An Outdoor View: Fishing in the days of sail

Author’s note: This column first appeared in the Clarion on Jan. 24, 2003. I’ve edited it for brevity. — LP

The Atlantic cod fishery, on Newfoundland’s Grand Banks and New England’s Georges Banks, is famous. Rudyard Kipling even wrote a novel about it, “Captains Courageous,” published in 1897. The novel was made into a movie in 1937, and remade in 1977.

On the other hand, Alaska’s cod fishery during the days of sail is relatively unknown. From 1863 to 1950, a hardy breed of men journeyed north from Puget Sound and San Francisco Bay in sailing ships to fish for cod in the North Pacific and Bering Sea.

One of the last men to participate in the Alaska fishery, Captain Ed Shields, of Poulsbo, Wash., wrote “Salt of the Sea: The Pacific Coast cod fishery and the last days of sail.” In his book, Shields tells about his first voyage as captain of the three-masted schooner CA Thayer, in 1949.

Some of the men in the Alaska codfish fleet had learned their trade on the Grand Banks. Some worked in logging camps in winter and fished in summer. They were a carousing, hard-drinking bunch, according to Shields.

Most of the vessels were built on the West Coast, mainly for hauling lumber from Northwest mills to Southern California during the years when the first-growth forests were being logged. When this trade became less lucrative, the vessels were converted to fish for cod.

The CA Thayer carried a crew of 35. By this time, the sails were raised with the aid of gasoline engines. Earlier, steam engines had done the job, and, earlier still, manpower. A tugboat towed the schooner from its moorage on the Seattle waterfront to a few miles past Cape Flattery, the open Pacific. From there to Unimak Pass, near the fishing grounds, was a sailing distance of 1,800 nautical miles (about 2,100 statute miles).

There was always work to do while under way. On the second day out, Shields wrote: “The morning being somewhat clear, I took a morning sight on the sun with my sextant to determine the longitude. After breakfast, the 14 dory fishermen came aft to the cabin to draw their fishing gear.”

The gear included a skein of 100 fathoms (600 feet) of tarred fishing line; a length of non-tarred, white line for leader; fish hooks; bait knife; and a hook-sharpening file. Each man fished two lines — one from each side of the dory. When not in use, the line was stored on reels made from hardwood slats. Sinkers had to be made by firing up a forge on deck, melting down 5-pound blocks of lead and pouring the molten metal into forms.

On the morning of the twenty-second day, breakers were spotted, and then the first sight of land. To Shield’s great relief, he recognized the land as Scotch Cap, at Unimak Pass. He was right on course.

The schooners had to carry enough stores to last for five months. On the fishing grounds, the cooks stretched their food supplies by serving fresh fish as often as possible. This was most often fresh cod. Halibut were a preferred bait, so only if an oversupply were caught did halibut show up at the table.

Salted cod was a staple, served with boiled potatoes and cream sauce.

Once the schooner was anchored on the fishing grounds, the dories were launched. The fishermen anchored their dories a few miles away from the ship, and well away from one another. Before the late 1920s, when outboard motors came into general use, the dories were powered by oar and sail.

While hand lining, the fishermen wore cotton gloves, and most also used “rubber nippers” for gripping the line. They preferred to fish in 20 to 27 fathoms. Any deeper, and the lines became tangled and it was more difficult to pull fish in. When a fisherman had caught 250 to 300 codfish, he returned to the ship, tied up alongside and “pewed” the fish from the dory onto the ship’s deck. On deck the fish were dressed, split, soaked in a barrel of saltwater, then forked into the hold. There, they were laid flat and covered, layer upon layer, in salt.

When you consider that this fishing was done near land, from vessels that were difficult to maneuver, and that the weather was often foggy or stormy, it’s amazing that more ships weren’t lost. The constant rocking, shrieking of wind in the rigging and the thought of drifting onto the rocks must’ve kept everyone awake on many a stormy night.

In 1950, the CA Thayer was the last schooner to fish for cod in Alaskan waters. The only survivor of these once-proud vessels, it’s moored at San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, San Francisco. This grand old schooner and Captain Shields’ wonderful book keep alive an exciting era in Alaskan history.

Les Palmer is a freelance writer who lives in Sterling.

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