Fisherman Al Youngren: A personal history
By Doreen Leggett
In Al Youngren’s small kitchen there is a big nautical chart, covering most of a wall, nicely framed and in perfect view of anyone seated at the kitchen table.
Youngren, barrel-chested and slim at 82, says it’s from 1985 or so. Still useable.
“It’s been up there for 30 years,” he says, in a voice that is all old Cape Cod seaman, rarely heard anymore.
Youngren spent more than 50 years on the sea until he had a heart attack 20 years ago while fishing on his boat Rebecca, named after his great granddaughter. He knew something was badly wrong and managed to turn around, get back to Rock Harbor, and meet an ambulance. The Boston doctors told him he couldn’t go anymore.
“That was my last boat ride,” he said.
Still, his connection to the sea couldn’t be severed. In his second act, he made and fixed fishing gear.
They called him the “gear master,” a major compliment which he scoffs at. He still does a little work, although he is retired. When fishermen come by to pick up their stuff they might mention they are working “by the 350 line,”so he checks his chart over the kitchen table, stays in touch.
“You can’t remember all them bearings!” he says. “I’ll say, ‘Hey did you every try down here?’” pointing to another spot.
Scott Rorro, a scalloper from Provincetown who is about 25 years younger than Youngren, says the older fisherman is a good reference himself.
“Anything you want to know about the waterfront, he knows,” Rorro said.
Youngren has built all Rorro’s gear. Every rake fishes differently, he explained, and Youngren knows how to tweak it to make it fish a little better.
“He is quite amazing,” said Rorro, adding they became friends years ago and know many of the same old timers. “He has got so many stories.”
Take the “clams in the convertible” story. In the 1970s there was a ginormous set of bay scallops and Youngren hadn’t gotten around to buying a new truck yet. What he did have was a sweet Buick convertible.
“It was in wonderful shape. Great interior,” Youngren said.
So he filled that with 20 bags and took it down a long, dirt road in Wellfleet to his expert shucker -- one too many times.
“The car broke in half!” Youngren said with a laugh.
Stories like that, his way of telling them, and unrelenting positivity make Youngren a valuable friend, said Rorro:
“He is good for morale. When you are down a little bit you go see him.”
Most of Youngren’s stories are set on the sea, and he has his father Earl to thank for that.
Earl had been in the Coast Guard and moved around a bunch. When he started fishing he bounced back and forth between Orleans, Eastham, and Provincetown.
But in September, 1938, Al was born in Orleans and when his dad bought his first house it was near what is now the Tin Knocker off the Orleans rotary. His mom Agatha was a Snow. So he is from Orleans. Full stop.
“Orleans is my hometown team,” he says. And he is still there, living behind the state highway garage.
His attachment to the town has a lot to do with his growing up years and his early introduction to fishing. Youngren says he had a good relationship with his dad.
“Anything I disliked about my dad, I deseeeerved it,” Youngren emphasized. “I can’t understand why he didn’t kill me.”
Nothing real bad. Typical kid hijinks, although he was smoking by first grade so he may have sped up the timeline.
“The problem with my mom is she told my dad everything I did,” he said with a chuckle.
Earl was running other people’s boats and also helping build boats.
Al remembers talented boatbuilder Fred Turner building a boat in a yard right about where the Goose Hummock on Route 28 is now. It was around the time the Coast Guard announced it was commandeering any vessel more than 40 feet for the war effort. So they had to make her quite a bit shorter or send her away.
“They sawed her off. So she looked a little bit odd,” he said. “My mom put the last nail in.”
Earl ended up running the boat, called the Seaflower, for Cal Baker, quahogging out of Rock Harbor and scalloping out of Harwichport.
Al worked on that boat with his dad, but much of the time he worked with other captains, adding he was big-mouth kid, trying to prove he was smarter than his dad.
The first boat his dad crewed on was Eddie Hunt’s – brother of the legendary lobsterman Harry Hunt – mostly quahogging and scalloping.
Al went full time in the early 1950s when he was 13, having “completed seven years of school,” which was the requirement then.
“I was making great money for 13 years old,” he said with a huge grin, looking through the first of three big photo albums. “Who wants to go to school?”
He started on big boats out of New Bedford too. A friend told him about the scallopers up there so he went to give it a try.
On one of the early trips, when they were packed and ready to head out on the vessel Martha Murley, the mate didn’t show. The captain was going to scuttle the trip because no one knew how to use Loran, which was a new navigation system then.
No one but Youngren, who had played around with his dad’s, who knew it from being in the Coast Guard. So they went.
“They really didn’t want to fish with a 16-year-old kid running the boat, but they did,” Youngren said.
