Rahul Harpalani caught his first fish ever, a striped bass, on Tuesday. The 24-year-old active duty first lieutenant with the Army had a smile on his face like no one else on Menemsha charter captain Scott McDowell’s boat. Out fishing a mile south of Squibnocket, Mr. Harpalani was having the time of his life. “It is so serene out here,” he said.
“Now you are a fisherman,” said Joe Bennett, a 70-year-old veteran from Maine, who sat beside him.
Mr. Harpalani had a tough spring. On May 15 somewhere in Afghanistan he was the victim of an IED blast. His leg was broken in 18 places. The soldier, who had spent four years at West Point in training, spent much of this year at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. recovering from one single moment in his service to his country.
On this Tuesday morning, he hopped from his wheelchair onto Mr. McDowell’s boat using strong arms, and with his hands he slipped into his seat near the stern. Mr. Harpalani said his prognosis was good; he will be fully recovered by next summer.
Mr. Harpalani and Mr. Bishop were two of eleven veterans participating this week in the Beach Plum Inn American Heroes Saltwater Challenge. They had all served their country, some going back to the Viet Nam War, and more recently, the Afghanistan war. They all had been injured in some way and had risen above their disability. The event was organized as a way to say thank you, from the Vineyard community. This was the second in what is planned to be an annual event.
The anglers came from Maine and they came from the Washington, D.C. area. All of them were guests and participants in the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby.
They arrived Monday afternoon and fished all day Tuesday, part of Wednesday and yesterday morning. Yesterday at close to noon they held an awards ceremony at the Beach Plum Inn. All of them received praise, support and fishing tips.
A number of Island charter fishing captains took the fishermen out to the waters off Aquinnah. Capt. Buddy Vanderhoop and Capt. Jennifer Clarke, Capt. Jonathan Boyd and others volunteered to take them to a few of the best fishing spots in southeastern New England, the waters off Squibnocket and Noman’s Land.
Onboard Captain McDowell’s boat Lauren C. there was Mr. Harpalani, Mr. Bennett and Jerry Miserandino, 66, from the Maryland area.
Mr. Miserandino lost his hands and forearm in 1967 while trying to disarm a booby trap that had been double wired, somewhere deep in Viet Nam. He was an Army Ranger. Now, Mr. Miserandino is retired but he still counsels younger soldiers coming home from battle. With both of his prosthesis, there are few things Mr. Miserandino can’t do. He is a certified kayak instructor, a certified water skier and snow skier and a fast bicyclist. On this morning he holds his fishing rod and reels in a medium-sized striped bass. The trip on the water was a journey in the moment but also a ride back in his memory.
Mr. Miserandino said he recalled being in his early 20s, fishing for fluke in the waters off Long Island. “My grandfather, Patrick Healy, was a ‘Newfie.’ I come from a family of fishermen,” he said. “I used to fish for blues and flounder. This is reconnecting with the sea.”
Mr. Miserandino took a special interest in sharing stories with the newest fisherman on the boat, Mr. Harpalani. The two talked between themselves, while Mr. McDowell hunted on his electronic fish spotter for any signs of bait and big fish. On the seat, there were bags of lunch that had been prepared for the anglers.
At the wheel, Captain McDowell listened to chatter on the marine radio. “Are you lookin’, or are you hookin’?” came a voice on the speaker. Mr. McDowell called back and said his fishermen were catching fish.
Word got out on the radio that one of the veteran anglers caught a 25-pound bass on Jen Clarke’s boat. “I hear they are doing well on Buddy’s boat,” Mr. McDowell added.
Mr. Bennett also caught a nice looking striped bass. “This is fantastic,” Mr. Bennett said, after the fish had been brought on the boat. “That fish was trying to steal my rod.”
The last time, Mr. Bennett caught a striped bass was 30 years ago. “It was in Newburyport,” he said. “But that one was a smaller fish,” he told the others.
The skies over the fishermen were cloudless. The huge ocean rollers passing under the Lauren C. were well separated from each other. Between the peak of the wave and the valley, once a minute, the boat rose and gently fell six feet. They could have been created by Hurricane Igor, or Hurricane Julia, long gone, hundreds of miles away.
“That is a lot of water passing under this boat,” the captain told the anglers. Otherwise, seas were light.
On the trip back to Menemsha, the fishermen sat on the stern and watched the seas sparkle under the sun.
After lunch at the inn, the veterans went fishing at East Beach on Chappaquiddick with top shore anglers Janet Messineo, Mike Cassidy and Phil Horton. There was a barbecue on the beach which included hamburgers and hot dogs cooked by chef Johnny Graham, of the Home Port Restaurant.
Peter Johnson was one of many contributors to the effort. He runs Roberts Lures and came up with a red, white and blue fishing lure to hand out to each of the anglers on the beach. Staff from The Trustees of Reservations contributed too.
By evening, the veterans went to the derby headquarters at the foot of Main street in Edgartown to weigh in their biggest fish. And Marc Bilodeau, who had fished with Captain Clarke earlier in the day, walked proudly with Sarah Nixon to greet weighmaster Charlie Smith. Mr. Bilodeau’s striper weighed 23.24 pounds. Butch Freeman weighed in both bluefish and striped bass, but it was a 10.63-pound bluefish that caught the crowd’s attention.
Chuck Hodgkinson, a cochairman of the fishing derby, said he was struck by how kind and how spirited the fishing challenge was. “It strikes me that with a fishing event like this, everyone says yes,” Mr. Hodgkinson said. So many people have contributed willingly to make sure the 11 anglers had a memorable, good time. “A community like ours can decide that anything is possible. Then with a few phone calls, it all becomes a reality.”
On Wednesday, because of small craft warnings, the fishing was limited to the shore. Cooper A. Gilkes 3rd and Wilson Kerr, derby committee members, ran a fly-fishing clinic on the lawn at the inn. There was a big fish dinner at the inn Wednesday night, using much of the fish caught by the anglers. The meal was prepared by chef James McDonough.
Yesterday, the anglers went out on the boats one more time in the morning to take advantage of the calm seas. An awards ceremony was held late in the morning. The winners were as follows: David Nevedomsky won the high rod competition, most fish: with 23 fish. Marc Bilodeau caught the largest striped bass, a 23.24 pounder, and Butch Freeman caught the largest bluefish at 10.63 pounds. The anglers received a commemorative ceramic platter and copper fish sculptures; the sculptures were donated by Mr. McDowell.
Both Mr. Nevedomsky and Mr. Bilodeau made it onto the fishing derby daily board for Tuesday, Sept. 21. Mr. Nevedomsky got a fourth place shore, for a 7.66-pound bluefish. Mr. Bilodeau got a third place with his boat striped bass.