Capt. Ernie Foster

Capt. Ernie is lost.

A blue ceiling tops the world laid out in front of him. White clouds etch into the sky. The air smells like diesel fumes and seawater. All of that is normal. And at the bottom of the scene is water, right where it should be, holding him up. But something’s not right.

His boat, the Albatross III, grumbles along near the edge of the Pamlico Sound. Capt. Ernie Foster steers to the right of a red marker and left of a green one. He’s trying to find his way out to Hatteras Inlet. He knows this route better than he knows anything else in the world. He’s driven through this tiny break in North Carolina’s outer sand-shell thousands of times, maybe tens of thousands of times. If the state wanted to rename the inlet one day, Foster’s Inlet would be an appropriate name.

It’s been 76 years since his dad first started North Carolina’s sport-fishing industry in the tiny community of Hatteras Village. Capt. Ernie’s been alive for the past 68. Fosters have fished these waters for four generations.

Capt. Ernie’s dad, Capt. Ernal, was the first person in the state, and maybe the first on the East Coast, to take people fishing and charge them for it. Locals laughed at him. Fishing for enjoyment? But what he started became an industry that changed the way people thought of fishing forever. Humans began fishing 40,000 years ago. Only 600 or so years ago do we see the first accounts of recreational fishing. And even then, only small segments of the world entertained the idea. In the early years of settlement on the Outer Banks, fishing certainly wasn’t for recreation. It was the only way to eat. It was the only way to survive. It was work.

In 1937, Capt. Ernal made fishing fun.

Everything’s changed since then. People are now more interested in having fun on the water than working on the water. So the Fosters have watched their industry hurt their watermen friends. That’s the burden on Capt. Ernie now.

The Albatross Fleet includes three boats with three different captains. It entertains about 250 charters a year. Capt. Ernie is, in all likelihood, the last captain from the original family of sport fishing. He has two grown children, but he’s fairly certain they don’t want the business.

And for the moment he’s lost.

The inlet isn’t like he last left it. It’s the off-season at Hatteras, and the dredge is at work, deepening the inlet. The dredge sucks up sand from the bottom and shoots it through a long tube to an island several miles away. Dredging makes everything different. Markers aren’t where they should be. Buoys are where they shouldn’t be.

Capt. Ernie is cruising along, headed to that inlet, when suddenly he throttles back. If he keeps going forward, he’s not sure if he’ll run over something or run into a sandbar.

He stops. He grabs his hat by its brim and rubs the brim on his head.

“Good God,” Capt. Ernie says of this place he’s been all his life. “I don’t know where I am now.”

•••

Capt. Ernie is in his house, cutting vegetables.

He has a head of white hair, which he parts to the side. His glasses sometimes fall down his nose, and he sniffles a lot. He wears an Eddie Bauer fleece and pants. He’s a retired guidance counselor, and he still looks like one. He doesn’t fit the fisherman stereotype. He doesn’t walk around with blood and scales on his jeans, although men who do are still his friends.

He helps his wife prepare dinner some nights. He’s a reader, too.

One of his deepest passions is photography, especially photographs of things that mean something to him, things that make his heart jump. His office walls are covered in pictures of fishing scenes. Some are seascapes, and others are detail shots of things like a fisherman’s hands.

Capt. Ernie prefers folk music, with a lean toward songs about the water. One of his favorite artists is Bob Zentz, who has songs with titles like “Horizons” and “This Old Bay” and “Shipmates.” Capt. Ernie and his wife play light music over dinner.

Capt. Ernie is a romantic. A fisherman who reads and takes photos and helps with dinner and looks at the past with great fondness.

Also, he sighs a lot, in good ways and bad ways.

•••

Capt. Ernie is worried.

Most fishermen are. They don’t want to be rich. They don’t want huge houses. They just want freedom. They’ve fought for it for generations. They’ll fight for it eternally.

Freedom is a reason for living. Waking up early, paying big fuel bills, dodging storms and tourists and all the other hazards of the island — all of that vanishes on the water.

Lately, though, Capt. Ernie has found himself stuck in a tough spot.

He says that sport fishing, the industry his family started, is out to hurt fishermen. The industry is squeezing his friends and neighbors. It’s encroaching upon commercial fishermen.

Don’t get him wrong: Capt. Ernie loves taking charters out into the ocean and seeing a young boy catch his first bluefin, or a young woman grab her first striper by the gills, or an old man at sea for the first time. Nothing beats those moments. And he loves his fellow sport fishermen.

But he loves commercial fishing, too. It’s quite a dilemma, and he faces it every day.

