Martha’s Vineyard ‘Fluke for Luke’ Tournament Binds a Community
Updated: Jul 13, 2019
Walk through any small town in coastal America and you will find plaques, benches and statues honoring respected members of the community lost at sea. But there are living memorials too.
Walking the grounds of the Portuguese American (PA) Club in Oak Bluffs among tired fishermen discussing their luck finding fluke and sea bass, the sounds of children playing, and the smell of beer, grilled burgers, and briny littleneck clams, I knew that Luke Gurney would be very happy with the fishing tournament that bears his name.
In June 2016, (Martha’s Vineyard Times: Martha’s Vineyard family, Island mourn lost fisherman”) Luke Gurney, 48, of Oak Bluffs, the well-liked father of two, who grew up in New Bedford, died doing what he loved — fishing in the waters around Martha’s Vineyard.
Mr. Gurney was setting conch pots from his boat No Regrets — named for his decision to give up house carpentry and pursue a life on the sea — when he became entangled in a line and was swept overboard.
He left behind his wife Robyn, a special education teacher at the West Tisbury School, two sons, Jacob, 13, and Sam, 11, and a legion of friends and family on the Island and in the New Bedford area, all determined to help his family.
The weekend of July 6, a total 326 fishermen, including 34 juniors and 22 teams, registered in the third annual ‘Fluke for Luke’ tournament. Over the course of two days, fishermen vied to catch the biggest fluke and sea bass in the adult, junior, and team categories.
Fog on Saturday and strong northeast winds Sunday kept many of the smaller boats close to port but did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of those gathered for the awards ceremony late Sunday afternoon. It was an Island party where you either knew somebody, or at the very least thought you knew somebody, and substituted greeting by name with a friendly nod and “How ya’ doin’?”
Brian Athearn, president of the Ag Society and man for all seasons — fishing, hunting, farming – was happy to man the burger grill, and happier still when reinforcements arrived. Gina Debettencourt, PA Club president and Edgartown School Cafeteria mainstay, picked up a spatula. Islanders stepping up to help each other and a family in need — that’s what Martha’s Vineyard is all about, she said.
Commercial fisherman Donny Benefit of Edgartown was in fine form despite two long days of fishing. In keeping with tradition, he had taken out a group of elderly fishermen on his boat Payback. His team claimed first place — for the third year in a row.
Donny, whose gruff exterior masks a generous nature, said taking out the elderly was its own reward. “You know what that does for them?” he asked me in a voice that suggested I better know the right answer. “Teller’s eighty-eight [Thomas Teller, retired Edgartown District Court clerk magistrate].”
He added the elderly did not look at their cell phones while fishing. Donny even had his own flag, a gift from an Island visitor he’d met in Coop’s and introduced to fishing. The well made gift shows the image of a fluke and the names of former team members who had passed away.
Jim Cornwell of Edgartown, who fished aboard Payback and came in second in the men’s division with a 9.06 pound fluke, beat out by Gene Bergeron of West Tisbury with a 9.20 fluke, was all smiles. He said he enjoyed the “camaraderie, the competition and the whole Fluke for Luke thing.”
As for fishing in rough sea conditions, he said, “We got batted around.” He was no worse for the wear. At 82, he looks fitter than many men half his age. “Still trucking,” Jim said with a laugh.
Certainly the camaraderie of the tournament is an outgrowth of the closeness of the Island fishing community. I fly fished next to Bill Dreyer, a respected island contractor, season after season many years ago when the arrival of striped bass on Lobsterville Beach was taken for granted, and we regularly crossed paths when the VFW began the fluke derby in 2000.
On Sunday he was with his wife, Stephanie, West Tisbury School librarian, enjoying the day. Bill spoke to the appeal of the tournament.
“Coming together and honoring a fellow fisherman who loved doing what we all do, who was unfortunately lost,” Bill said.
Stephanie added, “You’ve got all different walks of life. You’ve got contractors, teachers, you know, farmers, everyone’s here. It’s really a local event.”
In that sense, the fluke tournament stands in stark contrast to many of the Island’s more gilded fundraisers. At the PA club Sunday the beverage of choice was beer and dress was definitely informal. And the guest list extended beyond Vineyard Sound to New Bedford.
