The Dorymen

A native of Massachusetts, EDMUND GILLIGAN spent a good part of his boyhood near Gloucester, where he first became aware of the power of the sea and of the strength of the men whose lives are given to it. Since 1937 he has been writing poignant and poetic novels about the schooners that once plied the Grand Banks.

RIDING a poorly-broken wild horse of the Sable Island herds, I passed one September morning along the eastern beaches of that rift of dunes, the “graveyard of the Atlantic” — so called because of the sprawled hulls and tipping spars of wrecks new and old; iron freighters, square-rigged vessels, and schooners of the Grand Banks. A northeasterly gale had blown itself out after three days of unbroken mauling by combers that, more than once, had breached clear across the island.

A flood tide now heaved between the ruins of the lost vessels. Ancient spars had fallen in the night past. Other masts had risen into the morning sun, for the peculiar action of the gales plows the bars and shoals asunder; and the ruins of vessels, lost a century before, may then emerge. A British-built Greek freighter, wallowing in a sea grave she had come far to find, had been beaten so far over that the green tide, roaring into her shattered hatchways, came gushing out in streams blackened by the coal dust of her bunkers.

Half a mile ahead of me, two seamen of the Canadian coast guard rode at a trot, their heads constantly turning to the left and right. Now and then, one reined up to bend over a swath of seaweed or a spar rolled up by the surf. They were seeking drowned men, or men still living that may have come ashore from one of the vessels whose signals of distress had been read from the lighthouses, the West Bar Eight and the East Bar Light.

It is a standing order in that efficient establishment that the beaches must be constantly patrolled during gales and after them. Since it was a task too severe for men on foot, the coast guard had long since captured the wild horses, had broken them to the saddle and to the great wagon that hauled the lifesaving gear up and down the dune tracks. It is well known that those horses, malformed now by poor forage and inbreeding, are the descendants of Arabian herds put on that island in Columbian times by Portuguese adventurers. Those men intended to kill and eat the horses if stores ran short on that uncharted coast or if a gale swept their vessels onto the frightful lee shore.

Bursting holds, and rusted anchor chains clanging on twisted deck plates, and the screech of timbers parting: all these, added to the din of the swirling tide and the incessant clamor of terns, overhead, kept the beaches in an uproar. Bitter cold and keen against my face, the spray struck so hard that I turned the horse into a shelter between two dunes. One of them had been split by the gale. This furious alteration had uncovered a boat; that is, its bow and its port gunwale lay bare to the sun. It stirred me to see the familiar bottle green still vivid under the gunwale. The dory had been well preserved by the avalanche of sand that had overwhelmed it on a long-gone day or night when a gale had harried the Banks and the Gloucester schooners hove to.

I rode slowly around the boat, holding my horse down with difficulty, because this relic made him uneasy, although such things were well known to him. In the end, I dismounted and let him stand at ease some distance away.

I knew this dory. By its blunt prow and stern, high sides, its strong, good wood and traditional color, I made it out to be a dory of the old Yankee fleet. I knelt at the bow and struck away a crust of sand and seaweed clumped there by the pressure of the dune. There I read her vessel’s name: Adventurer of Gloucester. I took up the blade of an oar, sea-bitten, and drew it across the drifted sand within her. The toe of an upturned boot appeared. I shoveled a bit more, and thus uncovered the other boot. The wrinkled cowhide had turned to a coppery hue. It seemed improper to dig farther, to find out whether a man really lay there. With my hands, I threw the sand back over the boots. And I asked myself: “Is his dorymate there, too? Stretched on bottom boards, where they fought it out together against the gale and cold and thirst? And lost the fight?”

If it was true that the dorymates lay in their dory tomb, who had they been and what their trade? And how did they come to lie there in the ancient graveyard of their kind?

THEY had been dorymen of a Gloucester schooner, perhaps the first to bear that memorable name. I myself had sailed in a topsail schooner of the same name; in fact, she was working on Sable Island Bank that very season, one of the last of our schooners to fish under sail only. The two dorymen had been driven ashore long before our time. There is no record of their loss. Indeed, if the vessel herself was killed in that gale, there would be only this record: Schooner Adventurer, lost with all hands, on Sable Island Bank, September, 18—Something like that; and, nearby, a note about the memorial service, the funeral masses for the unfound dead.

