Lost at Sea: A Personal Connection

William Garlick, Student

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Fishing has had a great impact on Gloucester and its community since 1623 when the first English settlers arrived. People quickly set up drying stages at Stage Fort Park to keep fish preserved for shipment in barrels across the Atlantic. Over the past four centuries, thousands of men have lost their lives at sea. Every year the names of these men are documented on the walls of City Hall and on the bronze plaques next to the Fisherman’s Memorial on Stacy Boulevard to pay respects to these men and the sacrifices they made to provide for their families. Every year the list grows longer and some years are worse than others. In the late 1800s, fishing from dories and sailing on fast schooners that capsized easily made fishing especially deadly. It is difficult to imagine how it feels to be out, stuck in the middle of the ocean, helpless, waiting for rescue to come, and wondering if coming home to see family again is a possibility. I never thought that I would have had any fishermen in my family that had not returned from a trip that they had taken.

Then I remembered my grandmother telling me a few years ago that several of my ancestors were lost at sea and are on those lists today. When we started learning about the fishing industry in class, I decided to ask her about some of the specifics. She gave me the names of two brothers that went down with their ship while fishing off the schooner “Nathaniel Webster” in November of 1880. They were fishing on Banquereau Bank, which lies northeast of Sable Island off of Nova Scotia. The ship disappeared and all fourteen men never returned.  My great great grandfather Hector McIsaac and his brother Angus McIssac were among the men on the vanished ship. Both men were from Nova Scotia and came to Gloucester to fish. Eleven months before he disappeared, my grandfather, Hector married his wife who was also from Nova Scotia. He also left behind his ten-month-old son.  Although they were never found, this is significant because it changed my family’s history forever. This was another story of some fisherman who left Gloucester harbor, never to return again. One crazy thing is how you, too, may have family lost at sea that you do not know about.

These tragedies have affected thousands of families around Gloucester, including mine. Although this was a long time ago, it is still important in Gloucester’s history. Working as a fisherman was a tough job, but it brought a great reputation to your name. Being a fisherman during this time meant you were fearless, courageous, and strong; you were a Gloucester man. Having that reputation made people have respect for you because of how dangerous that job was. Although the men knew of the risk of not coming back, they accepted the risk because of the love they had for fishing and the money that came with it.

Many famous movies have been made about Gloucester’s seas and its treacherous stories of taking people’s lives. One famous movie that had brought a lot of attention to these tragedies was “The Perfect Storm”. The movie was about a fishing crew who set out to go fishing for swordfish, and conditions quickly turned horrible. Soon their boat, the Andrea Gail, capsized and killed all the men on board. This movie made more people aware of how serious being a fisherman and the risk that came with the job. Although you may not think that this is true, fishing is the second most dangerous job out on the market. 1879 was the worst year with 266 men not returning home, making women and children have to fend for themselves. This took dramatic effect on families across Gloucester because almost every vessel that went out that year had not returned leaving families heartbroken.