Man Overboard

Behind South Florida's golden crab industry is the story of a family proud but divided

At six foot one, 365 pounds, Richard Nielsen Jr. was a man-giant with huge arms that hung from broad thick shoulders. On his left biceps was an enormous tattoo of a fisherman above a line from the Book of Psalms: "They that go down to the sea in ships." Though his legs were large and round, he was still as nimble as a man half his size. Below Richard's oversized eyeglasses was his kempt beard, which stretched from the top of his ears and encircled a mouth full of straight, white, luminescent teeth.

Like the New England lobstermen with whom he was raised, the 47-year-old seaman was superstitious. Never could his wife, Teri, tell him to be careful when he cast off because that would jinx his fishing trips. If he were going to get hurt, Richard believed, it would be on the day someone told him to be cautious. "I just had to give him a look," Teri says, "the look the wife of a fisherman gives. It was always in my eyes -- be careful -- but I'd never say it."

Teri gave Richard that look during the first hours of May 12. He had awakened in his Davie home just after 2 a.m., as he always did, to have the Lady Mary, a 51-foot boat he, his father, and his brother had built from a yacht hull in 1988, coasting toward the Atlantic Ocean by 3 a.m.

Richard Nielsen Jr. was a blustery fisherman whose voice was so deep and loud that it earned him the nickname "Boom Boom"
Richard Nielsen Jr. was a blustery fisherman whose voice was so deep and loud that it earned him the nickname "Boom Boom"
Teri Nielsen stands on a dock at Milt's Marina in Dania Beach. Behind her is the 51-foot Lady Mary.
Teri Nielsen stands on a dock at Milt's Marina in Dania Beach. Behind her is the 51-foot Lady Mary.

Richard trapped golden crabs that lived thousands of feet below the surface. To catch them, he and his crew would drop to the ocean floor dozens of baited 18-by-48-by-30-inch traps strung together and weighed down by hundreds of pounds of steel. Seven to ten days later, using a depth finder and a radio navigational system, Richard would locate the traps and drop a series of large steel chains known as a grapple into the water. He'd tie it off when he believed it was just three feet off the ocean floor, then pass the Lady Mary over the traps again and again until he felt one of the hooks snare one of the traps. Finally, he'd hoist them to the surface with a hydraulic lift. It was an art form.

Other golden crabbers used satellite positioning systems to locate and reel in their traps, but Richard could somehow communicate with the line. "It never stopped amazing me how he would grapple and somehow catch those traps 1,000 feet below," Teri says. "He knew it the second he'd caught them. He could feel the change in tension on the line. It was so slight, no one else could feel it but Richard."

At 12:30 p.m. on that warm May day, Richard and first mate Kevin Novak dropped the grapple into the water about 12 miles off Government Cut, near Miami Beach. Jose Luna, the third hand, was below deck cleaning the cabin. The steel chains sank quickly. Hundreds of feet of line followed and passed below the vessel's gunnel as the one-ton grapple sank to the bottom of the sea.

Richard waited near the bow, ready to tie off the rope on the hydraulic lift. He had placed his knife on the console near a small metal fan above the boat's steering wheel. Novak stood with his back to Richard.

Then disaster. The line jumped off the block. Richard grabbed the rope and allowed it to flow between his thumb and index finger. When the situation seemed back under control, it happened. Novak heard something, sensed something. He turned to see Richard's hand caught in the line. The man-giant was being dragged overboard. Terrified, Novak unsheathed his knife and lunged. If the mate could cut the rope, he could save the captain.

But Richard's huge bulk flew over the edge. One thousand pounds of steel rushing toward the Atlantic Ocean's sandy bottom yanked his 365-pound frame into the water as if it were that of a small child. "I tried to get in front of him," remembers the 44-year-old Novak, tears welling in his eyes as his cigarette ashes fall to the floor of his trailer in Fort Lauderdale.

Teri Nielsen, a 45-year-old with thick, curly brown hair and a warm gracious personality, sits at the dining room table in her family's three-bedroom house near Pine Island Road in Davie. Two crucifixes hang from gold chains around her neck. In the family room, facing a brown couch, is a console television. On top of it are VCR tapes of Richard and his crew fishing. At the bottom of the stack is a movie: The Perfect Storm. "People would ask me, 'What's Richard's blood type?' and I'd answer, 'South Atlantic saltwater,'" Teri says. "He was born a fisherman. He was good to the sea, and the sea was good to him."

Then she recalls a story about Richard. It was October 1984. Storms churning in the South Atlantic had kicked up seas so furious that South Florida fishermen were forced to moor their boats. For three weeks, Richard Nielsen Jr. lingered. He needed the sea. The fish traps he had planted in its bowels were his livelihood. But Richard also had a personal connection with the water. "If Richard was on dry land for too long," Teri remembers, "you couldn't stand him because he couldn't stand himself."

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