Louis Samuel Larsen, a pillar of the Vineyard fishing community known for his generosity and devotion to the ocean and his family, died Tuesday. He was 88.
One of the last commercial fishermen on the Island, Mr. Larsen saw the best and worst of the fishing industry during his lifetime. He retired from offshore fishing in 1994, leaving a legacy from the Gulf of Mexico to Nova Scotia, but could often be found spending summer mornings at Larsen’s Fish Market. Mr. Larsen worked at the family establishment up until last summer.
“My father had a really big heart,” his daughter Betsy Larsen said this week. “He was a very generous man and very kind. We’re all really proud that he was our dad. He had a wonderful life.”
Mr. Larsen was born Nov. 27, 1925 in Menemsha, the child of Norwegian immigrants with deep fishing roots. The youngest of five, Mr. Larsen was the only sibling to be born on the Island. By the age of four he knew exactly where he should be.
“I could just see over the rail of my father’s 24-foot lobster boat,” he told the Gazette in an 1986 interview. “I can remember catching my first swordfish while we were under the Gay Head Light. It was the greatest thrill.”
Fishing was always a family affair for Mr. Larsen, who dropped out of high school to fish with his brothers Bjarne and Dagbart. Growing up in Chilmark was tough as an immigrant family, he told the Gazette.
“The only way we could have made it was to stay together because it was a cruel town,” he recalled. “You always had that feeling you weren’t wanted.”
But they found solace on the ocean.
“Our whole life was the ocean, and I couldn’t learn enough about the ocean. When those sailing ships used to come into Vineyard Haven, I remember at school you could look out and see the square riggers come in, and I’d be looking out the window at that rather than doing my assignment, because I had a vision someday that’s what I wanted to be,” he said in a 1999 interview for the More Vineyard Voices anthology. “All I wanted to be was a fisherman. I didn’t want to be anything else. I couldn’t wait to get out of school and go fishing.”
The three brothers quickly earned their stripes with success at sea and earned the name “the Lucky Larsens,” hauling in upwards of 700 swordfish in one trip.
Mr. Larsen enlisted as an able bodied seaman with good friend and neighbor Jimmy Morgan during World War II. Together they made four trips on liberty ships across the Atlantic.
“He was a good shipmate and we had a lot of good times together,” Mr. Morgan said on Thursday. “He was well known in the fishing community along the coast from the Great Banks to the Gulf of Mexico. A mention of his name to most of the old-timers and they would recognize him.”
“I’ll miss him,” Mr. Morgan added.
In 1948, Mr. Larsen married Mary Sprague Smith of Vineyard Haven, eventually they made their home in Chilmark. They were married 62 years. Mrs. Larsen died four years ago. Together they had four children — Betsy, Kristine, Daniel and Louis.
Mr. Larsen and his two brothers went on to build two 83-foot steel fishing boats, the Chilmark Sword and the Chilmark Voyager, which had a commanding presence on the waterfront.
“The action of the Larsen brothers is impressive,” the Gazette reported in 1964. “Probably never has the Vineyard fleet had larger fishing boats than those now on order.”
“He had lifelong experiences with his brothers fishing out of Menemsha and was one of the highliner swordfishermen,” said Greg Mayhew, fellow commercial fisherman and swordfisherman. “It was the memories and experiences that he imparted to others about growing up in Chilmark and swordfishing and what fishing meant to him that was inspirational.”
Mr. Larsen was a master harpooner and long-lining pioneer during the glory days of swordfishing. As that fishery began to dwindle, he turned to trawling and dragging on the 70-foot Mary Elizabeth, named for his wife.
“The way it used to be, you were rewarded by the amount of work you did,” he told the Gazette. “We’d harpoon for swordfish during the day and longline for them at night. We would easily come back with close to 600 fish. We were the highliners. We all worked together and couldn’t be beat.”
Mr. Mayhew said Mr. Larsen had an uncanny understanding of the water.
“I think he could see the writing on the wall a little sooner than some of us about what the future was going to hold and what was a better way for supporting your family and still being home,” he said.
Longlining trips to the Gulf of Mexico for swordfish took Mr. Larsen away for up to a month at a time. One year he was only home for 16 days.
“It was a huge sacrifice to be away from home for those long periods of time,” his daughter Kristine said. “It was hard because we would miss him when he was gone. As a child you don’t appreciate the sacrifice that that involves.”
The Larsens opened Larsen’s Fish Market in 1969 in Menemsha, now a landmark in the historic fishing village. Mr. Larsen’s children Daniel and Louis (known as Little Louie to many) took up the mantle and opened their own fish market businesses — Daniel with Edgartown Seafood and Louie with The Net Result in Vineyard Haven. Betsy now owns Larsen’s in Menemsha and received help every morning from Mr. Larsen. He loved to cook and be around people, she said, and would bring muffins every morning.
“You always had to keep your eye on him,” she said, laughing. “There’s nothing my father loved better than lobster meat. He would look like a chipmunk he had so much lobster meat in his mouth. If I turned my back on him it was like the fox guarding the chicken coop.”
Albert O. Fischer 3rd remembered growing up across the street from the Larsens. Mr. Larsen was one of the strongest people he knew growing up, Mr. Fischer said. His work ethic was unparalleled and you always felt safe with him on the water.
The Chilmark families would often barter fish, eggs or scallops for vegetables, and looked out for one another, Mr. Fischer said.
“We were close neighbors and all of our families were really intertwined,” he said. “We looked out for one another. Growing up I was proud of him because he was such a success at whatever he did. He made you proud.”
Martha’s Vineyard Museum oral historian Linsey Lee remembered Mr. Larsen’s fine balance of fisherman and family man, and the legacy he left behind. “Louie was such a wonderful man, he was an incredible combination of being a strong fisherman but had this wonderful gentleness,” she said. “When his family came here as newcomers there were some difficulties around that. Now they’re an integral part of Vineyard life. They are the Vineyard.”
Funeral services will be announced at a later date.