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Georges Bank, located one hundred miles east of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, is one of the richest fishing grounds in the world. It is an oval-shaped plateau on the ocean's floor, roughly the size of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut combined. Sixteen thousand years ago, during the ice age, Georges Bank was land, not sea, a broad coastal plain connected to the rest of North America. Nearby Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard were the largest hills in the region. As the glaciers melted and retreated, water filled in the deeper channels around Georges Bank, making it an island.Trapped on this enormous island of pine, juniper, and oak were land animals such as woolly mammoths, mastodons, moose, and caribou, whose teeth are today sometimes brought up in fishing nets. As the sea rose, more of the island flooded, and roughly six thousand years ago all of it was submerged.
Water depths on Georges Bank are irregular; in some places canyons plunge thousands of feet deep, while in other sections shoals of sand rise to within ten feet of the ocean's surface. Such shallow waters have led to exaggerated tales of fishermen claiming to have played baseball in ankle-deep water during low tide. The shoals are the very reason fishermen venture onto the Bank. Rays of sunlight can reach the bottom, allowing plankton to grow. Small fish gather to feed on the plankton and larger fish in turn prey on them.
The Bank's tremendous currents also contribute to the fishery by creating a high-energy environment of cycling nutrients and oxygen, but these currents, a swirling combination of tidal and surface waves, produce a constant turbulence when they collide over the sandy shoals. Many of the first fishermen to visit the Bank never went back, fearing the currents were too strong for them to safely anchor their boats. One early fisherman recounted a grim story of what happens when an anchor cable snaps. He was on board an anchored vessel in a storm when another boat, whose anchor had broken loose, careened past his boat. "The drifting vessel was coming directly at us....With the swiftness of a gull she passed by, so near that I could have leapt aboard. The hopeless, terror-stricken faces of the crew we saw but a moment."The doomed ship then struck another vessel and both went down. The Georges Bank fisherman closed his observation by writing,"We knew that many a poor fellow who had left Gloucester full of hope, would never more return."
Georges Bank is also dangerous because of its location in the Atlantic. On the eastern end of the Bank the warm waters of the Gulf Stream collide with the cold Labrador Current, creating swirling waves. Although the currents at Georges Bank are almost always rough, when strong winds are added, chaotic seas occur, particularly in the shoal waters where vicious waves suddenly crest and break. Fishermen who venture out to Georges Bank need a boat large and sturdy enough to handle these seas. Here, help, should you need it, is hours away, an eternity if your vessel is going down. Captains fishing Georges Bank understand this, and the smart ones keep their boats in tip-top shape and always have one ear glued to the radio, listening to each and every updated weather report. If a big storm is coming, they get out of its way fast.
The floor of the Bank is littered with rotted, rusting wrecks, and today's draggers must dodge them or risk snagging their nets. Some wrecks have been identified, but most are unknown. Year upon year, boats have a way of disappearing on Georges Bank. Even with radios, many vessels that sink give no indication of their coming doom. Something sudden and catastrophic happens, and the boat sinks within seconds, joining the hundreds of others on the bottom.
The deadly nature of Georges Bank is the trade-off fishermen must reckon with to get at catches richer than those found closer to shore. To fish the Bank one must accept the risk. This is not an environment for the fainthearted. The men who work the Bank are a rugged lot, who quickly develop a certain toughness that keeps fear in check. One of these men was thirty-three-year-old Ernie Hazard. What he endured on Georges Bank is nothing short of remarkable. Copyright © 2007 by Michael Tougias
The Fair Wind Crew
Ernie Hazard was in his third year of offshore lobster fishing, and although the work was brutally demanding, he felt fortunate. The Fair Wind, a 50-foot steel lobster boat on which Ernie worked, was a meticulously maintained vessel equipped with the most modern gear and electronics. Equally important, Ernie enjoyed the company of his fellow crewmembers and his captain no one slacked off and everyone contributed to making the Fair Wind a very profitable boat.
On November 20, 1980, the crew was having dinner at the Backside Saloon in Hyannis, Massachusetts, enjoying a good meal before making the last trip of the season. The men had made close to thirty fishing trips to Georges Bank since the previous April, and they were all looking forward to having the next four months off. Ernie talked about going down to Florida to see his brother or possibly heading out to Carmel, California, to visit friends. Thirty-year-old captain Billy Garnos planned to focus on his new house and his fiancée. Rob Thayer, age twenty-two, hadn't made any definite plans, but he hoped to travel, having spent prior off-seasons in such far-flung places as Labrador and Newfoundland. Dave Berry, the youngest crewmember at just twenty years old, lived up in Marblehead, Massachusetts, and he'd likely take a little time off to be with friends before working at his father's wholesale fish business.
Ernie felt relaxed that night, quietly listening as the rest of the crew discussed their plans. Every now and then he made a joke or a wry comment. The others had come to enjoy his self-deprecating humor and quick, dry wit. They also appreciated the muscle and stamina packed into his burly six-foot frame. He had arms as big as most men's thighs, and he put those arms to good use hauling and setting lobster traps. He looked tough and perhaps a bit menacing with his muscular arms, piercing black eyes, and wild black beard, but his crewmates knew that behind the gruff exterior was an intelligent and thoughtful man.
