Captain Happy

Mike McGough
October 2022

He got his first boat in 1969; he named it Miss Tina.  It was old, needed lots of work, and was small.  He was young, somewhat handy when it came to fixing things, and she was big enough to get him started.  For the next seven years he and she were part of the commercial fishing fleet that called the port of Cape May/Wildwood in New Jersey home.  With a great deal of hard work, no small measure of persistence, and a clear savings plan, he positioned himself to finance a new boat. 

He named her Lady Christine.  Like her namesake, his wife, she was strong, capable, and impressive in both bearing and nature.  They are a team.  His business grew, and as it did, he became one of, if not the, most successful fishermen who called that port home.  In his own way, he too is strong, capable, and he has a knack for meeting challenges and seizing opportunities as they present themselves.  He is an optimistic sort by nature.  His outgoing, sometimes gregarious, optimism won him the nickname Captain Happy.  Among the mariners of the fleet based out of Cape May/Wildwood, that’s just who he is.  Notwithstanding, his years at sea have taught him that optimism not tethered to some sense of reality can produce dangerous, even catastrophic, consequences.

Cape May/Wildwood is one of the major fishing ports in the country, and the top New Jersey port.  Scallops, clams, flounder, sea bass, and herring are among the most common harvests coming through this port. Fishing is a major element of the economy of Cape May County and has been since the 17th century.  Although some of the fishermen who call this port home only fish during certain seasons, Captain Happy fishes all year.

Shortly after Lady Christine was launched, he began training a second mate.  This new ship is large enough that hiring a second mate was essential.  This mate was new to the port, and she was pleased to be hired by a captain with Happy’s reputation.   She was a nice fit for the captain and his first mate. They all got to know each other, appreciate their shared and individual strengths, and worked to offset their individual weaknesses.  They worked well together. Near the end of her first month, she had an opportunity to learn a valuable lesson that would serve her well both as a second mate on a fishing boat and as an individual trying to make her way through life. 

On a Thursday evening, they were to set sail for the deep-water shrimp grounds off the coast of New Jersey.  As they left, there was a storm watch posted.  That meant that there was a possibility of severe weather in the next twelve to thirty-six hours.  They planned to be back in ten to twelve hours, so he felt they could beat any serious weather conditions.   And at that time of the year, such notices were not uncommon.  Captain Happy heeded forecasts, but based on his experience, he set sail anyway. 

Less than two hours into the trip to the shrimp banks, the watch was upgraded to an advisory.   The change from a watch to an advisory got his attention, and when it was again upgraded, this time to a warning, he ordered that the ship be turned around and headed back to port with all available speed.  The mood in the wheelhouse changed.   For the first time the second mate saw the captain under some stress and experiencing some serious worry and anxiousness.  Although not panicked, it was clear that he was uneasy.  As she watched him, she saw a side of him that she had yet to experience.  In the moment it concerned her, but she said nothing.

With their port in sight, the mood in the wheelhouse began to change.  The weather was still unsettled, but the forecast was downgraded to watch.  There was a sense of calm on the bridge.  As soon as the boat was back in port and secured, the crew was dismissed for the weekend.  The captain invited his mates to dinner. 

Once they were seated, the second mate said, “I don’t think you were Captain Happy earlier today, were you?”

“Well, not so much for a little while there.  Weather warnings, like any type of warnings in life for that matter, should always get our attention.  It’s one thing to be happy, but it’s a whole different matter to be so blindly happy that you’re out of touch with reality.  No emotion, regardless of how positive or negative it is, should ever distance you too far or too long from reality.  The consequences can be troubling, and in extreme cases the results can be devastating.”