The fishing club’s newest member had slept through her alarm and was now speeding through Queens toward the beach in the predawn light. Gypsea Star was supposed to debark at 5 a.m., almost half an hour earlier, and if the anglers weren’t able to beat the other boats to the bay for their first trip of the season, she would be to blame.
It was not a very good first impression.
“I’m already a stereotype, being the one female that’s late,” Julie Gomez said when she finally climbed aboard. Her 10-year-old daughter, Elyse, was with her. “I’m so bad.”
The men on board poured black coffee, eyed the chicken cutlet sandwiches someone had brought for the group’s lunch or pretended to sleep. And while no one smiled at Ms. Gomez’s attempt to lighten the mood, no one snapped at her, either. Nobody there would have come right out and said it, but New York’s party-boat fishermen are a dwindling breed. The boats that take them out, cash-only businesses that suffered financially during the pandemic, desperately need to attract and retain new members.
The beginning of striped bass season, in April, sees a huge release of pent-up enthusiasm. It’s what sustains the city’s fishing captains through the winter. But last year, Covid restrictions kept the boats docked for several of those critical warm months, and Paycheck Protection Program loans weren’t an option. Even when things tentatively reopened last July, business was slow; people were still scared of the virus, and prices had increased to make up for the lost time.
Every few years a reporter takes the train to the outer edge of Brooklyn and counts the boats there, inevitably concluding that a specific slice of New York life is nearing oblivion thanks to a combination of real estate development and shifting demographics. And that’s all true: In the 1970s, there were about 40 party boats operating in New York City; a couple of decades later, there were 18; now you can basically count them all on one hand.
Over most of that time, the boats were basically floating dive bars, full of secondhand smoke and cheap beer. But then hanging out with strangers became an existential threat. During lockdown, a number of well-off hobbyists went ahead and bought their own boats; sales leapt to a 13-year high, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association. So the people who make their living by taking people out on the water now need to hook new enthusiasts. And for those who care about keeping seafaring alive in the city, this year is about accommodating New Yorkers who don’t necessarily fit a sailor’s stereotype.
They will have to rely, in part, on entrepreneurs like Victor Lucia, a former hip-hop producer and public-school teacher in Crown Heights who started the Brooklyn Fishing Club in 2014. His aim was to provide entry into a culture that can be intimidating or outright hostile to newcomers. “A lot of the captains really like me, and I’ve made them a lot of money over the years,” he said.
In order to get a place on a fishing boat in New York City, you traditionally needed to wake up at the crack of dawn and head to the city-owned strip of Sheepshead Bay, where several identical-seeming boats are docked. You would need to know how to pick one, as well as how to buy your own bait at the nearby tackle shop. You would also need to intuit the correct amount of cash to take along, in order to pay and tip the first mate.
And then there’s actually being on the boat.
“It’s New York City, so everybody has their guard up,” said Mr. Lucia, 34. “If you got on one of those boats for the first time and acted nice and friendly, people would look at you like you’re crazy. It’d be like going around a subway car and introducing yourself.”
His idea was that there’s safety in numbers when a fishing trip is also a social event — that if he sent outgoing, open-minded people out together, they’d be more likely to have a good time and do it again. Mr. Lucia tends to draw a clientele that is similarly youthful and friendly. For the start of this season, he has teamed up with a young captain who just started the first-ever party boat in Howard Beach, Queens. That means his club members will avoid the old-timers scene around Sheepshead Bay entirely.
In creating an alternative to the typical party boat atmosphere, Mr. Lucia has accidentally become something of a father figure for women a decade older than he is. His most recent acolyte was Ms. Gomez, the 45-year-old with the French manicure who held up the trip and nearly ruined it for everyone. She had learned how to cast from her father, a handyman in Far Rockaway. But where to actually find fish was kept between him and his buddies. He died eight years ago without divulging that. “Fishermen are secretive and don’t give you anything of substance,” she said. “They’d be like, ‘Sure, put your blindfold on and we’ll take you there.’ And now, without my dad’s presence, I cannot catch a fish.”
So here she was at sunrise, far out into Raritan Bay. People from all walks of life and from all over the Northeast had slept in their clothes and woken up as early as 2 a.m. for the chance at feeling normal again. The trip had already been delayed a week because a maintenance worker on the Gypsea Star had caught Covid, but they were soon poised to be drinking hard seltzers in near-perfect weather. The boat can hold 30 but has typically been taking 17 at most because of coronavirus concerns.
