PORTLAND, Maine — Like a lot of things on the old boat, the starter was beat up and broken.
To get underway, Nick Nieuwkerk connected the electrical terminals with the metal end of a screwdriver. Then, with a zap and spark, the ancient Detroit Diesel engine roared to life.
But then the throttle wouldn’t stay put, so Nick’s father, Knoep Nieuwkerk, rigged it open with a spoon and piece of string. Eventually, the pair were steaming out of Woods Harbor, Nova Scotia, on their way to Portland on April 7, aboard a 44-foot fishing boat that had seen better days since it first hit the water, 42 years earlier.
There was no guarantee they’d make it, but they had to try.
The gas in the tanks was at least two years old and possibly contaminated with water. Gallons of mysterious, greasy sludge sloshed around the bilge, below the engine.
“The wiring was a disaster. The oil pressure was the only gauge that worked,” Nick said.
The boat’s once red hull was a faded, flaking, dull pink. A rubber glove stuck out of a hole in the pilothouse door, replacing the knob. The vessel’s unlovely name was painted on the stern: Chainsaw.
At first, the weather was fair, with a light breeze. That changed when they hit the open ocean, around Forbes Point, past Seal Island. There, they ran into a tight, 10-foot chop driven by a fierce northerly wind. As soon as the boat could clear one wave, it slammed into the next, sending sprays of seawater skyward.
“I remember hoping the engine didn’t quit,” Nick said. “It was horrible. We were burying the bow.”
They intended to make for Bar Harbor, then hug the Maine coast southwest. But the seas forced them to point more directly into the waves, heading for Portland across the full Gulf of Maine — a 200 mile route, keeping them at least 100 miles from shore.
The hard weather raged all day and into the night. The Nieuwkerks had a satellite phone and a radio but no insurance.
“Just around dark, it was the worst,” Knoep said.
As the rough waters faded to black around them, both father and son knew the risks they were taking with both their lives and their fortunes.
An untold number of fishermen around the globe are lost at sea each year.
Nick was financing a sizable loan to buy the modest vessel. But once overhauled, the worn-out boat would help keep their family afloat in the competitive, boom-and-bust commercial fishing business in New England. It would also allow a father to continue passing on a lifetime of hard-won fishing knowledge to his youngest son.
But first, they had to get back to Portland afloat, and get the boat repaired in time for monkfish season in June.
The old engine, the throttle string and their luck all held out. After a bumpy, mostly sleepless night at sea, the weather began to clear.
“When the sun came up around 4 a.m., it was just as nice and calm as could be,” Knoep said.
Then, 31 hours after leaving Nova Scotia, their boat cruised by Portland Head Light and into the harbor on April 8.
“I figured it would take 10 days. There were a lot of things that could have gone wrong but they didn’t,” Nick, 27, said. “I don’t know how, but we got her home.”
Knoep has a theory.
“The boat knew that if it f’ed up out there, we would have just ditched it,” he said. “It wanted a second chance at life — it knew we were its second chance.”
Clockwise from left: Knoep Nieuwkerk (left) shades his eyes as his son Nick power washes the bottom of their fishing boat in South Portland in May. The pair are getting the old vessel in working order to go ground fishing in June; Tools and parts cover the deck of Nick Nieuwkerk’s boat; Knoep Nieuwkerk works on the bottom of the fishing boat. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN
And that’s how the boat got its new name: Second Chance.
The Second Chance now sits tied up at the Portland Fish Pier. Both father and son are an almost daily blur of action across its deck, mounting the radar, fiddling with throttle cables, running hydraulic lines and sorting out the disastrous wiring. Nick and Knoep are also in and out of their trucks, running to and from the marine supply store for small brass parts and supplies.
They don’t stop to talk. All conversations are held on the fly.
“It’s an awful ugly eyesore,” Knoep, 58, said, looking down at the boat from the pier as Nick and two friends put a fresh layer of gray gelcoat on the deck.
“It’s not always about how good it looks,” said Dustin Cady, one of the friends, a paint roller in his hand. “I bet she’s made a lot of money.”
The Nieuwkerks are betting on it.
Both father and son are lobstermen with their own boats, but say it’s hard to get ahead on that alone. Prices, demand and the number of lobsters they catch fluctuate too much throughout the year. The new boat will help them diversify their fishing and catch more than just lobsters.
Annie Tselikis, the former executive director of the Maine Lobster Dealers’ Association, confirms it’s an up and down business.
“August is the single busiest month for lobsters, and September and October can be huge too,” she said.
