Fishing the Georges Bank has always been a dangerous job taken on by the Gloucester fishing fleet of Cape Ann, Mass., but nothing has ever been seen quite like the year 1879. That year, 249 fishermen disappeared at sea, 14 ships from the fleet disappeared in a single month – February 1879.
In those years death on the ocean was so common it was mostly in and around Gloucester where people took note of a fisherman dying at sea. But when 14 vessels from the fleet were lost, it was news around the country.
The Gloucester fishing fleet was legendary for the dangers it faced on Georges Bank, and the Schooner fleet had been decimated before. In 1862, 15 vessels and 120 men disappeared in a gale. In 1871, 19 vessels and 140 men. And 1879 topped them all with 14 vessels with 157 men gone in February gales.
The fishermen from Cape Ann were notable throughout history as a rugged, fearless bunch. Historians have pointed out that the Cape Ann soldiers who fought in the Revolution were thought to be among the bravest; for men who wrestled their living from the North Atlantic, British soldiers were nothing to fear.
The pursuit of cod commercially started in Gloucester started in the 1600s. And the by 1713, the schooner arrived on the scene. The industry nearly died out in the early 1800s, but came roaring back around 1860, when prices for cod skyrocketed. By 1879 the fleet consisted of schooners that would go out for months. The schooners were built wide and flat to carry as much fish as possible, and they were rigged with sails that reached high and stretched forward to a long bowsprit. The result of the design was a fast ship capable of carrying a good payload. But the top heavy vessels were not stable in rough weather.
Despite the risks, the pay was good enough that fishermen clamored for the chance to go out. Fishermen on the schooners used hand-lines cast over the rail set with two hooks. It took about 30 minutes to land the fish once they were caught, and once hauled aboard the fisherman would cut out the fish’s tongue to record the catch before it was packed in salt.
In the mid-1800s, the schooners began also carrying Dories, which could be launched. Other fishermen would work from those, bringing their catch back to the ship. The Dories were dangerous in all weather.
Following the 1879 disaster, there were the usual cries for safer boats, but the fishing fleet moved on as before, growing to over 400 in the 1880s, which was the peak for the fleet before it started its long decline.
As for the men who perished in the 1879 gale, no one really knows how they met their end. It’s assumed that when the schooners went down, they were tumbled over and over in the ocean until they broke apart leaving their crews to drown. In all, between 8,000 and 11,0000 men from Gloucester have died at sea.