Iconic Fisherman Stuart Vorpahl is Laid to Rest

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Stuart Vorpahl aboard his boat, the Polly and Ruth, in 2010. Michael Heller photo
Stuart Vorpahl aboard his boat, the Polly and Ruth, in 2010. Michael Heller photo
Stuart Vorpahl aboard his boat, the Polly and Ruth, in 2010. Michael Heller photo

By Kathryn G. Menu

Stuart Vorpahl, a lifelong commercial fisherman, historian, writer and activist who dedicated his life to fighting for the rights of local baymen, and for access to the beaches and bays in East Hampton, died last Thursday at Southampton Hospital at the age of 76. The Amagansett resident had been fighting cancer.

Mr. Vorpahl’s life was celebrated on Tuesday, as friends and family from near and far filled the First Presbyterian Church of Amagansett, where Mr. Vorpahl and his bride, Mary, were active members of the congregation. The services were led by the Reverend Steven E. Howarth, and between tears and laughter, friends and families shared stories and paid tribute to Mr. Vorpahl’s life, his wit, his tenacity, his care for the community, his dedication to family, and to life on the water.

“Stuart Vorpahl was a fierce defender of the rights and traditions of the common people of our town,” said East Hampton Supervisor Larry Cantwell last Thursday in a post on Facebook. “He could spin a tale and recite history at will with a good sense of humor while making his point. When he passed away today we lost one of the most important advocates for fishermen and local residents. We will miss you, Stuart.”

Mr. Vorpahl’s life was dedicated to the history of the South Fork, and the right he believed people had to make a living fishing in its waters. He often cited the Dongan Patent, a 1686 Colonial-era agreement that granted residents of East Hampton the right to fish, fowl, hawk, hunt “and all other profits” on land in the town, with the town Trustees serving as a governing body to manage that land for the common good.

In September, Mr. Vorpahl was issued a $1,000 check from the New York Department of Environmental Conservation for lobsters and fluke seized from his boat, Polly & Ruth in 1998. He long held true to the conviction that he, and other fishermen, had the right to fish without permit under the Dongan Patent. He fought that battle since the late 1990s, and faced charges by the DEC twice for fishing without a permit. Both times they were dismissed.

“If I don’t break down with my voice or my tears, it is only because I have met a man, a real man of God,” said Reverend George Wilson in giving the sermon at Mr. Vorpahl’s funeral. “What kind of scripture do we have that says throw your bread upon the water and it will come back to you, and that was the kind of man Stuart was.”

The two met at Southampton Hospital when Rev. Wilson was working for the Old Whalers’ Church in Sag Harbor, and Mr. Vorpahl had begun a battle with his heart. It was a friendship that would last.

“Stuart was something of a great, great inspiration to me being a non-Bonacker,” said Rev. Wilson. ”I was not born in Bonac. I only came into the community 70, 75 years ago.”

“We have been privileged, all of us, to know there was a Bonacker like this, Stuart,” he said.

While Mr. Vorpahl may have not counted attorneys among his best friends—fighting many legal battles on his own—Riverhead-based attorney Daniel Rodgers was someone he not only trusted, but someone he allowed to defend him against the DEC.

“How many people do you go through your life and they don’t need a last name,” said Mr. Rodgers on Tuesday. “You think about Napoleon, Gandhi, and other people, and then, of course, Stuart.”

The crowd at the church erupted in laughter.

“He didn’t need a last name. His name was Stuart.”

“He was a man of letters, so well read,” said Mr. Rodgers. “Mary always told me he started at the end and wrote from the beginning. And that tells me he was a man who knew where he wanted to go, he just had to find a way to do it.”

Fellow town historian Hugh King compared Mr. Vorpahl to Samuel “Fishhooks” Mulvihill, a merchant who traveled to England to protest a tax on whale oil—and whose biography sounds eerily similar to Mr. Vorpahl’s.

“You both have a lot to talk about,” said Mr. King of Mr. Vorpahl and Mr. Mulvihill’s meeting in another world.

Prudence Talmage Carabine remembered being just 18 years old and her ailing father sharing the Dongan Patent with Mr. Vorpahl, a critical moment in his life.

“Because we have something unique here,” she said. “We can’t lose it and Stuart is one of the reasons we can’t lose it.”

Mr. Vorpahl is survived by his wife, Mary, who he always referred to as his “bride,” as well as his daughters, Christine and Susan, five grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

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