If visiting the harbor is not one of your top priorities while on Cape Island… it should be
Story by DIANE STOPYRA
We have a friend who’s turning 100 years old in 2013. A friend who was born during a desperate time in Cape May — when businesses struggled to turn a profit, homes were abandoned, and vacationers lusted more for the novelty of Atlantic City than the Victorian aesthetic of Cape Island. Our friend helped to change all of that.
It may seem strange to refer to the Cape May Harbor as a friend, but not when you consider all that it’s done for our town since 1903. This is the year William Flinn, a power broker from Pittsburgh and founder of the Cape May Real Estate Company, began dredging the 500 acres of creek-crossed marshes that are now the harbor — one of the safest inlets on the east coast. Flinn planned on using the dredging spoils to develop the marshy land of East Cape May. The revival of the island would follow; Atlantic City would be no match for the posh golf courses and yacht clubs envisioned for this space.
But this was not meant to be. The Hotel Cape May (later the Christian Admiral), and a Georgian “summer cottage” built by the company’s president (read: Peter Shields), were constructed during this time. But the former closed after six months due to financial problems, and the owner of the latter lost his son in a tragic accident shortly thereafter. Add to this the sinking of the Pittsburgh, the East Cape May project’s main dredge, and the eventual bankruptcy of the company… and all was feeling fairly desperate.
At least, this was the case until the US Navy took an interest in the harbor. By 1915, World War I was one year in, and the access the harbor provided to the Delaware River made it valuable. The US Navy began making its own improvements before establishing two facilities here.
Eventually, the harbor would become a haven for mariners in distress, a hot-spot for rum runners during prohibition, a home base for the second-largest commercial fishing port on the east coast, and the impetus behind a new pastime — recreational fishing.
Today, the banks of the harbor are home to everything from eateries to a waterskiing school to the New Jersey Training Center Cape May, the US Coast Guard’s only basic training facility. There is even an exclusive yacht club — the Corinthian Yacht Club — offering a full social and sailing schedule, just as Mr Flinn had hoped. But for many who drive over the bridge, the Harbor is only an afterthought to a beach-focused vacation. But these people are missing out one of the greatest recreational outlets Cape May has to offer. Here, we highlight some of the Harbor’s most exciting, all too often overlooked, activities.
SOUTH JERSEY MARINA
We stopped in to see Mark Allen, assigned to the Marketing Department of South Jersey Marina, in his office above the Marina’s Ship’s Store — a building where, legend has it, Sally Star used to live in the fifties and sixties. “You know Sally,” Mark said, “she had the children’s program in Philadelphia, and all the guys were hot for her.” Good to know, but we were more interested in all the things that make water-lovers hot for South Jersey Marina.
First, there’s the Strictly Boater’s Boat Show, which happens every year in the spring. “If you’re coming for funnel cake and face painting,” Mark said, “this is not the show for you. We market for actual boaters.” Meaning? If you are licensed to drive a boat, you get in for free. Approximately fifteen vendors exhibit around thirty different models, all of which can be test-driven in open water.
Then there’s the tournaments — the Annual South Jersey Shark Tournament, the Annual Viking/Ocean Showdown, and a yellowfin-focused tournament (whose name was still under development at the time of press). But it’s the Annual Mid-Atlantic $500,000 that is the pride and joy of the marina and, in many ways, of the entire New Jersey fishing industry. “Boat for boat, it’s the richest marlin and tuna tournament in the world,” Mark said. The prize money? Typically two million, $500,000 of which is kicked in by the marina itself. The big rewards make sense, considering how exclusive it is to compete — think $6,000 entry fee. And it’s worth it just for the party. “We spend $45,000 on booze,” said Mark. We even have it on good authority that Jimmy Buffet offered to play one year. “We get a lot of celebrities,” Mark told us, and no, he wouldn’t say who they are.
“We’re primarily in the yacht-selling business,” Mark will tell you, but the marina’s offerings go far beyond this. Jump on a 45-foot party boat or speedy sportfishing boat not just to fish, but to search for dolphin (“You’ll get close enough to slap one,” Mark says, “but, wow, does their breath stink.”) Or watch Wildwood’s Friday night fireworks on the water, take your dog for a ride, or have a bachelor party, romantic cruise or private memorial service.
When you’re ready to buy, the South Jersey Marina will help you choose a boat, which they’ll service at the Canyon Club Resort’s year-round service station, located yards away. “And when you’ve really got the fever,” Mark said, “we’ll set you up with one of these waterfront condos.”
