Riding the roughest seas and the backs of whales are mere incidents in the lives of these Bluenoses who fish only in the dark o' the moon
THE most interesting thing around here?” My friend repeated in answer to my question.
We were seated in his office in busy little Yarmouth, at the entrance to the Bay of Fundy, just across from Boston.
“Ever do any night-fishing?” he inquired.
“Yes,” I replied brightly,
He smiled: “Well, these are our sea-trout—cod. I sent a
fellow out last night who caught a forty-pound cod, and he nearly went crazy in my office here this morning, telling me about it. He says it looked like a city out there on the water, boats for miles along the shore, all lighted up. and twenty miles out to sea.”
“I'm for it," I agreed enthusiastically, “if you can fix me up,” and I added: “I have already been out with the Lunenburg men and others.”
“Oh, Lunenburg,” he repeated disdainfully. “These fellows are a different breed. The best in the world, you’ll see.”
He reached languidly for the telephone. Give me One—ring —fifteen.”
‘‘Fifteen?” I repeated in amazement.
“That’s nothing,” he explained. “For some of them down on the 3hore‘, it’s twentyfive rings.”
One could well believe it, for we sat there for an hour trying for that connection, as elusive as
a needle in a haystack, on an overworked line of multiparty 'phones; and for that hour the telephone rang irritatingly and as methodically as an alarm clock wound up for all day.
It was done at last.
That night I arrived at the house of the Smith family in Sandford, the sons of which were to take me with them. There was Max and Stan and Oswald, all mere boys, the eldest twenty-one: Oswald, the youngest was obviously downcast, as we partook of our supper, because he was not going.
“He always gets sea-sick,” his father explained. This seemed strange to me; I did not know that sailors and fishermen could afford such a luxury. But then I had not yet been tossed about in a small, drifting boat in a Bay of Fundy swell.
The talk was all of fish and prices and the catches of the night before—none too good, although a couple of boats had come in with five thousand pounds of cleaned cod each, which, at a cent and a half a pound, meant seventy-five dollars for the crew of two or three men.
At ‘the shore’, about which all their supper-table talk had centred, the elder Smith showed me with pride the small lobster-packing plant of the little community, a co-operative industry in which each fisherman had a share, and in which he profited according to his holding and the catch he delivered. Around it were the salthouses, the fish houses, and the mountains of lath-made, rat-trap-like lobster-pots of each family, for each had its own boat, and was a going industrial concern in its own right, the father and the sons partners.
The wharves were wooden monstrosities, immense bastions forty feet high, projecting far out into sea. At their feet, a score of forty-foot boats bumped uneasily, waiting for their crews. It seemed an immense distance down to them : when the forty-foot Bay of Fundy tide was up, they would be within stepping distance of the wharves.
It was already dusk, and in all directions we could see the disappearing hulls and sails of boats that had already put out for the night’s fishing. So we piled aboard, Max and Stan and Frank Dulong, an Acadian-French fisherman, who, although an old-timer, had never done any
night-fishing, and although he ‘had swallowed the anchor’, and theoretically retired from the sea, could not keep away from it, for the sea was in his blood as it is in that of all these men. Here he was: “Just for the fun of it,” he apologized.
A Fisherman’s Farewell
rT'HE parents of the Smith boys, and their sister, accompanied us to the very end, and, standing on the extreme point of the wharf, they waved us our parting farewell as, in the fast-gathering gloom, we sped out to sea. But they evinced no false fears. Young though the boys were, and constant as the toll of human life on that coast is, theirs is a hardy breed. Long after their voices were lost to us, we could descry their figures dimly, the wind aiding their waving hands, billowing their skirts, and lifting their white aprons out straight like linen shelves; a fisherman’s farewell.
My notes which I cannot read, taken from that time forward, lay before me now, straggling across the paper like the tracks made by a drunken hen on a muddy road. Clad in the heavy sea-boots, rubber pants and petticoats supplied me, I leaned against the little cabin just for’ard of the engine, listened, lurched and scribbled with the cabin-roof for my desk, while Max talked interestingly as he stood without support at my side, his young body giving gracefully to each plunge of the boat.
She was a stout vessel. Thirty-six feet long and broad of beam, she was built for rough seas, and good for any, and had cost only three hundred and sixty-five dollars. For a dollar still has value in Yarmouth, and there is honest work and pride in craft. This boat, like nearly all the others of the Sandford fleet, was built in the village of a fisherman turned builder. An American engine was the only thing aboard not made by hand on the spot. It was good for eight or nine knots—ten or eleven miles an hour—and cost more than the boat, for, so far out at sea as these boats go, so small a vessel must be certain of its power. Not only for economy of gas, but to make certainty of power more certain still, she carried sail which although slower, could be depended upon should the engine fail.
