‘Captain Jack’ makes final trip to the Delaware Bay

John P. Donovan Jr., also known as “Captain Jack” was perhaps happiest with a rod and reel in hand, anticipating the upcoming catch of the day. (Submitted photo/Donovan family)

John P. Donovan Jr., also known as “Captain Jack” was perhaps happiest with a rod and reel in hand, anticipating the upcoming catch of the day. (Submitted photo/Donovan family)

NORTH BOWERS BEACH — Today, “Captain Jack” makes his final trip to the Delaware Bay, where his spirit will stay forever.

John P. Donovan Jr., the lifelong and well known Bowers Beach-Frederica area waterman, died on June 15 at age 80, and his ashes will be scattered into the water he navigated for decades.

Captained by Bob Trowbridge, the 70-foot Captain’s Lady vessel will take family and friends from the Muderkill River to the bay, a path that Mr. Donovan followed many times on his way to a rescue mission, oystering, fishing, crabbing and everything else that comes with being a waterman every day for most his life.

“He was probably the most qualified waterman on the Delaware Bay,” said author James Milton Hanna, who featured Captain Jack in “Delaware Bay Stories, Past & Present” in one of the nine books he penned on life on the water here.

John P. Donovan Jr. or “Captain Jack” was rarely seen not wearing rubber boots.

John P. Donovan Jr. or “Captain Jack” was rarely seen not wearing rubber boots.

“Whether it was oystering, net fishing, crabbing or rod and reel, he did it with a great knowledge of the water itself and how to do it.”

The search for the next catch was relentless, his wife Shirley said.

“I once told him that he’d never be happy until every fish had been taken out of this bay,” she said earlier this week when recounting memories of a life well lived and occasionally holding back tears.

His wife added, “Easter, Christmas holidays, no matter what the weather was, he had to be there on the water.”

Years ago, Shirley said, “It literally has to be blowing a gale or the temperature no lower than 24 degrees so the boat will not ice up for him not to go out.”

Rarely seen not wearing rubber boots — blue mostly, but yellow when he was dressing up, friends and family said —

Mr. Donovan reportedly saved the lives of at least 15 people in various forms of distress, taking his anchored 65-foot Head Boat “Reliable II” out of his Donovan’s Dock for more than 25 years at a moment’s notice to answer a call from the U.S. Coast Guard.

“It was probably more than that,” Mr. Hanna said of the number of heroic rescues.

‘By guess and by gosh’

Many of the trips were guided by a compass in the time before technology advance to Global Positioning Systems.

Describing her husband as an “Ole Salt” in a 2003 e-mail said “he gives the younger waterman a run for their money and they all love and respect him.”

Captain Jack’s style was what could be expected from a born-and-bred waterman, his wife described.

“His fashion statement is usually an old raggedy shirt, pair of sweatpants and rubber boots and of course his hat,” she wrote in a 2003 email.

Standing 5-foot-2, Captain Jack “was just a little tiny guy but ran a big boat,” his wife remembered this week.
“He’d stand up on a box in the wheelhouse to run his boat.”

In addition, Shirley said “he knew every part of the bay and could catch a certain species of fish by going to a

Moving through the water is John P. “Captain Jack” Donovan Jr. on his 65-foot “Reliable II.”

Moving through the water is John P. “Captain Jack” Donovan Jr. on his 65-foot “Reliable II.”

location where he knew they were.

“That’s how good a waterman he was.”

A lot of the navigation was “by guess and by gosh,” Mr. Vanderwende said, further adding to Captain Jack’s aura.

Mr. Hanna said he’s written books to preserve memories of men just like Mr. Donovan.

“They are stories that would be lost stories as the people leave and the memories fade,” Mr. Hanna said. “Old time watermen are passing on.”

Among those was Mr. Donovan’s long time best friend Bill Cain.

Still here is Butch Vanderwende, 70, who grew up in nearby Little Creek and said he knew Captain Jack since he was a teenager. The friendship grew and the fishing buddies each Sunday made small boat trips out to Broadkill Beach and the St. Jones River for net fishing excursions.

“He loved the rod and reel,” Mr. Vanderwende said.

The waters were not always calm, however.

“I fished with in little boats, big boats, at night through lighthouses,” Mr. Vanderwende recalled.

“We had a few storms and squalls hit us with 60 mile per hour winds. We kept trucking on. We loved it.”

At times, Mr. Vanderwende said he would continue fishing as Mr. Donovan bailed water to keep the small boat afloat.

Captain as kid

According to Mr. Hanna in his 2008 book, Captain Jack as a kid would awake at daylight to check gill nets he had set, taking a rowboat out to remove the perch he had caught.

“He would deliver the fish to a store in Frederica that bought and sold fish as well as muskrats,” the book read.

“Some readers seem shocked when reading about muskrats being sold in local stores. Back in the olden days, people living along the rivers and the bay considered muskrats a part of their diet.

“Many people still have muskrat dinners.”

For several years, Mr. Hanna said, the future Captain Jack would deliver fish to the store before hurrying home to clean up and walk to school.

“He … was paid for his fish each Friday,” Mr. Hanna wrote. “Selling fish provided a nice income for a young teenager.”

The fish net catches allowed Mr. Donovan to buy a 1.5 horsepower motor for his rowboat, which allowed for more nets in the water in more creeks.

Mr. Donovan was on his way toward a life on the water that eventually allowed him to operate a charter boat business designed to allow clients to share his love of the Delaware Bay and its surrounding waterways.

“He probably never met anyone he didn’t like,” Mr. Hanna said. “He didn’t have any enemies.”

Before his death last month at the Delaware Hospice Center in Milford, he got through years of health problems including a stroke in 1995, prostate cancer in 2003, and glaucoma in 2004.

“I have got to say that (Captain Jack) hardly missed any time on the water due to these unfortunate situations,” his wife said 10 years ago when describing her husband in a letter.

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