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A fitting burial at sea marks the end of an era

My notion of what a proper fishing boat should look like was shaped in boyhood by the iconic eastern-rigged side trawlers that chugged through Watch Hill passage to and from the fishing grounds. 

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Developed in the 1920s, these deep-draft wooden vessels had a sweeping sheer with the pilothouse positioned aft and the working deck amidships. The nets came up over the side, and a dory or two usually perched atop the pilothouse.

There were plenty of western-rigged draggers working the inshore New England waters, too (pilothouse forward, working deck aft), but to my eye the eastern-rigged draggers were the cat’s whiskers — an expression, I suspect, as antiquated as these working boats of yesteryear.

“They bore beautiful names, often in tribute to saints, places, seabirds and creatures, and females, especially daughters, in fishing families,” fisherman Peter Prybot wrote in “White-Tipped Orange Masts,” the late author’s book on the fading dragger fleet of Gloucester, Mass.

Time and technology are tough on old working boats. Just as the eastern-rigged side trawler replaced the old dory schooner, so, too, did the steel-hulled stern trawler with higher-horsepower diesels and modern hydraulics spell the demise of its forebears, starting about 45 years ago.

The door on the eastern-rigged chapter of the fishery slammed right tight in early June when the last wooden side trawler in Gloucester was purposefully sunk in 345 feet of water with the blessings of the requisite federal agencies. The owners of the 67-year-old Little Sandra wanted a fitting ending for the old girl, so they arranged for a “graceful burial” at sea, says Capt. Bill Lee, who towed the dragger to her designated resting place 18 miles off Rockport, Mass., with his 44-footer, Ocean Reporter.

“It’s definitely the end of an era,” says Lee, 64, a surveyor, consultant and former commercial fisherman based in Rockport. “It was the last side trawler in Gloucester.” Lee says there might be another such relic tucked away somewhere along the coast, but he doesn’t know of it. (You can see the eastern-rigged wooden dragger Roann at Mystic Seaport Museum in Mystic, Conn.)

“It was a sad moment, but it just had to be done,” Lee says. “They didn’t want her crushed by a bucket loader and put into a dumpster.” All fuel, oil, filters, batteries, flotsam and so forth were removed before she was scuttled.

Formerly named the Anthony & Josephine, the 56-ton side trawler was built in 1946 in Southwest Harbor, Maine. She was heavily constructed of longleaf yellow pine over oak frames. “She was a real sledgehammer boat,” Lee says. “Everything was rugged, big. Huge galvanized nails and bolts. There was nothing light-duty about her, nothing at all.”

After her sea chest was opened, it took about 45 minutes for Little Sandra to settle. Once the stern went under, the dragger was gone in less than a minute. “The boat just stood right up and went straight down,” Lee says. “It was a dignified way to go, a dignified end to a piece of history.”

“A true schooner in

miniature … but she was

rough! On close inspection

she looked as though she

had been flung together by a

band of our paleolithic

ancestors — able

shipbuilders perhaps,

but equipped only

with stone adzes.”

— Farley Mowat

August 2013 issue