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These Three Boats Created The Outer Banks Charter Fishing Industry
Hatteras Albatross Fleet A Living History

America has several sites where people can experience living history. The villages of Williamsburg, Salem, Sturbridge, Plimouth Plantation and Fort Ticonderoga are examples. So are ships like the U.S. Constitution, the Mayflower, and the Elizabeth II.

Hatteras Island has its own such site. Tucked away in a quiet corner of Hatteras Village is The Albatross Fleet, a trio of fishing boats that single handedly created the entire Outer Banks charter fishing industry.

Their dock is not a museum. They are not recreations. They are the original three boats. They've had modern safety features added, and meet all 2021 Coast Guard requirements. They've had fiberglass panels added to their original wooden structures. But these are the original boats. And they're not sitting here for tourists to look at and photograph. These are working boats, which set forth every day on charter fishing expeditions out on the Gulf Stream 30 miles off shore.

Their story begins in the 1930s. Hatteras was incredibly isolated. There were no roads, no bridges, no passenger ferries. A freight and mail ferry came across from Englehard once a week. The men made a hard living taking 1880s boats across Pamlico Sound or out on the open ocean, where they used nets to bring in daily catches of fish, which they sold to the 6-8 processing plants which lined Hatteras Harbor. The fish were then shipped to Wanchese where major corporations packed it and shipped it across the country. They fished mainly for Blue, Mackerel, Flounder and Channel Bass inshore and Dolphin, Amberjack and Sea Bass offshore. Up until about 1920, they used sails, but once automobiles were developed, they used gasoline engines, mostly Buick and Oldsmobile, to power their boats. A typical boat was 26 feet long and carried a five man crew. The Hatteras Village fishing fleet included 30-35 boats. The nets had floats along the tops and lead weights along the bottoms. They were hand pulled and, to keep them from getting tangled, hung on a large reel mounted in the center of the boat.

This required a round stern, as seen at left. A square stern would have continually snagged the net as it came across the corners. The boats were mostly built in boatyards in Hatteras Village, although there was a boatyard at Wanchese and one at the southern end of Pamlico Sound at Marshallberg, down near Cedar Island. These boats had shallow hulls because there were no channels dredged across the Sound or through the Inlet. The "toe rail" kept the men from slipping and and the extended hull kept the net free from the rudder and, eventually, propellers. The rounded and sloped stern also allowed the underpowered boats to literally surf the incoming tide across the sandbars in the Inlet.

In the 1920s, wealthy men from Carolina, Virginia and Maryland had learned that Hatteras Island was the best place on the Atlantic Coast to shoot birds. During the Spring and Fall migrations, when the sky was filled with flocks of birds flying north or south, they took the freight ferry from Englehard and rented rooms at the Atlantic View Hotel (now Atlantic Inn), the only hotel in the village.

Eventually, several men pooled their resources and built the Gooseville Gun Club, located where the Hatteras Inlet Coast Guard Station is now. The GGC bought the land from there to the Inlet. Over the next several years, two other gun clubs were also built. Hunting waterfowl at Hatteras became a major tradition among upper class gentlemen of the Mid Atlantic, who would typically come for two week stays.

When they saw the nets full of fish being unloaded every afternoon down at the docks, these men began asking the commercial fishermen to take them out on the Sound or the Ocean for a day of rod and reel fishing. The fishermen of Hatteras thought this was hilarious. No one fished with a rod and reel. It was a terribly inefficient way to catch fish. A man would only bring home a few fish. And even if they took five men and charged them a dollar each, the $5 for a day's fishing was much less than they could make net fishing. So the men had a hard time talking the fishing boats into taking them out. When they did, the men had to sit on old wooden crates, move around the huge net wound on its reel, and use fresh water rods and reels they had brought from home, which kept breaking under the weight of the larger and heavier saltwater fish. Ernal Foster watched this with interest. He went home and did the math. He felt it should be possible to make a profit taking individuals rod and reel fishing. But first he needed a custom designed boat. So he spent a year clamming, earning 25 cents for every 100 clams. After a year he had $800 saved. He went over to the mainland and bought a load of Atlantic White Cedar and Heart Cypress wood. He set it on racks to cure, while he continued to clam until he had another $550. Then he made the rounds of the Hatteras boatbuilders. No one would build his boat.

