One of the worst enemies of cod fishermen, especially in the days before radio, was fog. Since cod grounds are zones where warm and cold currents meet, fog is commonplace. It can be so thick that the bow of an eighty-foot vessel is obscured from midship. A lantern on the bow cannot be detected 100 feet away. Fishermen drift in a formless gray, tooting horns and blowing whistles, hoping other craft hear them and avoid collision. But the greatest danger was for the dorymen.
From the seventeenth century to the 1930s, the common way to fish for cod and other groundfish was to go out to the Banks in a ship and then drop off small dories with two-man crews. The Portuguese, who were infamous on the Grand Banks for the harshness of their working conditions, used one-man dories. Europeans would cross the ocean in large barks built for deck space and large holds; New Englanders and Nova Scotians went out in schooners that could swiftly run back to shore to land fish; but all the dories were the same: twenty-foot deckless skiffs. The dorymen would generally use oars, and occasionally sail power, but they had to provide their own sails. Often they or their wives made them by sewing together flour sacks.
Being competitive with each other, dorymen sometimes secretively took off to grounds they had discovered. Many dorymen drowned or starved to death or died of thirst while lost in the fog, sifting through a blank sea for the mother ship. They tried to fish until their boat was filled with fish. The more fish were caught, the less sea-worthy the dory. Sometimes a dory would become so overloaded that a small amount of water from a wave lapping the side was all it took for the small boat to sink straight down with fish and fishermen.
To seagoing people of the North Atlantic, the hardships and bravado of dorymen were legendary. In 1876, Alfred Johnson, a Danish-born Gloucester doryman, responding to a dare, sailed his sixteen-foot boat from Gloucester to Abercastle, Wales, in fifty-eight days, the first one-man North Atlantic crossing ever recorded. Nova Scotians still recall a nineteenth-century doryman who was lost in the fog for sixteen hours before being found—the Nova Scotian survival record. But the most famous Nova Scotian doryman was Howard Blackburn, who immigrated to Gloucester. On January 23, 1883, Blackburn and his dory mate rowed away from their ship to longline halibut and became lost in a snowstorm. His mate froze to death, but Blackburn shaped his fingers around the oars so that he would still be able to row after he lost feeling in his hands. He rowed 100 miles and reached Newfoundland with the frozen corpse of his mate on the stern. Though the misadventure cost him all his fingers and most of his toes, he went to sea in sloops designed for his disability, set a thirty-nine-day, one-man Gloucester-to-Lisbon record, and even rowed the Florida coast with oars strapped to his wrists.
Not only dories were lost. Whole ships went down. John Cabot’s was the first of many. The number of Gloucester fishermen lost at sea between 1830 and 1900—3,800—was 70 percent greater than all the American casualties in the War of 1812, and this from a town of about 15,000 people. On February 24, 1862, a gale swept Georges Bank, and 120 drowned in one night. In the 1870s, as schooners became shallower and carried more sails, making them even faster and more beautiful, but much more dangerous, Gloucester losses became horrendous. These shallow, loftily rigged “clipper schooners” did not stand up well in gale winds. In 1871, twenty schooners and 140 men were lost. In 1873, thirty-two vessels and 174 men were lost, 128 of them in a single gale. An easterly gale on the banks in 1879 sunk twenty-nine vessels with a loss of 249 men.
The ports that sent fleets to the Grand Banks held religious ceremonies before the beginning of what was called “the campaign.” In St.-Malo, in late February, fifteen days before the Terre-Neuvas sailed, the cardinal of Rennes came to the port to say mass before the fleet. A wreath was tossed to sea to remember the fishermen who had been lost in previous campaigns.