Saltwater Portrait

Lewes’ Richard Martin is not your typical fisherman

Early bond with sea leads to lifetime on the water
August 23, 2011
Richard Martin at the weigh station with a 61-pound drum he caught off the waters of the outer breakwater. BY RON MACARTHUR

Three to five times a week, Richard Martin launches his 14-foot boat to go fishing.

The Lewes man is not your typical angler; he usually brings home fish for supper, but not from casting a line from his boat. Instead, Martin dives into the waters of the Delaware Bay and spears his prey.

When most people think about diving trips, they envision pristine aquamarine waters off the coast of a tropical island.

That’s not always the case for Martin, who finds beauty in the murky bay waters. Martin has been free diving for nearly 55 years and spearfishing for 50 years. He loves it. “It’s something different every time I go out there. Things are constantly changing,” he said.

And it just so happens on Aug. 18 he speared his biggest fish – a monster 61-pound drum, which bypasses his second-largest fish by 30 pounds.

Martin, 74, speared the fish in about 10 feet of water along the outer breakwater off the shores of Cape Henlopen State Park, about 200 yards from the Harbor of Refuge Lighthouse. It’s the spot he goes most days.

With only about 3 feet of visibility, Martin positioned himself among the rocks and waited for the fish to come to him. He saw a large shadow and fired his spear gun, making a perfect hit near the gills.

Martin says he can hold his breath for about 90 seconds before coming up for another gulp of air. He won’t go in the water unless he has at least 3 feet of visibility; normal is 3 to 8 feet. He said, believe it or not, on three rare occasions over the past four decades, the visibility was at least 40 feet.

He said there is no rhyme or reason why some days are better than others. A series of factors – including current, weather, wind and rainfall – play a part, but there are no hard- and-fast rules when it comes to diving into the Delaware Bay.

Last year, he said, he was able to dive only three or four times – the number of times he normally dives each week between April and October.

A bond with the sea

Born in Wilmington, Martin's bond with the sea began when he was 4 years old, when he moved to Saxis, Va., on the Eastern Shore. He lived there with his father, and summer days were spent swimming, crabbing, clamming and oystering.

Martin didn’t learn to dive in the bay but in the crystal clear waters of Florida’s famous natural springs. At the age of 20, he purchased all of the equipment, including tanks, for about $60, and he learned to dive on his own. He went on to eventually become a certified instructor and taught others to dive through the Delaware Underwater Swim Club at YMCAs and Dover Air Force Base.

He has also competed in many spearfishing competitions, qualifying for national competition five times during his lifetime. He held the world record for the largest sheepshead at 12.8 pounds back in 2002.

He’s still active in the Delaware Underwater Swim Club and the Diamond State Skindivers.

Martin says he is always thinking about safety, but he doesn’t dwell on it. He has seen numerous sharks during his decades of diving, but not one has ever shown aggression. “I’m just another predator down there trying to stay on the top of the food chain and not the middle,” he says.

He said the biggest threat is not from the water, but from the barnacle-encrusted rocks of the breakwater. He wears a thick wet suit from head to toe, not because of the water temperature, but to protect him from getting cut up on the rocks or stung by jellyfish.

He has had the same 14-foot boat since 1988. “I talk to it all the time. That boat has great floatation,” he says over and over again.

That means over the years, his trusty boat has helped him get out of scrapes with bad weather.

Connection to the Apollo program

When not on the water, Martin held several jobs during his working career. He owned a gas station, sold insurance, worked at Dover Air Force Base and worked for the federal government as a quality-control representative.

But the job he likes to talk the most about is the seven years he spent at ILC in Dover as an astronaut suit designer and tester. During the years of the lunar landings, he was on a  team that delivered spacesuits to the Apollo astronauts, which gave him an opportunity to meet most of the Apollo astronauts on trips to Houston. He still has a plaster cast of Neil Armstrong’s hand that was used to make his space gloves.

In 1979, he moved to Lewes and lived on a boat in the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal for nine months before buying his current house on Cedar Street.

Martin spends most of his free time as a volunteer and dock master at his second home, the Lewes Yacht Club. The former commodore – in 1990 and 1991 and then again in 2009 and 2010 – remains on the board of directors and has been chairman of most committees at one time or another. ”I’ve always been involved at the yacht club. It’s just a phenomenal place,” he said.

A true Renaissance man, Martin has boxes on display in his home of arrowheads and other Native American artifacts he has collected over the years. Most were found on his farm near Dover where he lived when he worked at ILC.

He is proud of the artifacts because, on his father’s side of the family tree, his ancestors reportedly came to this country with Capt. John Smith, and one of his male relatives married a Native American woman.

Martin has been married to Peggy for nearly five years and the couple lives on Cedar Street, just a block away from the bay and half a mile from the yacht club. His former wife, Ann, died of cancer.

Martin has two children, four grandchildren and one great-grandson as well as two stepchildren and four step grandchildren.

Martin said he hasn’t thought much about giving up the sport he loves. “I guess I’ll keep doing it until I start getting too sore or something swims away with me,” he says with a laugh.

However, there is something that keeps Martin going out to the breakwater each week – an elusive 60-pound striper. “It’s the one that got away, and it might be back,” he says.