"This is silly," John Scarborough explained. "This concept cannot work. These men come out here two weeks in the Spring and two weeks in the Fall. If you get five men every day, that's a total of 24 days a year. You can't charge more than a dollar a man, meaning $5 a boat. You have to buy gas every day. You cannot make a living doing this. Even if you charged $2 a man, which you can't, it still wouldn't pay.

But Foster had a secret. He had discussed this issue with the wealthy hunters that previous Spring, asking them if he had a specially designed boat, if they would pay $5 apiece to go rod and reel fishing. They said they would. The Hatterasmen, having lived all their lives in a poor village, had thought too small.

So Foster took his designs down to Mark Willis at Willis Boatyard in Marshallberg, at the southern end of the Sound, over on the mainland. Willis agreed to build the boat Foster wanted. It had the shallow hull and rounded stern of a classic Banks fishing boat. But it had no net reel. Instead, it had seats for six men, rod holders, a well for bait, a larger well across the stern for caught fish, and a bathroom down in the hold. Since the hold would not be needed for large netfuls of fish, Foster designed it with benches for his customers in case of rain, wind or heavy seas. Foster had not yet thought of a cabin or outriggers. But the Albatross I had his unique deep sharp V and wide high shoulders, much different than the traditional fishing boats.

There's an alternate version told of this story, claiming that Foster already had a boat and just remodeled it for charter fishing. But he would not have needed $800 worth of lumber just to remodel a boat, and he would not have needed Willis Boatyard just for a remodelling. Foster could have done the remodelling himself. So the preexisting boat story is just local lore, which historical research proves incorrect.

He named it The Albatross, after the Albatross he had read about in the epic poem The Rhyme Of The Ancient Mariner in high school English class. The Albatross had been a symbol of good luck and Foster hoped maybe naming the boat after it would bring him some luck. He enlisted his 16 year old brother Bill as his Mate. They mostly took men out to the Diamond Shoals Lightship and the Watch Buoy, having learned that Amberjack and other fish hung out there. Today, the Lightship has been replaced by the Light Tower (photo left), but it's still a favorite location for the Albatross Fleet.

That first year, 1937, it looked like Scarborough might have been right. Apart from the 24 days of rich bird hunters, Foster had four charters. He supported himself clamming. In 1938 he had nine (in addition to the 24 birdhunting days). In 1939 he had 20. In 1940 he had 50. In 1941 he had 120. Then World War II broke out and the Coast Guard commissioned the Albatross for patrol duties. But the Germans were prowling the Mid Atlantic shipping lanes and sinking ships, so the U.S. built a Navy Base on Hatteras Island and housed 300 men there. They learned about the island and its fishing and after the war wanted to come back with their families, thinking their wives and kids could play on the beaches while they went fishing. Suddenly, Foster had his customer base.

Dare County created a Tourist Bureau and hired Aycock Brown to run it. He sent photographs of Ernal's boat and the fish being caught to mainland newspapers and invited sportswriters to visit. They loved the fishing and went home and wrote about it. Foster found he had more customers than he could handle. So he launched The Albatross II in 1948, and the Albatross III in 1953. His brother Bill captained the II and cousin Milton Meekins captained the III. The II and II were radically different from other boats. They had outriggers, which he painted bright red & white. The Albatross fleet still sports these iconic red and white outriggers. During the War, Foster had learned of better rods and reels, much stronger, capable of handling big and strong Hatteras fish, and he bought six of them for each boat.

In 1951, Foster saw a huge blue marlin leaping out of the water out beyond the Lightship. The next day, he took the Albatross 30 miles out, well past the Lightship. He rigged his new Penn Senator rod and reel with 24 thread linen line (72 pound test) and baited it with a live Spanish Mackerel. While his customers fished for Amberjack, Sea Bass and Mahi Mahi, Foster trolled for the Marlin. Finally it took the bait and started running the line. Foster and his Mate battled the Marlin for two and a half hours while his clients watched in awe. When they got the fish ashore it weighed 475 pounds.

