My week on the Grand Banks

JOHN CLARE October 25 1958

My week on the Grand Banks

JOHN CLARE October 25 1958

My week on the Grand Banks


With his Breton beret and his ropey pipe, a Maclean’s editor survives a stormy week over the “cod meadows” of the Grand Banks. While grizzled skippers spun tales of 500 years of fishing, he learned how one third of Newfoundland makes its living

The trawler Blue Foam, seven days out of St. John's, Newfoundland, rode low in the rough seas over the Grand Bank. As she dipped to port to meet the next assault a big wave curved, smooth as jade, over the rail.

"That’s what I like to see,” grinned Captain Archie Thornhill, watching from the wheel-house. “That green water means money.”

Blue Foam was heavy with more than two hundred tons of fresh iced flounder and cod in her hold and was almost ready to start for home, a hundred and ten miles to the northwest, where the crew and the owners would divide the spoils of the sea, worth about six thousand dollars.

For a week the ship’s nets had been dragging the bottom along the western rim of the Great Bank of Newfoundland, part of the continental shelf and the greatest international fishing ground in the world. For five hundred years the fishermen of many countries, joined four years ago by the Russians, have been taking rich annual harvests from these underwater plateaus which rise to thirty fathoms and fall away in the valleys to more than three hundred below the surface.

The Great or Grand Bank, known to fishermen as the Grand Banks, is the largest and

most famous of a series of submarine mesas strung out to its west and south. To the west are two more large banks, Green and St. Pierre, and farther west and south are smaller, lesserknown banks such as Burgeo, Misaine and Canso, which is off the mouth of the Nova Scotia strait of the same name.

Ever since they were first fished the Banks have been a brimming store of cheap protein for the world. They have been to Europe and South America what buffalo herds were to the Plains Indians and the w'hite settlers who took over their land. The haul from the sea has risen fairly steadily because of improved methods and an increase in the number of fishing boats. In 1956, the last year for which records are complete, close to a million tons of cod were taken from the whole northwest area as compared with five to seven hundred thousand tons in the years between 1930 and 1940.

So far, there have been no signs that this great natural preserve is in danger of being drained. But the Banks are of such great importance to the nations who fish there that they got together nine years ago and formed an organization called 1CNAF (International Commission for the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries) to keep watch over the stock through research

and by building up an accurate statistical picture of what is happening down in what the early operators called "the cod meadow." The member countries are Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Spain, Portugal, France, West Germany and Russia, which signed up earlier this year. So far they have passed such regulations as one that fixes the size of net mesh to allow undersize cod to escape. The day may come when it will be necessary to clamp a closed season on the Banks but it is not yet in sight.

In their long and turbulent history the Banks have been fought over almost as strenuously as they have been fished over. World economic currents, set up by wars, depressions and booms, have long swirled over the Banks and still do. Even religious movements like the Reformation, which had the effect of reducing fish consumption in England, have been felt on the fishing ground. While Protestant and Catholic vied for influence at home fishermen from Devon drank their grog on the Banks with the toast “To the Pope and ten shillings," the price per quintal (112 pounds) for cod.

If the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton the Spanish Armada was repulsed on the Grand rest of us,” said the helmsman.

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The owners supply the ship and the gear, the captain explained. This one, built in Camden, N.J., by the John Mathis Company in 1946, with the given name of Fearless, cost close to three quarters of a million dollars to buy and equip. The crew members, seventeen in number for this trip, pay for their own food. The fish, more flounder than cod at this season, averages about three cents a pound and two hundred thousand pounds is regarded as a good catch. The owners get sixty-three percent, the crew thirty-seven. The skipper and first mate take three and three quarters percent each from the crew’s share and three percent from the owner’s cut. The fishermen can make as much as a hundred dollars out of a good trip and average about twenty-five hundred dollars a year. Captains make from eight to ten thousand dollars a year.

The wind was fresh as the crew prepared to drop the first net. Blue Foam runs an otter trawl, a wide-mouthed net which is dragged along the bottom by a strong cable. The mouth of the net is stretched and held by the pressure of the water on two heavy wooden “doors.” The fish arc driven to the narrow cod end of the net. A drag or “set” usually lasts about eighty minutes and when the net is swung in and over the boat the cod end is opened by a trip rope and a torrent of silvery fish spills out. The pinkand-white flounder are thrown below to be iced but the larger cod are gutted by men in oilskins skillfully wielding sharp knives. Long before their work is finished they are ankle-deep in fish guts, but all these, even the livers, are hosed overboard for the seabirds. Skate, which have no commercial value, are also thrown away along with eels and the pale weed known as tanglefoot.

Because the fish deck is illuminated by big lights fishing can go on day and night but by noon Tuesday the captain announced that he was hauling in his nets. The wind had freshened and he had decided it was too rough to fish. Blue Foam’s bow was turned into the wind, the engines were cut down to “slow.” The captain divided his time between the wheelhouse where he scowled at the weather and his cabin where he talked on the radiotelephone to other skippers in the area. We could see the other trawlers as they tossed and twisted through the waves. Sometimes one of them would disappear completely for an instant in a smother of foam.

In his cabin the captain talked with old friends like Jake Thornhill (a few years ago there were eleven Thornhills, all brothers or cousins, and all skippers, on the Banks) about the blow. Before lying down about midnight he made a notation in his log, "Passenger not seasick yet.”

