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He was making leftover Thanksgiving turkey into turkey pot pie as I sat in his kitchen. You could see a boat called Fishy Advice in the back yard, like a car up on blocks.
“I love that boat,” said Ken Wiggin. “When I was a kid, my father and I fished all the time together. He used to say that someday we’d have a boat, and that boat is just what we both had in mind.”
It is a 25-foot Privateer, perfect for kicking around looking for striped bass and maybe doing a few charters. I happen to know that Fishy Advice is also the name of a race horse that Ken and our mutual pal Bill Mentes put a few bucks on now and then, as they followed his racing career.
It says something good about a man that he would name his boat after a race horse. And if just the sight of a hardworking little boat sitting in your back yard puts a smile on your face, you know you have found a place to call home.
“Sometimes I pull into the driveway with (his wife) Kathy and see the boat there and it just makes me very happy,” said Ken. “I wish my dad had lived to see it.”
But we were not there to talk about charter fishing. We were there to talk about scalloping.
“We had another old boat in the back yard that used to be a scallop boat,” he said. “The kids had been using it to get out in the harbor and fish, but eventually it was just sitting there. So I decided to fix it up.”
Like any number of guys, Ken came here to work on a construction job and one day woke up to find he was still here, even though the job was long ago finished. He grew up in the South Shore town of Rockland, and began working in the HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning) trade as soon as he graduated high school. It was the trade that brought him to Nantucket.
“The local guys I worked with used to joke that I was never going to leave the island,” he said. “I kept telling them I was leaving after the job was done. But I never left.”
Ken and Kathy raised seven kids, the last few on the island. “I wish I had the chance to raise them all here,” he said. They now help raise their grandkids.
In between raising the kids and working, he fixed up the boat. Oscar Bunting and Karsten Reinemo, two guys who know as much about scalloping as anybody, gave him some advice on how to set the boat up to dredge bay scallops. He bought a new four-stroke engine.
Then he bought a commercial scalloping license and went out on the harbor. His first season on the water was not the kind that breeds optimism.
“The year before had been a great year,” he said. “But my first year was one of the worst years anyone could remember. I figured that I had single-handedly ruined the industry just by being out there.”
Over the next few seasons he learned a lot about fishing for bay scallops. “The hardest thing I had to learn that first year was identifying which were seed and which ones you can take. This is a small island and people here love to talk, and I did not want them saying that I was taking seed.”
He shrugs when asked for an opinion on this season’s sometimes heated debate over which scallops can be harvested. He wonders why these debates always take place after the season starts, rather than being settled before the first dredge is dropped. But mostly it is the learning experience that he takes pleasure in, the idea of finding something out by doing it.
“The first thing was getting adept at the process of using the equipment,” he said. “That first season I tied to fish where there wasn’t any boats. I did not want to go out there and look like I didn’t know what I was doing.”
“I wanted to go out alone and find out how to do it by experience, which is the only way you ever really learn anything anyway. I like that you are in control of your own boat and you learn what you can do and what you cannot do. You see how you can get into trouble out there and what to do to avoid it.”
He is 65 years old. No longer in the HVAC business. He worked for awhile as a sort of handyman at the MSPCA but is done with that now. These days he is on the water as often as possible. A couple of years ago he got his captain’s license.
So between the first of November and the last of March he scallops. There are the usual costs that cut into a scalloper’s share of the price per pound you read about in the newspaper – repairs on the boat, gas, the cost of a license, paying the opener – after which you hope to stick a few bucks in the bank.
“Don’t get me wrong. I need the money, just like anybody. But one of the things it pays for is my enjoyment of being captain of my boat. There is something about being out there that I just feel good about. You’re outdoors and that makes you feel healthy. You feel like you’ve done a day’s work when you get in and you’re tired and that makes you really feel like you earned it. I find that very satisfying.”
There are few things Ken Wiggin likes to do more than talk, especially when the subject is fishing, but now he had to go pick up one of his grandchildren at school. He pulled the turkey pot pie out of the oven, the top toasted brown and ready for supper.
Family, a chance to be on the water, and something warm to share for supper. Some men understand the value of things.
– John Stanton is a writer and filmmaker living on Nantucket.