Since those early days with Capt. Ernal, sport fishing has grown into a huge industry. It’s especially big among politicians and businesspeople from cities like Raleigh and Charlotte and Richmond, Virginia, Capt. Ernie says. The industry sells itself on the promise that when people drive down here to fish, they’ll catch something. That’s the fun of it. Through legislation and other initiatives, the leaders in the sport-fishing industry want to tighten regulations on commercial fishermen, who catch large amounts of fish to sell.

One group of fishermen going after another. Capt. Ernie can barely stand it.

He’s worried that legislation limiting commercial fishermen will lead to their elimination. And from any standpoint — from people’s desire to eat fresh fish, to their desire to have heritage tourism, to a fisherman’s desire to work — he just can’t see the value in that.

So the son of the original sport fisherman is pushing back against sport fishing.

“I came from fishermen, not just people who thought it was an interesting activity,” he says. “I’m big on sport fishing, but not at the extermination of my neighbors.”

Underneath the sport of fishing, Capt. Ernie is a commercial fisherman, too. He fishes for sport in the summer when the crowds are coming, and fishes to sell in the winter when they’re not. His dad did the same thing. Most of the captains on Hatteras do the same thing. Most of the captains don’t care how they catch fish or how they make money doing it — they just want to fish for a living.

That’s why he’s worried. The people here aren’t out to change the world; the world seems to be out to change them.

That’s not freedom.

That’s not why they started this.

•••

“He was a revolutionary.”

That’s how Capt. Bryan Mattingly, who runs the Albatross II, describes Capt. Ernal Foster, the man who created sport fishing.

Before he was a captain, young Ernal was the teacher’s pet in school because he carried a knife, which meant he could sharpen the other kids’ pencils. But Ernal wasn’t interested in books, so he stopped going after the eighth grade.

He left his family home on Hatteras at 18 years old. It was 1928. He joined the U.S. Coast Guard and took a job at a life-saving station on the east end of Long Island, New York. Then he left the Coast Guard and became an apprentice plumber. He did the pipe work for many of the massive homes in the Hamptons. Then the Depression hit. Plumber Ernal was the last one hired, so he was the first to lose his job.

His choice was to either “go to New York City and stand on a breadline, or come home and eat fish,” he later told his family.

He came home and ate fish.

At the time, Hatteras was home to a small hunt club. Some of the men who visited the club sometimes convinced the commercial fishermen to take them out to fish with rod and reel. Hatteras locals found it humorous — it was a lot of work for a few fish. Entrepreneur Ernal saw a business opportunity. He believed that if he started a business with rods and reels and took these outsiders out on a boat, he could show them the natural wonders of the Atlantic Ocean and he could make money doing it.

First, he needed to build a boat. He designed it in his head. He knew he wanted something that was both practical and fun, something with a large deck on the back for partygoers.

He took his family’s boat north to a lumberyard in East Lake. Ernal bought Atlantic white cedar lumber and brought it home. He put it in the yard and let it cure for a couple of years. He scouted boatbuilders. And on the fifth try, he found one who’d do the work like he wanted it done.

Despite his lack of education, Ernal knew and loved Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” In the poem, published in 1798, an albatross appears to follow the mariner’s boat. The mariner shoots the albatross dead, but it lives on today as one of the most noted metaphors in literature, a symbol of burden.

In 1937, the Albatross was put into the water. And Ernal Foster became Capt. Ernal.

The first year, he booked a grand total of four trips.

Four years later, the Coast Guard commandeered the Albatross to help with the war effort.

After the war ended, Capt. Ernal tried again. He and his brother, Bill, built another boat. They called it the Albatross II, and it went in the water in 1948. Another burden.

On June 25, 1951, though, Capt. Ernal caught a fish. A big fish. And he took a picture with it.

•••

In the photo, Capt. Ernal is proud.

He’s standing beside a blue marlin, 475 pounds and 12½ feet long. Its nose touches the ground.

In the early 1950s, Dare County was a relatively unknown place at the end of the state. Any fame it had was for its proximity to the Graveyard of the Atlantic, where many ships were lost in the shoals and during the German U-boat crisis of 1942. Those wrecks are documented in the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum on Hatteras Island.

Also in the museum: that photo of Capt. Ernal and his fish.

Just before Capt. Ernal caught the fish, Dare County hired its first public relations specialist, Aycock Brown. Brown saw an opportunity to market the area through fishing. He, like the Fosters, believed in the power of a photo, so he drove down from Manteo and took a picture of Capt. Ernal standing next to the marlin. He sent it to news organizations and wire services, and the photo circulated around the region and the country.

