To Be A Dory Fisherman

A Look Into the Life of a Gloucesterman

Jake Engel

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Background of Dorymen

The age of dory fisherman in Gloucester was from 1623-1939. It was a high-risk, high-reward job that required lots of experience, toughness, and grit. Dory boats would fish off of larger schooners; the fisherman would go fish on the dories, and then bring the catch back to the schooners. As soon as the fisherman caught the right amount of fish they would get back on the schooner and race to Boston to sell the catch. Typically the first schooner to Boston got the best prices, making fast schooners very successful.

Pre-sail Routines

Once the crew had signed on for the season, and the skipper had filled out the customs declaration for alien men in his crew, the dorymen started preparing the boat for being away at sea. They made sure the boat was safe and had everything it needed, helped the cook store supplies, and waited for the last few men to come aboard before setting sail.

Early Timelines

As Gloucester entered the 1820s a small number of vessels started going to Georges Bank. They fished in the late spring and summer in search of cod and mackerel. In the fall, they fished for pollock and herring on the more inshore grounds. By the late 1860s, the Gloucester fleet had over 450 vessels. Many returning Civil War veterans went out to sea, as did immigrants who poured in from Canada, Scandinavia, and Portugal. More than 6,100 men served as fishermen on Gloucester vessels.

Schooner Adventure

Some schooners were more successful than others. One of the most successful schooners in the dory fishing days was the Adventure. The Gloucester Adventure, Inc., the non-profit currently maintaining and restoring the Adventure, gives some details about its history:

“The Schooner Adventure was designed by the famous marine architect Thomas McManus as a “knockabout” without a bowsprit for the safety of the crew. The schooner was built in 1926, in Essex, Massachusetts, by the John F. James and Son Shipyard. She measured 121.6 feet in length, 24.5 feet in breadth, and 14 feet in depth. Her gross tonnage was 130 and her net tonnage 62. When built, Adventure was powered by a 120 horsepower engine turning a single screw.”

Why the Adventure was Successful

Typically, the Schooner Adventure sailed the waters from Nantucket to Newfoundland in the North Atlantic fishing cod, haddock, and halibut. The Adventure was well equipped, carrying a sailing rig, diesel engine, and 14 dories. The Adventure was put out of operation in 1954 and was later converted into a windjammer for passenger cruising by removing the engine, propeller, and propeller shaft.

Why Dory Fishing was So Dangerous

Dory fishing was, if not the most, one of the most dangerous ways of fishing. Schooners would often make trips to the Grand Banks which was a very dangerous place to fish. Weather conditions in the Grand Banks are often treacherous, which is one of the reasons why fish are so plentiful there. The Grand Banks is very vulnerable to hurricanes and huge storms. There are many legendary stories of dory fisherman lost at sea. The most famous is the legend of Harry Blackburn, a dory fisherman who found himself stranded in a fogbank unable to get back to his ship.

Fishing Routines

A 15-foot dory can hold two men and 2,000 pounds of cod. Surprisingly, for a small boat, it can handle rougher seas than many bigger boats. Fishermen would bait hooks on the schooner and bring the baited hooks onto the dory. One fisherman’s job would be to set out the hooks on the dory and the other’s would be to pull another line up that had already been fished. When preparing a trawl line they would make three or four small loops in one hand as the other ran his free hand down the ganging hook.

It is no question that dory fisherman can be considered legends. They were risking their lives every time they went out on the boat. It took bravery, courage, and a strong love for fishing. Although dory fishing doesn’t happen much anymore, it will always be remembered.

Extra: If you would like to take a further look into the life of dorymen, reference the book A Doryman’s Day by Barry Fisher.