"The Perfect Storm"
By Sebastian Junger
W.W. Norton, 1997
(CNN) -- In meteorological parlance, a "perfect storm" is a rare confluence of weather factors that creates a tempest. In this vividly written account, journalist Sebastian Junger tracks how a cold front, hurricane and Great Lakes gale came together in October, 1991 to sweep a small fishing boat, the "Andrea Gail," into oblivion. Junger re-creates the final moments of the crew as 100-foot waves and winds topping 120-m.p.h. lash the boat, in a bestselling narrative critics have compared to Jon Krakauer's "Into Thin Air."
GEORGES BANK, 1896
One mid-winter day off the coast of Massachusetts, the
crew of a mackerel schooner spotted a bottle with a note
in it. The schooner was on Georges Bank, one of
the most dangerous fishing grounds in
the world, and a bottle with a note in it
was a dire sign indeed. A deckhand
scooped it out of the water, the sea
grass was stripped away, and the
captain uncorked the bottle and turned
to his assembled crew: "On Georges Bank with
our cable gone our rudder gone and leaking. Two men
have been swept away and all hands have been given up
as our cable is gone and our rudder is gone. The one
that picks this up let it be known. God have mercy on us."
The note was from the Falcon, a boat that had set sail
from Gloucester the year before. She hadn't been heard
from since. A boat that parts her cable off Georges
careens helplessly along until she fetches up in some
shallow water and gets pounded to pieces by the surf. One
of the Falcon's crew must have wedged himself against a
bunk in the fo'c'sle and written furiously beneath the
heaving light of a storm lantern. This was the end, and
everyone on the boat would have known it. How do men
act on a sinking ship? Do they hold each other? Do they
pass around the whisky? Do they cry?
This man wrote; he put down on a scrap of paper the
last moments of twenty men in this world. Then he corked
the bottle and threw it overboard. There's not a chance
in hell, he must have thought. And then he went below
again. He breathed in deep. He tried to calm himself. He
readied himself for the first shock of sea.
GLOUCESTER, MASS., 1991
It's no fish ye're buying, it's men's lives.
--Sir Walter Scott
The Antiquary, Chapter 11
A soft fall rain slips down through the trees and the smell of
ocean is so strong that it can almost be licked off the air.
Trucks rumble along Rogers Street and
men in t-shirts stained with fishblood shout
to each other from the decks of boats.
Beneath them the ocean swells up against
the black pilings and sucks back down to
the barnacles. Beer cans and old pieces of
styrofoam rise and fall and pools of spilled
diesel fuel undulate like huge iridescent
jellyfish. The boats rock and creak against their
ropes and seagulls complain and hunker down and complain
some more. Across Rogers Street and around the back of the
Crow's Nest Inn, through the door and up the cement stairs,
down the carpeted hallway and into one of the doors on the
left, stretched out on a double bed in room #27 with a sheet
pulled over him, Bobby Shatford lies asleep.
He's got one black eye. There are beer cans and food
wrappers scattered around the room and a duffel bag on the
floor with t-shirts and flannel shirts and blue jeans spilling out.
Lying asleep next to him is his girlfriend, Christina Cotter.
She's an attractive woman in her early forties with rust-blond
hair and a strong, narrow face. There's a T.V. in the room
and a low chest of drawers with a mirror on top of it and a
chair of the sort they have in high-school cafeterias. The
plastic cushion cover has cigarette burns in it. The window
looks out on Rogers Street where trucks ease themselves into
It's still raining. Across the street is Rose Marine, where
fishing boats fuel up, and across a small leg of water is the
State Fish Pier, where they unload their catch. The State Pier
is essentially a huge parking lot on pilings, and on the far side,
across another leg of water, is a boatyard and a small park
where mothers bring their children to play. Looking over the
park on the corner of Haskell Street is an elegant brick house
built by the famous Boston architect, Charles Bulfinch. It
originally stood on the corner of Washington and Summer
Streets in Boston, but in 1850 it was jacked up, rolled onto a
barge, and transported to Gloucester. That is where Bobby's
mother, Ethel, raised four sons and two daughters. For the
past fourteen years she has been a daytime bartender at the
Crow's Nest. Ethel's grandfather was a fisherman and both
her daughters dated fishermen and all four of the sons fished
at one point or another. Most of them still do.
