Volume CI – May 1952,  p. 565 to 596




By Alan Villiers



Four hundred and fifty years ago, Portuguese in sturdy sailing ships were crossing the Atlantic on the spring east wind to fish the Grand Banks off Newfoundland, 2,000 miles away. They fished with hook and line, filled their holds with cod, and raced for home before the fierce northern winter caught them.

Fogs, gales, and freezing weather took their toll each year, and still the fishermen sailed, for cod had come to mean the difference between food and hunger in much of southern Europe. Salt cod was eaten on Catholic fast days and formed part of army rations.


New Ships, Old Dangers

In the 1950’s a fleet of Portuguese sailing ships still sets out each spring for the Grand Banks. Though time has brought changes in the size, shape, and gear of the ships, the 2,000 hardy fishermen who man the fleet face most of the same hazards their ancestors did.

Early in the spring of 1950 I shipped out with the Portuguese fishing fleet of 32 sailing vessels in the graceful steel four-master Argus, built in 1938-39, queen of the banking ships. 1 had arrived in Lisbon (Lisboa) in early March, to get a look at the background first.

The sailing vessels, I learned, still depend mainly on the wind, though they now have Diesel engines to help out when necessary. They also have electric lights, steam heat, and refrigeration. Power winches, within the memory of some of the older fishermen, have done away with the backbreaking job of raising and lowering sails and anchors.

But the fishing itself, the sea, and the danger are unchanged. The men still fish in the classic way: in the morning each sets out alone in his small one-man dory, pitting himself, his skill, and his luck against the ocean.

I picked up the Argus in the broad River Tagus, or Tejo, where the fleet of hand-liners was assembling for the blessing service. It was held in Belem’s famed Monastery and Church of the Jerónimos, built in the 16th century as a thank offering for the successful voyage of Vasco da Gama.*

For the blessing, the church was crowded with dorymen, all in colorful checked shirts and high sea boots. Schooner captains were there, also admirals and ministers of state, dignitaries of the Church, and people of Lisbon.

I tiptoed past the tombs of Vasco da Gama and the poet Luis Vaz de Camões and listened to the words of the Archbishop of Mytilene, himself the son of a drowned Grand Banks doryman, as he blessed the fleet.

Outside, the schooners were brave with bunting. They looked like lovely yachts ready to set out upon an ocean race. Fleet of line and graceful, tall-masted and serene, they waited. But the east winds of spring were blowing and this was the time to sail.


* See “The Pathfinder of the East,” by J. R. Hildebrand, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, November, 1927.


Wives Are Sad as Husbands Sail

We streamed out from the great church, with its decorations of ropes and anchors to mark the ties between Portugal and the sea, and hurried down to the water front and aboard.

The last of the dorymen’s wives were being rowed ashore in the little red dories, and the children with them were quiet and sad. The dorymen, I learned, went year after year with the same ships, and some of the privileged among them were allowed to have their wives and children aboard with them for the last few days before departure.

It was these wives I now saw coming across the swift blue water. They were dressed in the costumes of the fishing hamlets of Portugal. There was one from the north, in voluminous colorful skirts; others, from the southern Algarve, wore somber black, with high black-felt hats atop their heads.

Aboard the Argus all was activity. Throaty calls of the dorymen sailors mingled now with the clank of the windlass bringing the cables home and the creak of blocks as high white sails piled aloft.

Three other schooners were sailing with us, for the bankers like to go in company. This has been traditional since the days when pirates roamed the North Atlantic, but it has still another purpose: in early spring when the ships sail, and in autumn when they return, sudden gales blow up and old ships may founder. If there are others near by, they can rescue the crew.