Then people came.

So many came that the Fosters built another boat, and in 1952 the Albatross III went in the water. Throughout the ’50s, business boomed.

And changed.

In 1958 Capt. Ernal’s brother, Capt. Bill Foster, took a husband and wife out to sea, and they reeled in a giant blue marlin. Just as they got it near the boat, the husband and wife, Jack and Elly Cleveland, told Capt. Bill that they wanted to let it go. He was stunned. But he agreed, and he came back and told people. The story was just wild enough that newspapers around the coast ran with it, and a new term was introduced: catch and release.

Four years later, someone aboard Capt. Bill’s boat caught the largest blue marlin in history. The fish weighed 810 pounds, a world record at the time. The locals had it mounted in the heart of town.

The stories kept coming. Brown kept his camera ready. He soon hired models — pretty young women in bathing suits — to stand by the scaly fish. Those pictures circulated. And more people came.

To a boy growing up on a tiny island out in the middle of nowhere, it was all so glamorous.

•••

Lynne Foster was a different kind of glamorous.

Before she met Capt. Ernie in 1990, she had another last name and another life. She had been married previously, and she was the head of marketing for Calvin Klein Cosmetics’ United Kingdom division. She lived in London. She drove a Jaguar and a BMW.

Before he met her, Capt. Ernie drove a beat-up red truck. And before that, he drove a school bus as a teenager. He earned an undergraduate degree and a master’s degree from North Carolina State University. He was a teacher in Raleigh for about 10 years and then a guidance counselor in Manteo for 20. He was married, too, and had two children. He captained in the Albatross Fleet every summer while school was out. He did both jobs until 1996, when Capt. Ernal died, and then Capt. Ernie came home to take over the business. “I’m just your average guidance counselor fisherman,” he says.

During the summer of 1990, he was on the boat when this big-city woman hopped aboard. Lynne’s marriage had failed, and her mind was tired. She’d flown here from England that week to attend her brother’s wedding. After the wedding, some friends invited her to come to the Outer Banks. They’d already arranged a charter-fishing trip, and they wanted her to join them.

She flew from Long Island, New York, to Norfolk, Virginia; met up with her friends; rented a car; and drove through the night to be here before sunrise. Not exactly the relaxation she wanted.

But then she stepped on Capt. Ernie’s boat.

It was love at first sight, but not in the way you’re thinking. Capt. Ernie and Lynne barely talked on that first trip. The love that formed was between Lynne and the water and Hatteras living.

The fish weren’t biting that day, so Capt. Ernie thought of other things to make the party happy. One of his fishing buddies called on the radio and said he’d spotted a pod of false killer whales. So Capt. Ernie went looking for them. When he found them, the pod covered at least a square mile.

Capt. Ernie pulled the Albatross III right up to the false killer whales. They came within a foot or two of the boat. Standing on the deck below, Lynne thought to herself, “This world is different.” Standing on the bridge in the captain’s perch above, Capt. Ernie leaned over and took a picture.

Lynne flew home to London and wrote a thank you letter to Capt. Ernie and the crew. Capt. Ernie wrote her back and said, “If you ever come back, I’ll give you a guided tour.”

Lynne later returned to Hatteras and reserved a rental cottage for a week. One day, Capt. Ernie knocked on her door. They were different people, one a city girl and one an island boy, but they went ahead and tried it anyway.

Now they’re married and live in a home that’s 210 paces from the Albatross Fleet. Lynne runs the books and promotions for the fleet. Ernie handles the driving. It works.

“My life was very dramatic and elegant, but it wasn’t real,” Lynne says. “It’s real again.”

Around their home are pictures. One hangs right inside the entrance. It’s the first thing guests see when they enter.

It’s a framed picture Capt. Ernie took from his spot on the top of the boat. It’s a picture of a false killer whale.

•••

Capt. Ernie is in his seat up on top of his boat, still lost.

The Albatross III slows to a stop on the Pamlico Sound where a marker usually stands. It’s no longer here, a casualty of the dredging. He tries to find something familiar. But nothing registers. Someone’s changed the markers, and now he’s in the one position that makes him uncomfortable: stuck.

Capt. Ernie pushes his right hand forward on the throttle and cranks the wheel all the way left. He’s going home.

He pulls back into the harbor, finds the slip next to the other two Albatross boats, and backs in.

Back on land, things are familiar. But then one of the Albatross Fleet’s first mates, Craig Waterfield, informs him of some troubling news from the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The service will shut down bluefin tuna season at 11:30 tomorrow morning. Capt. Ernie had planned to send a boat this week to do a little commercial fishing, and now he can’t. Because they told him so. And no matter what, that’s a reason fishermen will never accept happily.

