By BILL BARLOW
Boats are no novelty to Steve Lonergan of Villas and Matt Gamble of Cape May. The two Navy veterans and longtime friends served together on the USS Theodore Roosevelt, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.
On it they toured the world, with stops in Spain, Dubai, Greece and many more countries. Gamble told a story of an overdue supply ship and two weeks on hard biscuits and gravy, along with the elaborate seafood spread for the crew when supplies finally caught up.
So a fishing cruise along the back bays of Sea Isle City on board the fishing vessel Starfish would not be the adventure of a lifetime.
“I’m just happy to have a day off work, Lonergan said.
Gamble’s young son and namesake was coming along for the ride.
“Big Matt and Little Matt,” he exclaimed.
Both Matts, and about 40 other U.S. military veterans were on the docks at Starfish Deepsea Fishing, 319 42nd Place in Sea Isle, on Wednesday morning, waiting to board the Starfish, a 70-foot catamaran.
Each year, the company offers a free day of fishing to veterans, a tradition that goes back to the 1980s. Capt. Bob Rush said the company is happy to offer the day as a thank you to the veterans.
Plans were to head into the open ocean – “out front” as many boaters put it – but concern over potential rough seas seemed likely to keep the boat in the back bays. The final decision was to rest with Mike Weigle, the captain on this outing.
As the vets boarded the boat for a 9 a.m. launch, a light rain began despite sunny skies. A few seemed reassured that there was an enclosed area but the morning clouds soon passed for a breezy, sunny September day.
State Sen. Bob Andrzejczak and Assemblyman Bruce Land were also set to join the day of fishing. Both are combat veterans – Land served in Vietnam while Andrzejczak received a Purple Heart for a serious wound in Iraq.
Andrzejczak said their campaign helped sponsor the event.
“We do this every year,” said John Nigro, while checking in the veterans for the fishing company.
Nigro noted that many years there are buses or vans from veterans’ homes or from area organizations arriving to participate.
For many of those gathered at the docks, this was their first trip on the Starfish. Many heard about the event from area veterans’ organizations, including VFW posts, the nearest chapter of Disabled American Veterans and other groups.
Many said Andrzejczak told them about the trip. Most had their sights on flounder or weakfish.
“I just came along for the boat ride,” said Mary Jane Muncey, who served as an Army nurse from 1975 until 1981. She wore her captain’s bars pinned to a baseball cap with the U.S. Army logo. She’s involved with Amvets Post 21 in Villas and had let other veterans know about the trip.
John Kates of Philadelphia said this would be his first time out on the Starfish. He was an avid fisherman for years but had to give up boating after he hurt his back. Kates served two tours in Vietnam as a Marine corporal, followed by a career as a Philadelphia police officer, from which he said he was long retired.
“This will be my first time in a boat in years,” he said.
As the other veterans arrived, Kates sat on a bench and spoke with Walter Kaczor, swapping jokes and telling fish stories.
Several of the veterans said it would be nice to get out on the water and spend some time with fellow veterans. Some served in combat, some served in peace. Many wore the insignia of their branch of service on their caps or their jackets.
As the departure neared, they grabbed their fishing gear and coolers, some joking that they would have once been filled with beer but were now packed with snacks for the day, and headed up the gangplank to find a spot along the rail, ready for a day on the water.