The Crow's Nest windows face east into the coming day
over a street used at dawn by reefer trucks. Guests don't
tend to sleep late. Around eight o'clock in the morning, Bobby
Shatford struggles awake. He has flax-brown hair, hollow
cheeks, and a sinewy build that has seen a lot of work. In a
few hours he's due on a swordfishing boat named the Andrea
Gail, which is headed on a one-month trip to the Grand
Banks. He could return with five thousand dollars in his
pocket or he could not return at all. Outside, the rain drips on.
Chris groans, opens her eyes, and squints up at him. One of
Bobby's eyes is the color of an overripe plum.
Did I do that?
She considers his eye for a moment. How did I reach that
They smoke a cigarette and then pull on their clothes and
grope their way downstairs. A metal fire door opens onto a
back alley, they push it open and walk around to the Rogers
Street entrance. The Crow's Nest is a block-long faux-Tudor
construction across from the J. B. Wright Fish Company and
Rose Marine. The plate-glass window in front is said to be
the biggest barroom window in town. That's quite a
distinction in a town where barroom windows are made small
so that patrons don't get thrown through them. There's an old
pool table, a pay phone by the door, and a horseshoe-shaped
bar. Budweiser costs a dollar seventy-five, but as often as
not there's a fisherman just in from a trip who's buying for the
whole house. Money flows through a fisherman like water
through a fishing net; one regular ran up a $4,000 tab in a
Bobby and Chris walk in and look around. Ethel's behind
the bar, and a couple of the town's earlier risers are already
gripping bottles of beer. A shipmate of Bobby's named Bugsy
Moran is seated at the bar, a little dazed. Rough night, huh?
Bobby says. Bugsy grunts. His real name is Michael. He's
got wild long hair and a crazy reputation and everyone in
town loves him. Chris invites him to join them for breakfast
and Bugsy slides off his stool and follows them out the door
into the light rain. They climb into Chris's 20-year-old Volvo
and drive down to the White Hen Pantry and shuffle in, eyes
bloodshot, heads throbbing. They buy sandwiches and cheap
sunglasses and then they make their way out into the
unrelenting greyness of the day. Chris drives them back to
the Nest and they pick up 30-year-old Dale Murphy, another
crew member from the Andrea Gail, and head out of town.
Dale's nickname is Murph, he's a big grizzly bear of a guy
from Bradenton Beach, Florida. He has shaggy black hair, a
thin beard, and angled, almost Mongolian eyes; he gets a lot
of looks around town. He has a three-year-old baby, also
named Dale, whom he openly adores. His ex-wife, Debra,
was three-time Southwestern Florida Women's boxing
champion and by all rights, young Dale is going to be a
bruiser. Murph wants to get him some toys before he leaves,
and Chris takes the three men to the shopping center out by
Good Harbor Beach. They go into the Ames and Bobby and
Bugsy get extra thermals and sweats for the trip and Murph
walks down the aisles, filling a cart with Tonka trucks and
firemen's helmets and ray guns. When he can't fit any more
in he pays for it, and they all pile into the car and drive back
to the Nest. Murph gets out and the other three decide to
drive around the corner to the Green Tavern for another
The Green Tavern looks like a smaller version of the Nest,
all brick and false timber. Across the street is a bar called
Bill's; the three bars form the Bermuda Triangle of downtown
Gloucester. Chris and Bugsy and Bobby walk in and seat
themselves at the bar and order a round of beers. The
television's going and they watch it idly and talk about the trip
and the last night of craziness at the Nest. Their hangovers
are starting to soften. They drink another round and maybe
half an hour goes by and finally Bobby's sister Mary Anne
walks in. She's a tall blonde who inspires crushes in the
teenaged sons of some of her friends, but there's a certain
no-nonsense air about her that has always kept Bobby on his
toes. Oh shit, here she comes, he whispers.
He hides his beer behind his arm and pulls the sunglasses
down over his black eye. Mary Anne walks up. What do you
think I am, stupid? she asks. Bobby pulls the beer out from
hiding. She looks at his eye. Nice one, she says.
I was in a riff downtown.
Someone buys her a wine cooler and she takes a couple of
sips. I just came to make sure you were getting on the boat,
she says. You shouldn't be drinking so early in the day.
