The Terrible Odyssey Of Howard Blackburn

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For well over two hundred years, the doryman was an integral part of American life, though rarely given his fair due. He was a fisherman, the hardiest of a hardy lot who went down to the sea in ships and from there, in tiny boats, to harvest both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. If it was a hard trade, it also was a proud one, so much so that an anonymous doryman at the turn of the century was driven to a splendid bit of doggerel: “I want no fuss with the pale-faced cuss—/ The clerk or piano tuner—/ Who spend their lives in those hives/ In the struggle for more mazuma./ But give me the wind-swept ocean’s space,/ Where the ‘flat ones’ flop in the dory’s waist,/ And the salt scud whips in your upturned face,/ As you pull for the side of your schooner.”

One of the doryman's principal fishing grounds was the Grand Banks, an enormous patch of the Atlantic that lies south of Newfoundland and nurtured the largest crop of cod and halibut in the world. Among the hundreds of thousands of dorymen who worked the Banks in those two hundred years were the Gloucestermen, the fishing folk of Gloucester, Massachusetts, who from generation to generation plied their trade in one of the most inhospitable environments on earth—the North Atlantic.

One of them was Howard Blackburn. He was born in Port Midway, Nova Scotia, in 1858 and emigrated to Gloucester in his teens, serving as a doryman on several Grand Banks schooners. In the middle of January, 1883, he signed on board the Grace L. Fears, bound for the Burgeo Bank off the southern coast of Newfoundland—beginning an adventure that would mark him for the rest of his life. That horrifying and courageous tale follows, told in Blackburn’s own words as taken down by a reporter for the Salem (Massachusetts) News in August and September, 1932:

After we had found an anchorage, we had hardly returned to the vessel the first morning, after setting our trawls [multiple-hook fishing lines attached to buoys], when Capt. Griffin said he feared a blizzard was coming on and told us we’d better go right back and haul them. This was Jan. 25.

Thomas Welch, a Newfoundland boy, somewhat younger than I was and newer at the trade, was my dory mate. I had never seen him before I met him on this trip. The wind was southeast and our trawls were all set in that direction, so we all pointed our bows to our outermost buoy. The journey home would be made with the wind. It was a long hard pull but we made the buoy, came about and squared away for the Fears.

Just as we pulled in the last of the trawl the wind fell away to a flat calm. I knew what this might mean and so was not a bit surprised when a few minutes later it breezed up from the northwest. That brought us right to leeward and we would have a dead-head wind to row in.

Soon flakes of snow were blowing into our dory and the wind was increasing in force. We could see most of the other five dories and some of them were already headed for the schooner, we started toward it rowing right against the wind. We were in a whirling mass of snowflakes, some of them with sharp, frozen edges that seemed to cut the face as with a knife. The snow and vapor soon became so thick we could not see many lengths ahead of us. Of course, we lost sight of the schooner in the blizzard but we had her position correctly.

We rowed to windward until we thought we must be abreast of the vessel. As we could hear no bell or other sound we thought we might have gone by her. Night was coming on. There’s no twilight in those northern latitudes. Darkness closes down on you as fast as a drop curtain in a theatre.…

“We’ll have to anchor,” I said to my mate. He agreed with me. During the night it stopped snowing and we could see a riding light in the distance. This was the first time we had caught sight of our vessel and to our dismay we had not gained an inch. We were practically in the same position as we were when we started rowing.

The next morning it was still blowing hard and getting colder. We decided it would be best to put the dory to a drag.

This saved the boat for us as it would not have lasted long at anchor. Between us we managed to smash in the head of one of the trawl-buoys. Tying the end of the painter around the staff that goes through the buoy, it would ride the seas open side to us and filling with water, check our progress.

Just as we threw the drag over, the dory shipped considerable water. We both had on the usual heavy mittens that all bank fishermen had to wear to save their hands from frostbite. I took my mittens off for what I anticipated would be the short time necessary to make the required knot. All else I had managed to do with mittened hands, with Welch’s aid. Quite naturally I dropped the mittens under my seat; but the water was gaining on us and they were soon floating about in a mass of ice and water.…

Welch tried to bail out the dory but the ordinary implement then furnished for this work, a shovel-like wooden scoop, made about as much headway as you would if you attempted to empty Gloucester Harbor with a tin dipper. We managed to knock the head out of an extra keg that was intended for use as buoy. With this Welch went to bailing before I finished my task. The water washed all the ice and my mittens to where Welch was bailing. I always supposed he caught them, one at a time, in his bailing-keg and tossed them into the sea. At any rate, I could not find them.