They were fishermen; that was their trade. It is the most ancient in our history, because the first settlers followed the cod fishery, lived by it, and, in fact, came to the Massachusetts shore because they knew they could kill cod. And how did they acquire that knowledge? This way: long before the time of Queen Elizabeth and her Walter Raleigh, the Englishmen of the West Country ports — Bristol among them — had fished the Grand Bank of Newfoundland. They built curing establishments and cooking rooms on that shore. Before them, the Bretons had killed cod there, using (lie islands of Saint Pierre and Miquelon for their bases. Because the cod were fat and abundant, because they were less oily than the European fish, they could be well cured. Cod thus became a prized food among the Portuguese, whose historians assert, with good reason, that the ships of Portugal fished there long before Columbus was born.

The settlers on the New England shores followed that trade. Their descendants pushed it vigorously to new banks and to the old ones. They were the first men to pitch their energy and thought into the improvement of gear. They replaced the hand lines with the trawls: long lines from which shorter lines, bearing baited hooks, were sent down to the bottom to reach the cod and haddock. While other nations patiently jigged for cod off Newfoundland, the Yankees added more and more hooks until, at last, the schooners were setting trawls a mile long, a hook every six feet, a rich harvest for every haul.

Century by century, those fishermen created the dory. By changes big and infinitely small, they altered the design until, in the end, they had created the perfect craft for their trade. Its high sides withstood the assaults of waves; its flat bottom let the dory fall off before such combers; its sideboards, strengthened cunningly in the boatyards of home, made it so sturdy that it could Stand almost any weather if the right kind of men were in it.

They created the fishery and the gear, and they made history. They fed the slaves of the Spanish New World and fed the towns of the Atlantic coast. Under sail and at the oars, they fought the wars. It was the Yankee dorymen who carried Washington’s army away from the Long Island disaster and set it on the desperate road to Yorktown. When, in our day, the U-boats surfaced on the banks to shell the schooners, the shells that split their conning towers were fired by dorymen.

Backed by a craftsmanship richer than all the trades of the sea, the two dorymen of the Sable Island grave had, on that fatal day, started the last rounds of a task that can be accurately reconstructed because it never changed.

Here it is:

The Adventurer, clearing out of Gloucester under a whole mainsail and topsails, too, had driven across to Nova Scotia, her rail under, her dories upside down in two nests on either side the foremast. In the shelter of the nests, and elsewhere, the dorymen set to their first work: sharpening hooks in hook sets, fastening them to the main trawl by short lines called gangins (variously spelled), and mending the trawl tubs, actually canvas baskets into which the readied trawls were coiled.

Those men, in storm hats and oil clothing, were of all the Atlantic peoples: Nova Scotians, Newfoundlanders, Irishmen of Gloucester and Boston, Italians, and, as always, the skilled Portuguese. The skipper came from the ranks. A good man in a dory, he had become competent in directing them, in hard sailing home to the lively Wednesday markets, and in selling his fare of fish. By the old fifty-fifty lay, half the gross profit went to the captain and crew, the balance to the owners.

The dorymen paid for all the food and, to a degree, for lost gear. The skipper purchased the stores and took a commission, which is why he bought the best, and established the high character of the table set in the schooners. The men ate three big meals a day: prime beef, spring lamb, bread out of the Shipmate stove, vegetables and choice fruits, pies and cakes. In the shack locker were always the cheese, crackers, and cookies for those coming off night watches. On the stove there were tea kettles always brewing. The dorymen never ate fish.

“Sit ye down, chum,” was the traditional greeting to greenhorns. “Eat, and give the vessel a good name.”

Eastward the Adventurer swept into the rosecolored evening of Nova Scotia, and by the time the lighthouses began to flash she steered up the Roseway River, dropping sail after sail, and made fast to the herring wharf of Shelburne. There, in the morning, the herring men brought aboard a few samples from their icehouse; and the skipper, a master at buying bait, ran his thumbnail down a herring belly to test its firmness, snuffed it to mark its freshness. He bought. The baskets went swinging over the rail, and down the herring flowed onto the ice of pens below decks, soon to be filled with cod.

ON THE first tide that serves, away she flies. Now the skipper’s other skills come into play. Ancient charts are studied: “Western Bank— 69,000 mixed fish, June 7, 1892; Banquereau — 90,000 cod, Sept. 4, 1911,” and so forth until, at last, the dorymen hear the word:

“On fish! He says we’re on fish!”

