Memories of a Highliner’s Son
by Big Tom Brancaleone
My family fished out of Gloucester on the Joseph & Lucia I, II and III, for over 50 years- as boat owners, captain and crew. They worked hard and were successful in their labors. They were known for being fair to their crews and had a propensity for fishing in bad weather.
As a child I can remember the worried look on my mother’s face as our home on the Boulevard shook and the storm windows squealed and shuddered. The boat was out in yet another storm. Their hope was to be the only boat to market and to fetch a big price when they finally made it back to port, and they often did just that. As a boy I did not realize the dangers they faced and the ordeal that life as a commercial fisherman posed. They truly were iron men on those small vessels that earned every penny with sweat and blood.
I never could begin to understand what my father sacrificed for us and how hard he worked until he actually took me out on my first trip. After two or three days of preparation, which normally included vessel maintenance and fishing gear upkeep the Joseph & Lucia lll (J&L III) was almost ready to set sail. The fuel tanks were filled and the food locker in the fo’c’sle was stocked. Thirty-two tons of crushed ice was put down the fish hold and the seven man crew said good bye to their loved ones and braced for eight to 12 days of battle with Mother Nature.
I was only 14 in 1972, and it was summertime so the backdrop for my first experience at sea was rather tame compared with what it was like in the winter. My main duty was to keep my eyes open and stay out of harm’s way. I did suffer from sea sickness the first night out but, though it was awful, it subsided after about 24 hours and wasn’t a problem thereafter.
We steamed along at about 12 knots for roughly 36 hours to reach the fishing grounds. Crew members were required to take a “steaming watch” when the boat was under way. This is a very important duty and the lives of all on board are in the balance.
The rules of the ocean and general seamanship are practiced at all times and of course you can never fall asleep. The captain gives his instructions and retires to his quarters to rest up. He will not get much sleep once the fishing begins. The importance of being alert on watch was demonstrated many years later as the J & L lll ,when steaming home after a particularly arduous trip collided with an ocean going barge in the Massachusetts Bay at full speed with 140,000 pounds of fish aboard. The man on watch had somehow dropped the ball. They were very fortunate to survive that mishap with minor damage to the boat and injuries to the men. Crew members suffered a few lumps and the bow was slightly dented. The barge had over $125,000 in damages and the boat got a $1000 fine for speeding in the fog in the bay. The barge was being towed by a tug and was tethered to it by a massive cable. If they had hit the tow cable there is a good chance the boat could have rolled over. An alarm was then installed that warned of a possible collision after that near disaster.
The haul back bell rang and all hands got up from their bunks put on their oil skins and boots then readied the net to be set out. We were on Browns Bank in what is now Canadian waters in June of 1972. There was no Hague line at that time and the ocean was not as restricted as it is today. The crew on my families’ boats were for the most part expert fishermen. Browns Bank was notorious for being “hard bottom” that often teemed with haddock. I was instructed to keep clear of all wires and blocks and the many dangerous things that were going on, on deck. Not long after that trip the dangers of working on deck were vividly brought to light when my oldest brother Joe had his arm severed while setting out the net aboard the J & L ll. He had just gotten out of the Navy after four years as a quartermaster aboard nuclear submarines. My mother was oh so worried about him being on a sub. The deck of an eastern rigged dragger is a far more dangerous place. I will relate that story later because it merits its own chapter in human drama and endurance.
Once the net is set out it will be towed or dragged along the ocean bottom for about three hours. Often on hard bottom like Browns the gear will hang up and suffer varying degrees of damage. Sometimes nets needed immediate repair, but sometimes they could be fixed at the end of the tow when the net is hauled back on deck. In those days there were lots of fish and lots of damage incurred during normal fishing operations. This required expert crews with mending skills and the ability to get the gear back over and catching fish again. The men would often mend the damaged net for hours, then re-set it. Then they would still need to cut, gut, wash and ice down the fish and wash the deck. Less than three hours later the alarm would sound once more and it was time to do it all over again. They worked around the clock on a rolling deck in all kinds of weather for days on end. They missed being home when their children were born and many other wonderful events that we on land take for granted. I knew rather quickly that this would not be the life for me!
The first tow was completed and I was seated in the pilot house with the captain, my Uncle Tom. He was a high line skipper who had been fishing for over 30 years at that point and had earned a great deal of respect from fishermen up and down the east coast. As the crew brought the trawl aboard, the cod end popped up and confirmed a good haul. The bag of fish had to be split and swung over the rail in two parts. The deck swarmed with over 7,000 pounds of haddock and scrod. The crew re-set the net and began to cut fish, and the gulls followed the J & L lll as she plodded along in the dark of night.