Tselikis said it’s traditional for Maine lobstermen to have fishery side hustles for the leaner times.
“You’ve got to be able to fill in the blanks,” Knoep said.
To plug the gaps, Knoep used to drag for urchins, but there’s no money in that anymore. He also used to go shrimping in the winter but the shrimp are gone now.
Sometimes there’s still money in catching pogies for lobster bait but the Nieuwkerk’s first target is gillnetting monkfish, a monsterous bottom dweller that tastes better than it looks. With a spiked antenna dangling in front of its enormous, toothed grin as bait, the fish will eat almost anything — including the occasional sea bird, according to the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calls wild-caught monkfish, “a smart seafood choice because it is sustainably managed and responsibly harvested under U.S. regulations.”
Maine Department of Marine Resources data shows the state’s monkfish fishery hit an economic high in 2001 with 11 million pounds selling for $8 million at the dock.
In 2019, with reduced demand and quotas, fishermen sold just shy of 1.3 million pounds of monkfish to in-state dealers for $759,253.
Despite the shrinking numbers, the Nieuwkers remain hopeful.
Nick reckons that if they get the boat ready by the end of June, they work hard and his luck holds, he can erase his $40,000 bank loan. But they’ll have to hurry. Once the fishery’s federal quota is met, it’s over.
“If I do good gillnetting, I can pay it off this year,” Nick said. “At least, that’s what I hope.”
Grit and determination
Knoep doesn’t come from a long line of fishermen in his hometown of Kennebunk. His father was a psychiatrist from the Netherlands and dead set against him going to sea.
“He thought all fishermen were drunks,” Knoep said.
Without deep roots in town, Knoep had to kick and scratch his way into the business. It wasn’t easy and he had his share of bait barrels dumped and traplines cut. That’s why helping Nick — and his older son, Eben Nieuwkerk — has always been important to him.
“I didn’t want to see my sons struggle the way I did,” Knoep said. “Nobody showed me how to go fishing. It was just grit and determination.”
But he’s also tried to balance a steady stream of guidance with making sure they worked hard for what they got. He wanted to show them that fishing is more than just satisfying work, more than just a decent living. There’s joy and a good life in it.
Knoep first put Nick and Eben in charge of a skiff, with a small pile of hand-hauled lobster traps, before they were teenagers. The boat was called the Bumble Bee.
“I can’t believe how many times we almost died in that thing,” Nick said, remembering a time when they both fell out and had a close call in the cold water.
“That’s how they learned to be careful,” Knoep said.
When they became teenagers, Knoep then set his boys up in business with their own full-sized lobster boat. That’s where they really learned the ins and outs of the trade.
“I was driving that boat before I could drive a car,” Nick said.
To this day, Nick has never had a day job where he had to punch a time clock.
Passing it on
Knoep has already passed on his lobstering wisdom. He’s now ready to show Nick what he knows from his years of gillnetting groundfish like the monkfish they’ll be after: How to rig the boat, where to fish and when.
Gillnets are typically 300 feet long and set on the sea bottom. A weighted line holds them down while another line floats an 18-foot wall of vertical net in the water column. Once it’s set, fishermen often leave it overnight. In the darkness, unwitting bottom-dwellers like monkfish swim into the mesh, getting caught.
In the morning, fishermen haul the net back onto the boat to see what they’ve got. Knoep never gets tired of the excitement of hauling the gear.
“Unless you see the fish coming up in the net, you can’t understand,” he said.
Clockwise from left: Knoep Nieuwkerk works on the bottom of a fishing boat he hopes to operate with his son at a South Portland marina in May. When finished, they’ll go after monkfish with it; Nick Nieuwkerk works on the bottom of the boat; Nick Nieuwkerk works on replacing all the wiring in his ground fishing boat. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN
Before that can happen, the Nieuwkerks have to finish fitting and repairing Second Chance. To be a fisherman, you have to know more than just nets and fish. Working knowledge of engines, hydraulics, fiberglass repair, welding and electrical wiring are also essential.
It’s a lot of work. All the while, both men are still tending to their offshore lobster traps several days a week.
“Weekends don’t mean anything to us,” Knoep said. “We don’t like sports and we don’t watch a lot of TV.”
When pressed as to why they stick with such a difficult, risky way of making a living, neither man has a real answer. They both say something vague about seeing a lot of nice sunrises.
“I love boat work. This is what I do,” Knoep said, after a moment, as if settling the matter.
“I can’t see myself doing anything else,” Nick said, with a shrug. “I don’t know what I’d do if I weren’t a fisherman.”
Then, both got back to work. The monkfish were waiting.