Fishermen have as many things to complain about as ever, but lately the price of fuel, down about 40 percent in the last year, isn’t one of them. And that’s true whether you own the boat or work the back deck. As most folks reading this know, a vessel’s expenses typically are deducted from the crew’s share of the proceeds.
In my youth, many New England trawlers shared according to what was known as the “broken 40” system: Forty percent of the vessel’s stock (revenue from the catch) was held by the boat; the crew got 60 percent but paid for food, fuel and ice. There were some big paydays under this system, but if expenses were high relative to the stock, deckhands could earn nothing for their time at sea. Such trips were known as brokers.
Wallace Stewart, who in 1971 taught me how to run the big Fairbanks Morse diesel on the redfish trawler Vandal, once told me of a trip, on the eve of World War II, where the haddock were as thick as anyone aboard had ever seen them. The gang couldn’t begin to get the deck cleared, and every time they opened up a hole the skipper would haul back and dump another bag of fish onto the deck.
They cut fish all the way to the dock in Gloucester, Mass., and after they unloaded the skipper climbed down the foc’s’le ladder with the bad news: Haddock were two cents, and the trip was a broker. As a gesture of good will, he offered a $10 bill to anyone willing to sign on for another trip.
For his part, Old Stewart (as he came to be known in Portland) had seen enough. He went up over the wharf, and with the country gearing up for war, found work in a machine shop for the duration.
By way of a footnote, fuel may be relatively cheap, but it’s no steal. A gallon of diesel is around $2.20 here in Portland, Maine, which translates to 36 cents in 1970 dollars. In 1970, diesel sold for between 16 and 23 cents a gallon.