“This is the kind of a blow we get in January but it’s not a real storm,” the captain explained to his passenger the next day. “It’s just bad enough to damage the nets—perhaps. The worst storm I ever saw was on November 26—our wedding anniversary — in 1938. 1 was

master of the Joseph E. Conrad, a schooner rigged like the old Bluenose, and we had finished our season on the Banks and were going from Burin to Grand Bank for a refit. I only had seven men aboard because it was just a sixhour run. about fifty-five miles. But the worst storm in forty years came up and we were driven out to sea. The days that followed were like a nightmare and if I hadn't had such a good crew, men who could and would go up an eightyfoot spar in a storm to reef a sail, we would never have got through. Don't get

men like that today. These fellows can’t even mend a net some of them. In those days they were all good twine men—had to be.

“Well, at one time we saw a chance to make a run for St. Pierre but the wind turned against us and drove us back the way we had come. We were helpless for we had lost most of our sail and were soon in danger of being driven on the rocks of the Newfoundland shore. We snugged up what sail we had. I lashed the wheel and went below. There was nothing more to be done. But the wind chopped — you know what that means, changed—and we were driven out to sea.

“Eight days later I made port. We tied up the ship and I told the men not to bother trying to do anything to her but just go home and tell their families they were safe. It was about two in the morning, a Saturday. I went into the house and upstairs. The two children were in

the big bed with my wife. She couldn’t speak at first. She was the only one who hadn’t given me up for dead. Even my mother had lost hope. My little girl, nine, just looked at me but the boy, who was two, yelled “daddy” and crawled across the bed to me. Then we could all speak. Next morning we went to church.”

The wind continued to blow a neargale on Wednesday morning. “I’m going to go ashore and collect the enjoyment insurance, have twenty-four kids and live on the government,” complained one skipper to his friend Thornhill on the radiotelephone.

Before Blue Foam could answer, another captain cut in. “Go on, you’re too old to have two kids let alone twentyfour. You’re probably too old to catch fish any more.”

How do you catch fish on the Grand Banks? Archie Thornhill wasn’t sure he could explain, but he had always been pretty good or pretty lucky at it. To begin with, he. has kept a record of all the places where the fishing has been good. Then, he knows the submarine hills and valleys as well as the layout of the Blue Foam itself. Once in a while he checks his hunches with a look into the fish loop, a radar device which looks like a modern stereopticon, and shows, by blips, the cod actually feeding on their meadow.

By noon on Wednesday the wind had dropped and the winches whined again as the net went over the side. In the

morning the skipper had been humming Bless This House. By nightfall as the fish continued to plop into the hold he was singing, Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow. By the end of the week a good catch seemed assured. But this turn of events failed to remove entirely the nagging fear that Captain Thornhill shares with other skippers that the Banks will one day be fished out. Another fisherman, Izaak Walton, made this gloomy prophecy to his countrymen when nets were first used on the Banks. The assurances of the scientists do not allay Captain Thornhill’s fears.

Captain Thornhill (you would no more call him “Cap” than you would call Wilder Penfield "Doc”) is a man who believes in fish. They are his business, his hope, and a good deal of his food. The passenger said he could eat fish three times a day. He got it twice a day, as a test, and came up still liking salt cod. The restaurants of St. John’s, where they should know better, do things to fish that would make a lamprey blush. The passenger had clam chowder one night ashore that made the old controversy about including tomatoes ridiculously academic. This one had carrots and a coagulant, probably flour, of such consistency that you felt it should be eaten with one of those little brushes that come with paste pots. Captain Thornhill winced when he heard the story. “Tonight,” he said, “you will have cod tongues.”

They were so fresh that fish from which they had been skillfully plucked by the men on the fish deck were probably still twitching in the hold as we sat down to eat them. Claude, the cook, selected medium-sized tongues, without too much jelly at the base, and fried them in deep fat. He even threw out the tea and made a fresh pot for the occasion. On the side was a fresh loaf of his own white bread that rose high and light and burst in a crusty magnificence at the top in a shape like his own hat.

Cod tongues are delicate and white. They taste more like frogs’ legs than fish but not like either, really. Their flavor is delicate and haunting.

The next time I go out with him, says Captain Archie, he'll arrange to get me a mess of cod cheeks. He would have got them this time but he didn’t want to spoil the memory of those tongues.

On Friday the news from St. John’s was that the attorney-general was going to crack down on the big bingo games being conducted by service clubs to finance charitable works. The Rev. Dr. James Mutchmor, of Toronto, who had been on the island for a church conference, was blamed for instigating the prohibition. At dinner, the noon meal in Newfoundland, the crew wondered if he would try to stop fishing as gambling if he knew what it was really like.

On Sunday the captain went to church twice by radio. “I never feel right about fishing on Sunday,” he confided to the passenger. “And 1 never did fish on this day until a few years ago. The men from Gloucester started it on the Banks and then everyone was doing it.”

A voice on the radiotelephone enquired if Archie had come out of prayer meeting yet. If he had, how about talking about fishing for a while?

The last set was taken back by nightfall on Monday. The total catch, a respectable one, would weigh in at about 205,000 pounds.

Before he went to bed that night (Blue Foam would dock early in the morning) Captain Thornhill wrote as a final entry in his log, "Our passenger didn't miss a meal,” Even his handwriting looked surprised. ★