National Geographic : 1941 Jul
Newfoundland, North Atlantic Rampart beef, hot cakes, and molasses buns were served up by cook-an important man on a banker. On Sunday, unless in some emergency, the banksmen take a welcome rest and patch and darn their clothes. Sunday evening our fellows all gathered in the cabin and sang hymns before turning in early. They would be up again at crack of dawn to be off in the dories, or perhaps earlier to wrestle with a frozen mainsail on an icy deck. As the skipper once said, referring to lands men in general: "Those fellows, when they go to bed, the devil and all wouldn't wake 'em afore they'd had their rest. But with us, to be called out of bunk a half-dozen times in a night, why, we think that a good turn! Just a help to pass the night!" The naivete of the men was often amusing. One old veteran, called "Uncle" as a mark of respect, liked looking at the magazines I had brought. One night I saw him gazing at one of those cold-cream advertisements that por tray the charms of some flower of society. Rubbing a gnarled hand over his bristling beard, he remarked slowly and seriously, "They ought to use the Pond's cream method on I." Spring fishing depends a good deal on the weather. Hauling trawls in rough sea is a muscle-racking, back-breaking job. The sur face water is nearly always at zero centigrade; hands are numbed with cold; the trawl, heavy with fish, is an absolute dead weight. Then there is the long row back to the schooner with loaded dory. Wandering Dories Dare Sudden Gales Fierce gales suddenly sweep the Banks, and ice and fog menace the wandering dories. But come what may, fish have to be caught, the vessel loaded, the bills paid. As a rule, the skippers are careful about risking the lives of their men unnecessarily, although often the order "Dories away!" booms out when to a landsman the idea of putting boats out in such a storm would seem madness. The dory, well handled, is an able craft. I know of several occasions when fishermen were separated from their vessels in fog and lost. Rowing to land 150 or 200 miles away, they arrived exhausted by cold and hunger, but subsequently recovered. One May a loaded banker running before a gale struck an iceberg and sank. The crew of 25 escaped in dories and rowed 180 miles to St. John's. One man had been hit by a falling block when the ship struck. He died, but the rest were as fit as ever. Most of the lives lost on the Banks are of men swept over board in a storm when rescue is impossible. A local folksong describes the dutiful banks man's wife: And she tore up her red petticoat To make mittens for his hands To brave the cold nor'westers On the Banks of Newfoundland. In Newfoundland the name of the island is commonly pronounced--as in this song-with the accent on the last syllable. In strictly correct usage all three are accented equally. Schooners Give Way to Power Trawlers Banking may well be considered arduous, but it gives the men what they seem instinc tively to desire--infinite variety. If by their fishing they can make a living, they would rather face wind and cold and the uncertainties of sea life than take any job on shore. But the day of sail is passing. The time is not far off when bankers will be as rare as clipper ships. Steam- or oil-driven trawlers are rapidly taking the place of sailing vessels on the North Atlantic fishing ground. The biggest trawlers in the Newfoundland area in peacetime are French and Spanish ships manned by Breton and Basque sailors whose forefathers followed Cabot. These 2,000-ton ships reach the Grand Banks in early April, fish till June, and return home to refit and discharge their catch of salt cod. They wander all over the Banks and venture north to Green land. Their very names-such as Tramon tana (North Wind)-betoken their trade. The trawl or net that steam trawlers fish with is like a huge ice-cream cone about 150 feet long, with a mouth 100 feet wide. The procedure in fishing is somewhat like this: After sounding to find the depth of water so that the skipper may judge the length of cable required, the trawl is "shot away" from the windward side. The ship then steams full speed ahead, and the steel towing cable is paid out as the trawl sinks. The mouth of the net is kept open by two "otter boards"-large rectangular doors of heavy iron-bound wood weighing over 1,500 pounds. These doors are fastened near the side of the trawl's mouth and are set at such an angle that when they are drawn through the water or over the bottom, they tend to diverge, pulling the trawl into shape and stretching the mouth agape. The trawl is towed for an hour or longer. Then a sharp blast on the whistle warns the men that the skipper is going to "haul back." In the fo'c'sle tired fishermen clamber from their bunks, reach for jumper and oil clothes. Those having a "mug up" in the galley hastily drain the last drop of tea and make for the companionway. All hands on deck!