The Boats & Gear blog is overseen by our Boats & Gear editor, Michael Crowley. It explores new construction projects, electronics, gear and equipment for the commercial fishing industry.
Written by Jen Finn
Thursday, 29 September 2011
In December of last year, a lobsterman was setting lobster traps aboard a 77-foot offshore lobster boat out of Newport, R.I. The crew was working in 19-foot seas and 45-knot winds near the Gulf of Maine’s Jeffreys Ledge.
It was about 12:20 p.m. when outgoing pot warp and traps snared the lobsterman, yanking him overboard.
He was from Thomaston, Maine, an old shipbuilding town that has been sending its men and boats to sea for generations. There were long voyages on Down Easters — square-rigged ships 200 to 250 feet long — that were designed to cargo carrying but when driven hard were fairly fast on runs to San Francisco, Shanghai or Hong Kong.
Plenty of Thomaston boys also shipped out on coastal schooners running lime, granite and cordwood down the East Coast. Later the trips would be made on lobster boats, draggers and scallopers. Thomaston’s Morse family built many of the lobster boats, first of wood and then fiberglass. And Newbert & Wallace, starting at the beginning of World War II, turned out dozens of wooden draggers and scallopers.
For some it was a rewarding trade: In 1840 two Thomaston sea captains were among only seven millionaires in the country. Later, local boatbuilder Edward O’Brien became the 14th millionaire.
However, for most it was not much more than a basic living, assuming they made it back to shore — and many didn’t.
Until very recently, if you went overboard you could figure your chances of survival were close to zero: weather conditions were often horrible, boats were hard to maneuver and the water was — and is — cold.
That was certainly the situation this lobsterman found himself in. He managed to get free of the line and up to the surface where he grabbed a life ring that had been thrown to him. But it was cold that day and he couldn’t hold on. He let go. Then the only thing seen on the water was the life ring.
I can’t help but think that it didn’t have to be that way. It’s no longer the 1800s, nor is it the 1900s. We are much smarter about how boats are designed and built: You aren’t about to mistake a modern lobster boat for a Friendship sloop built by Thomaston’s Charles Morse in 1902.
And what is worn on deck is vastly different. Lightweight pants and coats that easily shed water, and are somewhat resistant to freezing and abrasion. That’s opposed to boots made of “the thickest of russet cow hide,” oil trousers and jackets made by soaking fabric with oil that’s similar to linseed oil. Then there were hats. In the summer they were sometimes of straw, but generally it was a canvas or felt hat, often referred to as “wide awake or slouch hats.”
One item of clothing never seen on earlier fishermen and only infrequently worn by modern fishermen is the PFD. Yet it’s the one thing that might save the life of a fisherman who goes over the side. Modern materials and design have made work vests that can be manually or automatically inflated. They are lightweight, non-constricting, don’t chafe, aren’t bulky and are easy to keep clean.
Mustang, Sterns, and Stormy Seas are some of the manufacturers. Guy Cotton makes inflatable bib suspenders and, somewhat different, Regatta sells rain gear with foam flotation.
Would any of these have saved this lobsterman? I don’t know, but it would certainly have improved his chances.
For a fisherman not to take advantage of a PFD is to put himself back in time, to the early years of the 1900s when some Portuguese fishermen out of Massachusetts were said to have gone to sea with lead liners in their boots. Then if they did go overboard, they could get the “thing” over as soon as possible.
Think about it. Lead liners or a PFD. Which makes the most sense?
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