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First Mate On Hatteras Fever
Metts One Of Few Professional Women In Fishing

She's not the first. She's not the only. But when Rebecca Metts looks around, she only sees two other other women presently working in the fishing industry on Hatteras Island.

"When I was a kid, there was a woman working as a first mate here. I grew up thinking OK, I can make a living at this, and this is what I want to do."

She had a good foundation. Her Dad worked as a fishing captain. She learned all the details step by step over several years.

Currently, one woman is captaining a Hatteras Island charter boat, and one other woman is working as a first mate. That's it. And phone calls up and down the coast did not find any other women working at any of the other fishing centers, not further south along the Carolinas, not on Chesapeake Bay, not in Florida or Massachusetts.

"There might be a few," Metts says. "But it's darned few."

One reason is that the job is too demanding. During the season, Mates have to get up at 4:30 every morning, work 12 hour days on an always unpredictable ocean, come home, grab dinner, and get to bed before dark so they'll be well rested for another day.

"It doesn't allow time for boyfriends or families. You don't have time for other interests. It's fishing 24-7. You have to love it. It has to be in your blood."

It's in hers. When the charter season ends, Metts does some commercial fishing, builds fishing boats, or signs on to work as a first mate on fishing boats in Central or South America.

She knows the territory. She majored in Coastal Geography at the University of North Carolina in Wilmington. For homework and research papers she studied tides, currents, weather, fisheries, the islands and the continental shelf.

Then she earned her captain's license. She uses it to captain her own commercial fishing boat, but in charter work prefers the role of first mate.

Currently, she's the first mate on the Hatteras Fever II, under Captain Buddy Hooper. He's another veteran of Hatteras fishing, who graduated from North Carolina State University and earned his captain's license. He also builds boats and works in commercial fishing in the off season. He built the Hatteras Fever II with the help of a few friends.

Metts says she likes the adrenalin rush of landing trophy fish, but admits the realities of fishing make it a short career.

"Our bodies really aren't built for this job," she explains. "We can do it in the short term. There are tricks and techhiques you learn. But landing a 60 pound fish who is fighting you all the way, and often keeps fighting you even after you have him in the boat, really wears on your joints, your muscles, tendons and ligaments. After a while, your knees, shoulders and back start to feel it. It's like a pro football player. You make good money but the career is short."

One woman who worked in fishing now works for the ferry system. One is now a captain of her own boat. Another retired to marry and raise a family.

"Building boats is another option. I could see working as a builder. I like that side of the industry."

But Metts would miss the customer interactions of the charter industry. She gets to introduce people to deep sea fishing who have never done it before. She gets to see the faces of kids landing their first trophy fish. And she gets to explain the ocean and fishing to people who live inland.

Her job begins before the boat leaves the dock and continues well after it returns. She has to do everything from loading ice to making sure they have enough bait to checking the lines.

Charter boats buy a season's worth of bait at one time at the beginning of the year. They have large freezers they store the fish in. Depending on which fish they're after, they also use various artificial lures. One of her jobs is to sort all this out and keep everything organized.

During a trip, the captain is upstairs, steering the boat, handling the navigation, finding fish. The first mate is all alone down on deck, dealing with the customers and the fish.

The entire fishing industry has always been precarious, and the charter aide of it is the most precarious.

"The cost of one of these boats is enormous, so every month there's that payment to make. There's insurance. The cost of fuel is always rising. Fuel alone accounts for about 25% of our costs every trip. There's all this equipment. These heavy duty reels and lines are expensive. The permits are obscenely expensive. And we're only allowed to carry six passengers per trip. People think fishing is expensive but we can only raise the price so high or people couldn't afford it. So we're limited in how much we can charge, but our costs keep going up. Out of what's left, the captain and mate get paid."

Then there are the regulations. Metts could go on for hours about regulations.

"Fishing is the most regulated activity in America. And fishing in America is much more regulated than fishing anywhere else. Those of us who grew up out here and make a living out here know we have to protect the environment and the fish popiulations so we can continue to fish and our kids will have this same opportunity. We're not out here polluting the environment or overfishing the resource. But we have people who grew up inland and live inland who don't know anything about fish or the ocean voting for these regulations."