MISS CHRIS MARINA
It wasn’t until 1980 that the Miss Chris Marina — docked only by commercial, passenger-carrying boats — became the Miss Chris Marina. (It started out as Buck’s Landing — a commercial fishing dock, and then it was Back Harbor Wharf — a restaurant, candy shop, and ice cream store.) But in 1980, a man by the name of Frank Speigl bought it, and named it for his wife, a woman called Christine.
In 2002, the story could have taken a far less romantic turn, if it weren’t for Jeff Stewart. He had taken over the marina with a backer in 1993, and now this backer had the option of turning the space into condominium units. But Jeff bought the marina and stopped that from happening. Developers are still trying to take over his parking lot (“It’s worth one to two million dollars,” he told us), but he’s content with the way things are
And how are things? “Fishing has changed over the years,” he told us. “You used to have the dyed-in-the-wool fisherman. Now, we still see the die-hards, but we also see the grandfather who shows up with his grandson. It’s wonderful.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Captain Chuck Hackett, who we found standing beside his sixty-five-foot boat, the SeaStar, docked at the Miss Chris. “I know one gentleman who boards three or four times a week, but rarely ever puts a line in the water. He just enjoys the social experience. The joy that people have… that’s why we still do this.”
It’s a joy experienced by 100,00 people a year — that’s how many make their through the Miss Chris Marina. Not all of them are looking to fish; some come for the kayak rentals available here and the bird watching tours. Others come for the Cape May Whale Watcher. “Our boats are aluminum,” Jeff said, “and whales use acoustics, so they get a real good ping off of us. They know exactly where we are so they’re not afraid. They do barrel rolls 100 feet away.”
If you ask World War II vet Ernie Utsch what makes him most proud of his marina, he’ll point to his two boys, Ernie Jr and Charles, and tell you they’re “doing one heck of a job.” They took over the daily operations when Ernie’s wife — his “kindergarten sweetheart” — passed away.
The marina has been a family operation for more than 50 years, since Ernie’s father made the move from the candy business in Philadelphia to the boat business here. He started with fourteen slips; now they’ve got more than 300.
“We’re just a full-service family marina,” Ernie said. “No whistles or bows… kind of like a floating campground for folks who want to vacation on their boats.” (Ernie will be happy to tell you about the time Walter Cronkite and George Patton Jr. docked here.)
In addition to the Tackle Shop and Ship’s Store the Utschs operate, they also rent space to several businesses, including East Coast Parasail (“One couple got hitched on one of their trips a couple of years ago,” Ernie Jr told us) and Hell Yeah Watersports. “We do wakeboarding, waterskiing, wakeskating, kneeboarding, waterskiing, tubing, and boogieboarding,” Captain Mario Bove told us. Then there’s the Cape May Whale and Research Center, which is new at Utsch’s this year. They run the only two research vessels in the state that allow members of the public on board.
The Fisherman’s Memorial, a granite statue of a fisherman’s wife and her two children looking out over the waters of the Harbor, was erected just off of Delaware Avenue in 1988, to honor those who have lost their lives at sea.
There are seventy-five names etched onto the statue, including that of Camillo Monichetti, a commercial fisherman who died in 1933. “He was my grandfather,” artisan Tony Hillman told us. “The memorial is a way to bring home the real cost of seafood.”
Technically, the statue is maintained by the city, although the Garden Club of Cape May, Shade Tree Commission, Nature Center, Coast Guard, Lund’s Fisheries, members of a group called the Friends of the Fisherman’s Memorial, and John McNulty of Bayshore Landscaping have all taken an active role in its beautification by donating time and resources. Even the statue itself was designed by a local sixth grader. And Councilmember Jack Wichterman and his wife, Sue, have volunteered to weed the surrounding area on a number of occasions. “It’s a community project,” Sue said.
Aqua Trails — which offers nature and kayak tours and paddle boarding — is located at the Nature Center on the Cape May Harbor. “We’ll get onto some of secluded beaches here,” Jeff told us, “the ones no one ever goes to.”
While Jeff has kayaked all over — up and down the east coast and as far as Costa Rica — he recognizes a special kind of appeal in the Cape May harbor. “It’s not just beautiful,” he said, “it’s a fantastic recreational common area.” The people-watching is as great as the nature watching, which is saying something. “We’ve seen harbor seals, dolphins, and rare migratory birds,” Jeff said.
And this is something anyone can do. Aqua Trails hosts an advanced kayak camp in the Harbor for kids between the ages of 12 and 16, and they’ve had kayakers as old as… 86? “Our oldest kayaker was that age,” Jeff said, “and she did a full six-mile tour.”