Bobby's a big, rugged kid. He was sickly as a child--he
had a twin who died a few weeks after birth--but as he got
older he got stronger and stronger. He used to play tackle
football in pick-up games where broken bones were a weekly
occurrence. In his jeans and hooded sweatshirt he looks like
such a typical fisherman that a photographer once took a
picture of him for a postcard of the waterfront; but still, Mary
Anne's his older sister, and he's in no position to contradict
Chris loves you, he says suddenly. I do, too.
Mary Anne isn't sure how to react. She's been angry at
Chris lately--because of the drinking, because of the black
eye--but Bobby's candor has thrown her off. He's never
said anything like that to her before. She stays long enough to
finish her wine cooler and then heads out the door.
The first time Chris Cotter saw the Crow's Nest she swore
she'd never go in; it just looked too far down some road in life
she didn't want to be on. She happened to be friends with
Mary Anne Shatford, however, and one day Mary Anne
dragged her through the heavy wooden door and introduced
her around. It was a fine place: people bought drinks for each
other like they said hello and Ethel cooked up a big pot of fish
chowder from time to time, and before Chris knew it she was
a regular. One night she noticed a tall young man looking at
her and she waited for him to come over, but he never did.
He had a taut, angular face, square shoulders, and a shy cast
to his eyes that made her think of Bob Dylan. The eyes alone
were enough. He kept looking at her but wouldn't come over,
and finally he started heading for the door.
Where are you goin'? she said, blocking his way.
To the Mariner.
The Irish Mariner was next door and in Chris's mind it
was really down the road to hell. I'm not crossin' over,
thought Chris, I'm in the Nest and that's enough, the
Mariner's the bottom of the bucket. And so Bobby Shatford
walked out of her life for a month or so. She didn't see him
again until New Year's Eve.
"I'm in the Nest," she says, "and he's across the bar and
the place is packed and insane and it's gettin' near the twelve
o'clock thing and finally Bobby and I talk and go over to
another party. I hung with Bobby, and I did, I brought him
home and we did our thing, our drunken thing and I
remember waking up the next morning and looking at him and
thinking, Oh my God this is a nice man what have I done? I
told him, You gotta get out of here before my kids wake up,
and after that he started callin' me."
Chris was divorced and had three children and Bobby was
separated and had two. He was bartending and fishing to pay
off a child-support debt and splitting his time between Haskell
Street and his room above the Nest. (There are a dozen or so
rooms available, and they're very cheap if you know the right
person. Like your mother, the bartender.) Soon Chris and
Bobby were spending every minute together; it was as if
they'd known each other their whole lives. One evening while
drinking mudslides at the Mariner--Chris had crossed
over--Bobby got down on his knees and asked her to marry
him. Of course I will! she screamed, and then, as far as they
were concerned, a life together was only a matter of time.
Time--and money. Bobby's wife had sued him for
nonpayment of child support, and it went to court late in the
spring of 1991. Bobby's choice was to make a payment or go to
jail right then and there, so Ethel came up with the money,
and afterward they all went to a bar to recover. Bobby
proposed to Chris again, in front of Ethel this time, and when
they were alone he said that he had a site on the Andrea Gail
if he wanted it. The Andrea Gail was a well-known sword
boat captained by an old friend of the family's,
Billy Tyne. Tyne had essentially been handed the job by the
previous skipper, Charlie Reed, who was getting out of
swordfishing because the money was starting to dwindle.
(Reed had sent three children to private college on the money
he made on the Andrea Gail.) Those days were over, but she
was still one of the most lucrative boats in the harbor. Bobby
was lucky to get a site on her.
Swordfishing's a lot of money, it'll pay off everything I
owe, he told Chris.
That's good, how long do you go out for?
Thirty days? Are you crazy?
"We were in love and we were jealous and I just couldn't
imagine it," says Chris. "I couldn't even imagine half a day."
Sword boats are also called longliners because their
mainline is up to forty miles long. It's baited at intervals and
paid out and hauled back every day for ten or twenty days.
The boats follow the swordfish population like seagulls after a
day trawler, up to the Grand Banks in the summer and down
to the Caribbean in the winter, eight or nine trips a year.
