Saturday, March 13, 2010

Nor'easters, Nor'westers

Back in the fall of '09, my Father remarked, "It's a good thing this isn't snow!" He was talking about all of the rain we had been getting in November. Here in Southern New Jersey we've been very wet since last April. Even the normal summer dry spell was very shortlived, only lasting about 10 days. Throughout the summer we had many thunder and lightening storms accompanied by copious amounts of rain. Then winter set in at the end of November.

Since then, we've had three major snowstorms, many small snows between, and three huge melts-all occuring during the Full and New Moon periods. Here in the Pinelands Protection Area where Nancy and I live, the water table is very high. Flooding has been happening to all of us who live from 40 miles inland to the sea, since the December 26th. thaw. I can't tell you how many hours have been spent pumping out the basement with a combination of three 1/2hp. pumps and two shopvacs. Never having experienced a flooding of the water table in the more than 20 years we've lived here, we did not anticiapate the need for a French drain or sump pump. You can bet on both of those being on top of the list of our next remodeling project!

As was written in a prior post, I've been studying the Northeast commercial fishery from the 18th. century to 1950. Most of the research has been done through the reading of old books. Some of the books are biographical, some are a compilation of stories and history. If there is one thing that has truly impressed me while reading, it is the courage and hardiness of the protagonists in each story.

I now know exactly what the term, "sailor," means. We use it commonly to describe someone in the Navy, or someone who has a sailboat. What has been impressed upon me is the actual sailors and the sailing that was done during the Banks fishing prior to steam and later, diesel and gas powered engines. Those old fishermen had only the confidence in the craftsmen who built their hulls and mounted their masts and rudder, together with their knowledge of what their boat could stand, their courage, their sails and the direction of the wind for propulsion.

In the Northeastern states, the prevailing winter winds are out of the northwest and northeast. During the summer, the prevailling winds come from the west and south.
During the dangerous winter fishing season, the northwest winds were excellent for going out to the Banks off Massachusetts or Nova Scotia, and a northeaster was a good wind to come in on. Our Northeastern States' storms during the winter, are primarily from those two directions.

The winds and their accompanying high seas could make for a long and arduous sail when trying to get into dock to land the catch at the times of highest prices. If everyone came ashore at the sametime, with the same type of fish, primarily Cod, the market's supply was high, and the price was low. To be first in and unloaded during a low market supply was the goal of all the skippers and their crews.

Often, the skipper tied himself to the wheel for the duration of the homebound trip, and with a continual supply of coffee from the mess, would push his vessel to its limits by hoisting as much sail as the craft could take. With starboard or port to leeward and low in the water, the skipper or his first mate would race their boat through the wind and waves to home. If you have the inclination to read James B. Connolly's book, mentioned below, you will learn about the sailing ability of those long ago skippers and mates, and understand what the term, "sailor," truly means.

Prior to 1880, all of the fishing on the Banks was done with either handlines or trawlines. The trawlines consisted of long lines with many baited hooks tied onto the lines via short leaders called "snoods," then weighed down on the bottom-normally with an anchor.

The ships carried a full complement of dories, in which generally 2-man teams or "dory mates," rowed away from the Mother ship with the wooden buckets, marker buoys, trawlines and other gear necessary to fish. The lines were payed out over the side, then hauled back after a set had been down long enough. It was hard work hauling those lines, landing fish, rebaiting, setting again, then finally rowing back to the ship as she made her rounds to pick up her crew in the dories. Loss of life was caused by the conditions these men fished in.

Start with the Banks themselves. The Banks are a broad and shallow series of mountains who's tops come to the surface in an otherwise normal-looking and deep ocean. They can be a navigational nightmare when suddenly encountered by an unknowing ship. The gullies, points, holes, etc., where the baitfish fed, were also spots where the baitfish became vulnerable when the strong winds, waves and currents swirled over the Banks. Once vulnerable, the bait attracted Cod, Halibut, and other large and valuable predator fish from the deeper surrounding waters up onto the banks. That is where the sailboats and their crews with dories fished. The prime areas for fishing are called rips.

Rips are formed where tide changes rush either in or off the banks through cuts and high points like a fast flowing river. The waves can be huge in the rips depending on the direction of the winds and the current. I find it hard to imagine what it must have been like for two men in a rowing dory, trying to not only set their trawlines, haul the lines in, unhook the fish, and keep themselves from being turned over by the wind driven waves and currents swirling around them.

The dories and their crews fished the Banks' waters throughout the year. There was no radio communication. There was no weather communication from ship to shore-no communication at all in "real time". The only communication with boats fishing, came from the crews of boats that had sailed back into port to unload their catches for market. Everyone having to do anything with the fishing industry was keen to hear what the returned crews could tell of seeing various boats from that port either headed in, or close to being ready to head back. Those boats still out on the Banks, whether in the ship or in the dory, had only nature's signs at the captain and crew's disposal to forecast the weather.