The Rancho: Big Bunks and Big Men

We swung slowly under the Lisbon hills and looked back upon the white city for the last time in many months. As the schooner crossed the Tagus bar and passed out to sea, gulls cried around her, the wind began to sigh in the rigging, and the white water gurgled and splashed at the curved bow.*

Down below in the rancho, as the forecastle of a Portuguese banker is always called, half the complement of dorymen were settling in. The other half would be shipped in the Azores, for the Argus was bound first for Ponta Delgada on São Miguel Island. The rancho was a cavernous place full of big men, big bunks, and all kinds of cooking, fishing, and seafaring gear.

On the side of his bunk, holding a mug of wine in one hand and a slice of crisp bread in the other, sat Antonio Rodrigues, 63 years old. Antonio, I learned, was making his forty-third voyage to the Banks for cod. He was a handsome old man with a face gnarled and brown, but his body was still as spry and agile as a youth’s. I had seen his wife go over the side with the others. There was still a faraway look in his eyes.

“How does it feel to be making your forty-third trip back to the Banks?” I asked.

“I wouldn’t be any place else, and there isn’t a better ship,” Antonio grinned, taking a swallow of purple wine. “It’s a good life for a man.”

“How long have you been with the Argus?”

“Ever since she was built,” the old man said. And that went for almost all her dorymen, except the very young ones. Most were middle-aged.


* Sailing with the Portuguese Grand Banks fleet is the most recent of Alan Villiers’s many sea adventures. Others described in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE include: “Sailing with Sindbad’s Sons,” November, 1948; “Last of the Cape Homers,” May, 1948; “North About,” February, 1937; and “Rounding the Horn in a Windjammer,” February, 1931.


The Man Who Hooked a Ton a Day

A little later I noticed a gaunt, determined-looking man with a striking face taking his turn at the wheel. The mate—a cheerful youth aged about 22, making his fifth voyage —told me that this was the First Fisher, Francisco Emilio Baptista, champion doryman of the whole fleet. He caught a ton of cod a day. A ton a day! I looked at him with astonishment, for I’d no idea that fish could be caught in such bulk by hook and line.

Francisco’s shipmates had a joke about his fishing prowess. “He has a hatchery of his own,” the second mate explained. “He has his own cod and he just goes and takes them.”

Captain Adolfo, the master of the Argus, was standing by the wheel. He was a little, dark man, about 50 years of age. I knew he had been at sea in sailing ships since he was eight years old. He still had his shore clothes on, a smart business suit and a soft felt hat, with brightly polished shoes. On his right hand sparkled a diamond ring. He had joined the ship at the last moment, coming aboard with the clearance papers.

His wife and family were at Ílhavo, the famed village of shipmasters and cod hunters which stands on an arm of the sea south of Aveiro in the north of Portugal. From it hail most of the schooner masters. But though Captain Adolfo had been going out from Ílhavo for more than 40 years, he was not fond of a fisherman’s life.

“The Captain,” said the mate, “he hates the sea. But he will fill his ship with codfish. You see.”

1 looked forward to seeing.

And now the good Argus headed out toward the Azores, and the dorymen began to get their dories and their fishing gear ready. At Ponta Delgada we picked up another 26 dorymen, giving us a complement of 53 in all. With the deckboys and the cooks, officers, engineers, and so on, the schooner had 70 souls aboard. Her decks were crowded with the little red dories carried in stacks six and seven high, fitted together like a child’s hollow blocks and lashed to the decks.


Mystery of the Vanishing Bait

Down for’ard near the rancho she had a big refrigerated room for bait, but there were no bait fish in there yet. For some mysterious reason, the sardines which were used for bait had temporarily deserted the coasts of Portugal.

And so from the Azores we made toward St. John’s in Newfoundland, to ship our bait. You couldn’t hook a codfish without bait.

The longer I was aboard the Argus the more I marveled at her. She was a sailing ship, but she was fitted with every modern device that was of use. The Portuguese are not old-fashioned; they stick to the schooner rig because it is ideal for fishing on the Banks, where a ship has to keep the sea over many weary months and a powered vessel might run out of fuel.