“He” is the skipper again, straddled near the helm, watching the sails come off the schooner until she glides under headsails only. How does he know there are cod below in tens of thousands? The sea isn’t full of fish — not by a long shot. They must have their forage. It isn’t everywhere. His charts have guided him so far. His memory helps. Now he must learn one more fact: the character of the sea bottom right below her keel. He has seen on his charts the symbols “VFGS.”He calls for the deep-sea lead, armed with tallow or butter. When it is hauled and handed to him, he rolls the caught particles between thumb and forefinger. Should his trained fingers fail to assure him, he tastes the butter and his tongue gives him the news. It repeats: “On fish !" It is, indeed, the very fine gray sand signified in the chart letters.

“Bait up! Bait up!” he says, “Bait up!”

The herring, chopped by the dorymen into chunks of a certain size, are set on the hooks, and the hooks are again coiled into the baskets.

“Number one dory!”

This is the dory of Sable Island.

Her two men are not specifically named in the records. It may be well to let them bear, for a short time, the names of men well remembered on the Grand Banks for their courage and devotion: Dick Murphy, Colin Bell. They are men in their forties: great shoulders rounded by life at the oars, dark eyes sobered by a labor that was not much more than enslavement. Dick is an inch taller than Colin; otherwise, they are alike in their oil clothing, storm hats, cowhide boots, well oiled by the oil of cod livers.

They swing out the top dory of the starboard nest. Into it they place oars and blackball buoys — small kegs with black flags marked “No. 1. “ Dick climbs into the dory. Colin passes up the tubs of baited trawls, the willow wand for heaving the trawl, the water bottle, the food tin. These, most likely, contain a little water, a few pilot biscuits. They are stowed in the sideboards.

“Dory away!”

The men on deck lower the dory. The skipper points to the southeast, the direction of the set. The vessel glides on, dropping dories as she goes.

Colin sits at the oars and pulls easily away. In the stern, Dick heaves over the first buoy and its anchor; and then, in a smooth, strong action, lifts the top coil with the wand and flips it over. Thus the bait sinks to the very fine gray sand, twenty fathoms down.

Continually they raise their heads to measure the wind, try the wintry air for snow smell, the sky for its changes. This is late in the season. If winter comes to pay a visit, there’ll be no notice before a howling arrival.

The vessel is out of sight. They are alone, these two, in a lonely wilderness, heaving black to the rim of the world. They have only each other. It is enough. They are dorymates and have been so a score of seasons. Each depends thoroughly on the other. There’s no need of talk or shouts or warnings. They think as one alert, crafty man, immensely strong, fighters against the Atlantic now holding them in a cold, steel-blue embrace.

The last hook goes gleaming down. The second buoy goes over. Its anchor slants bubbling away.

“Stay here?”

“Aye, chum!”

They thus agree to lay on the ends; which is to say, they will tie up to the buoy and wait for the Adventurer to come around and blow the fishing signal —two hours hence. It is too cold to row back to her. They might sail the dory. They choose to lie down out of the wind, gossip a bit about home, and then, perhaps, “take a kink” — a nap on the bottom boards while the cod swallow hooks far below.

“Hoo-oo! Hoo-oo!” Silence; and then again: “Hoo-oo! Hoo-oo!”

Back at the starting place, the skipper cranks the horn. The cod have had time for breakfast. They have found it a little on the steely side. But they’ve had it. The fishing signal bowls across the sea, and in each of the ten dories the dorymates rise to their toil.

Colin takes his place in the bow, hauls the blackball and anchor, passes them to Dick, and then lays the trawl line on a small iron wheel in a frame, set on the gunwale forward. This is the gurdy. Turning as he hauls, it lightens his labor.

He strains to it. The first hooks come up empty; then he yields to the heavy tug of fish. Up comes the first cod, a fat twenty-pounder, a “slcaker.” Harvest is under way. He slats the fish off by a deft whirl backward. The cod falls into the middle place. Colin coils the empty hooks into an empty basket.

Hour after hour, the task goes on. The dory fills slowly. Salt and freezing wind bite at the dorymates. In silence, they rise and bend, haul and coil; and change places, rise and bend, until the last hook is coiled, the dory loaded.

The wind being fair for the dory, they hoist the blue sail — blue, black, or whatever — and steer for the schooner. Sail after sail rises beyond; other dories answer to the great oars and the short, deep stroke. No. 1 comes alongside first. The cook hands down the pitchforks. In the last action of the fishing itself, Dick and Colin pitch the cod over the rail and into the deck pens. Up their dory goes, its plug pulled to let brine and cod-blood drain.

On deck, the toil hits a harder pace. One as gutter, the other as ripper, Dick and Colin take their places at the troughs. Colin rips down with the knife, Dick seizes the cod and tears out the gut, and the refuse flows into the sea for the waiting gulls. The dressed cod fly backward into a tub, where water runs. An “idler” — first man handy — stirs the fish in a circular, cleansing motion and sends them below to the pens of cracked ice, where other men pack the cod between layers of ice.

