Blown Away: Fairbank’s “The Lost Boys of Montauk” Explores Lives Lost to the Sea

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Amanda Fairbanks at the commercial fishing docks in Montauk. Lori Hawkins photo

By Annette Hinkle

How does one go about telling the stories of those who can no longer speak for themselves? Especially the story of someone who has disappeared off the face of the earth without a trace, never to be seen or heard from again, yet forever mourned?

If you’re like writer Amanda M. Fairbanks, the story of the missing is best told through the memories of those they’ve left behind.

The Lost at Sea Memorial on the grounds of the Montauk Lighthouse says a lot about New York State’s easternmost hamlet and the type of sturdy souls who have traditionally inhabited it. The monument itself depicts a fisherman pulling in a line — stoic and imposing, it is a quiet testament to a reality that goes largely unnoticed by casual visitors to the area.

But it’s a reality centered on making a living from the sea, and one that has defined the East End for centuries. While in recent years, Montauk has garnered a not undeserved reputation as a summer destination for hipsters with trust funds, for much of its existence, it’s been, as the saying goes, “a drinking town with a fishing problem.”

The list of lost sailors etched on that monument include names dating as far back as the 18th century, but also among their ranks are Mike Stedman, Dave Connick, Michael Vigilant and Scott Clarke — four young fishermen who steamed out of Montauk Harbor on March 22, 1984 aboard the Wind Blown, Stedman’s commercial fishing boat, never to return.

Mike Stedman, left, with his wife, Mary, and their son, Chris.

The story of those four men, or more accurately, of the friends and family they left behind, is the subject of “The Lost Boys of Montauk” (Simon and Schuster), a new book by Ms. Fairbanks, a Sag Harbor resident. It’s a tale of the haves versus the have-nots, the blue blood summer crowd and what happens when one or two of their own go rogue, rejecting tennis whites and cocktail hour in favor of the adrenaline rush of hanging ten or heading out in a boat of questionable sea-worthiness for a weeklong trip to catch golden tilefish as a nasty nor’easter is bearing down. It’s also a story that details the difficult relationships sons often have with their fathers and the love fishermen always have for their women.

Scott Clarke. Photograph by Donna Llewellyn

“A lot of readers make the mistake of thinking this is like a ‘Perfect Storm’ book,” Ms. Fairbanks said, referring to Sebastian Junger’s 1997 work about a Gloucester-based fishing boat lost in a 1991 storm. “But the real dramatic tension is on land. It’s a story about the survivors, and how in the heck these four guys from these very different backgrounds found themselves on this fishing boat in March 1984, and the themes that bound them together that were never discussed.”

“The Lost Boys of Montauk” hits shelves Memorial Day Weekend and as Ms. Fairbanks herself will attest, it’s the kind of book that only someone not from this part of the world could write.

Ms. Fairbanks came to the story of the Wind Blown five years ago while working as a staff reporter for the East Hampton Star, introduced to the topic by Biddle Duke, then editor-in-chief of the paper’s EAST magazine.

Michael Vigilant. Photo courtesy of Maude Vigilant Hastings.

“Biddle told me I have this untold story of the Hamptons,” Ms. Fairbanks recalled, adding that Mr. Duke had grown up with many of the central figures of the story. “It was literally like time stopped when he told me. It was February 2016, it was snowing and we were upstairs at the Star. He’s going on and on, and said, ‘I’ve always wanted to tell this story.’ But he said, ‘I can’t write this story. I’ll alienate too many people.’”

As a native Californian and a newcomer to East Hampton, Ms. Fairbanks had no such allegiances to the players involved. Intrigued by the challenge, she began to dive into the details and it didn’t take her long to realize that the key figure in the story would be Mary Stedman, widow of the Wind Blown’s captain.

“It was going to start or end with her,” said Ms. Fairbanks, who first met with Ms. Stedman in the lower level at the East Hampton Library. “We talked for three hours. She has a photographic memory and could talk about what was happening that day in 1984. I’ve never interviewed someone with that much of a photographic memory.”

David Connick on the Docks. Courtesy Cathy Pradie-Connick

Ms. Stedman also possesses strong intuition, and when her husband pointed out the photo of the Wind Blown in a newspaper ad in late 1983 and told her he was going to Texas to buy that boat and bring it back to Montauk, her reaction was immediate and severe.

“She had a feeling it was the wrong boat,” Ms. Fairbanks said. “She said, ‘Why would you go to Texas? You live on Long Island, there are all kinds of boats here.’ But he had a dream and a feeling and had to follow it.

“Mary is incredibly complicated. I couldn’t have conjured up a more fascinating woman to be at the core of this story,” Ms. Fairbanks added. “This is also a story about the women that are left behind. For centuries, men went off to sea and women stayed at home to run the households waiting for their husbands to return, or not to return. The lack of closure is what made this story, and the vanishing cannot be understated. They never found the hull, the bodies or any DNA.”

The fact of the matter is, the Wind Blown was built as a party boat, and was ill-suited for off shore commercial fishing work. The boat had a wooden pilot house and the long line for fishing had been attached to its roof, making the boat top heavy.

The Wind Blown.

“People said, ‘What is Mike thinking?’” Ms. Fairbanks said. “‘He’s out of his mind.’”

