by Steve “Tuna” Tornovish
Unsinkability. Is that a real term? Well, I’m going to say yes, seeing how my spellcheck feature didn’t draw a red line under the word. But what does it really mean to be unsinkable? It’s not always a positive term, of course. The Titanic was said to be unsinkable, and that didn’t go so well. But in my lexicon, if I feel that someone is considered unsinkable, it’s high praise.
I had to think of where my love of unsinkability came from. It finally hit me – I had watched the 1964 movie “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” with my grandmother, Dorothy Allen, when I was a kid. The film started with little tiny baby Molly Brown floating down a flood-swollen river in a crib. Molly, played by Debbie Reynolds, overcame an endless series of calamities in her life, including a trip on the afore-mentioned Titanic. Molly Brown’s buoyancy developed from her pluck, her street smarts, and her endless optimism. Nothing was going to get her down. As the lovely Ms. Reynolds stated in her funny little hillbilly accent, “Nobody wants to see me down like I wants to see me up!”
As you can clearly see, I hold unsinkability up as a key quality of the kind of person I want around me. When life throws lemons, the unsinkable person buys the house a round of lemonade in short order. And it was this notion exactly that added some pep to my step when I recently went to visit the Wizard, Mr. Jeff Allen. Jeff is the proprietor of Fish Stix – Nantucket fishing rods, the finest custom fishing rods around. Jeff is fun, knowledgeable, and a little bit mysterious (again, a great quality in Stevie World). I was excited for my hang with Jeff that afternoon as he was going to spec out a new fishing rod for me. Yeah, I was having a pretty good day.
“So your Fish Stix rod needs a big brother, right? Come check out these rod blanks and see what might work for you.” Jeff had already selected a half dozen candidates for me to peruse. Each rod blank was in the realm of 10 feet long. Some felt whippy, others felt very stiff.
“Here, let me be the fish for you,” Jeff said, grabbing the far end of the rod blanks and bending them to what would seem to be well past the breaking point.“That one can throw lures in the one- to three-ounce range. What do you think?” One particular blank just felt right. I could envision it being the perfect tool for the job on a day when the wind was whipping and the fish were crashing a good distance from the beach. I nodded. Jeff just laughed, saying, “I knew this was the one that you would like best.” Of course he did. Wizards know things.
I had decreed that Jeff Allen was the Wizard of Fishing Rods after we had danced this same dance a couple of years earlier. Jeff had built me a fishing rod that is so perfect that I named it The Cheat Code. It makes casting and catching so easy that it’s an unfair advantage! Jeff had listened to me when I told him that I needed a lighter rod, one that I could fish every day, all day. It had to have the backbone to handle a big striper or gator bluefish but also have the feel for me to be able to toss soft plastic lures with some of the required finesse. Jeff sized up my situation, disappeared into his wizard cave and conjured up the absolute perfect fishing rod for my needs. My only complaint with it is that whenever a client uses it, they don’t want to give it back to me!
So exactly how did Jeff become the wizard? I had to know, and being the nosey guy that I am, I asked him. What I learned is that Jeff Allen, much like Molly Brown, is unsinkable.
“Twelve years ago, I got very sick. My vision was fading, my balance was gone. I was extremely weak.” Jeff told me that he eventually made his way to the office of Dr. Tim Lepore, another certified wizard. Dr. Lepore immediately suspected that Jeff had an advanced case of Lyme’s Disease. There was a lot of blood work examined and medications administered. Specialists were quickly called upon, particularly neurologists. “I had a three hour neurological examination at Mass. General in Boston. And later on, I had physical therapy rehabilitation sessions that were similar to what stroke victims undergo. I had to relearn a lot of things.”
Jeff was in a battle, to be sure. His thriving photography business was put on hold due to Jeff’s physical instabilities (Spoiler Alert: Jeff is back to photography, caring for his loyal customer base). But one of the qualities of being unsinkable is having the ability to persevere, no matter what. Jeff decided that this health crisis could be turned into an opportunity. “I needed to find something to do that would bring people joy, get them outside. And also not have me chained to a computer.”
Jeff had been curious about building fishing rods, sparked by his friendship with long-time rod builder Barry Thurston. “Barry gave me a lot of help and encouragement at the start. I also began watching YouTube how-to videos while I was getting my medical infusions.” Jeff’s wife Betty was fully supportive of his new activity. “She saw me trying to use the manual hand-wrapping device and said that I needed to order the powered one. So I did!” Soon Jeff was attending fishing rod builder seminars in North Carolina. The rest, as they say, is history.
Nah, not quite. Because wizardry involves magic and you can’t just order magic from a fishing rod building supplier. The real magic came from Jeff’s artistic eye. Years of looking at things from behind his camera lens had honed Jeff’s instincts about what makes people tick. Jeff certainly would have made a good detective. He sizes up the physical characteristics of his clients, of course, but he also observes their mannerisms and makes mental notes about their personalities. Are they intense? Methodical? Easy going or high-motor types? All of these observations help him determine what type of rod will work best for the individual client. Jeff questions his customers to help them define exactly what it is that they think they’re looking for in a fishing rod. “I ask people to tell me about their favorite species to catch, where they fish, how they fish, what kind of travel they do, things like that. I guess it’s an interview. But they walk away with a great product and a great experience.” Yes, they certainly do—I can attest to this!
Jeff took me on a tour of his rod-making shop. Every tiny detail that Jeff puts into a fishing rod is based upon his contact with the customer. He demonstrated how he forms the cork fore-grips for his rods on a lathe. He showed me the detailed wraps that he uses to attach the line guides to the rods. We looked at the beautiful IRT fishing reels that he pairs to his rods. They are of a quality worthy of the finished Fish Stix – Nantucket rod. Some folks will treat Jeff’s finished product like the work of art that it is. Others, like me, are going to fish it like they stole it. But every customer leaves Jeff’s shop with the fishing equipment that they had been dreaming of.
Jeff stood in his showroom, surrounded by his fishing rods, reels and rod blanks. “My dad was an amazing fisherman. We were inseparable. I remember him taking me out on a frozen Quincy harbor, spearing eels through the ice. Or we’d rent a flat back dory with a little 15-horsepower motor and go fishing all day. He would be blown away if he could see this!”
I have to agree with Jeff. His father would certainly be smiling at the love that Jeff instills in every fishing rod that leaves his shop, along with the top notch quality and amazing workmanship. Jeff’s dad would be proud to see that Jeff spends his days helping others to get the joy out of fishing that Jeff and he shared. He would be glad to see that Jeff never succumbed to the easy out of self-pity when faced with his health challenges. Jeff’s dad would love to see how much his son cares for his community and the significant charity work that Jeff does. Yes, he would be proud of Jeff’s magic. And his unsinkability.
Steve “Tuna” Tornovish is a Nantucket native who has spent his life fishing
from the beaches of his beloved island. He loves to introduce clients to
the joy of fishing with his Nantucket Island Fishing Adventures: stevetuna.com