By Seth Rolbein
Louie Rivers was among the finest men I’ve known, and the times we spent aboard the Miss Sandy remain among my best memories of being on the water.
Our days began before the sun, walking the dark streets of Provincetown to the pier. This was the 1980s, when the town was wilder than it is now. Plenty of young men were ending their adventures just as we were starting ours, lounging on a bench in front of town hall that came to be called “the meat rack.” Sometimes they would make lewd comments about what they thought was an odd couple, a young long-haired bearded guy alongside a squat older man with arms like thick oak limbs and a rolling gait because his hip hurt from years of using his foot to shovel fish off the deck. Louie would just laugh, never bothered or taking umbrage. In all our years I never saw him get into an argument or fight, on or off deck or dock, a rare thing among fishermen.
Miss Sandy was tied up at MacMillan Wharf like a patient dog waiting to get off the leash. The fleet at that time numbered 35, maybe 40, almost all small draggers. Built in 1978, 58 feet with a steel hull, Miss Sandy was a jewel among them even if she looked a little rusty. She was a stern trawler, meaning her net played out from the back of the boat rather than the side – hydraulics allowed this safer method, you didn’t need five or six men hauling hand over hand at the rail using “Portuguese power,” as they used to call it. Even with all those boats you could always find Miss Sandy because Louie lashed a Christmas tree to the top of the mast, his whimsical signature. That and shorts, which he wore almost all the time because, he said, he had nice legs.
The boat was named for Louie’s daughter, Sandy, who had died as a young woman from complications related to asthma. It was one of the few things Louie would not talk about, not even much with Marjorie, who he convinced to move from Gloucester and marry him in 1947, the same year as Provincetown’s first Blessing of the Fleet. Louie already was fishing with his father Jack, who had arrived at Ellis Island from a little Portuguese town called Fuzeta in 1913 and soon wound up in Provincetown, catching fish and making a family. Jack’s first boat was the Emilia R, a converted rumrunner. Many years later Jack joined Louie on Miss Sandy for awhile, and in 1990, at 93, led the fishermen’s procession at the Blessing. He never spoke much English, but even in his 90s he often made his way to the pier at the end of the day to accept a free fish from an offloading captain.
If the day was nice Louie would announce, “It’s gonna be a corker, Seth!” and then jump on the two-way radio, checking in with other captains, rumbling in Portuguese or English as suited the man. He would often gesture back to a small plaque on the wheelhouse wall which read, “Deus Toma Conta Desto Barco O Capitao E Os Tripulantes,” meaning “God Bless This Boat, the Captain, and the Crew.”
Soon we would clear Wood End and steam into the bay, into sunrise. Louie often fished more than 200 days a year, more like 250; whiting was an important stock for him and much of Provincetown. He would lay down his doors and play out on soft bottom, mud and sand, avoiding rocks and wrecks that would snag and tear the expensive net. He would slowly tow for a couple of hours, then haul back. The big belly of the net would emerge dripping seawater, bulging with anything and everything in its path. Louie would yank and release the cod end, which held the net closed, and then the catch would drop onto the deck where sorting would begin, amid much flapping and writhing. All manner of things might show up besides whiting; flounders and gray sole, big fish and babies, lobsters, junk off the bottom like wooden slats or old barrels and busted buckets – or worse.
“It’s like a Christmas present,” Louie would joke. “You never know what you’re gonna get until you get it.”
Once the catch was sorted and the net played out for the next tow, there was time to talk. These were the quiet moments I looked forward to, staring toward the horizon, Louie so in tune with the boat and net that he would make little adjustments with one finger on the wheel. His knowledge of the town matched his knowledge of the bay and Stellwagen Bank, where he crisscrossed thousands of times, and his intuition about people more than matched his intuition about fish. His human comprehension was honed during his one stint away from the water, when he ran a jumping nightspot in the late 1950s and early 1960s called Louie’s Dine and Dance, in Truro. The sea drew him back, and when I asked why, he offered me one of his many humorous, deep perspectives:
“Working in the bar, we had to deal with human nature. Fishing, we have to deal with Mother Nature. And I’ll tell you, I’d much rather deal with Mother Nature, she’s a lot more predictable.”
It pained him that his style of fishing killed a lot of small fish that by law he couldn’t land and sell; they would get crushed in the net so even when he kicked or broomed them back into the sea they usually didn’t survive the trauma or the cawing seagulls that fed off his every tow. He knew he was robbing from the future and would worry about overfishing, sometimes even resorting to the word “rape.” He had a theory that small draggers like his, staying on soft bottom, avoiding rocky ledges and promontories that remained fertile oases for spawning fish, didn’t create the disaster. But bigger, more powerful boats had arrived with gear called “rock hoppers” and “street sweepers” that could roll through hard bottom like a truck with big wheels can crush hard terrain, so those spawning areas were destroyed. That, he believed, was when the crash hit.
Louie had a son, Louie Junior, who fished for awhile, who had a son who also was a Louie, which turned Louie Junior into Louie Middle. But fishing was not in either of their blood the way it was for Jack and the original Louie. Louie Middle became a title surveyor, as much on and about land as you could be. And “Louie Little” turned away from it too.
“When I first decided not to go fishing, I thought grandfather and great-grandfather would be kind of upset,” the youngest Louie told me one night, sitting in his grandfather’s living room. “But they know it’s a lot different for me than it was for them, there’s a lot less fish and a lot more for me to do. So the fishing industry, as far as this family is concerned, is going to die right here. It ain’t getting past me.” Then he laughed — and so did his grandfather, eavesdropping.
You might think that their decisions secretly bothered Louie, but no. He was too compassionate for that. He saw that both son and grandson were happier than they would have been at sea. And when the time came to sell Miss Sandy, he did so full of memories but not regret.
We stayed close, especially after Marjorie passed and he was alone a bit more. He kept himself busy going to the Lions Club, driving one of his buddy Art’s dune buggies, regaling tourists with stories. Unlike his father, he didn’t go to the pier much. But when the time came, in 2008, that he breathed his last, most of the older Provincetown Portuguese community and many fishermen came to St. Peter’s to celebrate mass, and Louie. It was the last time I was in the beautiful Catholic church before it burned, and my vantage was good because the family asked me to deliver the eulogy – me, not Portuguese, not from town, not even Catholic.
It was among the great honors of my life.