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Sep 27, 2016 3:46 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press

Stuart Vorpahl's Voice Echoes In Documentary

Stuart Vorpahl in a scene from the short film accomanying the audio documenatary about him. PHOTO COURTESY SOME NOISE
Sep 27, 2016 4:33 PM

When Stuart Vorpahl died last spring, East Hampton lost one of its most unique voices, literally and figuratively, in both tone and tenor.

Mr. Vorpahl’s turns of phrase and drawling cadence harked to the 12 generations of his ancestors who worked on the waters of East Hampton with lingering linguistic hints of the old English dialects the earliest of them spoke. And his brain carried innumerable stories and lore of the region’s history long lost by others. He’d read, by his own account, all the town records three times through.

Many lamented, at his passing, that no one had made a focused effort to record conversations and swapping of stories with Mr. Vorpahl beyond the video footage of his various appearances at government meetings and on public access television shows.

But, someone did.

“Oh boy, what the hell is this,” Mr. Vorpahl says, his voice softly guttural and cracking with rasp, rising into focus in the opening moment of “When the Tides Change,” a two-hour audio documentary about the late Mr. Vorpahl by former Stony Brook University student Najib Aminy. Mr. Aminy captured dozens of hours of Mr. Vorpahl talking about East Hampton history, about fishing, about government and the fishing community, in 2014 and 2015.

With a rich background of sounds—water sloshing in fish traps, old floor boards and screen doors creaking, heavy fishing gear clunking against the sides of boat gunwales—Mr. Vorpahl, through Mr. Aminy’s microphone, walks the listener through a particular part of East Hampton’s history and his own decades-long struggle to free East Hampton’s baymen from the constraints of New York State fisheries law, based on 17th Century colonial decrees from the King of England.

“When the Tides Change” wanders between being an illustrative examination of the quixotic battle Mr. Vorpahl waged for so long and a showcase of Mr. Vorpahl’s deep and cherished knowledge of his ancestors’ way of life and the East Hampton community’s historic landscape from which his mission grew. The conversation, which weaves in interviews with numerous other local figures and adversaries of Mr. Vorpahl, explores East Hampton’s baymen, the Bonackers, Mr. Vorpahl’s personification of their shrinking community and his role as one of its last bards.

“He embodies a community,” Mr. Aminy said in an interview this week. “I knew as soon as I met Stu that there was a story here to tell.”

What started as a pitch for a senior college project turned into a salve for a creative itch, that required a series of trips from California where Mr. Aminy landed a job after college, to scratch.

Along the way, Mr. Aminy captured dozens of hours of recordings of Mr. Vorpahl, spotlighting over and over his acerbic disdain for the modern world’s workings and old-world way of expressing it.

“If I could go back and live in 1950, I’d be happy as a clam at high tide,” Mr. Vorpahl offers in one of his lyrical laments. “1950s things started to sour. Before that—I’m talkin’ fishermen and farmers—we were fat, dumb and happy. Poorer than a crow without feathers, but never knowing it. Rich in other things.”

During the recording, Mr. Vorpahl was already battling the blood cancer that would ultimately overcome him, but he marched spiritedly with Mr. Aminy in tow through the halls of records and fishing grounds that framed his 20-plus-year fight against the state over fishing rights.

The details of Mr. Vorpahl’s lone fight against the state is one well-known to East Enders, if not the incredible dedication of time he poured into girding for a legal battle he never fully got to wage. Through his voluminous readings of Town Trustees records, court cases, state legislation and the Dongan Patents, the colonial documents that the Trustees indirectly still derive their authority from, Mr. Vorpahl assembled a defense of a point that almost no opponent could out maneuver.

“I’m not crazy, I’m not no crazy crackpot nut at all,” he lays out in one soundbite. “I know my stuff, period.”

Judges didn’t disagree, but sidestepped the sprawling legal tangles by repeatedly dismissing on technicalities the charges state fisheries authorities brought against Mr. Vorpahl.

“When the Tides Change” also captures the voice of Russell Drumm, a longtime writer for the East Hampton Star who would die the same week as Mr. Vorpahl and who witnessed and reflects on the bayman’s motivations for his fight.

“He spent hours and hours and days and days studying the Dongan Patent, studying the contents of every meeting of the East Hampton Town Trustees going back to the 1600s,” Mr. Drumm says. “He was literally living in the past through these documents, and trying to live in the present at the same time—and not always succeeding.”

Mr. Vorpahl’s lingering sentiment, woven in and out again between others expressing wonderment and admiration for Mr. Vorpahl’s depth of knowledge and dedication to cause, while at times also shrugging at the futility of it, is one of disinterest.

“I don’t give a good rats rear,” he says of one doubter (not named Harry Brown) “what Harry Brown leaning against that light post thinks.”

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Thanks Mike, Stuart fought the good fight and had the DEC scared stiff! Glad to hear that this record exists.
By bigfresh (4249), north sea on Sep 28, 16 6:11 AM
What a fantastic and profound story!!!!
By toes in the water (769), southampton on Sep 28, 16 8:02 AM
good stuff
By They call me (2647), southampton on Sep 28, 16 9:27 AM