They're big boats that make big money and they're rarely in
port more than a week at a time to gear-up and make repairs.
Some boats go as far away as the coast of Chile to catch
their fish, and fishermen think nothing of grabbing a plane to
Miami or San Juan to secure a site on a boat. They're away
for two or three months and then they come home, see their
families, and head back out again. They're the high rollers of
the fishing world and a lot of them end up exactly where they
started. "They suffer from a lack of dreams," as one local said.
Bobby Shatford, however, did happen to have some
dreams. He wanted to settle down, get his money problems
behind him, and marry Chris Cotter. According to Bobby
Shatford, the woman he was separated from was from a very wealthy
family, and he didn't understand why he should owe so much
money, but obviously the courts didn't see it that way. He
wasn't going to be free until everything was paid off, which
would be seven or eight trips on the Andrea Gail--a good year
of fishing. So in early August, 1991, Bobby left on the first
swordfishing trip of his life. When they left the dock his eyes
swept the parking lot, but Chris had already gone. It was bad
luck, they'd decided, to watch your lover steam out to sea.
Chris had no way of knowing when Bobby was due in, so
after several weeks she started spending a lot of time down
at Rose's wharf, where the Andrea Gail takes out, waiting for
her to come into view. There are houses in Gloucester where
grooves have been worn into the floorboards by women
pacing past an upstairs window, looking out to sea. Chris
didn't wear down any floorboards, but day after day she filled
up the ash tray in her car. In late August a particularly bad
hurricane swept up the coast--Hurricane Bob--and Chris
went over to Ethel's and did nothing but watch the Weather
Channel and wait for the phone to ring. The storm flattened
entire groves of locust trees on Cape Cod, but there was no
bad news from the fishing fleet so, uneasily, Chris went back
to her lookout at Rose's.
Finally, one night in early September, the phone rang in
Chris's apartment. It was Billy Tyne's new girlfriend, calling
from Florida. They're coming in tomorrow night, she said. I'm
flying into Boston, could you pick me up?
"I was a wreck, I was out of my mind," says Chris. "I
picked Billy's girlfriend up at Logan and the boat came in
while I was gone. We pulled up across the street from the
Nest and we could see the Andrea Gail tied up by Rose's and
so I flew across the street and the door opens and it was
Bobby. He went, `Aaagh,' and he picked me up in the air and
I had my legs wrapped around his waist and we must've been
there twenty minutes like that, I wouldn't get off him, I
couldn't, it had been thirty days and there was no way in
The collected company in the bar watched the reunion
through the window. Chris asked Bobby if he'd found a card
that she'd hidden in his seabag before he left. He had, he
said. He read it every night.
Yeah, right, said Chris.
Bobby put her down in front of the door and recited the
letter word for word. The guys were bustin' my balls so bad I
had to hide it in a magazine, he said. Bobby pulled Chris into
the Nest and bought her a drink and they clinked bottles for
his safe homecoming. Billy was there with his girlfriend
hanging off him and Alfred was on the payphone to his
girlfriend in Maine and Bugsy was getting down to business
at the bar. The night had achieved a nearly vertical takeoff,
everyone was drinking and screaming because they were
home safe and with people they loved. Bobby Shatford was
now crew on one of the best sword boats on the East Coast.
They'd been at sea a month and taken fifteen tons of
swordfish. Prices fluctuate so wildly, though, that a sword
boat crew often has no idea how well they've done until after
the fish have been sold. And even then there's room for error:
boat owners have been known to negotiate a lower price with
the buyer and then recover part of their loss in secret. That
way they don't share the entire profit with their crew. Be that
as it may, the Andrea Gail sold her catch to O'Hara Seafoods
for $136,812, plus another $4,770 for a small amount of tuna.
