By Sheila Dassatt
We are at a crucial point in our existence as Commercial Fishermen concerning survival. As I write this article, I look over the most popular pages of the newspapers and magazines that I receive every month, this one included. I have found that the pictures and articles of yesteryear are a big draw for most of us. They are almost like history books with real life “how it was then” type of pictures in them. So how can I do these times justice with my article?
For starters, I am fortunate to come from a generational fishing family and have lived it or heard the old stories about Gramp, Dad and the fishermen of their time. Let’s envision this, if you may: the boats were made of wood, the most elite vessel may have had a shelter top, but a lot of them had what they called a “spray hood.” This was basically a canvas shelter in the forward section of the boat, from the helm forward. It protected you “a little” from the elements if the wind came up and you were hit with spray from the chop and wind. I suppose it also gave you a little privacy if you needed to use the bucket (you know). All of the boats then had buckets for plumbing, not heads with holding tanks in them. Most of the fishing boats still have buckets to this day!
Not to get off track, but when Mom and Dad had the Red Baron in San Diego for the America’s Cup Challenge, Pact 95, the Baron was the weather boat representing the Team Young America. Team Young America was the group representing the Maine sailing vessel that was in the race. Anyway, Dad had what he called “dignitaries” on the boat with him and when they asked where the head was, he pointed to a bucket down below. They were appalled! Just saying, that the Baron was a true fishing boat and raced a little bit on the side……..
Getting back to where I was, the traps were made of oak (wooden traps), that had to be soaked with rocks or bricks before you could even begin to fish them. A large gang of traps back then was around 150. That was putting in a good day’s work, mostly hauling by hand or if you were fortunate, a winch on the hauling side that you wrapped the rope around to bring the trap in. (There is another name for it, but I am being politically correct). The buoys were hand whittled out of wood and the toggles may have been glass bottles. The glass bottles of yesteryear were made of very heavy glass. I have a picture of Gramp on his dock painting the buoys that he whittled out of wood.
They did not have VHF radios or the electronics that we have today. What they used for a sounder was a piece of lead that was attached to a long string. This was used to put overboard to decide where to set their traps. In my opinion, these guys really had to know what they were doing to make a go of it. We should all know how to do these things in case we should get in a pinch some day. You just never know when things are going to break down, even electronics.
The houses were mostly built along the shore and had what was called a widow’s window in the front. My grandmother had a rocking chair in that window and faithfully would sit and watch for the boat to come in by a certain time of the day. If it didn’t come in, they had to run on faith. There were times when the boat would break down and not get in until the next day. The joy of a fishing village, even now, is if you break down there is usually another fisherman close by to come along and help you out. If you need a tow, that is what was done and still is done that way to this day. We have been towed in and have also towed others in. It’s what we all do and an unspoken code of the fishermen. You don’t leave anyone stranded, not even someone that you don’t take to.
The fishermen in Gramp’s day fished year ‘round, after lobstering, they fished for cod, haddock, crabs, etc. In the spring, the take was for halibut, then it would turn around and it would be time to set for lobster again. My Dad and his brother, Howard would ice down a wheelbarrow and pack it with the catch of the day and peddle the fish around the neighborhood. They would give the money to my grandfather, and (save out a little for penny candy) at the local store! This was also a regular chore that they did to help the family survive. The women would pick crabmeat at home to help with the family income and the family would also salt the cod and hang in on their clotheslines to dry. That was great, us kids used to walk through the yards to go to town and pull off a little piece to snack on! Nobody seemed to mind as long as we didn’t take too much.
This is how it was, and yes, times have changed over the years. What would they say if they could see how it is all done now and see the issues that we are going through?! So when we say that we need to save the lobstermen, in my mind, we are also saving a heritage. We do not want to lose our way of life and lose forever the hard work and conservation measures that our ancestors worked hard to put into place for our benefit.
We want to hang onto our working waterfronts for “Dear Life” and not let the wrong things evolve for the sake of turning over a dollar. Once it’s gone, we will never get it back again.
There is a certain kind of awareness that we need to be reminded of so we don’t lose sight of who we are and where we came from. So, with this thought, let’s have a good season and remember who we are.