John Custer, Tisbury School principal and one of the organizers of the tournament, said it was interesting and gratifying to see such a strong showing from New Bedford, Luke’s hometown.
“I think we registered fifty people who fished it from New Bedford,” John said. “And there was probably double that here at the party. And I just love that that’s his home, and then there’s his adopted home, the Vineyard. That’s the group that celebrated him.”
John knows something about running fishing tournaments. He is also president of the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby, the fall fishing classic that regularly registers more than 3,000 fishermen over its five week span,
Asked about the contrast between the two tournaments, John said this one is concentrated in one weekend, and there is a distinct family atmosphere.
“I think whether people caught a lot of fish or no fish, I think they had an equally good time because they know what this is about,” John said. “It’s not about personal achievement or glory, which much of the Derby is. This is a benefit for a wonderful guy and his family and I think people get that. That’s pretty striking to me. That everyone here is happy, and it lacks the real competitive element, and I love that.”
Greg Skomal, a Division of Marine Fisheries fisheries biologist, hired Luke to assist him when he was based on the Island. They became good friends.
Greg has participated recreationally and professionally in numerous fishing tournaments. He likened the tournament to an Island block party. “To me it’s a testament to the spirit of Luke Gurney who was a guy that everybody loved … I call it an extension of the Gurney family.”
John Gurney, Luke’s father, echoed that sentiment. The seasonal Island resident said the day was about sharing stories about Luke, no matter that they had heard them before.
“It’s just nice to hear ‘em again,” he said. “And we hear new ones once in a while.”
Mr. Gurney said the spirit of the Vineyard community was evident after Luke was lost and continues to this day.
“It’s just a wonderful feeling to see the kind of love and spirit and kindness that is shown by these folks when there’s been some tragedy like this,” he said. “And it’s just fantastic, rallying around the family — his boys, his wife. It’s hard to express in words how we feel about what they do.”
Mr. Gurney added, “ I feel like it’s an extension of my son.”
Under a tent set up outside the PA club building guests sat and talked and laughed. Steve Purcell had raked up a bushel of clams, and now the burly charter captain was busy opening them for appreciative diners. At one end of the tent he and builder Josh Flanders and Mike Capen shucked fresh littlenecks and oysters spread out on a bed of ice for donations. The jar filled with dollars as quickly as it was emptied.
The climax of the day was the awards ceremony. One by one Joe El-Deiry, hard working member of the tournament committee and one of Luke’s good friends, called up the winners to a round of applause. The kids received special attention.
Robyn Gurney sat in the front and beamed. Three years after the shattering loss of her husband, she said the tournament has taken on a different feel. The fog of sadness that enveloped them has lifted. She and her boys can enjoy it. Jacob will turn 17 and Sam will turn 15 this fall.
“I feel like now the boys and I are all in good shape,” she said. “I feel like now our extended family is in good shape, and everyone can just be present and enjoy the moment without that overtone of sadness.”
Robyn said Luke is here in spirit. “He would love this. He’d be right in the middle of it, and he’d be the last person to leave,” she said.
Robyn said if she could tell Luke anything it would be that “everything is okay.” She credits Luke’s friends, family and the community.
Robyn said one of her boys described the loss of his father for a school assignment.
He wrote, “We’re all okay because of all of my Dad’s friends.”
The final standings
Adult fluke: Gene Bergeron, 9.20; Jim Cornwell, 9.06; Peter Jackson, 8.35.
Junior fluke: Ben Kokoska, 6.86; Ben Saunders, 4.76; Joe Medeiros 5th, 4.27.
Sea bass: Pam Silvia, 3.99; Andrew Lee, 3.96; Jason Gale, 3.78.
Junior sea bass: Finn Codding, 3.51; Tegan Gale. 3.14; Eben Solway, 3.01.
Team (four fluke and one sea bass): Payback, 34.81; Big Flatties, 23.55; Joe Fish, 22.67.
Nelson Sigelman is the author of “Martha's Vineyard Fish Tales: How to Catch Fish, Rake Clams, and Jig Squid, with Entertaining Tales About the Sometimes Crazy Pursuit of Fish” (Stackpole Books, $24.95), and “Martha’s Vineyard Outdoors, Fishing, Hunting and Avoiding Divorce on a Small Island” (Tashmoo Publishing, $19.99), available at local bookstores and major book retailers.