It was during one of these nights when everyone had just gotten off the deck and we heard a loud BANG! We hung up hard and parted the main wire while also causing serious damage to the net. Back on deck to recover the gear and put the net back together. This appeared to me to be a tricky procedure that the veteran crew handled with just a bit of difficulty. I had the greenhorn job of filling mending needles with twine as the men fixed the net under the watchful eye of the first mate, Frank D’ Amico who had been fishing with Captain Tom from day one and was one of the best twine men in the business. They used up the needles almost as quickly as I could fill them. After an hour and half or so the net went over the side, a lot more fish would soon be on the deck.
As instructed I watched and tried to learn and be aware of the endless toil that is part of being a dragger-man. I was only 14 and was allowed to go out fishing, not to learn to be a fisherman, but in order to dissuade me from ever becoming one. My father was the engineer aboard the J & L lll and was known as “The Chief.” He knew very well that it was a hard life filled with danger and hardship and wanted me to find that out for myself. I quickly did.
The trip continued, and within 3 days the J & L lll had over 40,000 pounds of fish iced down in her hold. We hauled the gear aboard and proceeded to steam to another fishing ground to the south to concentrate on a different species of fish. Here we caught more of mixed variety including flounder and red fish. As I became more aware of my surroundings and possible areas of danger I was allowed to venture out on deck and help the crew with cleaning fish and picking trash fish out of the pens on deck and tossing them over the side. We ate three square meals a day prepared by the cook Gil Roderick. The cook’s job aboard a dragger is a difficult one. He has his duties on deck as well as feeding seven or eight hungry men for the duration of each and every long trip. A small stipend for the extra work seemed hardly worth it to me. He has to order the “grub,” stow it, and prepare it in some sloppy conditions. He is also responsible for cleaning up after every meal. Tough job. A few more days passed with far less damage to the net and another 30,000 pounds of mixed fish.
Again we put the gear aboard and headed to the #8 buoy for some codfish. After about a 12 hour steam we neared our destination as the night was ending. This place, I was told, was fished during the day time and there were a number of vessels waiting for sunrise before setting out. Several were Gloucester boats I recognized. At that time there was a limit on cod. You could catch 30,000 pounds per trip. It was a beautiful summer day and all the boats set out together at sunrise. You could see the faces of other crew members on deck close by and it became a race to see who would catch their limit first. The cod were there and we quickly hauled back and put 5,000 pounds aboard on the first set. By late afternoon we had our 30,000 pounds aboard. The deck was full, the net was aboard, and as we steamed out of there you could see and hear other men on the other boats waving and hollering at us as we passed. We were the first to leave and head for home! I felt such pride and accomplishment as we sailed out of there, and I will never forget that moment. The Joseph & Lucia lll was headed home!
I for one was extremely happy to be on our way in. I was tired and had never worked so hard in my life. I had witnessed some things that I had never imagined and got a small taste of the fishing life. We finally arrived in Boston in the wee hours of the morning and prepared the vessel to take out fish. The fish hold man was veteran Gaspar Palazolla, whose job it was to ice down the fish and also to give the skipper an accurate tally as to the amount of fish by species that were in the hold. At the pier an auction took place in the morning to determine the price of the fish on hand that day and to document which dealer bought what and how much. The names of the vessels in that day and the amount of fish was written on a huge chalk board grid, and then bid on. There were a few boats in port that day and J & L lll topped the board with 106,500 pounds. Not a bad trip. I was responsible for washing pin boards and did perform this somewhat tedious task that day. By 3:00 pm we were finished taking out. We untied the lines and headed for Gloucester. I can remember climbing down the fish hold with my cousin Joe, and Gaspar and rebuilding it with pen boards. We were a bit giddy by this time and Joe and I began to sing in high pitched voices as we worked, much to the chagrin of Gaspar! After that I went up in the wheel house with my dad and uncle and enjoyed the ride home. As we sailed past the dog bar breakwater I could see my house on the Boulevard. I wondered what my friends were doing and how my mother was. I knew she was more worried than usual this trip, with my dad and me out together. We got to the dock at Rocky Neck and as I put my feet down on solid ground I let out a sigh of relief.
I got home and my father asked me if I wanted to go on the next trip- in about three days. My immediate response was no. I wanted to ride my bike and go to the beach and enjoy school vacation. He did not press me at all. Three days later the captain called with orders for 8:00 am for another trip. I traveled down to the ice wharf on Harbor Loop with my brother and mother to see my dad off. As they untied the lines and the boat pulled away from the wharf I began to cry. For the first time I had an idea of what he did for my family. Year in and year out, trip after long trip he and all working fisherman put their lives on the line and endure.
Vice President of St. Peter’s Club, and a director of the Gloucester Marine Railways Corporation since 1998, .Tom Brancaleone resides with his family overlooking the “Man at the Wheel” on the Boulevard.
“Highliner” is the commercial fishermen’s term for their own elite, the skippers and crews who bring in the biggest hauls.