He looks down, kicks the grass, and says with a laugh, “I should’ve taken up coal mining.”

•••

Capt. Ernie is leaving home.

It’s 5:30 a.m., and Chobe the labradoodle is at his side. Each day is the same, and each day is different. Living at Hatteras is like that. The island has always been at the mercy of outside forces. One day can be confusing, the next romantic, the next glamorous. Some days, the Albatross Fleet takes out a governor. Some days, it takes out the captain’s future wife.

A captain never knows.

So each morning Capt. Ernie and Chobe head down to Oden’s Dock to get a feel for how the day will go. Chobe’s a small dog, a little taller than ankle-height. He’s fiery, but in a wimpy kind of way. When another captain brings his golden retriever into the store, Chobe stands quietly beside Capt. Ernie. As the golden retriever leaves, Chobe barks furiously after the door shuts behind the other dog.

The men in the store pour Maxwell House coffee into white plastic-foam cups. There’s one rule: If you take the last cup, you make the next pot.

Several captains and first mates are here. One went out yesterday, planning to stay out several days to find some king mackeral, but the seas were too rough.

The radio behind the counter crackles with news from someone out in the water. One captain is talking to another captain. “Yeah, we got about 80 pounds yesterday,” the voice says. “But we had to go back in. Swells got so bad.”

Capt. Ernie listens. He slowly lifts the steaming cup to his mouth and looks at his dog over the rim. He sips. His lips make a small smack. “C’mon, Chobe.” They walk over to the table where Capt. Ernie’s closest morning confidants sit at a big table. One is his neighbor. Everybody calls him Big Bill.

Big Bill came to Hatteras in the 1960s to work on his Ph.D. He never finished his dissertation, though, because he decided to quit the academic path and become a fisherman. He loved the work more than the research.

These are smart men.

Big Bill gives the table some of the day’s news: Ocracoke School beat Cape Hatteras School in a basketball game last night, he says. It was a close game.

Also, a whale washed up on the beach earlier in the week. Park service workers buried it on the beach, underneath the sand where people will stake their umbrellas and lounge chairs later this year.

“Wait till someone’s on the beach this summer and smells that,” Big Bill says.

Then the conversation turns again to the government regulations.

It’s one of the few topics that make Capt. Ernie angry, but he talks about it every day.

Same as his dad probably did 30 years ago.

It’s easy to recognize why he’s so passionate. Most of this is here because of his family: the dock, the people, the conversation. And all morning, both commercial fishermen and charter fishermen have passed through this same store, trading secrets about the same water. The only difference, Capt. Ernie says, is that one catches fish to sell and one catches fish to show.

To let one run the other out of town, that’s just wrong, he says.

“It’s like getting rid of the milk truck to have all sports cars,” Capt. Ernie says. “How can you do that, work for legislation that pushes these commercial fishermen out, and then go celebrate at the 42nd Street Oyster Bar in Raleigh and eat seafood that comes from working watermen?”

Eventually, the conversation clears out the table, except for Capt. Ernie and Big Bill.

“It’s like this every day,” Big Bill says. “We run everyone off.”

By the end of the morning, they’re all caught up, to whatever degree they want. That’s the beauty of this group — you can join the conversation when you want, and you can leave it when you want. It’s how they want to live in every way.

At 7:15 a.m., Big Bill crunches his coffee cup and gets up from the table. Capt. Ernie does, too.

He scans the concrete floor for Chobe.

“There are worse things in the world,” Capt. Ernie says, “than being a dock dog at Hatteras.”

He’s right about that, everyone agrees.

He calls Chobe and pushes open the glass door. They turn left and head south down the wood-planked dock toward the Albatross Fleet. The sun rises to their left, and the harbor and Pamlico Sound lie to their right. They’re off to face the day, the last original sport fisherman with his little dog walking beside him, unrestrained.

The Albatross Fleet
(252) 986-2515
albatrossfleet.com

Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum
59200 Museum Drive
Hatteras, N.C. 27943
(252) 986-2995
graveyardoftheatlantic.com

This story was published on

Graff is a writer and editor in North Carolina. He is the executive editor of Charlotte magazine. His writing work has appeared in Our State, Washingtonian magazine, Politico, and on SB Nation Longform, along with many others. Stories he’s written or edited have been picked up by the Nieman Storyboard, gangrey.com, longform.org, longreads.com, and byliner.com. He was a presenter at the 2012 Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference and the 2008 Poynter Institute Sports Writing Summit.