It is barely noon, yet the two dorymates have done a terrible day’s work already. They now turn and haul up other dories, gut and split other loads, and —

“Dinner! Dinner! First table!”

They eat slowly, thoroughly, steak after steak, cleaning the deep plate with bread, eating it, swallowing mugs of tea, and thus stoke the inner fires that must burn hot far into the night. Another set is made. Night falls over the returning dories. Oil torches blaze along the decks. Knives click and slice until the cod are down below. The night watch is set: two hours. Dick and Colin stand it, ceaselessly watching, listening. They call the relief, tumble into their forecastle bunks, and tumble out at daybreak for another eighteenhour day, give or take an hour.

What do they get for it? Two dollars? Three? At times, four or five. They cannot know. Forces working thousands of miles away — West Indies, California, Alaska, Boston — determine what the dealers will bid at Gloucester or at Boston. Four cents a pound? Five? As much as eight? Perhaps. They cannot know until it’s done and the vessel sold “right through.” They can take it. They can’t leave it. They are masters of a high skill. They have no other. They must fish or go hungry, houseless. There are no longshore jobs for them while fish can be killed. The Yankee packers see to that.

DAY breaks, and with it comes the familiar cry: “Number one! Dory away!”

Again the heaving, again the hauling until late in the afternoon. Once more, Dick and Colin stretch out on the bottom boards, bodies strained now to the utmost. This is the last set. By midnight, if all goes well, the Adventurer will be under a whole mainsail again or, most likely, on a hard, dead beat to windward, until the lights of home greet them kindly.

Vapor curls from their snoring mouths. Frost creeps along their oilskins. It is uneasy sleep. A flurry of snow floats over them. The water blackens and a roller passes under the dory, knocks at it. These changes pass without notice.


They rise and haul until the dory fills. The sun slants down, far snow squalls glittering on the long rays; then, right out of the sun, a hailstorm blows, rattles, stops. These two have no barometer, only the barometer of skilled hearts. Deep in twisting cod, they labor until a word or two must be passed.

“I don’t like this.”

That’s all.

“No, Dick. We’d best look sharp.”

Far to the north, too far to be heard in the rising racket, the Adventurer sounds the gale warning. Sharp and close calls of her horn blare out: “Hoot! Hoot! Hoot!” Which is to say: “Cut gear! Stand by! I am coming. Gale! Gale!”

Darting unseen in the snowy dusk, the schooner takes in the first dory, No. 10, and No. 9 and No. 8; and, fearful of the rising gale, she sails faster and begins taking them “on the fly,” a dangerous, heartbreaking job.

No. 1 must be the last, having been the first. Stolidly, Dick and Colin peer into the darkness, waiting for the torches to gleam, the horn to sound. The gale does not wait. Rising in true September fashion, the Atlantic suddenly hurls wave after wave against the dory. A blinding drive of snow beats between the dory and the schooner’s position. She drives past unseen. Half a mile onward, the skipper begins the traditional circle of search, closing in, point by point, to the place where the dory must be.

It is not there. Dick, at the approving nod, cuts the buoy and anchor, lets them go. They wait, listening, staring. A sea strikes against the high side and rams the dory into a whirling motion, a hurtling drive down into a trough.

Without a word, without a murmur, the dorymen open the battle. Over goes the other buoy and anchor, then the trawl baskets, and, one by one, two by two, the hard-won cod. They clear for action. They do not know what that action must be. All they know is that they must have room at the oars, room to bail. A sea leaps over the gunwale, half fills the boat. Dick bails. Colin sits to the oars to keep her head into it. He gives to the gale the only answer he can give: the short, deep stroke.

The dory joins the battle like a living thing. All she needs is men — and she has the best of them on her thwart, on the bottom boards bailing.

An hour passes in the first desperate effort to stay there, to keep the place known to theAdventurer. Ice from the black sky hammers on their heads, their arms, their stretching, straining hands. They know that soon the skipper must ask himself: “Can I keep her under sail in this blow? How long before I must heave her to and save what men I’ve got?”

In the end, Colin gives the verdict.

“Chum, we’re in for it.”

“Aye, Colin! Where to, would you say?”

Dick is bent over the pocket compass, striving to read it in the gloom.

Colin answers: “Sable Island?”

“We can try, chum. Due west. I’ll spell you when you say so.” He bails.

