Exactly 13 years ago this past Saturday, Eastport resident Scott Finne stopped by the East Quogue home of Stian Stiansen, then 72, and already a legend among local fisherman.
“I always wanted to be a commercial fisherman, and it just wasn’t in the cards,” Mr. Finne explained on Tuesday. The two were strangers, but Mr. Finne, then in his late 20s, longed for the opportunity to learn from the veteran. “I was so nervous he was going to say no,” he said.
He recalled asking Mr. Stiansen if he could go along on his next voyage. “And he said, ‘Absolutely.’” They left the next morning at around 5 a.m.
Mr. Finne, now 42, said on Tuesday that they would take the exact same course many more times over the next 13 years—including Sunday’s final ill-fated voyage that left Stian Stiansen dead at 85.
‘A Freak Accident’
As the two made their way back to shore after a fishing trip shortly before 2 p.m. on Sunday, a wave near the Shinnecock Inlet in Hampton Bays capsized the 45-foot stern trawler, named Pauline IV for Mr. Stiansen’s late wife, stranding Mr. Finne in the 50-degree water and trapping Mr. Stiansen underneath the commercial vessel about 300 to 400 yards southeast of the jetties at the inlet.
“It was nothing he did wrong,” Mr. Finne said of his mentor. “It was just a freak accident.”
Mr. Finne was rescued a short time later by Lester Trafford, the owner of Sea Tow Shinnecock Moriches, according to Southampton Town Police. Members of U.S. Coast Guard Station Shinnecock recovered Mr. Stiansen’s body from the beach just east of the inlet at around 3 p.m. He was transported to Southampton Hospital by Southampton Village Volunteer Ambulance at 3:40 p.m., where he was pronounced dead.
Local fishermen said Mr. Stiansen was known and respected by all in the small community of commercial fishermen.
“He’s been through there hundreds, thousands of times,” James Coronesi, the owner of Cor-J Seafood in Hampton Bays, said on Monday. “Something just caught him by surprise.”
The U.S. Coast Guard is investigating the incident, according to Petty Officer Jetta Disco, a spokesperson for the agency. She said investigators were examining environmental issues, such as wind speed and the state of the ocean, that could have played a part, as well as inspecting the boat to determine whether any mechanical issues could have played a role in the accident, also any history of repairs to the boat. Petty Officer Disco said the Coast Guard is working closely with the Suffolk County medical examiner to determine whether Mr. Stiansen had any medical concerns that could have been a factor in the accident.
East-southeast winds were at 16 knots, she said, and seas were 5 feet at the time of the mishap. A small craft advisory was in effect, as well. She said it was nearing low tide when the boat flipped and capsized, meaning the force of the water moving away from shore would have met the force of the water pushing in, intensifying the waves.
Other agencies that responded included Southampton Village Police, Suffolk County Parks Police, Southampton Town Bay Constables, Hampton Bays Fire Department and its Dive Team, Southampton Fire Department, North Sea Fire Department, Sag Harbor Fire Department, Hampton Bays Ambulance and Suffolk County Emergency Coordinators.
A funeral service for Mr. Stiansen will be held at the J. Ronald Scott Funeral Home in Hampton Bays on Friday, May 17, at 10 a.m.
A Heroic Rescue
Lester Trafford of Sea Tow said he was in his office at his house in Hampton Bays when he heard sirens and the reports of a capsized commercial fishing boat over his scanner. He hopped in his boat, and within five minutes he was searching for signs of life in the water near the overturned vessel, though he said the conditions made it difficult to see anything. A Suffolk County Police helicopter arrived a few minutes later to aid in the search.
Mr. Trafford then spotted Mr. Finne clinging to a buoy and a piece of wood that had floated away from the capsized boat, about a mile out to sea. “He was a lot farther offshore than I thought he was going to be,” Mr. Trafford said, though he added that Mr. Finne seemed to be okay.
“I didn’t want to give up the search,” Mr. Finne said. “They wanted to bring me in right away, and I absolutely refused.”
Mr. Finne, now aboard Mr. Trafford’s boat, joined the search, returning to the capsized ship, and spent about 30 minutes more searching for Mr. Stiansen, though waves as high as 15 feet made the search difficult. “The boat was in a bad spot—you couldn’t get right to it because of the waves breaking on it,” Mr. Trafford said. They then returned to shore, where Mr. Finne was treated for hypothermia.
“Everybody knows Stian,” Mr. Trafford said. “He’s going to be missed. Everybody liked him.”