Bob Brown, the owner, first took out for fuel, fishing tackle,
bait, a new mainline, wharfage, ice, and a hundred other odds
and ends that added up to over $35,000. That was deducted
from the gross, and Brown took home half of what was left:
roughly $53,000. The collected crew expenses--food, gloves,
shore help--were paid on credit and then deducted from the
other $53,000, and the remainder was divided up among the
crew: Almost $20,000 to Captain Billy Tyne, $6,453 to Pierre
and Murphy, $5,495 to Moran, and $4,537 each to Shatford
and Kosco. The shares were calculated by seniority and if
Shatford and Kosco didn't like it, they were free to find
The week on shore started hard. That first night, before
the fish had even been looked at, Brown cut each crew
member a check for two hundred dollars, and by dawn it was
all pretty much spent. Bobby crawled into bed with Chris
around one or two in the morning and crawled out again four
hours later to help take out the catch. His younger brother
Brian--built like a lumberjack and filled with one desire, to
fish like his brothers--showed up to help, along with another
brother, Rusty. Bob Brown was there, and even some of the
women showed up. The fish were hoisted out of the hold,
swung up onto the dock, and then wheeled into the chill
recesses of Rose's. Next they hauled twenty tons of ice out
of the hold, scrubbed the decks, and stowed the gear away. It
was an eight- or nine-hour day. At the end of the afternoon
Brown showed up with checks for half the money they were
owed--the rest would be paid after the dealer had actually
sold the fish--and the crew went across the street to a bar
called Pratty's. The partying, if possible, reached heights not
attained the night before. "Most of them are single kids with
no better thing to do than spend a lot of dough," says Charlie
Reed, former captain of the boat. "They're high-rollers for a
couple of days. Then they go back out to sea."
High-rollers or not, the crew is still supposed to show up at
the dock every morning for work. Inevitably, something has
broken on the trip--a line gets wound around the drive shaft
and must be dove on, the antennas get snapped off, the radios
go dead. Depending on the problem, it can take anywhere
from an afternoon to several days to fix. Then the engine has
to be overhauled: change the belts and filters, check the oil, fill
the hydraulics, clean the injectors, clean the plugs, test the
generators. Finally, there's the endless task of maintaining the
deck gear. Blocks have to be greased, ropes have to be
spliced, chains and cables have to be replaced, rust spots
have to be ground down and painted. One ill-kept piece of
gear can kill a man. Charlie Reed saw a hoisting block fall on
someone and shear his arm right off; another
crew member had forgotten to tighten a shackle.
The crew isn't exactly military in their sense of duty,
though. Several times that week Bobby woke up at the Nest,
looked out the window, and then crawled back into bed. One
can hardly blame him: from now on his life would unfold in
brutally short bursts between long stretches at sea, and all
he'd have to tide him over would be photos taped to a wall
and maybe a letter in a seabag. And if it was hard on the
men, it was even harder on the women. "It was like I had
one life and when he came back I had another," says Jodi
Tyne, who divorced Billy over it. "I did it for a long time and I
just got tired of it, it was never gonna change, he was never
gonna quit fishin', though he said he wanted to. If he had to
pick between me and the boat he picked the boat."
Billy was an exception in that he really, truly loved to fish.
Charlie Reed was the same way; it was one reason the two
men got along so well. "It's wide open--I got all the solitude
in the world," says Reed. "Nobody pressurin' me about
nothin'. And I see things other people don't get to
see--whales breaching right beside me, porpoises followin'
the boat. I've caught shit they don't even have in
books--really weird shit, monstrous-looking things. And
when I walk down the street in town, everyone's respectful
to me: `Hi, Cap, how ya doin' Cap.' It's nice to sit down and
have a 70-year-old man say, `Hi, Cap.' It's a beautiful thing."
Perhaps you'd have to be a skipper to really fall in love
with the life. (A $20,000 paycheck must help.) Most
deckhands have precious little affection for the business,
though; for them, fishing is a brutal, dead-end job that they try
to get clear of as fast as possible. At memorial services in
Gloucester people are always saying things like, "Fishing was
his life," or "He died doing what he loved," but by and large
those sentiments are to comfort the living. By and large,
young men from Gloucester find themselves at sea because
they're broke and need money fast.
The only compensation for such mind-numbing work, it
would seem, is equally mind-numbing indulgence. A
swordfisherman off a month at sea is a small typhoon of
cash. He cannot get rid of the stuff fast enough. He buys
lottery tickets fifty at a time and passes them around the bar.
If anything hits he buys fifty more plus drinks for the house.