They had given the Argus all the up-to-date equipment she needed. There was that big refrigerated room, for instance, holding 30 tons; a radiotelephone, and an electronic device for accurately measuring the depth of the sea.

She was fitted with steam heat, too, for the Greenland grounds. Her steel masts were hollow to act as exhausts for the boilers and for the big Diesel engine down below. She was a fine, modern ship, and I had no trouble settling down in her with the good Portuguese.

Then we got to St. John’s and there was still no bait, for it was a bad ice season and the Newfoundlanders could not get at the herring. It was early April, and cold. We passed 17 days in the harbor, just waiting.

The dorymen got their long-lines all ready; they rigged their dories and washed their clothes in the clear mountain streams, banging them on the rocks as they were accustomed to do at home. After that there was nothing to do—nothing but stare into the shops or play with the St. John’s kids.

Most irksome to the idle fishermen was that they were unable to earn a thing. Payment for dorymen is by results—no fishing means no pay, and of course it delays the voyage and puts off home-coming. Nearly all the dorymen are family men, and they love their children and their homes. We were glad when at last the herring ran and we got our long- awaited bait.


Over at Four, Fog or Fine

Then we fished for cod on the Grand Banks off Newfoundland for six cold and foggy weeks, while we waited for the summer sun to melt the ice in Davis Strait and clear the way to Greenland. But there wasn’t any sun and there wasn’t any summer, either. What a place!

The Argus and her consorts just anchored on the Banks, choosing a place where the rocky bottom prevented the horde of trawlers from working because the rocks would rip their costly trawls. Her 53 dorymen went over the side at 4 o’clock every morning they possibly could, fog or fine—and it was rarely fine. They’d streak away under their tiny oiled sails for the horizon, lay their long-lines, and fish all day. While the 600-hook long-lines were down, they’d fish by hand with lead jiggers, shaped like a herring and fitted with two large hooks.

I went out with the dories. Until now, I had thought I was reasonably accustomed to the sea and more or less inured to its hardships. But in a dory I found I was a greenhorn. The rigors of sailing great windjammers round Cape Horn are nothing to the sort of thing a doryman on the Grand Banks takes in his stride.

Take a look at a dory first. It’s nothing but a frail-looking open boat, flat-bottomed, built up of a few planks. It has no keel, nor even a rudder. Its thwarts rig down so it can be nested. It’s about 14 feet long, less than 6 wide. Its little mast is a piece of sapling that the doryman cuts for himself; its rigging is homemade, and its sails likewise. It looks all right for a quiet day on the Potomac. But there are few quiet days in spring on the Grand Banks, and fewer off Greenland.

My dory was yanked to the side of the rolling ship by a couple of patent tackles and two iron hooks. I looked overside at the cold, cruel sea and thought, “I’d rather stay in the Argus—she’s small enough.” But the 53 dorymen were looking on from the turbulent gray waters, and I had to go. My dory was full of lines and gear and bait, with a small-boat compass atop the lot in case of fog.

“Go off along a bearing,” old Antonio Rodrigues had said. “You never know when there’ll be fog around here. And don’t worry about the dory. Dories are all right. It’s the men in them …

I remembered old Antonio’s advice.

“And get away from the ship’s side quick,” he’d said. “That’s the dangerous place! You can be stove in against the steel plates if you don’t watch out.”

The iron hooks yanked my dory to the rail. The white schooner rolled alee. A nasty, gurgling sea rose until it lapped hungrily at the bottom of the little boat.

“Now!” yelled the cook and the second engineer, at the tackles, and let me go. With a swoosh and a smack upon the sea, I was off. I shoved her away from that murderous steel side as fast as I could.

How enormous the Argus looked, seen from down there on the surface of the waters! She was only a 696-ton schooner, but just then she looked like a 20,000-tonner to me. At once my dory began to toss and leap and fret upon the ill-tempered sea running on the Banks, and I got my little mast and sails up as lively as I could.