The veteran fisherman lived through the evolution of the dragger fishery into the modern era, he explained. “He basically came from the time we had wooden ships, which evolved into fiberglass, into eastern rig draggers, to modern stern draggers,” he said. Gear, too, evolved from cotton netting to nylon and synthetic materials.
“He was an excellent fisherman,” he said. “He would always give you a good word of advice and some guidance. He was the last of that era, really. There’s no one really to replace him.”
Southampton Village resident Florrie Morrisey said she was fishing at the inlet and saw the boat just minutes after it overturned. Birds were flocking to it, biting at the day’s catch, which spilled into the sea and washed to shore. Minutes later, she saw Mr. Trafford arrive, and she stressed how heroic his actions were, given the rough seas. “He’s just a hero in every which way,” she said.
Mr. Finne, who is married to Chrismas and has two young children, Daniel, 12, and Katheryn, 16, agreed. “Lester is the hero in this story,” he said. “I went to his house yesterday and shook his hand.”
A Long Life At Sea
At 85, Stian Stiansen was able-bodied and sharp, Mr. Finne said. He was born in 1928, and grew up in Islip, the son of Stian and Anna Stiansen, who came to America from Norway.
The family struggled through the Great Depression, and Mr. Stiansen worked with his father digging clams on the Great South Bay to support themselves. He graduated from high school shortly after the end of World War II, and fished from an ex-Navy ship that his father had purchased and rigged. Sometime around the age of 25, Mr. Stiansen married Pauline Nill and started his own fishing business on his own boat, the Pauline Bertha.
Through the years, he saved enough to purchase a second vessel, which he also named Pauline, and a third, named Pauline III. In 1981, Mr. Finne said Mr. Stiansen bought two boats that he named the Buddy and the Dolly, after his wife’s nickname for him, and his for her. He purchased the Pauline IV in 1998, after he partially retired, which to him meant fishing three or four shorter days a week, rather than the six long days he used to put in.
“He was extremely successful in anything he did,” Mr. Finne said. “He was just an absolutely brilliant man.
“Growing up poor, he always favored the down-and-outers,” he continued, stressing his generosity. “He knew how it felt to be kicked around, and he didn’t like that.”
Mr. Finne said he spent years fishing with Mr. Stiansen, whom he described as “strong as an ox.” He recalled days out at sea when he would peek over at his mentor and see him at the wheel, smiling. “There was just something about him,” he said.
Mr. Finne learned by watching Mr. Stiansen, who made the task seem easy. “That’s just because he was the master,” he said. “I copy-cat him a little bit. I can make like I know what I’m doing, but there is just no one like him.”
He also described the veteran fisherman as humble and unassuming—not the type to argue with others or to challenge them on their opinions. “He was hilarious,” Mr. Finne added. “He would have you in stitches.”
Mr. Finne said Mr. Stiansen had visited Norway on multiple occasions to visit his relatives there, and he had invited them back to his house in New York. He was also very close to his nieces and nephews.
Mr. Cornesi described Mr. Stiansen as “Norwegian to the core,” adding, “His heritage meant a lot to him.”
He, John Frosina and Greg Morgese, who also work at Cor-J, said they were saddened by the news, which shook the small fishing community. “At least he died doing what he loved,” Mr. Morgese said. “He probably could have retired 20 years ago.”
Mr. Finne, who works at Otis Ford in Quogue, returned to the inlet on Monday to see the capsized boat, which still sits in the sand. He was able to retrieve Mr. Stiansen’s orange cap, and his fish pick, as well as the buoy that he clung to in the water.
He’ll fish again—“It was just the absolute greatest experience of my life, the last 13 years,” he said—but not without a flotation device.
Mr. Stiansen was predeceased by his wife, Pauline V. (Nill), and his siblings, Eleanor Hansen, and Stanley, Charles and Norman Stiansen. He is survived by his nieces and nephews, Priscilla Lynch and her husband James; Gordon Hansen and his wife Carol; Christine Scott and her husband Steven; Ellen Sisco and her husband Burt; Martha Bjelland and her husband Ron; Sarah Sayce and her husband Dennis; Sandra DiBona and her husband Jeffrey; and Norman Stiansen and his wife Rosemary. He is also survived by many grandnieces and grandnephews.
Visiting hours will be held at the J. Ronald Scott Funeral Home in Hampton Bays on Thursday, May 16, from 2 to 4 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. The Reverend George Mangan of the Hampton Bays United Methodist Church will conduct a funeral service at the funeral home on Friday, May 17, at 10 a.m. Mr. Stiansen will be buried in Good Ground Cemetery next to his wife.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to a charity of the donor’s choice.