Ten minutes later he'll tip the bartender twenty dollars and set
the house up again; slower drinkers may have two or three
bottles lined up in front of them. When too many bottles are
lined up in front of someone, plastic tokens are put down
instead, so that the beer doesn't get warm. (It's said that
when someone passes out at the Irish Mariner, arguments
break out over who gets his tokens.) A fisherman off a trip
gives the impression that he'd hardly bother to bend down and
pick up a twenty-dollar bill that happened to flutter to the
floor. The money is pushed around the bartop like dirty
playing cards, and by closing time a week's worth of pay may
well have been spent. For some, acting like the money means
nothing is the only compensation for what it actually must
"The last night, oh my God, the drunkenness was just
unreal," says Chris. "The bar was jam-packed and Bugsy
was in a real bad mood cause he hadn't gotten laid, he was
really losin' his mind about it. That's important when you only
have six days, you know. They were drinkin' more and more
and it was time to go and they didn't get enough time on land
and didn't get enough money. The last morning we woke up
over the Nest `cause we were really ruined and Bobby had
this big black eye, we'd gotten physically violent a little bit,
which was the alcohol, believe me. Now I think about it and I
can't believe I sent him off to sea like that. I can't believe I
sent him off to sea with a black eye."
In the year 1850, Herman Melville wrote his masterpiece, Moby
Dick, based on his own experience aboard a South Seas
whaling ship. It starts with the narrator, Ishmael, stumbling
through a snowstorm in New Bedford, Massachusetts,
looking for a place to spend the night. He doesn't have much
money and passes up one place, called the Crossed
Harpoons, because it looks "too expensive and jolly." The
next place he finds is called the Swordfish Inn, but it, too,
radiates too much warmth and good cheer. Finally he comes
to the Spouter Inn. "As the light looked so dim," he writes,
"and the dilapidated little wooden house itself looked as if it
might have been carted here from the ruins of some burnt
district, and as the swinging sign had a poverty-stricken sort
of creak to it, I thought that here was the very spot for
cheap lodging and the best of pea coffee."
His instincts were sound, of course: he was given hot food
and a bed to share with a South Seas cannibal called
Queequeg. Queequeg became his adopted brother and
eventually saved his life. Since the beginning of fishing, there
have been places that have taken in the Ishmaels of the
world--and the Murphs, and the Bugsys, and the Bobbys.
Without them, conceivably, fishing wouldn't even be possible.
One night a swordfisherman came into the Crow's Nest
reeling drunk after a month at sea. Bills were literally falling
out of his pocket. Greg, the owner of the bar, took the
money--a full paycheck--and locked it up in the safe. The
next morning the fisherman came down looking a little
chagrined. Jesus what a night last night, he said. And I can't
believe how much money I spent ...
That a fisherman is capable of believing he spent a couple
thousand dollars in one night says a lot about fishermen. And
that a bartender put the money away for safe-keeping says a
lot about how fishermen choose their bars. They find places
that are second homes because a lot of them don't have real
homes. The older guys do, of course--they have families,
mortgages, the rest of it--but there aren't many older guys
on the longline boats. There are mainly guys like Murph and
Bobby and Bugsy who go through their youth with a roll of
tens and twenties in their pockets. "It's a young man's game,
a single man's game," as Ethel Shatford says.
As a result, the Crow's Nest has a touch of the orphanage
to it. It takes people in, gives them a place, loans them a
family. Some may have just come off a trip to the Grand
Banks, others may be weathering a private North Atlantic of
their own: divorce, drug addiction, or just a tough couple of
years. One night at the bar a thin old man who had lost his
niece to AIDS wrapped his arms around Ethel and just held
onto her for five or ten minutes. At the other end of the
spectrum is a violent little alcoholic named Wally who's a
walking testimony to the effects of child abuse. He has
multiple restraining orders against him and occasionally slides
into realms of such transcendent obscenity that Ethel has to
yell out to him to shut the hell up. She has a soft spot for him,
though, because she knows what he went through as a child,
and one year she wrapped up a present and gave it to him
Christmas morning. (She's in the habit of doing that for
anyone stuck upstairs over the holidays.) All day long Wally
avoided opening it, and finally Ethel told him she was going to
get offended if he didn't unwrap the damn thing. Looking a
little uneasy, he slowly pulled the paper off--it was a scarf
or something--and suddenly the most violent man in
Gloucester was crying in front of her.