The sun was merely a rim on the far horizon, lighting up a choppy sea with eerie lights that flashed and slid over the surface of each moving billow, with the salt spray flying. This was not the deck of a liner; we saw, felt and smelt the sea in utmost intimacy. Between us and the sun stood out the hulls, and sometimes the sails, of the remainder of the fleet, like a channel patrol, all beating bravely out to sea, boats from Sandford and Port Maitland, Short Beach, Pembroke and Che-gowtitan, a hundred of them; and up beyond at Cape St. Mary, toward Digby another fleet as big. They rose and fell and disappeared until at times, now out of sight of land we seemed quite alone, the boat nothing but bare standing room that rocked and plunged viciously, while the wind whipped and sang, the spindrift spattered us, gulls bunched like quail, screamed overhead, and we seemed very small and very much alone indeed.
No one else thought so, though. Darkness had come, and Stan, a mere dark shape, lay flat on his stomach out on the peak of the bowsprit, tossed and flung about unconcernedly as he peered
ahead through the darkness, seeking the tell-tale, phosphorescent glow of any chance herring school loafing along the surface. We were looking for them for bait, before we could begin to fish for cod. The Acadian smoked patiently in the stern, his hand on the nets, already to cast them at the first cry of ‘Fish!’ Max was skipper. His station was by the engine, ready to shut it down at that same cry, and give the nets a chance before we should pass the fish.
I went out for fun, but there is no peace for a writing man. Max began to talk again. I grabbed my pencil and made more of these hen-track notes I cannot read. It was like writing a loveletter a-horseback, in a high wind, in a steeple-chase. The deck was slippery with old fish-scales. I lurched and grabbed at everything in sight at each leap of the boat; my paper blew about; my pencil shot this way and that, and still Max rose and fell before me like a bird on a swaying limb, and talked. I gave up trying to write and just listened.
He admitted with a sort of quiet pride he was ‘skipper’ of this boat, and it was named for his sister. He was twenty-one, and Stan was nineteen; it was too bad about Oswald; had to stay ashore all the time. Himself, he had been at it since he was knee-high to a grasshopper, since he was six or seven, and regularly since he was fifteen. Everything: cod, mackerel, lobsters, all as the seasons came and went. Been on his own as skipper for a year or so now. And on his own as a man for over a month now. There was in his voice the unrestrained but unboastful pride of achievement of one who had won his spurs and come to manhood in a man’s game, as he told of how he was now on regular shares in the boat, and had his own pocket money to do what he liked with, and all the other perquisites of manhood. “Yes. I’m on my own now,” he said simply.
We could hear, although we could no longer see, the gulls overhead; they were so close they seemed at times to be coming almost at our heads, but swerved at the last moment. “There’ll be lots of them further out,” the skipper said. “And Mother Carey’s chickens. Hear ’em if you don’t see ’em. And whales.”
“Whales?” I repeated wonderingly.
“Sure. Lots of ’em about forty feet long, hereabout. They follow the herring on top, and the cod chase 'em below, so when we hear a whale blowing we get the nets ready, and when we catch our herring, we fish right there because the cod are underneath the herring, only deeper.”
It was getting rougher.
I was holding on with everything I had, and Max noticed it. “Do you get sea-sick?” he inquired anxiously.
“I never have, but I may tonight. Anyhow,
I’m going to have so much fun, I don’t care.”
Already I knew I was speaking part of the truth, and felt some diminution of my old respect for that ancient saying: ‘Ain’t Nature
A Box Seat
XTEVERTHELESS I could not resist partaking of all sensations going. So with Max holding on to my petticoat and shouting directions which the wind whirled away, I crawled laboriously over the cabin-roof to the bow and shinned out on the bowsprit behind Stan, my hands and feet clutched and bracing in all directions, a contrast to the easy pitch and toss of his unheld body which lay on the wooden spar like paper on the wall. It was getting rougher, and here in the bowsprit we got the full
force of the choppy swells for which the Bay of Fundy is notorious. Viciously they stood the little boat on end and smacked her down again ‘ker-flop!’ so that sometimes our feet were in the water and the waves ran over us. It was easy to understand why, under such circumstances, when a fisherman fell overboard, no more was seen of him. The speed of the boat would carry her past the spot before the engine could be stopped. And even otherwise, the darkness hid everything. Anyhow. in those heavy rubber clothes and clumsy sea-boo]ts filled with water, the best of swimmers, crawl or trudgeon, would at once sink like a stone.
