Fishing wasn’t always strings of nets and diesel engines, plastic-wrapped cigarettes and fiberglass hulls. Think before the time of daily vessel trip reports, and the government tracking every harbor departure, noting every landing. Imagine a time before plotters and depth finders; a time where rather than making the 20 mile steam offshore to the promised fishing grounds, commercial fishermen had waited for the fish to come to them.
Fishing in the age of sail was an entirely different beast, an activity that required more than just the skill of a fishermen, but rather an esteemed seamen. It was a time when it was not enough to know at which depth fish hung, and how to best bait a hook. It was a different game then, a game where fishermen must also have been seasoned sailors, whose landings were at the mercy of their surroundings. It was fishing in the age of sail that a drop in barometric pressure, swooping fog, changing winds and an increasing swell, could bring a much anticipated trip’s landings to a halt. A drastic change in surroundings for the worst meant the number of fish being hauled over the rail no longer were the priority, but rather the operation of the vessel and the survival of the crew. Fishing in the age of sail was a different game altogether.
This past winter I worked as crew on a 137-foot, historic fishing schooner, S/V Roseway, one of the most beautiful vessels I’ve ever had the honor to step foot on.
Roseway was commissioned to be built by a Harold Hathaway in John James Boatyard in 1925 in Essex, Massachusetts and was quickly put to work setting sail out of Gloucester in search of swordfish.
In 1934 aboard Roseway a crew of 12 set the world record for the most swordfish ever landed in a 24-hour period. Before I casually state a number quantifying their glorious feat, please keep in mind that in 1934 swordfish weighed anywhere from 500-1,000 pounds and there was no machinery to be heard of.
In 1934, they would have a crew member climb aloft to the top of the main mast, approximately 110 feet above deck. From there they would keep a lookout for swordfish rising to the surface to warm their blood before they would dive down deep to hunt. As the person aloft spotted the prey, they would holler to the crew on deck below. Someone at the bow would then harpoon the swordfish as it surfaced and they then in turn as a group would haul in the massive catch by hand, reeling it to the surface, and then up and over the rail. They would then gut the fish, pack it with ice, and store it in the fish hold at midship.
On said day in 1934, Roseway and her crew of 12 landed 74 swordfish in a period of 24 hours, setting the world record for the most swordfish hand-hauled in a day, and the record stands to this very day. There was a time when fishermen and those around them believed the sea would provide forever, and at times such as these, there was no reason to believe otherwise.
To this day, Roseway sails along the coast of New England each Summer as one of only six remaining original Grand Banks fishing schooners. While crewing aboard Roseway in the Caribbean this past winter, I couldn’t help but imagine fishing in the age of sail. A time of gaffed rigging, sail-furling, hand-hauling, line-coiling, hours aloft, tacking and jibing, all in pursuit of the catch of a lifetime. All in the age of sail.
“The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail,” W. Jeffrey Bolster