Right now, in August of 2018, fishing for Flounder and other pan fish in Pamlico Sound is totally shut down because in the Spring inspectors recorded three encounters with the endangered Kemp's Ridley Sea Turtles.

"An 'encounter' means a tutle got caught in a net," Metts explains. "So he gets hauled in. We find him, carefully untangle him, let him rest on the deck for a few minutes, then ease him back into the water. The turtle is not harmed. But this event counts against us."

Both commercial and charter boats are dealing with the effects of climate change. Some fish once common here have moved further north, and some not formerly common here have moved in. Currents have changed. The weather has changed.

"We're getting more storms this Summer. We're losing days due to storms. We only have so many days per season. When we lose days due to weather, that's money we have no way to make up. But the boat, insurance and other payments still have to be made."

Last Summer the power outage due to a hurricane shut down the entire island for two weeks. No tourists were allowed on until the power was restored. "That didn't just hurt us for two weeks. There was the uncertainty. People didn't know when the power might be restored. So they cancelled reservations for all of August and into September and went somewhere else for their vacations. We lost a fortune. We did get lucky in that last year was one of the best Flounder seasons in a long time. So commercial fishing bailed out charter fishing. But that was just luck. We can't count on that kind of luck every year."

Metts may spend Winters in Mexico, Honduras, or Guatemala, but she loves her home base on Hatteras.

"In my college coastal geography classes we learned that this is the greatest total fishery in the world. It's true other places are outstanding in one way or the other. Some other place might be famous for just one species, like Scallops, or Shrimp, or Crabs. But we have it all here, and we have it in large numbers. We are just incredibly lucky."

She was asked about her two most memorable fish experiences. Turns out they were both in Central America.

"We hooked this giant Sailfish. He rose out of the water right along the rear deck where I was standing. The fish was huge. He looked right at me for a second as if to say 'You are NOT bringing me in.' Then he kept jumping and jumping and jumping high out of the water and finally somehow slipped the hook and disappeared. That's one image I have locked in my brain forever."

The other was when she and a friend were surfing.

"We were paddling our surfboards across where this large river emptied into the ocean, so there was a current. I was paddling along and suddenly this huge mouth just came up out of the depths and opened up right at the edge of my surfboard. I about had a heart attack. Oh My God, I thought, it's some kind of giant shark and I'm going to die right here. I couldn't use my right hand, because the mouth was right there, but I used my left hand and kicked real hard with both feet and somehow pulled away. It turned out it wasn't a shark at all. It was a giant catfish. I learned they have these giant catfish in the river down there. But I have that giant mouth forever imprinted on my brain."

She shrugs when asked about the dangers of Central America, about the drug cartels and revolutions and warring gangs. "We just stay away from the inland. We stay on the coast. A lot of the time we just stay on the boat. Those gangs and armies and cartels, they know the money in the area is generated by the tourist industry and the businesses along the coast. A lot of them have relatives or associates in those businesses. So they leave the strips along the coasts alone. We just keep to the fishing and mind our own business."

Iconic Falcon Motel Reopens at Hatteras

Back in the 20th Century the Falcon Motel was THE place for surfers, wind surfers and fishermen to stay on Hatteras Island. The motel was a short walk from Buxton Beach and a short drive to the famous Jetties. It had its own water front launching lawn for windsurfing or fishing on Pamlico Sound. Surfing shops, groceries, bait shops and restaurants were right across the street. It was perfect. Then the Falcon closed. There are plenty of rental cottages and motels on the island, but none of them have ever compared to the Falcon. Now Laura and Robert Handlow of Pennsylvania have bought the old 1950s motel, totally updated snd refurbished and reopened it. Or, to be more accurate, Laura has. Rob is still back in Pennsylvania, running Commercial Construction Company, which specializes in office buildings, corporate headquarters and malls. But within a year he'll join Laura on Hatteras and their "retirement" will consist of being full time motel owners. "We just love Hatteras," she told the Record this week. "We've been vacationing here for years"

They got a great price on the old Falcon, but only because it had been badly damaged by a hurricane and needed extensive work. So far, they've totally redone the rooms, and built kitchenettes into each one.

