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In Memory of My Father: A Draggerman’s Tale

January 12, 2010

July 3, 2009

My father, Brian Gibbons, died seven years ago in the early morning of the Fourth of July. He was 52. He spent most of his life on the sea, and, for the lion’s share of his fishing career, he lobstered out of Nauset Inlet. A disciplined hard-worker, he was also deeply intelligent, wonderfully humorous and a lover of great music. He worked on traps in the yard to Stax/Volt soul music, NPR or David Brudnoy. Though he rose early for his day of backbreaking work, he spent the short hours of his evenings reading Plutarch’s Lives, the works of Aristotle, Russian literature and historical biographies.

After fishing all day, he lent his intellect and organization to the Nauset Fishermen’s Association and, later, the Outer Cape Lobstermen’s Association. Both groups advocated an increase in the minimum gauge allowance for lobsters, in hopes of preserving the species by allowing more lobsters to reproduce at least once before being harvested for the dinner table.

That was lobstering. Dad hauled 400 pots alone, my brother Mike painted buoys and branded pots, I got to haul bait totes around with a gaff on occasion and my sister Nicole, and later Mike, even crewed a few days on the Atlantic. In those days, it was a given that we’d hear the NOAA weather broadcast sometime between 3- and 5 a.m. and smell the coffee percolating. There was a pretty good chance Dad would survive coming back through the inlet and we’d see him for dinner.

Before those days there was scalloping, and sometimes the shed would come alive at night with guys cutting bushels of scallops. The Ballantine flowed and kids cracked codes. Before that there was long-lining or gillnetting cod, and I was born while he was away on one of those Spring trips on the Madonna out of Chatham. He returned home with 8- or 9,000 pounds of cod and a new baby.

Back then, there were also long winter trips on draggers out of New Bedford or Fairhaven. He got on his first trip as a young engine man, armed with a book describing the engine and some cursory knowledge of how things work. Those were stressful times, although Mom didn’t show it until the day he was supposed to return to port. She’d start to look a little anxious. I can remember him coming home taped-up after breaking his ribs on the ship, and that was one of the few times I can recall him laying down during the day

Crews became tight. I recall attending Arstein’s wedding in Fairhaven. I also remember listening in the kitchen when Captain Tobias Vig made one of his yearly visits – his stories of seafaring told in an impossibly deep voice. He once warned me of “the power of nature”, and his tone, rich with the personal knowledge of nature’s wrath, has haunted me ever since.

For the anniversary of my father’s death, he will be making a posthumous guest-post on my blog. His piece, ‘a typical fish dragging trip’ follows:

The New Bedford draggers would stay in port for three days after unloading a trip. The scallopers would stay in for five days. Usually, the fish dragging trips, seven to eight days dock to dock, were shorter than a typical scallop trip, which would entail eight to nine days scalloping, or ten days dock to dock.

If you landed Wednesday, you’d sail on Saturday. (In Boston, the style was land Wed. and sail Fri.) So the gang would have orders for gear work at 9 or 10 a.m. Saturday. While the net was being rolled off the drum and spread out for maintenance, the cook would take the grub aboard, usually delivered by a chandlery such as New Bedford Ship Supply. In some cases, ice would be delivered, crushed and shot into the hold from a truck. Or the boat would go over to the ice house for ice. Sometimes “lumpers” – dock workers who provisioned and unloaded boats for labor rates – would ice the hold. With a total complement of five or six men on a dragging trip, the expense of lumpers charged to the trip was not objectionable.

After gear work there might be a break for lunch. Typically a trip dragger would ‘throw the lines’ between 2 and 5 p.m. In the old union days in Boston, the draggers could not leave port if one crew member had a foot on the dock after 5 p.m.

The dragger would pass through the NB hurricane dike and transit Quick’s Hole in the Elizabethan Islands thirty to forty-five minutes later, heading NE up Vineyard Sound and then E past the Vineyard toward Cross Rip in Nantucket Sound, #17 off Nantucket, and finally Great Round Shoal. Depending on the tide, the trip from NB to GRS buoy would take six to seven hours. If the crew knew the Sound, the Captain might start wheel watches at Cross Rip.

On a five to six handed dragger, the 24-hour clock was divided into three eight-hour staggered watches. For simplicity let’s assume six men. A crewman would be on for eight hours and off for four. With two men off every four hours, there would always be three men ‘on deck’ and one Captain or mate in the wheelhouse. The Capt. and cook would always be off from 12- 4 p.m. (This way the cook would be up to set meals at 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. He might leave some soup or chowder at noontime when he turned in.)  So the mate and one other would be up from 8-4; the engineer (chief) and the sixth from 12-8. With a regular crew, the mate and chief would alternate the dog-watch from trip to trip. During steaming the wheel watches were four hours, affording some sleep time.

