Caught up in the ‘Draggerman’s Haul’
There’s a dragger on the headstone of the old fisherman, gone now more than 20 years. The inscription reads: “Imagine the excitement on the other shore.”
A fitting enough expression to mark the resting place of Capt. Ellery F. Thompson — draggerman, painter, musician, author, storyteller and more. He rubbed shoulders once with Bill McCoy of “real McCoy” fame. In the early 1920s, the 22-year old fisherman supposedly ferried the infamous rum runner from New London, Conn., out to his schooner, Arethusa, off Montauk — or so the story as recounted by Thompson goes.
As a young skipper during prohibition, it appears likely that if Thompson didn’t actually carry in a load or two of hooch from some clandestine schooner hove-to along Rum Row, he at least took part in a little “bottle fishing,” a euphemism for netting the liquor jettisoned over the side by smugglers with the Coast Guard in hot pursuit.
If nothing else, it made for a helluva story, one more chapter in the unusual life of Capt. Ellery Thompson. Colorful, authentic, a one-off if there ever was one, Thompson played the trumpet, painted hundreds of seascapes (mostly oil on Masonite), and hired one of the first female crewmembers to work out of Stonington, Conn., on a dragger. In the 1940s, Thompson and his 50-foot dragger, Eleanor, which he designed on the back of old nautical charts, carried noted fisheries scientist and Yale professor Daniel Merriman on fish sampling surveys.
In 1947, Thompson became something more than just a dragger captain from southeastern Connecticut when The New Yorker ran a two-part profile of him written by journalist Joseph Mitchell. The author described the fisherman as “the most highly respected captain in the Stonington fleet.” Mitchell’s account led to further exposure for Thompson in newspapers and magazines.
Three years later, Thompson’s autobiography, “Draggerman’s Haul,” was published by Viking Press. This entertaining account of the skipper, his boats, philosophy and adventures in Southern New England was a Book of the Month Club selection. There was talk of a movie — who knows, Peter Fonda might’ve played the leading role.
Far more celebrity found the Connecticut Yankee fisherman than one might have guessed when Thompson left school at age 14 or 15 for a life on the water. He ran his boats out of Stonington, which he describes in the opening chapter as “a real fisherman’s town, where a man can go swinging down the narrow streets, wearing hip boots and a plaid shirt, with maybe a couple of shots of rye inside for ballast, and be pointed out as one of the town’s leading citizens.” A fine place for Capt. Thompson.
Several months ago, I opened a copy of Thompson’s 1950 autobiography. I was looking for a quote to accompany a column I’d written about a lobsterman who had helped shape my appreciation for the life of the tough, independent small-boat fishermen operating out of Southeastern Connecticut and Rhode Island.
I had interviewed Thompson once many years ago when he was an old man living in a saltbox house near the Mystic River, but the notes never became a published story. Reading passages from the book again set the old captain and his beloved Eleanor steaming through my memory.
I had grown up with the book and the Thompson lore; as a boy who loved to fish, I studied the draggers of Stonington and Galilee, R.I. That seemed like the life. For a while, Capt. Ellery Thompson scooped up my youthful imagination in his nets. It was finally time to put him down on paper.
Although originally published nearly 60 years ago, “Draggerman’s Haul” is still available from Flat Hammock Press, a small, independent publisher of nautical books in Mystic, Conn., Thompson’s hometown. The co-founder and publisher of the press is Stephen Jones, a professor in the maritime studies department at the University of Connecticut at Avery Point. A longtime friend of Thompson’s, Jones wrote the 87-page afterward to the book, which is a fascinating, well-
researched look at the fisherman’s life. Given that Jones has been a ditch digger, lightkeeper, boatyard manager and lobsterman (and author of 11 books), it’s hard to imagine anyone better able to understand Capt. Thompson and his life. He even plays the trumpet.
The Flat Hammock Press edition of “Draggerman’s Haul” also carries the last four chapters of Thompson’s second book, “Come Aboard the Draggers: Sea Sketches,” published in 1959. If you like reading about fishing and the sea, this combination of Thompson and Jones makes a strong package. For information, go to www.flathammockpress.com, or call (860) 572-2722.
* * *
Two weeks before Christmas, a cold morning, a skim of ice on the ponds behind the dunes, on the tidal coves and salt marshes. A cormorant struggles against the wind. I glass the waters off Watch Hill, R.I., and focus on a lone dragger several miles to the east.
These were the home waters of Capt. Ellery Thompson and Eleanor. He died in 1986 at the age of 87. Eleanor met her demise on a mud bank on the Mystic River in the 1950s, when the skipper, battling rheumatism, couldn’t keep her up any longer.
The water is saw-toothed, white-topped, all motion. Dozens of dark specks — gulls — are barely visible. At this distance, the outline of the dragger in my binoculars is soft, partially hidden by the chop, with no sharp detail. Old Ellery is on my mind, and the boat working the beaches could easily be Eleanor.
* * *
“The boat is to be of stong and workmanlike character, with no fancy finish.”
- Capt. Ellery Thompson, “Draggerman’s Haul”
This story originally appeared in the February 2009 issue.