Many men lost their lives in fog. If the dory crews were out, and suddenly a warm southerly wind blew in over cold water, there was fog. The samething happened with cold winds blowing in over warmer waters. Once the fog came, there was no telling where the mother ship was. For the captain on the ship there was no telling where the dories were. Unable to see through the fog, a rogue wave easily swamped and sunk dories and drowned many of the fishermen.

Being aboard was no picnic either. A fleet of sailing vessels could be anchored up on top of the Banks either in the rips or just off the sides of them. Once a boat found fish, they would not leave until their holds were filled, and their trip was made. If a ship and her crew were catching, it did not take long for others to join her in the productive spot. There could be as many as 100 or more fishing vessels fishing the same productive area on a Bank.

Captains and experienced crew had learned to read the water, winds, clouds and sky color at sunrise and sunset to help forecast the weather, but there was little to help them when a major storm suddenly came upon them, or a convergence of two or more weather systems caught them in its trap. When those big ones came, there was no hoisting of the sail, and heading home. Not only were they days and sometimes weeks from home, they also had to fill the boat with fish before heading back. Investments had been made, and the crew needed their shares in order to live and provide for the families praying for their safe return.

If the fleet was on a productive spot, they would not up anchor and leave. Instead, they dropped anchor to wait out the winds or storm. The main cause of disaster on the banks was a sudden storm coupled with a fleet of boats anchored in close proximity to one another; held in place solely by their anchor with its hawser line and if they had it, chain; large waves of unknown duration; racing tides and high winds. Into that dangerous mix, you can also add fog, snow and cold frigid winds that froze the ocean spray to everything.

Captains could not even think of raising sail to get off the banks and out of the rips when caught in a trap. With seas washing over the deck, anyone and anything could easily be washed overboard. Even if a sail could be raised, it would quickly be torn into shreads by the storm winds. There was no choice but to try to ride the weather out, and hope the anchor held, and the hawser lines with or without chain did not snap.

Winds and waves put a tremendous strain on everything. Far too often the anchor lines broke, or the anchors lost their hold. That is when the real danger set in. Boats that were holding in the wind and waves, were sunk by their upwind neighbors who's boats were drifing when their anchor came free, or with broken anchor lines, were at the mercy of the winds and current. Crashing into one another, very often in the dark of night, both boats were usually sunk with all hands aboard. Rarely did anyone survive in those conditions.

It was not uncommon for all the vessel's dories to be washed overboard. In the winter seas, the water temperatures soon froze a man to death or sapped his strength so badly that he could no longer keep afloat. The long lists of men and ships lost in those days fills many books' pages.

If you have access to:

THE FISHERMEN'S OWN BOOK, Comprising the List of Men and Vessels Lost From the Port of Gloucester, Mass. From 1874 to April 1, 1882 and a Table of Losses From 1830;

various editions of the FISHERMEN OF THE ATLANTIC, by the Fishing Master's Association, or

GLOUCESTERMEN by James B. Connolly

you will have all of the reading material you need to study the fishing history. If you cannot find copies of any of the above through your library system, you can find copies of the first two books available to read online through Google search engine.

The study has caused me much inward soul searching. I'm collecting glass fishing floats, and the history of the makers and the users. Studying the commercial fishing history to learn how the floats were used, has also led me to the study of the fishing history from the Mid-Atlantic to Nova Scotia before the time of glass floats. I'm trapped by my own desire to learn all that I can, and to assuage that part of me that craves this specific knowledge.

Whenever the nor'westers and nor'easters howl, it sounds as if it were passing through a boat's rigging. In the windy darkness, I imagine the fear of a wayward vessel preparing to crash into the vessel I'm on. The sounds of splintering wooden hulls, the falling of topmasts and the cries of shipmates and those aboard the other vessel echo in my mind.

At other times I imagine my dory mate and I are rowing for our lives-trying to find our ship in the fog. Perhaps like the lost souls in another story, we are endeavoring to keep from capsizing or freezing to death.

There is a picture painted in the words of one of Connolly's stories that is permanently fixed in a memory box of my brain. He described the captain of a ship, tied to the wheel in a violent storm, trying to keep her headed into the wind and waves, when suddenly a huge sea washes over her, and the captain is underwater. He looks up through the water high over his head, seeing the moon's light and wondering when the water will lower enough for him to breath.

When those winds blow, as they are today, I'm haunted by the stories of those American fishermen of the Northeast fighting for their lives in the gales.

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