Stan explained his job. “See that!” I felt rather than saw his finger
in the gusty darkness point toward mass of tiny specks of glowing phosphorescence. “They’re fish, but not herring. No good to us. We can tell what kind they are by the glow they make. Sometimes you’ll see a school of herring as big as an acre, a solid mass of fire. “Now, there,” and he pointed again, “is a school of dog-fish. See howT they twirl and spin in the water. You can always tell them by that. Each kind has its own motion. And you can tell the cod because they are bigger than anything else you will see, and make big steady flames in the water instead of a glow that comes and goes.”
Night-Life of the Sea
PAST us scudded the surface sea-life of the night, tiny schools of minute fish making lights like pin-pricks that shone and blinked from light to darkness like the tiny lanterns of marine fairy-folk. Others, in large schools, shot past at terrific speed, chasing or being chased, sometimes leaping from the water, which for thirty yards around was lit up by the soft effulgence of their glow; a glow that varied simultaneously over the entire surface of the water through all the pearly shades of opalescence.
Stan named them all, commenting on their habits, course, and probable intentions. It was all very informing, but how to get back to the comparative safety of the cockpit was worrying me. It was growing rougher than before, and loath though I was to leave the spot and to make that trip back again, there was nothing else for it so I girded up my loins and my rubber petticoat and crawled like a lobster back to Max.
“They’re all putting their lights up now,” he said, as indeed they were, and for miles along the coast in each direction was a forest of tossing, twinkling lights that rose and fell and disappeared. In that darkness, so thick that we could not see each other, these fed the imagination, as one thought of the scanty crews of those small boats thus wresting from the sea a people’s food.
“We’d better get our own up,” he commented, and produced a massive ship’s lantern of three hundred candle-power which he placed on the engine-hatch. There was, here on this sea amongst these men, none of that inconsiderate disregard of others’ safety which distinguishes travel by land. “There’s Yarmouth Cape light flashing,” Max said, and pointed to the southward, where a light winked spasmodically at us from the end of the long thin finger of the cape. “We’ll hold this course until we strike the Lurcher Light ship. Ought to get herring by that time.” “How’s her course now?” Stan shouted from the bowsprit.
Max peered at the compass which he had set up by the lantern. “East by No’west,” he shouted back above the sea-sounds.
It was noticeable through all their talk that, except when using the technical terms of the sea, in which, out of immemorial custom they intentionally slurred their words, their English was remarkable for its purity, quite unlike the diction one would expect from men practising such a vocation. This purity set the general standard of their ideas and apparently the conContinued on page 40
Continued from page 7
duct of their lives. Theirs was not the task of a common laborer, but of a skilled, ancient and honorable profession of remarkably high standards, the keeping of which was in their blood and bone.
“Better get things ready!” Max shouted to the dim shape in the stern. The Acadia lumbered for’ard, and the two of them began to arrange the bait-board and the fishing lines. On each side of the boat they coiled pairs of heavy lines, a pair for each man, fifty feet long, a heavy sinker and a six-inch hook on the end of each. From a couple of barrels of bait, caught the night before, they extracted herrings from which, with one slash of their knives, they removed the soft stomach whichthey fastened on the hook, throwing the remainder of the carcass overboard.
We appeared to have left the other boats. Few lights were now. visible. The stars came out in a black canopy of velvet and ours was the solitude of the mountains and the sea. Velvet was that night and velvet its sounds in the soft lap of the sea on our sides, the velvety rush of waters at our prow, the soft slither of resistance as we occasionally slipped through small
sargasso seas of tangled eel-grass, floating aimlessly about the ocean.
“It’s dark,” I said, “and no moon.” And Max explained poetically: “No, we only fish in ‘the darks.’ ”
“The what?” I inquired, not believing my ears.
“The darks,” he repeated. “We only do this in the dark o’ the moon; that’s two weeks in each month; so we can see the glow of the herring on top of the water. ■You couldn’t find your bait by daylight or on a bright, moonlight night.”
“But others fish cod by daylight,” I protested.
“Yes, I know, but it’s a different kind of fishing. The Lunenburg ‘bankers’ trawl and hand-line. But they’re big schooners. And small boats and dories everywhere handle fish by day, but not so far out at sea as this. This is the way we’ve always done it here. We get bigger 'catches that way, for small boats that is. Boats often come in with five or six thousand pounds of cod. When the price ■ is right that’s nearly a hundred dollars for two or three men, and they can clean and salt their catch in five or six hours
after they get ashore. But Stan and I have only made three hundred dollars between us in two months’ fishing now. Been out every night, too. We’ve fished all ‘the darks’ 0’ June,’ and now it’s ‘the darks o’ August.’ ”
I questioned him further to hear again issuing from his dim shape those lovely words, ‘The darks o’ June,’ the velvety feel of their sombre sound, natural poetry in prose.