How far before the lights of Sable Island will flash their candle power across that sea? Neither Dick nor Colin can tell exactly. They are in for it. That is all.

Hail falls again, succeeding the snow. The hail turns to rain. It freezes on them and at their feet. The oars strike and rise. The bailer matches the action. They gain a few lengths, fall back. The gale keeps hauling until it stands in the northeast for good. The tide swings and helps the dory a little. At midnight, Dick goes to the oars. Colin takes up the bailer. Yet he is so far gone that he must lie down awhile. A boarding sea brings him up again at once.

“Think we’re doing anything, Dick?”


By midnight, they know they’re on the way. The flood tide, rolling toward the island, holds them high at times, drops them down into everdeepening troughs. Now the stroke of the oars droops to a lower stroke. The wind is piping up in real earnest; the gale is following after the dory, hammering at it, and the rollers are higher, higher. Hunger and thirst begin to weaken hearts used to great supplies of rich food. The sips of water, bits of cracker, carefully taken, serve them poorly.

The day breaks. Colin rises, clinging to the gunwale, and looks around the compass, hoping that even now, even so late, the wily skipper may have figured out their course and be after them. He sees nothing, nothing but the whirling spray of the empty sea. He falls to bailing.

Long since, the keen knife of the wind has cut through their oil clothing and into the layers of wool beneath. They have no heat within to keep the blizzard out of their hearts.

“I’ll spell you now, chum.” Dick totters from the thwart, nearly losing the oars. Colin falls upon them and begins to row. The tide turns against them, snatches at the blades. The sky, not much lighter even so far into the morning, is a mass of heaving gray-black clouds, another image of the sea.

“You got any idea now, Dick?” Colin leans far down to shout his question, because his dorymate has not stirred at all.

“By nightfall we should make out the light. East Bar.”

Slewing snow and freezing spray before it, the night falls on them; and the gale, blowing harder now that the sun is out of the way, hammers the dory down into the deepening troughs, hammers her harder when the failing oars drive her to the crests. The ice begins to make. It forms on the bottom boards, thickens there. White, frosty bands glitter on the sideboards. Frost hangs from the brims of storm hats.

Dick clears the dory of water again and goes to the oars to relieve his dorymate. Once free of the whitening thwart, Colin falls dumbly and sprawls. Those first strokes of the oars, which must be hard and strong to straighten the boat out, take a toll of Dick’s waning strength. He rows now with his eyes shut, his mouth gasping out the story of his emptying heart.

Unstirring and slowly whitening along his twisted back and shoulders, Colin lies unseen by his dorymate. In the next two hours, the strokes grow feebler, the dory wavers and at times falls swirling down from the crest of a battering sea. It is midnight again before, faint and far, very far, to the eastward, a light shoots out a yellow flash, drowned by the sea before it reaches them. Dick has long since given up the lifelong habit of glancing over his shoulder at every fifth stroke. He cannot see, can only try for one more stroke of the oars.

A crosswise sea, bolting in against the wind, snatches at the oar in his right hand and bears it down and away. He is so far gone, in the delirium of frost and weariness, that he fails to change his stroke. His frozen right hand still seems to hold the oar. At last, when wind and tide and gale combine to upend the dory, whirl it higher and faster, he topples and falls by his dorymate’s side.

Increasing to full force, the gale sweeps over the island, drowning the wrecks, the shores, the dunes, and screening the two lights. And it draws along with it, sea after following sea, a dory made of crystal, a bright thing lightly whirling, all afire with ice and frost. In the shoaler water, among the bars, the gale breaks even higher, making such billows that the crystal dory is picked up and hurled upon the beach. There the breakers push it to the high-water mark, then beyond it, until it swirls into the hollow between the two dunes. Before daybreak, the shifting sands cover it. The earth receives it, hides it from the guardsmen on their horses.

So their story ends. So their names — whatever they may be — are added to the centuries’ toll of dorymen, a toll that, in some opinions, is ten thousand.

These were the dorymen. Those were the days of their lives and deaths. Days that are gone forever—and a good thing, too. In all that enormous coast line, from Gloucester to Fortune Bay, there is not now a vessel fishing under sail. There is not one dory carried out of the ports, except for a few used in an obscure halibut fishery out of Nova Scotian ports.

The dragger has displaced the trawl. Cod are now taken in vast nets, handled by powerful winches, set on great, steel plates. The fishermen of Gloucester still toil hard. Their job is not one that ever causes envy. The best that can be said of it is this: they need never leave the deck.