Once the sails were on her, I was astonished at how well that little dory sailed. She was lively, certainly—almost enough to make me seasick- but she got along very well.


Problem: Find the Cod

At once the sea seemed the loneliest place I had ever known. I had always been used to staying aboard any ship I sailed in, from beginning to the end of the voyage. You don’t normally go over the side at sea if you can help it. From this tiny boat I felt for the first time the vast immensity and the incalculable challenge of the great open ocean.

It was savagely cold. I didn’t see how I was going to work with my bare hands, though I had a 300-hook line to pay out when I reached a good place. A good place? How was I to know the difference?

I made in the general direction I had seen our champion fisher go, and reckoned to sail until I saw his dory. All the dories had big white numbers on either bow. His was No. 16. I sailed and sailed, and not a sign of No. 16 did I see. When the hull of the Argus was almost below the horizon, I thought I had gone far enough.

So I lowered my sail, threw out the little grapnel, baited tip the last hooks of the long-line (there had not been time to do the lot before leaving the ship), and got the line well laid on the bottom, across the current. There were about 35 fathoms (210 feet) of water.

Next thing I began to fish with the jiggers. To work these, you take one jig-line in each hand, drop the jigger until it is just off the bottom, and then alternately jerk it smartly up and let it drop back again. It is supposed to hook the cod on the upward swing.

Mine didn’t. Maybe they weren’t on the bottom. How could you tell, all that way down? A doryman obviously had to have his brains in his linger tips, and mine were numb and particularly brainless that morning. The dory hopped and jumped, and you had to stand up in it to jig. I sat down. I hauled in one jig-line, stuck to the other. The long-line must be down three or four hours before it can be hauled.


Half a Load in One Haul

The dory continued to jump and leap, and there was no true rhythm in the water. The wind began to sigh, and there was an ominous bank of nasty fog to windward. Here and there, as my dory rose on the crest of a sea, I could see other dories—never more than five or six, though I knew there must be more than 300 all around me, for there were several big schooners near by.

I began to think that down here on the sea a lost dory would be mighty hard to find. And dories, I knew, were lost often enough.

Toward 9 a.m. I began to haul in my long-line. That took me two hours, for I had no skill at the business. - Again you have to work, and again the dory bucks and jumps and tries to throw you.

But, by the luck of beginners, I had a fair enough haul. My long-line, like all the others, consisted of several 100-yard lengths of big cod line spliced together. To this, small pieces of lighter line, called snoods, were attached about a fathom apart. The snoods held the hooks, 50 of them for each 100 yards of cod line.

Most dorymen used long-lines made up of from eight to twelve of these 50-hook sections, so that they were fishing with 400 to 600 hooks. But I was trying a 300-hooker for a start. That was business enough! Handling the long-line so as not to get the hooks snarled is a skilled job, and I was far from skilled, so mine got snarled. Then I had to stop and untangle them, and that took time.

But the cod is a stupid and docile fish. Those on the hooks waited patiently until I hauled them up, even the 80-pounders. Some had only a piece of the hook through their silly rubbery lips, but still they hung there, waiting their turn to be pulled into the dory.

One or two did slip off as I got them to the surface. Then I reached over with a light sort of gaff, a piece of wood with a large hook attached, got them by their gills, and flung them into the stern sheets without further ceremony.

If one had too much life, I stunned it with the other end of this small gaff. But most of them just flapped a bit and then lay still in the heap.

As any fisherman might have been, I was excited at first by the size of my haul—almost 50 fish. But I soon got over that. Cod are just too sluggish to provide much excitement.

Most of those I caught weighed, at a guess, 30 to 45 pounds. When I got them all in, my dory was about half full. Only a few were little 20-pounders—and that is one reason why the Portuguese still prefer the schooner and the dory fishing. You get bigger and better fish with hooks. The trawlers, using nets, have to go too often over the same ground where the bottom is good, but the dories can go anywhere.


