It is early morning, and just over the horizon and rising with the sun come the notable red and white striped outriggers of the Albatross Fleet.
80 years ago in 1937, the Albatross was the first boat built in North Carolina for the express purpose of Offshore charter boat fishing. All these years later, this fleet proudly maintains its unique round stern design, which has been meticulously updated and taken care of since first being launched.
The enduring nature of the fleet is remarkable in a place threatened by constant change and development, namely Hatteras village.
As a young man, Ernal Foster grew up around the docks in Hatteras village with his family, who like most other families in the village, made a living in commercial fishing. After enjoying a brief stint in the Coast Guard on Long Island, Ernal was forced to return to his tiny island during the depression. Ernal never lost hope, however, and a dream began to swell in his heart.
With his remaining savings, Ernal designed and had Milton Willis of Marshallberg build his boat with the intention of taking people offshore and teaching them how to fish, hoping they would pay him to do it. Though many considered the idea a delusion, a lot of business began coming in from sportsmen from the north and mid-west who owned hunting clubs on the island.
Though charter trips came to a startling halt during WWII, it boomed immediately after and the remaining two boats of the fleet were built in 1948 and 1953 to support the influx of more and more customers.
It was in these years after the war that the Albatross II gained its fame for catching the world record marlin in the summer of 1962 at 810 lbs.
Captain Bill, Ernal’s brother and co-captain of the fleet, also set the standard for the catch and release of marlin.
Ernal’s son, Ernie, has been around the boats his whole life.
When he was old enough to go to college, he even chose a career in education so that he could fish in the summers. He began running the finances of the family’s charter fishing business in 1977 and assumed control of the operation at his father’s death in 1996.
The fleet currently sits comfortably in its own private docks at Foster’s Quay, complete with private fish-cleaning facilities, and recognizable by the red and white striped outriggers.
Custom built by Ernal Foster specifically for the waters off Hatteras, these round stern boats are made with Atlantic white cedar and coated in fiber glass. Ernie says they have endured for so long that he doesn’t dare change them.
The fleet has endures because it is well-maintained by its captains: Ernie Foster, Bryan Mattingly, and Mike Scott.
All of the captains have been around boats for years and are well-versed in the art of boat maintenance. Bryan, who started as a mate and has worked with the boats for over 20 years, is the primary captain.
Though the captains are not related, Ernie says the business is a family. Indeed, even customers become like family during their offshore trips which is probably why multiple generations of families come back to fish on the fleet. “Our customers become friends, rather than it being just a business transaction,” Ernie says.
As for his favorite thing about the business of charter fishing, Captain Ernie says it is meeting so many people from different places, despite growing up on an isolated island. People now come to Hatteras from all over the world to fish. “It is as though the world comes to Hatteras!”
Most of all, though, he enjoys being so closely connected to untamed nature. When out in the open-ocean where the current can be swift, seafarers face “forces beyond their control. With all of these unknowns, you have great expectations, and I’m driven by that.”
In 80 years, the fleet has taken over 10,000 trips.
Named for the infamous bird in the Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” it seems that the boats have had good luck all these years as they have never been severely damaged in a storm. After all, despite its reputation as a bad luck charm, the albatross is a good omen for fishermen as long as they don’t kill it!
To commemorate this remarkable 80th birthday, the Albatross Fleet will be honoring the Hatteras Island Cancer Foundation with a women’s offshore fishing tournament – The brand new Albatross Fall Female Classic.
Female Anglers are welcome to come fish with friends on the Albatross II and III and enjoy an onboard picnic breakfast and lunch, which were donated by local businesses. The cost is $250 per person with 100% of the monies going to the HICF’s newly formed endowment fund managed by the Outer Banks Community Foundation. As the Albatross Fleet states, “What better way for us to celebrate our longevity than to offer a long term future for an organization that has helped many island families? And we’re going to have fun doing it!”.
The Albatross Fleet was the first charter business in Hatteras to hire a female mate despite the myth that women brought back luck to a boat. Since then, it is not unusual for females to work as mates and even as captains and now there are several serving those functions among the Hatteras Inlet fleet.
You can learn more about Ernie and his father in Hatteras Blues: A Story from the Edge of America by Tom Carlson.
For information on the upcoming fishing tournament, visit https://www.facebook.com/albatrossfleet/.