The Newport Beach Dory Fleet — Looking Back #5 — 1973

She Doesn’t Crab About Fishwife’s Life

Newport Beach—Carrie Beck was born to the good life. She was born with a silver spoon in her mouth and a stable in the backyard. She grew up in relative luxury in Fall River, Mass., and once rode her way to a first-place ribbon in a horse show at Madison Square Garden. But today you can usually find Carrie Beck standing in a fishing dory below the Newport Pier, barefoot, bellbottomed, hawking red crabs and an occasional filet to tourists and passer-by. “No,” she concedes with a quick laugh, “never in my life did I dream I‘d be putting boats in the ocean and cleaning fish and selling crabs.”

A cheerful, good-natured woman, she takes a long pull from an unfiltered cigarette and pauses for a moment, a wry smile crossing her lips as she weighs what life has been… and probably will be. “I don’t think I could do anything else,” she says finally, in such a way that you know she means it. “I love this life. It’s a challenge, and when you live and work in the outdoors it’s hard to get closed in again.”

It is more than a few miles and two marriages down the road, now, and Carrie is one of the fishwives of the rag-tag dory fleet of Newport Beach. “When I was a kid my Daddy wouldn’t let us work. He was a gambler and had… a lot of money. If we worked it would have embarrassed him. “Then he came out here about three years ago and when he saw what I was doing—selling fish—he couldn’t believe it.”

Her life-style has changed, and like most of the family in the fleet she relies on fish heads as a staple for soup, but despite the 19-hour days and bare-boned budgets she not only enjoys the role of a fishwife—she thrives on it.  “I like it because you get to work all day with your husband,” she explains. “You’re not in an office somewhere or waiting on tables. Sure, you get on each other’s nerves once in a while but that’s to be expected. You can do that at home.”

A typical day for the Becks begins at 4 a.m., with cups of steaming hot coffee in their Costa Mesa home. On this particular day Vern Beck is not well. A daughter arrived on vacation from the East Coast the night before, and celebrating with two six-packs of beer on an empty stomach has put aspirin at the top of his breakfast menu… It is a dreary day, matched by a dreary catch for the fishermen, and knots of tourists gather around the few boats that are in dickering for the meager haul. “I had a big yellow grouper,” complains one man, “but a shark hit it on the way up.” Bonito, a few rock cod, some red snapper—it is a lean day for the men who fish with hand-lines. One boat hauled in less than 40 pounds. Another has hooked only a handful of fish.

“It gets nerve-wracking,” Carrie says. “When the men come in they’re tired and can’t even get the boat set up, there are so many people pushing and shoving. “You won’t believe the questions some people ask. They want to know how much fish is he going to bring in—they really do ask that.

Real Fresh—”One man watched the boat come in and asked if the fish were fresh and they were still flopping. Then they don’t understand we have to fill our phone orders first. They scream and argue and, of course, everybody is here first.” By 10:30 a.m. Vern has rounded the pier and comes crashing through the waves, dodging swimmers and body surfers, running full bore onto the beach. It was a strong current, he says, and he could find marker buoys for only 12 traps, but still it is a good haul with 400 pounds of crabs. Eventually other fishermen come to his aid, pushing and setting the rollers and, with Carrie heaving on the rope, they drag the dory about 30 yards up the sand. Instantly a crowd appears, gray old women and young girls in hip-huggers, men with cameras around their necks and eager boys pressing in for a better view.

Carrie’s Turn—Vern has taken a well earned break, and it is Carrie’s show, now, digging into the pails, fingers darting, carefully—watch those claws—dancing around the metal compartments of the dory and occasionally hoisting a hefty specimen high for the admiring audience. Working quickly, retrieving change from a worn leather purse she skirts the pails like a dervish. “I can’t believe the prices down here,” says a man in shorts. “Just 35 cents a pound for crab?” “That’s right.” “I’ll take five pounds.” She whirls and picks, bags, weighs his order.  “Make it 10 pounds.”

For some it is more than a bargain, more than just a purchase; it is a trip through the byways of nostalgia, a religious experience. “This is terrific,” beams a man in sport shirt. “I haven’t bought fish off a boat since I was a kid up in Washington. I never realized all this was here.” “Where do you live?”  “Huntington Beach,” he says. “New here?” “No,” he admits sheepishly. I’ve lived here 22 years.”

Big Purchase—For an hour it is a scene of frantic, barely controlled chaos. A man in a straw hat buys 100 pounds to take to relatives in Hawaii in the morning. A woman buys five pounds of claws for hors d’oeuvres. From Riverside, the Simi Valley and throughout the Los Angeles Basin they come, prowling the boats for bargains, savvy seafood shoppers jockeying for a place in line. “Does he go out again?” asks a woman.  “No, Ma’am,” says Carrie, weighing a 10-pound bag of male crabs. “Once a day is enough.”  “Oh,” says the woman, incredulous. “Is it that hard?” “You caught these?” questions a man in a flower-print shirt.  “No, but I showed him where to put the traps,” Carrie says.

A distinguished-looking old man is amused.  “Is this your only job?” “That’s right. This is the way we make our living.” “Have you been at it long?”  “My husband’s been doing it for 12 years.” “Is it a good living?” the man wonders.  “We get by.”  “I’m just an old school teacher,” he says wistfully, leaving and shaking his head. A chic, middle-ages woman talks with a friend.

Catch Is Sold—“It’s a neat life,” she is saying, watching Carrie. “I told my husband, Gary, it’s a shame you get seasick or we could try that.” In an hour the catch is easily sold out, but Carrie waits until noon for several customers who have placed phone orders. Those left over are sold quickly and she prepares to clean the boat for the ride home. Soon it will be back to making traps with a fast break for dinner—spaghetti tonight—then maybe squeeze time in for housework and running a few loads of laundry and tending the vegetable garden. Vern will probably fall asleep watching a ball game, but Carrie’s day will go on until 11, perhaps 11:30, on some days longer when the kids have to get ready for school. “You can always find something to do, something that has to be done,” she says, “and a lot of times you get so tired you can’t sleep. “Some days we’ll make $100 and others we won’t make anything—it’s chicken today and feathers tomorrow.” Then she finishes hosing down the gear and leans against the dory, enjoying a cigarette and cup of coffee as she waits f      or Vern. “No,” she says, amused at the thought. “I never imagined I’d learn how to clean a fish, or sell a crab. “But it’s a good life… and I wouldn’t change it.” —Steve Kline, Los Angeles Times, October 11, 1973

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Additional stories on the history of Newport’s Dory Fleet 

The Newport Beach Dory Fleet — Through The years—-through-the-years/

The Newport Beach Dory Fleet — Looking Back #1 —1934


The Newport Beach Dory Fleet — Looking Back #2 —1950—-looking-back-2-—-1950/

The Newport Beach Dory Fleet — Looking Back #3 —1969—-looking-back-3-—-1969/

The Newport Beach Dory Fleet — Looking Back #4 — 1971—-looking-back-4-—-1971/

The Newport Beach Dory Fleet — Looking Back #6 — 1988—-looking-back-6-—-1988/

The Newport Beach Dory Fleet — Looking Back #7 — 1989—-looking-back-7-—-1989/


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