After the Fish Comes the Fog

I didn’t pay the line out again. Ordinarily a doryman would stay out until his dory was full, or the recall flag—any big flag on the aftermast—was hoisted. But I was not a doryman, and now I knew I never would be. I was just trying it out, and I was mighty glad to call it tried and get on my way back to the ship.

But that infernal fog had blown down. An arm of it was between me and the Argus. Suddenly I found myself alone on the sea, and the ghostly arms of the horrible fog were wraithlike around me! Well, I could anchor and wait. Antonio Rodrigues had said to do that.

“Don’t ever panic,” he had said. “The panicked are dead.”

But the fog didn’t look like the really determined kind. Now and then I could see the gray sky above; sometimes there were lesser clearings. I hoisted the little mainsail and the minute jib, for there was a gentle sailing breeze upon the water. I had my bearings, and I put the boat compass on the thwart before me.

With one of the dory’s three small oars down to leeward as leeboard and rudder, I made grimly off along the bearing that I’d had of the ship, and kept a smart lookout for other dories. I had a conch shell to blow. I also had a loaf of bread, and water enough for a couple of days if used sparingly.

When you go off in a dory, you expect to come back the same day. Dorymen never prepare themselves or their boats against calamity. If it comes, they take it in stride.


A Fog Siren—Which Way?

After a while I heard a schooner sounding her great fog siren, for they all carried air-raid sirens at their mastheads to summon the dorymen in fog. But where was this schooner? Was she the Argus? I didn’t know. I had no judgment of sound direction in fog.

I knew the distinctive signal the Argus used on her fog bell, the big old church bell which hung in the mizzen rigging. I blew this signal on my conch shell and waited for a reply.

None came. Then that siren wasn’t aboard the Argus, or I’d heard it through some freak condition in the fog. I carried on. I blew my conch again.

What was that? An echo? I blew again. It was no echo! It was a doryman sounding our signal, an Argus man, in the fog like myself. I shouted to catch his attention, to check my compass course with his. He shouted back. I saw nothing but the white and ghastly fog and the greasy cold swirling of the wretched sea.

And then, indistinct at first and almost unbelievable, I saw the triangle of a tiny sail harden in the surrounding murk; a roll of white water gurgled at the little laden bow. There was a dory! No. 16! Baptista, the First Fisher—I couldn’t strike a better man than that. He grinned.

“No good! No good!” he shouted. But he looked abominably cheerful, and I could see that his dory was full to the gunwale with fine big cod.

Once I had found the First Fisher, I knew I was all right. After a quarter of an hour of gliding through the pall of fog, a white monstrosity suddenly loomed above us, right alongside. It looked like an iceberg.

“Argus,” Battista grinned. “We come back, no?”

Aye, we came back, and I had had enough of dory fishing for the day—and for all time, as far as that went.

And yet that evening down in the rancho I found all hands cheerful enough. Nobody was lost. They were all expert fog navigators, with an uncanny ability to find their way back to the schooner.

I knew well enough that being lost in fog was only one of the risks those brave, quiet men took as, part of the daily job. Being blown away in storms, knocked down by ships, or overwhelmed in a rising sea—even being knocked out of their dories by playful whales —these were dangers they had to accept as routine. The doryman’s was no life for the timid or the stay-at-home.

Down in the rancho was a young Azorean doryman named Francisco de Sousa Dâmaso, on his first Banks voyage. One day he was knocked down by a whale. Not that the whale meant any harm. It just happened to come up to blow right underneath part of his dory, and that was unfortunate. The dory was tipped slowly up, and the doryman and the fish and all the other contents tipped slowly out. Then the whale backed away, no doubt mildly astonished at the damage he had caused.

It might have been Senhor Dâmaso’s first Banks voyage, but it was not the first time he had seen a whale. He shooed the beast off, righted his dory (which had not gone completely over), and climbed carefully back in. Then he retrieved all his gear that he could find, and the fish, and proceeded with his fishing.

