National Geographic : 1953 Jul
Gloucester Blesses Its Portuguese Fleet With Prayer and Pageantry, Venturesome Deepwater Fishermen Ask the Protection of Our Lady of Good Voyage BY Luis MARDEN With Color Photographs by the Author " ET him who knows not how to pray I go to sea." Devout Portuguese fishermen of New England's old port of Gloucester, Massa chusetts, who daily face the dangers of deep water, well know the truth of that old proverb. These men who wrest a hard living from the sea rely on Our Lady of Good Voyage, as well as chart and compass. And once a year, in early June, the vessels of Gloucester's Portuguese fleet gather at the State Fish Pier to be blessed (page 80). Our Lady, a patroness of seafarers and travelers, has her own church, of Azorean style, built high on a hill. Between twin cupolas stands an 18-foot statue of the Virgin (page 79). Homeward-bound fishermen, ap proaching by night, often radiotelephone to shore and ask that the statue be lighted; then the crew crowds the rail to catch its glow on the horizon, first landfall as they stand in for Gloucester (page 84). A smaller figure of the Virgin-a wood carving from Portugal-goes to the annual Blessing of the Fleet on the shoulders of proud fishermen (page 77). Four men from each vessel's crew take turns carrying the beautiful figure to the water front as the church's carillon rings out. A Model Ship with Silver Spars Gloucester's first Blessing of the Fleet took place in 1945. Three years later the present statue, which had been carved from Brazilian cedar in Porto, arrived from Portugal aboard the hospital ship Gil Eanes. Like all carvings of Our Lady of Good Voyage, she carried a fishing vessel in one hand. Portugal's Ambassador to the United States at the time, Dr. Pedro Teotonio Pereira, him self a lover of the sea, noticed that the little silver vessel was of Portuguese, rather than Gloucester, rig. Sending plans of a Gloucester schooner to Portugal, he ordered a new wooden model with silver spars and rigging. This is the one the figure now holds. Portuguese settled in Gloucester as early as 1842, but long before Columbus the Por tuguese, then as now among the world's most skilled seamen, fished as far away as Iceland, and some think they reached the Grand Banks off Newfoundland. If they did, then the Portuguese, and not the English ancestors of New England Yankees, were the true pioneers on the world's richest codfishing grounds.* Some early Portuguese settlers came from the mainland, but most came from the Azores. Even today there are many in Gloucester's Portuguese colony who hail directly from the Azorean island of Pico. American whalers of a century ago used to touch at the Azores to take on a crew. Starva tion diet, poor wages, and liberal use of the belaying pin made many of these men go permanently ashore at the home port of New Bedford. From there many made their way to Gloucester to become fishermen. Sons Prefer a Landlubber's Life Men have fished out of Gloucester since the 1620's, when the first cargo of salt fish was sent to Bilbao in Spain, but today rela tively few of the original Yankee names are heard aboard Gloucestermen. Well before the turn of the century old-timers began to dis suade their sons from going to sea, because of the danger, hard life, and small remunera tion. Sons of the men who sailed the famous old schooners came ashore to less arduous and more profitable occupations, leaving the field to foreign-born fishermen. Of Gloucester's present-day fleet of 202 vessels, not more than 30 still are run by na tive Yankees. Thirty-two are Portuguese, 100 Italian, and the rest divided among Nova Scotians, Newfoundlanders, Norwegians, Swedes, and Finns. Ironically, the cycle seems about to com plete itself, for today a few Portuguese cap tains, still erect, "able-bodied seamen" when past 70, are beginning to advise their sons not to go to sea. But so far there has been no shortage of willing and able men to work and captain the Portuguese draggers. Early Gloucester fishing was done from sloops and ketches, but in 1713 a different vessel slid down the ways. Her fore-and-aft rig enabled her to sail fast close to the wind. The story goes that, as the vessel was launched, a man watching cried, "See how she scoons [skims]!" Her builder, Andrew Robinson, heard him, and so called the vessel a "scooner." Except for the spelling, all her * See "I Sailed with Portugal's Captains Coura geous," by Alan Villiers, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGA ZINE, May, 1952.