As weather permits over this Winter they're finishing the pool, a front building which will be an art gallery, a side building which will be a sandwich shop or deli, and a house at the rear which they'll live in. So it will be this Summer before the facilities will be 100% restored. They've renamed it the Swell Motel, after the famous swells which have made the island a surfing magnet.

There is a risk as the weather becomes less stable, hurricanes increase and ocean levels rise. The Falcon sits at the "elbow" of Hatteras, where the L shaped island turns the corner. Storm surges flowing from the Sound across to the Ocean tend to flow right through the motel ground.

The back of the property is a lawn leading down to Pamlico Sound.

The motel looks out on water known as the Canadian Hole, the greatest wind surfing site in the world. The lawn of the motel allows wind surfers to spread out their gear and set up for launching, then land there and disassemble when done.

Meanwhile, right across the road is Buxton Beach, the greatest surfing stretch on the Atlantic Coast. This is short board surfing, different from the long board surfing seen in Hawaii, California and Australia. But, as seen in the photo above right, surfers every day can be seen riding the high, powerful waves, especially during high tides.

Pamlico Sound is also a mecca for kite boarders and parasailers.

Hatteras Island is filled with rental houses, but surfers and wind surfers prefer renting the smaller and less expensiuve motel rooms. There are only five motels close to the Buxton beaches and the Swell has the best location. So Laura is certain they've made a great investment.

Three good restaurants are within a block. A miniature golf course and skateboard park is next door. A fresh fish market is across the street, with local seafood only hours old available every day. The island's top bait and tackle shop is just down the street. Laura has set up grilling facilities and picnic tables along one grassy strip. 20 minutes away, in Hatteras Harbor, is a 20 boat charter fishing fleet guests can use to go deep sea fishing. Those with their own boats can launch them right off the back of the property and fish in Pamlico Sound. The famous Hatteras Lighthouse, tallest in North America, is within sight and is a short bike ride or drive.

It stands 200 feet high and the light still operates every night after 150 years. Visitors can climb its 269 steps for a spectacular look at the island, sound and ocean. A rsnger at the top answers questions.

Laura has acquired kayaks and bikes for guests to use free of charge. The Sound is calm and shallow and ideal for canoeing or kayaking.

Anyone inspired to try surfing, windsurfing, kite boarding or parasailing can take lessons from Ocean Air or Fox Water Sports nearby.

She's already had a steady stream of friends and relatives spend a week or two with her. And the surfers and wind surfers have realized the motel has reopened and begun coming back.

But there have been aggravations, too.

Since the motel was damaged and sat empty for two years, the buildings and pool have to be brought up to 2019 code.

Rob's company is not licensed in North Carolina and that state has no reciprocal agreement with Pennsylvania, so he has to go to Raleigh and pass a written test, a time consuming detail he hasn't yet been able to fit in.

Remodelling the rooms was allowed, but the pool, house and gallery are defined as "structural" and require that license.

The Swell Art Gallery is already in business in a temporary building and is ready to move into her front building as soon as it's complete. Laura is an art appreciator and does some painting herself when she can find time. She anticipates her gallery emphasizing paintings and photography by island artists featuring island scenes.

Laura worries about the house. The hurricane completely waterlogged it and opened a hole in the roof. They've put on a new roof and are in the process of replacing the windows but there is a lot of structural work on the inside needing done.

Temporarily she's living in one of the motel units and using a few other units for staff. But of course that cuts into each week's profits.

She spends a month at the motel, then returns "home" for a week or two. She and Rob own several rental properties in Pennsylvania and haven't decided yet what to do with them.

Wanda Magness actually manages the motel front office while Laura tends to business and details. Wanda also manages the motel whenever Laura runs back to Pennsylvania.

Her peak season rates are $165 and $185 per night. Rates are lower in the Spring and Fall. Pets are welcome for an additional $15 per night, but only in certain rooms, so pet owners must check ahead of time.

Even the small houses on the island rent for $1500 a week. If someone stays at the Swell Motel that long, they'll pay a maximum $1300. And the houses rent only by the week. At the Swell, guests could stay for one, two or three nights. So Laura feels she is in a very competitive position.

swellmotel.com. 252-489-4484.

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