Gloucester Hangs Out ‘Gone Fishin” Sign : Lifestyle: Since 1623, when cod was used as currency in the New World, commercial fishing has been the lifeblood of a Massachusetts port.
“Just imagine, 10,000 men of Gloucester lost at sea,” mused author-historian Joseph E. Garland as he stood on his back porch overlooking Gloucester Harbor and the Atlantic Ocean.
“This is the greatest fishing port in the history of the Western Hemisphere, also the one with the most tragedies,” Garland said. At 68, this rugged former fisherman has written 15 books, many about the men of Gloucester and their defiant battle with the sea.
On the waterfront here is Leonard Craske’s “Fishermen’s Memorial,” a statue of a helmsman in slicker, boots and hat, dedicated to the 10,000 Gloucester men who lost their lives while fishing.
It was here in 1623 that a handful of British fishermen began a fishing business, among the first commercial enterprises in the New World. Their bountiful catches were shipped back across the Atlantic. Cod was America’s first currency.
Fishing has been the lifeblood of Gloucester (pronounced Glos-ter) for 367 years. A century ago, about 7,000 fishermen shipped out on 400 huge schooners to fish the North Atlantic and the Grand Banks. Today, 500 fishermen set out from Gloucester in about 140 smaller boats.
“We still lose men who go down to sea and never come back,” said Garland, whose family has lived in Gloucester since Colonial times. “Seven years ago, two brothers were fishing in a small boat in Gloucester Harbor 200 to 300 yards from this back porch, where my wife and I were having lunch. A squall came up and the boat capsized. One brother made it, the other drowned, and we were powerless to do anything about it.”
But it was in the days of the big fishing schooners that the losses were most awesome. From 1870 to 1874, 129 boats went to the cruel depths, carrying 877 fishermen with them.
“Among the endless legends of man’s struggle with the sea, none is more magnificently moving than that of the fishermen from Gloucester,” wrote Sterling Hayden in his foreword to Garland’s book “Down to the Sea; The Fishing Schooners of Gloucester.” Before he became an actor, Hayden fished out of Gloucester.
Fishing the Atlantic from Gloucester is “dangerous as hell,” Garland said. The fishing casualties from the community far exceeded those from any wars or natural disasters. (During the Civil War, 36 Gloucester men were lost in battle.)
Garland, who may have written more than anyone about Gloucester fishermen, believes Rudyard Kipling’s 1897 book, “Captains Courageous,” is the best ever written on the subject. It was the 1937 film based on Kipling’s book that won Spencer Tracy an Oscar for his portrayal of a Gloucester fisherman, Manuel Fidelo.
The film poignantly captures the perilous life of Gloucester men fishing under sail; it ends with the all-too-common loss at sea.
The Portuguese have played a major role in Gloucester fishing since the 1830s. On a pedestal between the two towers of Our Lady of Good Voyage, the church of the Portuguese fishermen, is a 10-foot statue of the Virgin Mary cradling a Gloucester fishing schooner.
Following the migration of the Portuguese fishermen to Gloucester from the Azores came Bluenose fishermen from Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, Irish fisherman from Galway Bay, Italians from Sicily.
“Through the years, many Gloucester men of the sea have exemplified the ability to survive. Howard Blackburn, the greatest of the dorymen, is one of them,” said Garland, whose book “Long Voyager” is a biography of Blackburn.
Garland described Blackburn as a “giant figure in the most griping of Gloucester’s uncounted sagas of death and survival at sea.” In 1883, while fishing for halibut in a dory off Nova Scotia, Blackburn and his dory mate were separated from their schooner in a blizzard.
Blackburn’s dory mate froze to death. When Blackburn’s gloves were washed overboard and he realized his hands would soon freeze, he curled them around the oar handles.
“For five days Blackburn rowed with his frozen hands, without food or water, with his dead dory mate in the boat beside him. He rowed 60 miles until he finally reached land,” Garland said.
“He lost all his fingers, half of each thumb and most of his toes. Yet he later sailed his sloop alone from Gloucester to England in 1899, and two years later sailed alone from Gloucester to Portugal in 39 days, a record that stood for 38 years.
“Blackburn’s harrowing defiance was: You bastard sea. You licked me once. I’m going to outlick you on my terms. Blackburn twice conquered the Atlantic.”
Gloucester, population 27,000, is a shrine to fishermen. The First Baptist Church is shaped like the bow of a ship. Fishing boats clutter the harbor. Lobster traps are piled high on St. Peter’s Square.
Recently at Our Lady of Good Voyage, the priest began his Sunday sermon: “We have come to praise God.” A parishioner cried out . . . “And to catch fish.”