Ethel, he said, shaking his head, no one's ever given me a
Ethel Shatford was born in Gloucester and has lived out
her whole life half a mile from the Crow's Nest Inn. There
are people in town, she says, who have never driven the
forty-five minutes to Boston, and there are others who have
never even been over the bridge. To put this into perspective,
the bridge spans a piece of water so narrow that fishing boats
have trouble negotiating it. In a lot of ways the bridge might
as well not even be there; a good many people in town see
the Grand Banks more often than, say, the next town down
The bridge was built in 1948, when Ethel was twelve.
Gloucester schooners were still sailing to the Grand Banks to
dory-fish for cod. That spring Ethel remembers the older
boys being excused from school to fight the brush fires that
were raging across Cape Ann; the fires burned through a
wild area called Dogtown Common, an expanse of swamp
and glacial moraine that was once home to the local crazy
and forgotten. The bridge was the northern terminus of
Boston's Route 128 beltway, and it basically brought the
twentieth century to downtown Gloucester. Urban renewal
paved over the waterfront in the 1970s, and soon there was a
thriving drug trade and one of the highest heroin overdose
rates in the country. In 1984, a Gloucester swordfishing boat
named the Valhalla was busted for running guns to the Irish
Republican Army; the guns had been bought with drug
money from the Irish Mafia in Boston.
By the end of the 1980s the Georges Bank ecosystem had
started to collapse, and the town was forced to raise revenue
by joining a federal resettlement program. They provided
cheap housing for people from other, even poorer, towns in
Massachusetts, and in return received money from the
government. The more people they took in, the higher the
unemployment rate rose, stressing the fishing industry even
further. By 1991, fish stocks were so depleted that the
unthinkable was being discussed: Close Georges Bank to all
fishing, indefinitely. For 150 years, Georges, off Cape Cod, had
been the breadbasket of New England fishing; now it was
virtually barren. Charlie Reed, who dropped out of school in
tenth grade to work on a boat, saw the end coming: "None of
my children have anything to do with fishing," he says. "They'd
ask me to take them out on the boat, and I'd say, `I'm not
takin' you nowhere. You just might like it--brutal as it is, you
just might like it.'"
Ethel has worked in the Crow's Nest since 1980. She gets
there at 8:30 Tuesday morning, works until 4:30 and then often
sits and has a few rum-and-cokes. She does that four days a
week and occasionally works on weekends. From time to
time one of the regulars brings in a fish and she cooks up
some chowder in the back room. She passes it out in plastic
bowls and whatever's left simmers away in a ceramic
crockpot for the rest of the day. Patrons go over, sniff it, and
dip in from time to time.
Clearly, this is a place a fisherman could get used to. The
curtained windows up front have the immense advantage of
allowing people to see out but not be seen. The entire bar can
watch who's about to appear in their collective reality, and
then the back door offers an alternative to having to deal with
it. "It's saved many a guy from wives, girlfriends, whatever,"
says Ethel. Drunks reveal themselves as well: Their
silhouettes careen past the window and Ethel watches them
pause at the door to steady themselves and draw a deep
breath. Then they fling the big brown door open and head
straight for the corner of the bar.
People stay upstairs anywhere from hours to years, and
sometimes it's hard to know at the outset which it's going to
be. Rates are $27.40 a night for fishermen, truckers, and
friends, and $32.90 for everyone else. There's also a weekly
rate for long-term guests. One man stayed so long--five
years--that he had his room painted and carpeted. He also
hung a pair of chandeliers from the ceiling. Fishermen who
don't have bank accounts cash paychecks at the Crow's Nest
(it helps if they owe the bar money), and fishermen who don't
have mailing addresses can have things sent right to the bar.
This puts them at a distinct advantage over the I.R.S., a
lawyer, or an ex-wife. The bartender, of course, takes
messages, screens calls, and might even lie. The pay phone
at the door has the same number as the house phone, and
when it rings, customers signal to Ethel whether they're in or
By and large it's a bar of people who know each other;
people who aren't known are invited over for a drink. It's
hard to buy your own beer at the Crow's Nest, and it's hard
to leave after just one; if you're there at all, you're there until
closing. There are few fights at the Nest because everyone
knows each other so well, but other waterfront
bars--Pratty's, Mitch's, the Irish Mariner--are known to
disassemble themselves on a regular basis. Ethel worked at
one place where the owner started so many brawls that she
refused to serve him in his own place; the fact that he was a
state trooper didn't help matters much. John, another
bartender at the Nest, recalls a wedding where the bride and
groom got into an argument and the groom stormed off,
dutifully followed by all the men in the party. Of course they
went to the nearest bar and eventually one of them pitched a
sarcastic comment to a quiet, stocky guy sitting off by
himself. The man got up, took his hat off and walked down
the bar, knocking out the entire male half of the wedding
party, one by one.