FISH!” There was a terrific shout up ahead from Stan.
Those lethargic figures of Max and the Acadian sprang into a frenzy of action. There was not a word. Each man knew his place and the value of split seconds. The Acadian shot the nets overboard and fed them out with nervous haste; Max shut the engine off; Stan joined us from the bow; and all three seized their cod lines, and whirling the weighted ends rapidly around their heads, threw them far out. Then,with a line in each hand, they jiggled it up and down, waiting for a strike. There was none. “They won’t take this dead bait,” said one disgustedly. “Let’s try the nets.”
“There won’t be much in them, it is only a small school,” Stan prophesied.
Nor was there, only a scant dozen or so of herring. The boys removed the stomachs and we fished with those, but, after an hour’s drifting, each man took his old place and the engine was started again We met other boats, and shut the engine off to shout an interchange of news with them. In all cases it was bad; none had made a decent catch yet; four herring was the total on one boat, and not a single cod. The fog, which had been growing steadily thicker the farther we stood out to sea, now enveloped us and according to our youthful skipper, further lessened our chances. Thoroughly disgusted, he shut the engine down again, and as it was now midnight, we adjourned to the cabin for supper.
In the cabin, which was a litter of fishing-gear, was a small coal-stove which we lighted, for although mid-August, out here it was very cold with a rawness that crept into one’s bones. Glad of its warmth we reclined on the heaps of gear, for there was scarcely head-room to sit upright, drank hot coffee, and ate our cold lunches, while the Smith boys gave vent to their utter disgust.
“No fishing for me to-morrow night,” asserted one. “I’ll go and see my girl.” “Me, too!” agreed the other. Their pride was touched. More than the monetary loss to themselves was their humiliation at being unable to show their visitor a good night’s sport.
WITH the engine shut off, the small boat caught the full force of the swells. They were Bay of Fundy swells, sickening; and in that small, close cabin, now stiflingly hot and close, they began to get in their deadly work. Murmuring my excuses, I did a vanishing trick and spent unhappy moments at the boat’s side. Periodically, for two hours, I repeated that performance, while the Smith boys grumbled at our luck.
About two o’clock, when hope seemed dead, Max gave a start and sat upright. “Whales!” he whispered. We listened, but no one else could hear them. Nevertheless all scrambled out; the engine was started and all resumed their places.
“Over there; there she blows again!” Max waved an arm.
I could hear nothing, but already we could see the lights of other boats creeping in the same direction. Evidently they had heard, too, and Max was right.
“FISH!” There was a hysterical scream from Stan in the bow. The Acadian let the nets go; Max stopped the engine; and all rushed to the stern. Then in the comparative silence, we heard off to one side the coughing outburst: ‘Whooooo—00!’ of
11 whale blowing; and almost immediately on the other side, closer to us this time, another; then another and another. We were in a school of whales which like ourselves were hunting herring. But the fog was so thick we could see nothing.
Then, suddenly something began to happen to the boat. It began to heave slowly up on end, then slipped sideways and flopped, rose again perilously, as though pushed by unseen hands; which it was: A whale was under us, trying to get to the surface to blow. Max laughed delightedly and said, with cool unconcern: "We’ll get fish now.”
But fish no longer interested me, not herring, anyhow, nor cod; just whales; a whale. 1 had a sudden sympathy for Jonah. Smack! and the boat quivered. Hut apparently discouraged, the whale left us finally and with him his confrères. We began to fish and immediately began to catch cod. In a few minutes the brothers left their lines and began to haul in their nets. They were heavily laden; that was obvious before they came aboard, for the brothers, standing far out on the stern, had to pull with all their strength, fighting for each foot of net. The unconscious grace of their attitudes was fascinating. Faintly lighted by the opaque rays of the lantern, their straining bodies, clad in enveloping and ugly oilskins though they were, moved in beautiful rhythm to each pitch and toss of the boat, as the swells caught her and them. They laid out, far over, the stern, at perilous angles, making quick recoveries as the position of the boat changed again, and never, even in moments of greatest danger, ceasing to tug at the nets, piling them and their contents around their feet in a shining heap of silvery herring. They were like panthers. One could not but think of the boy who at just such work was drowned the night before, only the white of his uplifted hand seen for a moment before he disappeared.
