the call to turn around, primarily because Todd wasn’t having a very good time, and the point of the outing was to make sure Todd had fun and felt spendy. To try to salvage the trip, Andy hit DiBella with a proposal: “It seemed a little calmer inside, Cap. Can we just go in and do some striper fishing?”
Mundus roared from the cabin before DiBella could answer. “This isn’t a striper boat! If you wanna go striper fishing, take me back to the dock first!”
I hated Todd. Mundus harped on about how ridiculous it was that we turned around. My dream trip was over. I’d never get to drop a mackerel bait or crank on a blue dog aboard Cricket II.
When we returned to port, DiBella seemed in a bad mood — probably because he’d have to clean the head. Mundus shook our hands, said a hasty goodbye and went off to chat with folks at the marina. Rock departed disappointed, declining the offer to join us for some bass fishing.
That afternoon, I sat in the bridge of an ancient sportfisherman Andy had secured as a make-good, watching a completely rejuvenated Todd grinning ear to ear as he reeled in one striper after another from a cushy deck chair. The wireline broomstick in the gimbal between his legs barely flexed. I love stripers, but I hate trolling for them. I never touched a rod. In my pocket was the complimentary button Mundus gave that read, “Jaws 2005. Pray For Sharks. Frank Mundus. Captain Joe DiBella.”