By Bill Amaru
Perhaps one of the most beautiful and moving experiences nature offers the human condition can be found at sunrise, at sea. The sunrise over the North Atlantic Ocean in summer can be extraordinarily beautiful. The breeze which is almost always busy at sea seems to pause for the moments it takes for the sun to rise above the horizon.
The heat that comes when the sun warms the air brings the breeze back to life and the silence that held sway during the dawn is ended. Day, night and sunsets have their own special personalities, but sunrise is a thing apart.
Of course, that’s not always the way it works. When weather systems are on the move, mornings can be the harbingers of events not always expected or welcomed. Small vessels traveling long distances at sea in pursuit of a catch will sometimes encounter conditions that were not anticipated and are not at all welcome. This was especially true before the advent of satellite and computer forecasting. Twenty-first century weather forecasts are so superior to forecasts based strictly on observations that they truly give the mariner unprecedented control of his safety at sea — most of the time.
An occasion occurred back in 1978 on an early September day off the coast of Cape Cod which serves as an example of how horribly wrong a forecast can be. The marine forecast that morning for the waters east of the Cape was for light winds and clear skies out to Georges Bank, the rich fishing ground and destination for fleets of boats from Portland, Maine to New Bedford, Mass. The Chatham fleet of small longliners was well positioned to be able to access the shoals and depths of the Georges’ fishery. Located farther to the east and closer than any other port, Chatham boats were at home many miles out to sea, especially when the forecast was as good as it was that day.
Numerous boats were out that morning. The prices of cod and haddock were finally rebounding from the lows paid during the warm weather months of June, July and August. Fishermen back then had to accept the fact that prices would be low, as in 25 to perhaps 33 cents a pound for fresh caught cod, delivered to the pier and shipped to New York or Boston within hours of being landed. We were told it was a matter of too much fish hitting the market during periods of flagging demand. I never understood why people didn’t eat fish in the summer but that’s what we were told by our buyers. Finally, following Labor Day weekend, the prices miraculously began to rise to perhaps 50 cents per pound. The fleet moved into high gear as we attempted to recoup the losses a lot of us suffered during summer.
So it was that fateful day back in early September. Well over half the 30 long liners and perhaps 20 smaller jig boats from Chatham were down the Great South Channel, 40 to 50 miles from port. Larger trawlers from Gloucester and New Bedford were spread out hundreds of miles from their ports as well. The early morning seemed to be just what the forecast called for: greasy calm, almost unnaturally so. Our trip had started at midnight when we left the pier on our way to the “twenty bearing,” a spot known to hold large cod in great numbers, if you were lucky enough to get there first. That day, we were the first on the grounds. We set our three strings of 1,500 hooks each. They measured approximately one-half mile long. The gear was set exactly where I knew the fish should be. It was six in the morning when we took hold and started hauling the lines in. We had caught the early “slack,” when the tide slows and begins to swing or veer into the opposite direction. It is at this time the fish feed greedily, the baits get consumed and the fish hooked.
We didn’t know it at the time but by catching that early slack, we saved ourselves a good deal of angst that was soon to come. As we neared the end of the last line, the boats that were to fish the late slack started to arrive. The weather continued calm but the sky was nearly as dark as night and it was nine in the morning. The haul we had aboard was prodigious, totaling around 4,000 pounds of “steak”cod. These were the big ones, prized in the New York market and sure to bring us a killer price, say, 55 cents per pound.
The last anchor and flag came aboard and we turned to the northwest and started what should have been a three-hour steam to get home. It was at this time, as the stern man attempted to put the flag markers on the roof for the ride home, that I noticed something every mariner dreads. Up ahead, perhaps three miles away, was a line of white, like breaking surf. We were in 40 fathoms (240 feet) and a shoal which could create a similar sight was nowhere near us. It only took a minute or two but then the answer was upon us — a full gale of wind, perhaps 50 miles per hour and coming directly from the northwest — had us in its grip. In my 50 years at sea, I have never seen a wall of wind and water come up as fast as it did that morning. The wind was so strong and so full of blowing spray it seemed we were going through the water as much as over it. It was as if all of God’s sunlit waves suddenly would wash over and around us. The sea had not risen much yet and the wind simply blew the tops off the waves. With the load of fish we had on board, we were already reduced in speed, but I put the throttle up as far as was safe hoping we could perhaps outrun at least the worst of what we were up against. It only took about 15 minutes, but by that time the seas had truly risen to perhaps 15 feet and the trough of each wave sheltered us momentarily from the worst of the wind and spray.
Rising out to the crest exposed us and brought us into the worst of it. Everything had to be tied down which Paul,* my crewman, took care to do. Water came into the cabin in places I had never seen a drop. The wind came screaming across the mounting seas in a way I had never seen before. We knew we were in for a long and dangerous ride home. Anything that went wrong with the boat or engine could mean being unable to keep our head into the sea, a deadly consequence in a storm-tossed sea. The velocity of winds and size of seas increased by the minute. A sea anchor or “drogue,” a device typically cone shaped and made of canvas and ropes, was rigged in case of that eventuality. Its purpose would be to keep our head into the sea if we lost power.
Our thoughts went to the boats we had seen arriving as we were getting ready to leave. If they had set their gear, and they undoubtedly would, they would take many hours trying to haul it and then get home. I switched the marine radio to channel 16, the call and distress channel. It came alive with “mayday” calls to the Coast Guard reporting boats in trouble on Georges. I heard what might have been the last call of the Captain Cosmo, a trawler out of Gloucester, that we heard later went down with all hands lost. All the Chatham boats made it to port safely, some as much as 12 hours later. One boat did not return for over 24 hours. Our boat took eight hours to make it home.
When we arrived and looked in the foc’sle, we couldn’t believe our eyes — everything that had been stored away neatly was in a pile on the deck below, a homogenized mass of everything needed at sea. Everything had broken free as we pounded our way through 15- to 20-foot seas for eight hours. I found things that had been lost for years in the tangled mess. While the pounding we took getting home was unbelievable, our 35-foot Bruno-Stillman fiberglass fishing boat with a caterpillar 3160 diesel engine performed beautifully. Wave heights on Georges Bank were reported to be 25 feet.
The Weather Service took a lot of heat for that forecast. How could such a dramatic weather system go so unnoticed in the modern era? As it turned out, an off-shore weather buoy that transmitted hourly updates of wind and wave heights was out of service. This and the fickle nature of forecasting coastal systems combined to make a deadly day at sea. A perfect, calm morning had turned into a nightmare for hundreds of mariners up and down our New England waters. The trawler Captain Cosmo represented the greatest loss of life, but many boats were very lucky to survive the poorly forecasted conditions. The winds did not subside for a day and a half. My friend Brian Gibbons told me later he had never seen wind come up so fast. He was one mile out of Nauset Inlet hauling lobster traps and looked up to see seagulls going by, backward, being blown out to sea. He headed in immediately, avoiding the maelstrom that came only minutes later.
If you think you are paying too much for your cod, haddock and flounder these days, try and remember the prices mentioned earlier in this essay and the dangers fishermen take every time they head out. Even with modern satellite weather forecasts, the sea and winds will always be unpredictable.
*Paul Gasek was crew for that, and other summers. He was a grad student at Boston University’s School of Public Communications at the time. He stayed with what he knew. You might have heard of the Discovery Channel’s show “Deadliest Catch,” which Paul produced for six years. He won several Emmy awards for his various works.
Bill Amaru lives and writes, when not fishing, in Orleans.
Reprinted from the Cape Cod Chronicle