Although Ms. Gomez had joked about being the only woman on board that day, there was actually another one. She got so angry about leaving late that she had to move to the other side of the boat to avoid a potential confrontation. But while the two women have very different attitudes about punctuality, their back stories are strikingly similar. Amal Samaleh used to beg her father to take her along on fishing trips with her brothers and still remembers the day he got her hopes the highest. “Of course he never woke me up,” she said. “I was 7, and since then I’ve harbored resentment about fishing.”
Ms. Salameh, who was born in Jersey City, decided to take matters into her own hands much later in life. She was supposed to go fishing with a friend the day after her 33rd birthday, but he drank too much and didn’t wake up on time. So she took herself down to a pier in Weehawken despite an earth-shattering hangover and asked to borrow a rod from two old men. She realized that — despite what her father may have assumed — she had a natural talent. She caught a dozen bluefish that day.
Flash forward more than a decade, which is when she got in touch with Mr. Lucia about his fishing club. Ms. Salameh went out on her first charter boat last June, a momentous experience. “The first time I got out of New York in my head during Covid,” she said. By December, she was traveling to Guatemala to compete in a billfish tournament — and winning.
Though Ms. Salameh describes that victory in the Pacific as something she’ll “talk about on her deathbed,” this tour of Raritan Bay would be a little less action-packed. Paying $200, the cost of a day trip on the Gypsea Star, just got passengers room on the boat with a cooler full of White Claws. After that, they drew numbers, and when one of the lines hanging off the back of the boat got a bite, the person whose number was called would get the chance to reel it in. Ms. Salameh’s number was one of the first to come up. A biotech saleswoman who describes herself as “Louis Vuitton during the week and break your balls on the weekend,” she seemed eager to distance herself from Ms. Gomez.
She caught a bass within seconds — without help — and instinctually ripped off her jacket to pose for a picture with the 29-incher. Ms. Gomez stared in awe. “I don’t know how she does it,” she muttered to herself while snapping photos on her phone. “So pretty.”
There would be no time to dissect her technique. Ms. Gomez’s young daughter’s number was called right afterward. A miniature drama ensued as the girl refused to leave the boat’s cabin. The pressure of all those men observing was apparently too much; she opted to watch TikTok videos on her phone instead.
“I just want to catch one, even if it’s barely making it,” said Ms. Gomez, who took her place as a pop-punk anthem blared over the boat’s speakers. “My friends make fun of me, like, ‘You have all this expensive gear and you never catch no fish.’”
She did, in fact, hook a fish, but it slipped off the line — all that nervous anticipation culminating in about 10 seconds of action. Ms. Gomez rubbed her biceps and shuffled back toward her seat in the cabin.
But before she could feel too sorry for herself, she got a chance for redemption. Her own number was called. This time Mr. Lucia helped her, supporting the rod from underneath, and moments later, the two pulled a fish on board that was exactly 28 inches — her first keeper. She pulled Mr. Lucia in for a hug. “I love you,” she said through tears. “I hope it’s not weird that I said that.”
Ms. Salameh was clearly irritated at Ms. Gomez, but she’d held her tongue through bigger annoyances on other fishing trips. There were the bathroom-less boats where the “guys would just whip it out,” and plenty more filled with veterans of the scene who were otherwise clearly unaccustomed to a feminine presence. Her takeaway was that she’d never fish again unless it was with a club like Mr. Lucia’s, even if she had to pay more for the curated experience.
But she was learning that newcomers come with their own problems. A guy raised on the water might urinate over the rail, but this new ilk didn’t necessarily respect rules and traditions. “You don’t show up late to things,” Ms. Salameh said later. “Early is on time, on time is late, and late is inexcusable.” Clearly still irritated a week after the trip, she plans to write an article about etiquette for a local magazine called The Fisherman and is mulling a female-focused fishing club of her own.
For her part, Ms. Gomez seemed unaware of the tension. After landing her striped bass, she had noticeably more swagger and confidence. The two women — now, in a way, equals — discussed what they were going to do with their catches. The consensus was to make fish tacos.
The next step for Ms. Gomez would be getting Elyse interested in fishing. The mother and daughter were going to a tulip festival the next day, which was much more in line with their typical activities together. But Ms. Gomez thought this might be the beginning of a new mother-daughter tradition.
What’s more, she knew that being on the boat would have an effect later in life. It had happened to her. “I was like that when I was her age,” she said. “The urge kicks in later on. When she’s 22? Forget about it.”