It might take 16-20 hours to reach the Northern Edge, the Winter Fishing Ground (the Leg’) or the Northeast Peak from GRS. The 650K steel doors would be hoisted over the sides, the net rolled off in the wake, idlers and backstraps connected from net to doors, and the Capt. or mate would throttle up as he released the doors from the winch drums using wheelhouse controls. (On older boats the men on deck ran the winches.)

Once the net was set the holdmen (never the cook) would go in the hold to prepare the fish pens and pass up the fish baskets, picks and fishforks. They would set up the working ‘kit’ of oak checkerboards that divided the deck into areas for dumping, dressing, sorting and washing fish. Then… a cuppa coffee while waiting for the first haulback – in those days 1.5- to 2-hours was the typical length of a tow, unless you hung up.

It went like this: haulback, get ahold of the cod-end knot as the bag slid across the deck and stop it off or yank like a bastard as the bag was raised up over the dumping checker. Re-tie the cod-end, roll the net back off the drum, hook the idlers off the drum to the backstraps, set her back out, sort and clean the fish and put ’em down in the hold. If all went well, this would be the routine for six, seven or eight days and nights. Then steam home to NB, timing the return to be able to go to an early morning diner for breakfast before the 8 a.m. auction at Pier 3. (Scallops had a 7 a.m. auction.) Go to the fish house that bought your trip. Lumpers would work the hold while the mate would be on dock tallying the trip. Other crew would swing baskets from the deck or catch and dump them down the chute on the dock. The cook would wash the pen boards with Simple Green as they were passed up from the hold. Finish taking out from 1 to 2 p.m, bring the boat back to its berth, clean up and go to the settlement house to pick up your check. Go home for a couple of days.

One memorable February on the Leg’, Olav hauled back a giant set of cod just as I was going off watch. (I was the chief, there were five men.) He tried to bring the whole bag up the ramp as the snow blew sideways and the 4 p.m. gloaming darkened to nightfall. The bag actually got stuck in the ramp as the boat heaved and the boom buckled. Panic. Shouts. Companionway doors slamming. Hey Chief!

What to do? A NE gale was gathering and as the boat heaved the cod-end started to split open and fish began falling back into the sea. Fergus Hickey shouted, “Tie a rope on me!” as he made an attempt to crawl out to the cod-end to save the fish. Newfoundlanders like Hickey did not like to screw around, and they hated to lose money. But calmer heads prevailed and Hickey was dissuaded. We were able to get the splitting bag aboard using the port boom, and even after losing a heartbreaking amount of fish, we still put over 5,000 lbs of cod down into the hold.

We laid to for the rest of the night, while the wind blew and Olav received all kinds of free advice over the radio. When daylight broke, we all went to work – Olav, Arstein, Romeo Lamire, Hickey and me. By putting a tire down we were able to keep the deck dry enough to weld checker stanchions. By hook or by crook, we dismantled the deck kit from the starboard side and set up to use the port side. Olav was drinking plenty of coffee, and he had his doubts, but after using the portside set-up for a few watches, he declared, “This is better than it was before!”

A few nights later on the same trip, while trying to retrieve a broken idler, I got caught between the aft rail and the chain backstrap from a door. This could have been a beheading, but I came out of it with two broken ribs. We worked a few more watches. I was trying to tough it out, but Olav was watching my work deteriorate, so we headed for port (it was the seventh or eighth day, anyway.) Rather than go to the NB auction, we unloaded at Bogges’ in Vineyard Haven, and I was sent home. As I took the ferry over to Woods Hole in the snow, I got a look at the Bell with 70,000 lbs of fish in her. What a vessel.

Another time, Arstein took the boat out before Good Friday. I went mate even though Arstein’s father, Oddmun, owner of the Ocean Gem and the Blue Sea, was aboard, along with Kaare Ness, longtime skipper of the Shamrock and Ronny Johnson, and mate of the Angela W., swordfish skipper. We were fishing off Big Rip, about 15 miles south of George’s Shoal. On my watch, Kaare came into the wheelhouse and said, “You know, on this tow you can go all the way over to 52 without any problem. You might feel her stub her toe once in a while, but you won’t tear up.” So this is what I did. Arstein was getting up and I was going on deck when it was time to haul back. When we dumped the bag, it yielded something on the order of 25- 30 baskets of George’s flounder and yellowtails (12 baskets to 1,000 weight.) Wow. High-priced stuff! We stayed on that tow and went in after a few days – five days dock to dock. We netted around 30,000 lbs of fish, mostly flats – and over $30,000 stock. We hit big prices even though Easter had just passed. And those Captains! It was as though they were happy to be out of their wheelhouses for a little exercise! And besides all that, we never cracked a single mesh and I still got home for my wedding anniversary. Those were the days.

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