They are a taciturn lot, those dorymen, and they had all been in some sort of fishing since they could walk. I loved to listen to their yarns, especially those of the old-timers.

They told tales of the really tough times on the Banks, when hundreds of little two-masters used to come from Portugal, Spain, and France, and from Gloucester, Massachusetts (many of our old dorymen had sailed out of Gloucester), and there was no refrigeration, no power, no radiotelephony. Sometimes they would lose three or four schooners together in a sudden gale, and all their dory-men with them; once on a single stormy night they lost 200 dorymen.

But now—why, said old Antonio Rodrigues, it was almost a schoolgirl’s life!


Free Trip to China

I doubted that. I knew that Antonio himself had once been lost in fog for days—he didn’t know how many days—and had been picked up by a wandering windjammer bound out of Boston for the China coast. Antonio had to go to China with her. Some years passed before he got back to the Algarve again, where they’d long mourned him as dead.

Now old Antonio laughed about what he called his “free trip to China.” He was a tough old bird, and a true doryman.

Steadily the First Fisher went on catching his ton of cod a day. He was a skillful and indefatigable fisherman. More than that, he was the sort of man who would have excelled at almost any work. He was born to fishing, from the lovely Algarve port of Fuzeta, and so at fishing he excelled.

There were others able to keep up with the First Fisher for a while—João de Oliveira, the Second Fisher; Francisco Martins from the Azores; and César de Medeiros, who looked like a pirate. But none could keep on for long at the same rate.

Sometimes impossible weather kept the dories nested, for it was no use to send them out if they tossed about too much for the men to fish or if the sea was so high they couldn’t be loaded. A dory had to bring back a fair load of fish for the doryman to make a living. In bad weather they fretted, all of them.

When we’d used up the St. John’s bait, we went into North Sydney, Nova Scotia, for more herring and fresh mackerel to take along to the Greenland grounds. At North Sydney there were 10 schooners and a couple of dory-carrying motor ships.

Our dorymen were given $5 or $10 apiece for spending money. I saw them all buying things for children and grandchildren, nothing for themselves.


North to Greenland

As soon as the bait was aboard, off we went again, north through the Strait of Belle Isle toward Greenland.

There were big bergs in the strait, and the Labrador Current was still full of ice. We were caught badly in one ice field in a fog, and for a day and night had to stop and push the floes away. Even a small floe can smash the plates of a steel ship.

We were lucky. The ice didn’t break our hull or that of the ships with us, our sister schooner Creoula, the four-master Aviz, the little motor ship Elisabeth. A storm blew the fog away, and we sailed on toward the banks of Fyllas and Little and Great Hellefiske, in Davis Strait .

For the past twenty-five years there has been what scientists call a “warm cycle” up in Greenland, and the cod have been able to migrate farther north. Where the cod went, so did the schooners and the dorymen. For the next three months the Argus and her consorts fished the ice-littered, treacherous waters of the banks near the Arctic Circle in Davis Strait. Some years a few vessels go even farther north.

The method of fishing was the same as on the Grand Banks, except that even longer lines were used. Add the grim, jagged coastline of Greenland, throw in a background of old grounded bergs, and add the hazards of sudden, furious storms and strong, swift tides, and you have the Greenland fishing grounds.

There was continuous daylight from the midnight sun for the first two and a half months. The dorymen worked and worked, often putting in a 20-hour day, fishing from 4 a.m. and cleaning and salting until midnight.

The salted fish were stowed below in the cavernous hold. Until it was filled, we would not head for home; if the fall gales and new ice drove us from Greenland, we would go back to the Grand Banks again.

The spiteful winds from the Greenland hills are savagely cold. We lay at anchor in the open sea, for we could not fish in Greenland’s territorial waters. The dorymen suffered tortures in the freezing air. Their faces cracked, their hands opened up, their oilskins chafed their wrists. But they were unhappy only when bad weather caused delays and they could not safely launch their dories.


