George Svelling

George Svelling spent his life working on the water, but he joined his wife, Dolores, for a Panama Canal cruise for her 60th birthday, about 15 years ago.

Svelling family photo

George Svelling learned to fish from his father, Jack. And when he had a son, George taught him how to fish.

In both cases, the lessons started early.

“I was fishing with my father before I was in kindergarten,” says Eric Svelling, 48, who lives in Barnegat Light —as did his father and grandfather. “I got my first boat when I was 20, and by then, I already had a 15-year apprenticeship.”

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And Capt. George probably had a 70-plus-year commercial-fishing career when he died last month, at 77. He had fought lymphoma for a year — after working hard until then.

“He actively fished until he was 75,” his son says. “Even near the end, I had a kid working with him on the boat, a big kid — he works out, does mixed martial arts. They came in and were unloading fish, and I joked with the guy, ‘You’re not out there trying to kill my dad, are you?’ He says, ‘Are you kidding me? He’s trying to kill me!’ Guys a third of his age had a hard time keeping up with my dad.”

From the time Eric was a boy, he and his father were a fishing team.

“We always worked together, whether me for him or him for me,” the son says.

They chased different catches on different boats, but Barnegat Light, at the northern tip of Long Beach Island, stayed the home port — for the boats and the family. George and Dolores Svelling had four girls along with their one boy, and raised the kids with neighbors who were also fishing captains with big families.

And Eric wasn’t the only other Svelling to get into the family business. For 10 years, his dad also ran Capt. George’s Fish Market, where the staff included the captain’s wife and their oldest daughter, now Jill Belloff, 52, of the Waretown section of Ocean Township.

When George was sick last year, not being able to go fishing was hard on him. But looking back, Belloff calls that time a blessing because it “gave all the kids the chance to know our father better. ... We all had to stay with him while our mom was at work” — Dolores, 75, sells real estate. “Each one had a day to daddy-sit.”

On her days, Belloff would take him out to eat, ask questions, get him talking about his old days.

“He said when he was a little kid, the lobsters were like crabs — biting you (in the ocean),” she says. “He said there were times you couldn’t go in the water.”

Eric spent more than 40 years on the water with his dad, and he actually did have a “beef” with George — which he knows puts him in a tiny minority in Barnegat Light, where Capt. George was a mentor to generations of fishermen.

But the way Eric saw it, George didn’t always have to be so honest — especially about where the fish were.

“I wanted to say, ‘Dad, could you not be so generous with what we’re doing?’” Eric says.

A Life Lived appears Tuesdays and Saturdays.

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