Aycock Brown sent photos of the Marlin to newspapers across the nation and suddenly Hatteras was a hot fishing destination. There were far more customers than the Albatross Fleet could handle. Foster had succeeded in singlehandedly creating the charter fishing industry on the Outer Banks. By 1955 he had been joined by seven other full time charter boats. Route 12 was paved. Full time auto ferries were bringing tourists down from the mainland. In 1963 the bridge was built over Oregon Inlet.

Powerful new engines especially designed for marine use were developed, and new charter boats began using two engines for even more power. This made the old round sterns obsolete. Modern charter boats have square sterns. They also have kitchenettes, sonar, fish finding computer programs and other amenities. Hatteras Harbor now features a whole fleet of charter boats. Oregon Inlet and Ocracoke Harbor have their own fleets.

But The Albatross Fleet is still doing just fine. On a rotating basis, each boat is continually updated. They have all the modern electronics and safety features. Their bathrooms have been modernized. The rods and reels are state of the art. The Albatross II has just been totally redone, and the Albatross III receives its refreshing this Winter. But for all their modernizing, 60% of their Heart Cypress framing (the "bones"), 90% of their White Cedar planking (the "skin"), the cabins and ceilings are the original. Foster designed and Willis built three boats that are still working every day 80 some years later.

Foster died in 1992. His son Ernie took over the fleet but has now also retired. A son and daughter live over on the mainland and showed no interest in the fishing industry. So a good friend, Bryan Mattingly, bought into the operation. He hired Mike Scott and, eventually, son Sumner. Scott is now Captain of the Albatross. He's a Hatteras High School graduate who's spent his life on the water, commercial fishing, sports fishing, dredge boating, boat building and servicing. Scott is also a surfer, kite boarder and sailor.

Mattingly (shown at the computer in photo above) is now Captain of the Albatross II. He worked as a Mate on the Albatross for eight seasons while earning his captain's license. He works as a commercial fisherman in the off season and is a chef specializing in seafood.

Sumner (shown on deck with the white visor in photo above) is now Captain of the Albatross III. Sumner did go away to school but came back weekends and Summers to serve as a Mate and finally realized this was where he belonged. He is particularly interested in Yellowfin Tuna and Blue Marlin.

On our trip, Sumner and his Dad teamed up for a nostalgia day, with Sumner serving as Mate on his own Albatross III and Dad as Captain. Sumner was a blur of energy, continually changing baits and depths. In a particularly generous move, Sumner and Dad Bryan stayed out an extra hour to make sure one of the passengers landed a Mahi Mahi. (At the very last minute, she did.)

The Albatross Fleet has always kept busy with its loyal customer base, but it is suddenly experiencing a new surge of activity since neither the Hatteras Harbor fleet nor the Oregon Inlet fleet any longer accept makeup charters. This means that now, if you have fewer than six people and want to go fishing, the Albatross fleet is your only choice.

Since their boats, dock and office are long ago paid for, and since their boats are cheaper to operate, Albatross rates are somewhat lower than their competition. Still, they share many of the same problems. A day's fishing consumes 72 gallons of fuel. More storms are moving up the coast. The government no longer dredges the channel, meaning boats have to follow the much longer route further out into Pamlico Sound and over to the Ocracoke side of the Inlet, adding 12 miles to each day's run. Climate change is affecting the fishing industry as the waters warm and currents shift. The costs of insurance and permits keep going up.

But the Albatoss captains and mates are particularly good at working with families, especially kids. The young boy in the photo above is from Baltimore and is seen battling a King Mackerel. They were the first boats to take women and girls fishing (it was seen as a man's sport) The first woman to ever land a Marlin did so in 1953 on an Albatross boat, and they have been leaders in that area ever since. The young woman at right is a Marine Biology major from Kentucky battling a Yellowfin tuna.

So, Ernal Foster turned out to be right after all. Whether you have a full group of six or need a makeup charter, if you want to spend a day reliving the history of sport fishing, call (252) 986-2515 and schedule one of the Albatross fleet. If you just want to look at the boats, take a few photos, or see their wall full of old black and white photos of Ernal and the 1940s and 50s, drop by their office and dock in Hatteras Village any day after 4:30. Look for their Albatross sign along Route 12.

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 turtle 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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