Fog Traps a Doryman

Here too there was fog, heavy, cold, and blinding. One time doryman Antonio Rodrigues Chaläo, a skilled man from near Oporto (Porto) who worked in winter as a lifeboatman by the Douro bar, was adrift five days, and we had almost given him up. He vanished in the fog and then there was a gale.

The gale blew three days, and then more fog came. But on the fifth day after he had gone the weather cleared—and Antonio Rodrigues Chalão came back! He came back smiling, but he had to be hoisted inboard with his dorv, for he was all but worn out. Yet he was fishing again later that day.

I talked to him about his experience. What had he thought, down there in the frail dory?

“I prayed,” he said. “I did what I could, and then I prayed, and I thought of my wife and seven children back in Portugal. The compass was out; that’s why the fog got me. Then in the storm I anchored and rode to the wind, using my oars to keep the dory safe.

“And I often had to bail for my life, for the heavy sprays broke aboard. I was afraid my anchor would carry away, for my anchor line was only a piece of rope, and I would be drifted off the banks and out into the open strait. Then I knew I’d be finished.”

“But it didn’t carry away?”

“No. But I had to row plenty, to keep the dory head to sea. I made a bit of a shelter with the sail. I ate the raw cod, and I drank the fog moisture wrung out of my woolen cap.” That was all I ever got out of Antonio Rodrigues Chalão, after he had rowed for five days against a gale to keep a 14-foot boat bead to sea beyond the Arctic Circle. The skin on his palms was chafed almost through. But he was lucky to be alive, and he knew it. The little cemetery at Holsteinsborg in Greenland has many graves in which lie drowned dorymen.

One night 15 dorymen were adrift from the schooner Maria das Flores, a three-master from Aveiro. When fog came down and the dorymen did not come back, all the captains kept watch and communicated with each other by radiotelephone, and the anxiety in their voices was sometimes painful to hear.

These captains carry a terrible responsibility, for it is their job to decide whether it is safe to launch the dories or not. Powerful winds funnel up and down Davis Strait, bringing sudden, dangerous seas on the fishing banks. Yet if the dories were kept nested whenever the weather threatened, then no ship would ever fish full and no doryman would make a living. The captains have to risk their men.

The whole fleet heaved a great sigh of relief the following morning when they learned that the Maria das Flores’s dorymen were safe.

They had run into a Greenland fjord and sheltered under an upturned dory, and had come back to their schooner in the morning, when it was bright and clear. They had not forgotten to clean their fish when they landed, and a party of coastal Greenlanders had helped them. The Greenlanders even trimmed their whiskers and hair, so they came back much improved in appearance.

By the middle of September our Argus had a tolerable cargo. She’d taken enough cod to be filled many times over, but the cod kept shrinking every day and the salt formed a brine which was pumped out twice daily. The rolling of the schooner helped to pack the cargo tighter, and again and again the big fish hold was filled to the deckhead in most of its compartments, only to require filling once more.

“There is always room to stow another cod,” said Captain Adolfo, and so he was always miserable. He hated to leave the grounds while there was room to put another cod aboard. The official capacity of the ship was listed as about 12,000 quintals (a Portuguese quintal is almost 130 pounds of dried fish), and she had that much aboard by the end of August.


Race Against Time and Weather

Still we fished steadily on, though the snow squalls were back and the nights were growing, and the weather grew steadily worse. The old dorymen patched their faces with tar to fill up the cracks. Their hands they had long since given up. “The good weather will heal ‘em,” said old Antonio. “We get the winter at home,” said the First Fisher.

I began to fear we might have the winter there off Greenland. Already the long green grass was growing on the schooner’s sides. Her hull was chafed all along from the dory launchings and the bumping of the dories alongside as the men gaffed up their day’s catch of cod. The wooden decks were slippery, and sea slime grew in the waist.