The closest it's ever come to that at the Nest was one
night when there was an ugly cluster of rednecks at one end
of the room and a handful of black truckers at the other. The
truckers were regulars at the Nest, but the rednecks were
from out of town, as were a hopped-up bunch of
swordfishermen who were talking loudly around the pool
table. The focus of attention of this edgy mix was a black kid
and a white kid who were playing pool and arguing,
apparently over a drug deal. As the tension in the room
climbed, one of the truckers called John over and said, Hey,
don't worry, both those kids are trash and we'll back you up
no matter what.
John thanked him and went back to washing glasses. The
swordfishermen had just gotten off a trip and were reeling
drunk, the rednecks were making barely-muted comments
about the clientele, and John was just waiting for the cork to
pop. Finally one of the rednecks called him over and jutted
his chin across the bar at the black truckers.
Too bad you gotta serve 'em but I guess it's the law, he
John considered this for a moment and then said, Yeah,
and not only that, they're all friends of mine.
He walked across to the pool table and threw the kids out
and then he turned to the swordfishermen and told them that
if they wanted trouble, they would certainly find plenty.
John's friends were particularly large examples of humankind
and the swordfishermen signalled that they understood. The
rednecks finally left, and by the end of the night it was back
to the same old place it had always been.
"It's a pretty good crowd," says Ethel. "Sometimes you get
the wild scallopers in but mostly it's just friends. One of the
best times I ever had here was when this Irishman walked in
and ordered fifty beers. It was a dead Sunday afternoon and
I just looked at him. He said that his friends would be along in
a minute, and sure enough, an entire Irish soccer team came
in. They'd been staying in Rockport, which is a dry town, and
so they just started walking. They walked all the way down
Route 127, five miles, and this was the first place they came to.
They were drinking beer so fast we were selling it right out
of the cases. They were doing three-part harmonies on the
and a brick fireplace where they smoked trashfish. That was
for the crew to eat while at sea, cod being too valuable to
waste on them. Each spring the chebaccos were scraped and
caulked and tarred and sent out to the fishing grounds. Once
there, the boats were anchored, and the men hand-lined over
the side from the low midship rail. Each man had his spot,
called a "berth," which was chosen by lottery and held
throughout the trip. They fished two lines at twenty-five to
sixty fathoms (150-360 feet) with a ten-pound lead weight, which
they hauled up dozens of times a day. The shoulder muscles
that resulted from a lifetime of such work made fishermen
easily recognizable on the street. They were called
"hand-liners" and people got out of their way.
The captain fished his own lines, like everyone else, and
pay was reckoned by how much fish each man caught. The
tongues were cut out of the fish and kept in separate buckets;
at the end of the day the skipper entered the numbers in a log
book and dumped the tongues overboard. It took a couple of
months for the ships to fill their holds--the fish was either
dried or, later, kept on ice--and then they'd head back to
port. Some captains, on a run of fish, couldn't help themselves
from loading their ship down until her decks were almost
underwater. This was called deep-loading, and such a ship
was in extreme peril if the weather turned ugly. The trip
home took a couple of weeks, and the fish would compress
under its own weight and squeeze all the excess fluid out of
the flesh. The crew pumped the water over the sides, and
deep-loaded Grand Bankers would gradually emerge from the
sea as they sailed for port.
By the 1760s Gloucester had seventy-five fishing schooners
in the water, about one-sixth of the New England fleet. Cod
was so important to the economy that in 1784 a wooden
effigy--the "Sacred Cod"--was hung in the Massachusetts
State House by a wealthy statesman named John Rowe.
Revenue from the New England codfishery alone was worth
over a million dollars a year at the time of the Revolution, and
(C) 1997 Sebastian Junger
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