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 the single month of 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 the loss of 14 vessels from the fleet made news around the country.
The Gloucester fishing fleet, legendary for the dangers it faced on Georges Bank, had suffered losses before. In 1862, 15 vessels and 120 men disappeared in a gale. Then in 1871, 19 vessels and 140 men perished. And 1879 topped them all with 14 vessels with 157 men gone in February gales.
The fishermen from Cape Ann throughout history had a reputation 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. Men who wrestled their living from the North Atlantic didn’t have much to fear from British soldiers.
Gloucester Fishing Fleet
The pursuit of cod commercially started in Gloucester started in the 1600s. And by 1713, the schooner arrived on the scene. The schooner, defined as a fore-and-aft rigged vessel with two or more masts, had several advantages: relatively cheap to build, easy to sail, fast and didn’t require much crew.
The Gloucester fishing industry nearly died out in the early 1800s, but came roaring back around 1860. Then prices for cod skyrocketed. By 1879 the fleet consisted of schooners that would go out for months.
The schooners, wide and flat to carry as much fish as possible, had riggings that reached high and stretched forward to a long bowsprit. The result of the design: a 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 caught. When hauled aboard, the fisherman would cut out the fish’s tongue to record the catch before it he packed it 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. It grew to over 400 vessels in the 1880s, 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.
This story last updated in 2022.