“The truth is so much more complicated than we think.”
On March 29, 1984, a commercial fishing boat called the Wind Blown and its four-man crew went down off the coast of Montauk during a freak spring storm. Neither the boat nor the bodies of the men were ever recovered, and the tragic tale became a local legend among the working class fishing community of East Hampton. In her debut book, The Lost Boys of Montauk, long-time investigative journalist Amanda Fairbanks delves into the backstories of the four young men – Captain Mike Stedman and Mates Dave Connick, Michael Vigilant, and Scott Clarke – and the web of people affected by their deaths.
Fairbanks, who has worked at the New York Times and HuffPost and whose writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, Newsweek, and other publications, talked to KCM about how the story ballooned into a book about class, manhood, societal norms, and the history of the East End.
KCM: What initially pulled you into this story?
When my son was about a year old, we moved out to East Hampton and I got a job working as a staff writer at the East Hampton Star. In the winter of 2016, my editor at the told me he’d always wanted to write this “great untold story of the Hamptons,” but that it needed to be told by an outsider because it was too messy for an insider to navigate.
The following summer, I met up with Mary Stedman, the widow of the young captain at East Hampton library. She has a photographic memory and we began having these three to four hour long interviews a couple of times a week. Suddenly I had tens of thousands of interview notes. At that point I realized this was not a magazine story, but the makings of a book.
How was this different from writing an investigative piece for a magazine or newspaper?
On one of my early trips out to the lighthouse in Montauk, I met three people on the beach around at dusk. I said I was there to research a book about the Wind Blown and they said, “Oh, you mean, March 29th, 1984.” None of them knew the men personally, but this became something like a 9/11 for this area: a date that everyone seemed to recall exactly where they had been when they heard the news.
It became fascinating to me as an outsider because when you drop in for a summer, oftentimes you can’t appreciate that these are real places inhabited by people who live there all the time. One of the huge emphases of my reporting locally has been class differences and disparities. Aboard the boat, there were these two much more affluent, well-bred, patrician sons of powerful fathers, and then there were also these two sons who were very much working class. That became a fascinating lens with which to explore how these four guys wound up on the same fishing boat.
You mention in the book that writing something like this can strain or end relationships. That sounds very difficult.
It’s a difficult story. It’s not an authorized biography, but my version of what had occurred based on over 120 interviews from multiple sources. It is a personal story and there are many aspects of the story that I left out, but as these skeletons started tumbling forth from various closets, it became part of a richer tapestry and a deeper story and a true story of what happened. As is often the case, the truth is so much more complicated than we think when we go into something.
It seems like the issue of control, or lack thereof, is a prominent theme in this book – characters try to gain control over their lives and destinies and sometimes their interests are in conflict.
All of these four guys had very complicated relationships with their fathers. I’m not suggesting that they were out there catching fish and talking about their father issues at all. But what was interesting was that they were all breaking free of that and going in search of a different identity on that boat. It was a huge part of asserting themselves as young men able to make their way in the world and search for identity.
It’s obviously tragic that these four young men died, but it’s also kind of beautiful that they were doing the thing that they loved to do most in life. There is a recklessness to commercial fishing. It’s incredibly dangerous and I think everyone who goes into it knows that it is. So there’s something beautiful about the fact that they were all following their destiny, even though they didn’t have any control over it.
Having gone from large news organizations to a very small local newspaper, what is your perspective on local newspapers and local reporting?
I think they perform a very vital public service. It’s really wonderful when we have these large news organizations that shine these big, bright, national lights on things, but there’s something to be said for all of these local papers around the country that in the last decade have gone away. There’s no one covering town board meetings and school board meetings and holding elected officials accountable: All of the things that good muckraking journalists do is really absent in a lot of the country. We really have yet to crack that nut of how to make the very expensive work of news gathering affordable, and that is really to the detriment of small towns all across the country.
What has this story come to mean to you?
A recent reader said, “This really feels like an obsession of yours. I feel like you’re taking us along on this ride and all the many different tangents that you explored,” and that’s certainly true. It does feel very personal to me. As the journalist, I’m the person who uncovers all of these things that were there all along, but pieces them together.
It’s a story of secrets, but it’s also a story of healing and reconciliation and how we’re only as sick as our secrets and that when the truth comes out and the light is shed in those dark places, that’s really where healing can begin. As the writer of the story, that was the most personally moving and I hope readers will be similarly struck by that as well.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Written and reported by Ciara Hopkinson.