'Down to the sea in ships’
Posted on 29 June 2012
Written by Steve Knauth
A boatload of fishermen out of Gloucester, Mass., pull in their catch, where a dip net from the mother ship will transfer the fish aboard. Few occupations have so captured the imagination as the Gloucester fisherman — in poetry, prose, painting and such films as “Captains Courageous” and “The Perfect Storm.”
But it can be a dangerous profession, as these nine men knew full well. It’s estimated that as many as 10,000 fishermen have been lost working the banks out of Gloucester during the last 350 years. In the blizzard of 1839, 20 fishing vessels foundered, with some 40 lives lost. The tragedy inspired Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem, “Wreck of the Hesperus.” In 1879 — the deadliest year on record for Gloucester — 249 fishermen were lost from 29 vessels. In a single gale that year, 57 fishermen on 15 boats were lost.
There were stories of individual trial, too. Halibut fisherman Howard Blackburn rowed his dory for five days after being separated from his schooner in a winter storm. He lost all of his fingers and both thumbs to the first joint; his dorymate froze to death in the boat.
In 1925, Gloucester honored its fishermen with the Fisherman’s Memorial — also known as “Man at the Wheel” — a bronze sculpture of a fisherman at the helm on a tilting deck, clad in oilskins and peering over the harbor. Words from Psalm 107 — ‘They that go down to the sea in ships’ — are inscribed on the base.
The picture here was taken in 1943 by renowned photographer Gordon Parks, who chronicled life in America while shooting for the federal Farm Security Administration. Among the photographers who worked for the FSA were Dorothea Lange — known for her Depression-era “Migrant Mother” image — and Walker Evans, who also documented the Great Depression in photographs.
This article originally appeared in the Juoly 2012 issue.