But day after day the fishpounds must be filled. Night after night the dorymen, in two stalwart lines, flailed at the wet and horrible cod with their sharp knives, gutting and splitting, and the flames roared from the pressure plant for’ard where the cod-liver oil was made.

Our Captain Adolfo, silent, inscrutable, held the schooner to the grounds, shifted the ship here and there and hither and yon on the eternal quest for cod—cod and more cod, and yet more cod! The dories went over sharp at four every morning. The bait supplies were steadily shrinking.

Captain Adolfo was a kindly man by nature, and it saddened him to stay so long so far from home. Since he was a chip of a boy he had never known a summer in his native Portugal. And now it was likely that he never would. Nor would the dorymen.


At Last, Enough Cod!

Some schooners shifted back to the Grand Banks, to ride out the autumnal gales there and continue catching cod when there were lulls. Some lucky ones had already sailed full for Portugal. Still the Argus battled on, with the Creoula and a handful more.

At last there came a day when even Captain Adolfo thought that we had cod enough, though not a full cargo, mark you! There was still room for the odd cod. But every tank was full of cod-liver oil, every barrel on deck full of salted tongues and cod cheeks and other odd edible parts, and the hold itself was mighty near to full. Where the Plimsoll line was nobody knew, for it was hidden under the long dank grass.

For a hundred days we had eaten cod and daily supped of the midnight soup of codfish faces. The dorymen call it the “soup of sorrow,” for they say that, once having eaten it, you are bound to come back to the Banks again. One hundred days of the soup of sorrow were days enough for me.

Finally our captain weighed anchor. At first the dorymen dared not believe that he was really going home. They feared that, if the weather eased, we would anchor again on one of the southern banks and cram the last cod yet again into that cavernous hold. The last cod? There was no such fish!

But the north gale blew and we raced away homeward, southbound through Davis Strait, with the Creoula rolling her rails under beside us and the fierce wind howling in the rigging, and the cold seas creaming aboard.

Yet it was not until we had sailed past the bank of Fyllas and past the Danas Bank that the dorymen dared smile. Danas was the last large bank. The course now was southeast toward the Azores—the Azores, and sunshine, and good Portugal!

A hurricane or two smashed up from the Gulf Stream’s edge and took a heavy swipe at us. The little motor ship Cova da Iria, caught in a maelstrom, foundered. She was 600 miles from us. The schooner Adélia Maria took off some of the Cova’s people with their own dories, for a banker has a lifeboat for every man aboard. To a doryman his dory is his life. If that won’t save him, nothing will.


Back Home to the Sunshine

The great seas leapt at us, too, and smashed along the decks, but the Argus was a stout good ship and Adolfo an expert sailor. We had to heave to while our radio crackled with stories of this schooner and that schooner with dories washed overboard, dorymen gone, fishing gear smashed.

Our own dorymen on watch were roped together by the wheel to keep them from going over the side. The North Atlantic in September and early October is a wild, bad ocean.

On a sunny morning we touched at lovely Ponta Delgada, and our Azorean dorymen landed there, full of smiles. We sailed in the moonlit evening for the last few hundred miles, the happy romp home. I left the graceful Argus, rusty now but lofty and still a picture of romance and adventure, in an arm of the Tagus.

I looked back at her while she was in sight. Of the 45 sailing vessels and motor ships of the Banks fleet which left, 43 returned. Some brave dorymen remained to sleep forever beneath the gray old sea or under the shelter of Holsteinsborg’s cold hills.

It was a great adventure that I shared with them, and I learned to regard the Portuguese as Captains Courageous indeed.*


* For a longer account of Alan Villiers’s voyage with the Portuguese dorymen, see his new book The Quest of the Schooner Argus (Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1951).

N.B. A tradução portuguesa, com o título “A campanha do Argus – Uma História da Pesca do Bacalhau”, 384 pags. foi reimpressa em 2005, pela Editora Cavalo de Ferro, ISBN 9789728791841.