A Ton of Fish
THF little hold was full of fish; in fifteen minutes we had a ton aboard. My companions, hitherto so companionable, were now like men possessed of devils, so intent were they on the fishing, in which every moment meant dollars while we were among the cod. They slashed in a frenzy of expert haste at herring bellies, hooked them and threw them far out, then turned to the bait-board for another hurried slashing of fresh bait; and between strokes of their curved knives they jerked hastily at their lines, and when they met resistance, dropped the latter and with both hands began to haul aboard fish that took all their strength and fought vigorously to the last, when in magnificent leaps they were jerked into the fish-box in the centre of the boat and lay their quivering in silvery beauty.
Our luck did not hold long. Our nets had been put out again to catch what they could, while we fished and drifted, for no anchor was put out, although the offal from the bait was thrown overboard at intervals to attract and hold the cod around the boat. We drifted, nets and all, into a sea of eel-grass, and, to add to our misfortunes, we drifted into another boat, their nets became entangled with ours, the two boats drifting helplessly side by side, while their crews, now unable to fish through the dense mass of eel-grass, tugged at their nets and under the dim lights of lanterns, exchanged dirty looks with one another.
By the time we were clear, the cod had ceased to bite; nor did they bite again for us that night. The fog became so thick we could do nothing, and only the uncanny seamanship of Max took us homing on a straight course through it. Except the steersman, we lay amid the debris of the crowded cabin and dozed fitfully in our oil-skins, immersed in a smell of old fish heightened by the heat, so vast and overpowering it was almost an anaes-
thetic in itself. Obviously, we were not on a yacht on the Mediterranean.
Everything comes to an end, and so did the night, but still the fog was so thick we could see no land. But, occasionally, we could hear muffled voices issuing from the fog, and suddenly, without warning, a vast pile loomed up ahead. It was the wharf, and we were home.
We moored alongside several other boats huddled together in the gray dawn, and compared notes with their crews. One had a good catch, five thousand pounds; another had less than ourselves, and we had barely a thousand pounds and these had yet to be cleaned and salted, a poor re vard in wages. The tide was at its ebb and so were we, our brains and bodies tired, and on the part of the unlucky fishermen, an immense disgust. We rowed ashore in high, galleon-like dories, unbeautiful to the eye but in skilful hands, good in any sea. Everyone was too tired to talk, the sound of the great oars striking irregularly against the thick, wooden thole-pins was the only sound that broke the gray silence. Soon we ran aground, for, although we were not yet within a hundred yards of the wharf, from which we had embarked in deep water the evening before, and which now loomed over us like a giant monolith, in the breaking fog, the ebb-tide would let us go no farther. We jumped out and waded ashore.
The elder Smith met us and drove us home to breakfast. I told him of the night from my landsman’s point of view. I wondered if he and their mother had not many anxious moments about the boys, out nightly, entirely alone in a small boat twenty miles from land. What could they do in a bad storm? His face was transformed with thoughts more profound than my casual question, and he threw out his hands hopelessly: “Yes! But what can we do?—We’re fishermen! And I’ve got to look after this,” he waved his hand at the lobster plant and fish-houses. “We’re fishermen!” he said again.
Their mother and sister greeted the brothers with solicitude and tenderness, but they, being boys as well as fishermen, were unaccustomedly reserved at such manifestations of concern and gruffly asked for something to eat.
A Fishermen’s Forum
THE talk was of politics, church and fish. The speakers were fierce, but not discouraged, at the high duties on fish they met with in the Boston market.
“We’ll change that!” they said grimly between mouthfuls. “Two and a half cents duty on ten cent fish is no good.
There was talk as to whether they should go out on Sunday or not, dissuasion by the mother, pregnant silence from the brothers, until one of them broke it with: “What makes me sick is the folks around here that slip out after dark on Sunday night, after the main fleet of Sabbath-breakers has sailed, so no one will know they’ve gone. That’s what they think! A fat lot of good it does them. Anyhow, two night’s fishing is too much to lose. That’s what it means if we keep Sunday or Saturday and Sunday nights’ fishing.”
Food cheered the brothers up. Before the meal was over they were already planning to go out again that night.
“How about the girl?” I asked.
“Oh, I guess I won’t go to see her tonight,” the disloyal swain replied.
Now when I see a heap of freshly caught cod on a fishmonger’s stall, priced at sixteen cents a pound or higher, just about eleven times what the fisherman gets for it, I take off my hat . . but not to the fishermonger . . . nor to the wholesaler who sold the cod to him nor yet to the shipper at the fishing point who sold it to the wholesaler . but, just the same, remembering that night off the coast of Yarmouth . . . I take off my hat.