The mate came back the next trip, but Youngren stayed. All told he went out on close to 25 New Bedford boats, usually staying two years per boat.
Sometimes moving around turned out to be a good thing; two trips after he left the Eugene H. it was run down by a freighter.
He loved going and the money was good. He bought a brand new ‘57 Ford for his first car, paid cash.
He was also working with his dad and had several of his own boats, bouncing back and forth between New Bedford and the Cape.
“There was never any money in small boats,” Youngren said, though he sure did love a few -- the Mary B. for one.
“She was a sweetheart,” he said. He only sold her because they offered twice what he paid for her, “a good piece of change.”
One boat that sticks in his mind is one of his father’s firsts: the James Burke out of Provincetown. She was a schooner converted to a scalloper and she travelled a fair amount, from Maine down to New Jersey, but she was in a harbor every night, said Youngren.
Youngren remembers leaving the boat in Point Pleasant, New Jersey and taking the bus home with his dad and crew.
Their time in New Jersey changed the fisheries in Orleans.
“My dad was the first to use hydraulic dredging on the Cape,” Youngren said. He had seen it in New Jersey, where Campbell’s Soup had a factory. They had boats fishing for sea clams while Earl was scalloping. So his dad ended up getting a hydraulic rig which could harvest 10 times more than a conventional dredge.
Youngren was impressed enough with the new rig to get one and buy a boat to put it on, the Mary Madelyn. The original owner had wanted to name her after the saint Mary Magdalene, but had made a mistake in the spelling.
As the fishery changed, his dad sold the James Burke to the owner of the Crumby Donut in Orleans and moved to Maine. Youngren sold the Mary Madelyn and went back to scalloping in New Bedford.
In the early years, he could get $200 for a 10-day trip and that was good money. The boats were 90 feet, maybe 100 feet long and had 11 guys working on them. There was a fishermen’s union which meant men worked six hours on and six off.
“I loved it,” he said.
But in 1961, “I was sea scalloping and the price just fell right out,” he said. His share dropped to $99. “I said, ‘That’s it.’”
On the way home he stopped at Woods Hole and asked for a job on a research vessel. They were impressed that he was Earl Youngren’s kid and his conversation with a chief engineer went well. They called him that night. The next morning he was off. It was 1962.
His first trip as an ABS – able-bodied seaman -- was when researchers were studying whales off Provincetown. He worked on the vessel Bear for six or eight months and when she was tied up for the winter they transferred him to a bigger boat, the Crawford.
Youngren travelled to Cape Verde and other far-flung places for up to six months at a time. The scientists were doing a lot of research; considering it was the Cold War they were doing top- secret work as well.
The crew wasn’t allowed to divulge their location, but scientists would be in contact via the Marconi wireless station in Chatham. Youngren had a relative there who let family, particularly his wife, know he was alive and well.
“She knew every day where I was,” he said with a laugh.
Youngren had married Ann Rogers, of Brewster, when he was around 19. They met when she moved down the street from him to take care of an elderly aunt. By the time he was on the Crawford they had children. After a few too many long trips she said he had to choose: Woods Hole or her.
“So that was the end of that,” he said with a smile. Woods Hole couldn’t compare with the 50 years he ended up spending with his wife.
When the Crawford came home it pulled in next to a scalloper; the crew invited him aboard and he was back.
He also worked for Provincetown fishermen, ran boats, and fished with Babe Miller out of Chatham.
“He was one of the highliners,” Youngren said, adding that Miller later went down at sea.
When he hit his 50s, Youngren stayed closer to home to quahog and sea clam and had a few boats, the Friendship, docked in Wellfleet, the Melanie Marie, named after his grand daughter, and the Rebecca, to name a few.
After his heart attack he sold the Rebecca. And in typical Cape Cod fashion he carved out a new life for himself. Youngren was hanging around the docks in Wellfleet when David Ziemba was going to throw away a blade he used for quahogging.
Youngren asked if he could try and fix it and David said sure. Youngren ended up making a copy because he was afraid he would ruin it and he brought it back to the pier a couple of days later. Youngren only wanted $20 bucks for it, but Ziemba was impressed and paid him a lot more. After a day at sea he called Youngren and asked for 10 more.
That’s when Youngren began to get busy. He started with seven-foot scallop dredges and when they started working better than the 10-foot ones he was getting calls to make those too.
Youngren said when he began fishing they made their own gear, it was just what they did. And he had spent enough time around gear to know what it liked.
“Fishing gear is fussy,” he said, talking like it’s alive.
Now that he is older he has cut way back on work, but he still spends time in his workshop.
The other day he completed a bunch of “shoes” for a friend’s scallop dredge, to protect the gear as it drags on the bottom.
“They are very strong steel, like a snow plow,” he said.
Or like him.