THE NATURE CENTER
In 1988, the area that is now home to the Nature Center was slated to become a restaurant and 300-slip marina. A grassroots effort to save this section of the harbor was born and, as a result, 17 acres were preserved with Green Acres funding. The Nature Center, according to Senior Naturalist Kim Hannum, came out of this. It started in 1992 with “a little trailer out back and just a few dedicated volunteers.”
Today, the center — now under the wing of the New Jersey Audubon — hosts a number of educational programs ranging from salt marsh safaris to earth day clean-ups. For five dollars a person, Nature Center-goers can take part in guided walks, bike tours, family hikes and, new this summer, full moon campfires. “So many people turn up,” Kim told us. “We had a fiddler player at the last one.”
The Nature Center, along with Mark Allen of South Jersey Marina, was integral in launching Harbor Fest, held every June. “In 2007,” Mark said, “abandoned boats were posing a threat to the ecology of the harbor, so this event started as a way to raise money for the clean-up. Now, it’s a combination of a block party and street festival, the best elements of each.”
The center also partners with the Rutgers Cooperative Extension for work on horseshoe crab restoration, for example. And then there’s the summer camp for kids. “Children need a place where it’s okay to get dirty,” Kim said. “The harbor is the best-kept secret in town.”
Beginning in 1939, Jess Laudeman operated The Cold Spring Fish & Supply Company from Schellinger’s Landing, on what we know today as Fisherman’s Wharf, aka the Lobster House docks. The company would become the largest seafood packager in the country helped, in part, by a new rail line meant to accommodate the fishing industry (it had now surpassed tourism as Cape May’s number one money-maker). Jess also ran the small restaurant called Bateman’s here, before turning it over to his son, Wally… who renamed it The Lobster House before turning it over to his children, Keith and Donna Laudeman. Now, the brother/sister team runs The Cold Spring Fish & Supply Company, as well as the 550-seat restaurant/fish market/coffee shop/fishing schooner turned cocktail lounge/raw bar/Cape May institution.
But there are other restaurants along the harbor that enhance the experience of being in Cape May for both locals and tourists. One is Wallace’s Harbourside Café, run by Bobby Wallace IV, a third generation restaurateur. We popped in to find Mary Jane Gretzula, a retired educator, and Dr Dominick Potena, Superintendent of Cape May schools, enjoying their eggs Benedict by the restaurant’s large picture windows. “If you have to have a business meeting,” Mary Jane said, “this is the place to do it. There’s something calming about watching the water and the sea grass blowing in the breeze.”
Then there’s the Harbor View restaurant and marina, run by Captain Fred Ascoli who’s been fishing professionally since 1978. From the glassed-in second floor of his restaurant, guests watch the boating traffic in the harbor — including the 200-foot Coast Guard cutters. “Everyone loves the sunsets,” Fred told us, “although it’s a great spot for perfect double and triple rainbows, too.”
But it’s Mayer’s Bar & Restaurant — an undisputed hole-in-the-wall in a town steeped in fine dining options — that might just be the most talked-about establishment on the island. One local fisherman warned us about the bar’s pecking order. “There’s a spot for captains, and a spot for mates,” he said, “and you don’t sit there unless you’re invited.” Just more confirmation of what we’d heard in the past — Mayer’s is the stomping grounds of a rough crowd of fishermen, and if you go there, you should be prepared for trouble.
But what we saw when we showed up was a far cry. We took a seat next to Tom and Carl — two shark fishermen who wouldn’t give us their last names. “Sure, men get a little tuned up when they’ve been out at sea for days, surrounded by nothing but testosterone,” Carl said, “but we’ve never seen any incidents here.” Nothing. Not once. In fact, all they could talk about was how good the scallops are.
So we asked bartender Toni (again, no last name) about the bar’s badass reputation. “This crowd has too much respect for [owner] Bruce Axelsson to start any trouble,” she told us. “He’ll never let a broke fisherman go hungry.”
We spotted Bruce on the other end of the bar, so we sidled up next to him. He told us that the Mayer’s building is 72 years old, and that he and his brother (who runs the nearby Captain’s Cove restaurant) purchased it in 1974. Is the clientele the trouble-making sort, we wanted to know? “No,” Bruce said. “It might have that reputation because it’s a fisherman’s bar, but that’s what I wanted. There may be some snobs in Cape May who won’t take the guys off of the boats; I take the guys off of the boats.” And the secret to the locally famous scallops? “They’re fresh.”
But it’s time to sell, Bruce told us. “I’m 68 and I’m tired. When someone buys Mayer’s, I’ll miss it, but I’ll still visit the guys on the docks every chance I get.”