But Ms. Fairbanks suspects that Stedman felt the boat would serve his purpose long enough to catch some fish, make some money and perhaps with time, upgrade to a better vessel. The tragedy is, Stedman had only taken the Wind Blown out a handful of times before he and his crew were lost. While in her book Ms. Fairbanks lays out the details of the nor’easter that sank the Wind Blown on March 29, 1984, and the subsequent search for the wreckage and its crew, the full truth of what happened can never be known.

“They think it went down about 12 miles from Montauk point, between there and Block Island,” she said. “In 1984, weather forecasting was not what it is today. If you weren’t in your wheelhouse early in the morning and late at night, you’d miss the weather report on the radio. The fishing was probably really good, and they said, let’s stay out a little more.”

“It was like Russian roulette.”

As a 32-year-old husband and the father of three boys, ages 9, 7 and 3, Stedman had a lot of responsibility on his plate. Both he and his first mate Dave Connick, 23, were sons of privilege with fathers who were Ivy League-educated men. Connick had grown up as a summer kid at the exclusive Maidstone Club, which Fairbanks delves into in the book and describes as a “soupy mess of white wasps.” But both Stedman and Connick had rejected their upbringing in favor of the laidback Montauk lifestyle and earning their own way. They also shared a passion for surfing.

“Mike came out here in the late ‘60s, and early ‘70s when, especially Montauk, was a working man’s vacation spot. Hotels weren’t $1,000 a night then. It was a simple place with real people living normal lives and they could pay their rent,” said Ms. Fairbanks. “A lot of the surfers told me, if you couldn’t get to Malibu, Montauk was the place to go, and it was cool to make a life out here.

“These guys were rebels and part of the counter culture, and it was not condoned back then.”

While Stedman and Connick had become fishermen by choice, the other two crewman were there by necessity and came from working class stock — Michael Vigilant, 19, and Scott Clarke, 18. Vigilant was the son of a fisherman and had grown up on the Montauk docks. Tragically, in 1978, Vigilant’s father, Richard, had died along with two of his six-man crew while fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. Now, six years later, his mother, Maud had also lost her son. Though unlike with her husband’s death, this time, a body would never be found.

“Among the fishermen, a lot of them don’t know how to swim,” said Ms. Fairbanks. “Michael’s father didn’t know how to swim and he didn’t learn either. He wasn’t a surfer. The only thing he liked on the water was fish.”

He also liked Kim Bowman, whom he promised to marry right before he left on the ill-fated trip.

Though in researching her book, Ms. Fairbanks interviewed more than 150 people, she learned very little about Scott Clarke, the youngest member of the crew. He wasn’t from Montauk and had been raised by a single mother, who married not long before he left home. Both his mother and stepfather had died by the time Ms. Fairbanks began work on the book.

“Scott had grown up in Washington, D.C. and moved near LaGuardia Airport with his mom who worked for TWA. What was so interesting was how quickly histories can disappear when you’re new to a place,” said Ms. Fairbanks. “His first cousin gave me some stories and photos, but I didn’t have the people closest to him. He was a relatively new arrival in Montauk. People admired his work ethic, but he was an 18-year-old kid. His dream was to become a commercial fisherman, he was horribly dyslexic, dropped out of high school at 14 and worked on a fishing boat out of Oceanside and worked his way out east.

“By then his mother had remarried and he and his stepfather had a contentious relationship, which was another reason he left home.”

Despite their very different backgrounds, besides fishing, all four had at least one thing in common — difficult or absent relationships with their fathers, who were either alcoholic, absent, missing or dead.

Of course, 37 years later, many of the survivors feel the tragedy of the Wind Blown was avoidable, if only. If only the boat had been seaworthy. If only Stedman and his crew had headed back to port sooner. If only weather forecasts had been more reliable. If only he and Connick had followed in their father’s footsteps instead of becoming commercial fishermen.

Nearly four decades on, Ms. Fairbanks is moved by the fact that locals still remember the date March 29, 1984, and exactly where they were when they heard the news that four of their own were lost at sea.

“That’s when I realized, of course this tragedy lives in the hearts and minds of the people that knew and loved them. But this is also something that the summer people who drop in for a weekend here or there never get access to, that this is a real place inhabited by real people who live and work here,” said Ms. Fairbanks. “This was like their 9/11 — this was like the Kennedy assassination. This was that moment for that generation of people.”

When asked why she thinks the story of the Wind Blown has stuck with so many, Ms. Fairbanks said, “I think it’s because these guys were so young and chasing a dream. You could substitute yourself for any one of them.

“There’s layer upon layer of grief. These guys died in ‘84, and it’s been left up to survivors to deal, not just with tragedy, but the life that continues being lived and how complicated this story is. They know things these guys never had to deal with.

“Now life’s different, the survivors live with it and grow old with it,” she said. “It’s not an easy story and not everyone will like it, but it’s the truth of what happened. It’s a story of grief and loss, and families and secrets.

On Friday, June 11, East End Libraries will present Amanda Fairbanks speaking about “The Lost Boys of Montauk” via Zoom at 7 p.m. Tickets are free at easthamptonlibrary.org or by calling 631-324-0222 ext. 3.

On Sunday, July 11, at 4:30 p.m., Fairbanks will speak about the book outdoors at Guild Hall, 158 Main Street, East Hampton. Tickets are $30 for a lawn circle (seats one or two) at guildhall.org.

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