But Ernie was no saint, and occasionally he and Billy Garnos would pound down a few rounds of beers after a week at sea and raise a little hell. This was especially true after they'd managed to harpoon a swordfish in addition to catching lobster, when each had a wad of cash in his pocket. Neither man went looking for trouble, but some situations called for Ernie to throw a punch or two. After most trips, however, all Ernie really wanted to do was rest for a couple of days before heading back out to Georges Bank and the bone-numbing work of lobstering.
Although Ernie, at age thirty-three, was the oldest of the crew, the others had been fishing just as long or longer. Ernie got his position on board the Fair Wind by simply answering a help wanted advertisement he'd seen in the newspaper three years earlier. He was single and living in Peabody, Massachusetts, bouncing from one factory job to another, making lightbulbs at the General Electric plant in Lynn and working for a concrete manufacturer. When Ernie saw the advertisement for a crewman, he was between jobs, so he figured, What the heck, that's something I've never done.
The boat's owner, Charlie Raymond, worked alongside Billy Garnos and another crew member, so Ernie became the fourth crewman. Ernie had never been offshore, and on his first trip out he couldn't help but think that he had entered another world as he gazed at the gray ocean stretching endlessly in all directions. Some newcomers to commercial fishing get spooked and disoriented on their initial voyage when they realize how insignificant their boat is compared to the enormous seas. But Ernie was fascinated by the new experience, and Charlie Raymond and Billy Garnos kept him busy from the moment he set foot on the Fair Wind, teaching him everything they could. "They had me driving the boat," says Ernie, "which was a big deal for me. I'd never driven a fifty-foot boat, and I loved every minute of it. Plowing through that vast open space was a thrill, and I remember thinking this is absolutely incredible it was all so new and different."
Ernie's initial trip on the Fair Wind was also the boat's first of the season. When they reached the fishing grounds after a twenty-hour ride, Ernie learned what it took to make a living from the sea. "I wondered how long these people were going to work without taking a rest," says Ernie. "They seemed tireless." The boat was loaded with dozens of traps, and they had to bait each one and then drop it down. There were twenty-two traps to a trawl (a set or string of traps), and on that trip they dropped three trawls, working throughout the day and well into the night.
As backbreaking as the work seemed, the next trip was even tougher. The crew had to haul in the previously set traps, rebait them, then drop them over again. Ernie's hands had not yet developed calluses, and his tender flesh was in constant pain from pulling so much rope. He found he had muscles in his hands and forearms that he'd never felt before, and they ached incessantly. But he didn't complain. He already knew that this work was more rewarding than his manufacturing jobs. It paid better too, but that didn't matter to him; the satisfaction was in the work itself, the ocean setting, and the guys who worked beside him.
The trips fell into a pattern of five days out at sea, and then a day or two back in port. Ernie's skin quickly developed thick calluses, and the muscles in his hands became so large he could barely touch his thumb to his smallest finger. Charlie and Billy continued to teach him about the boat and lobstering, and Ernie soaked up as much as he could, enthralled by this new ocean world. Each trip was different; sometimes the North Atlantic unleashed an angry series of pounding waves, but other times the water remained as smooth as glass, and the crew could tell the difference between a swordfish and a shark from the surface almost a mile away.
Ernie's pay depended on the catch, and his cut of the boat's profits was slightly lower than those of the more senior men. When the catch was poor, all the crew suffered. "If we weren't catching lobster," says Ernie, "the work just seemed like ball-busting labor. But when we had good days, there was no feeling quite like it. It wasn't just that we would make more money, but more a feeling that 'we did it.' And we never knew how many lobster we would haul up or what else would be in the trap." On one trip the only thing caught in the trap was a lobster claw, but what a claw it was. It measured seventeen inches long and contained fifteen pounds of meat. Ernie kept the claw, removed the meat, lacquered the shell, and mounted it at his mother's home to show friends who couldn't believe its size. The lobster from which the claw had come likely measured five feet from the tail to the outstretched claw.
Over the course of the season, as Ernie got to know Charlie and Billy, he began to view them as a family and he understood how each man relied on the other. A crewmate's energy and natural disposition become apparent within a couple days, and he either gels with the rest of the crew or he doesn't. Everything becomes magnified in this self-contained world, and if someone isn't pulling his weight or can't fit in with the men already on board, he doesn't stay long. This kind of crewmember can poison a boat and its productivity.
For the three years Ernie fished on the Fair Wind he was lucky to work with great crewmembers, and because the boat was successful, there was very little turnover. During Ernie's second year, owner Charlie Raymond made Billy Garnos the captain so that Charlie could concentrate on the construction of a bigger boat and focus on the business needs of his growing fleet. Billy, an unusually generous young man who had bought a home and invited his parents and grandmother to live with him and who was now saving for a second home for himself and his fiancée, proved an able skipper. Charlie promised Billy that when the bigger boat was ready, it would be his to captain.
Billy came by his interest in the sea from the surf-casting he used to do with his father growing up. Billy and neighborhood pal Frank Sholds would climb into Mr. Garnos's ancient truck and the three of them would drive from their hometown of Beverly, Massachusetts, up to Plum Island near the New Hampshire border for some striper fishing. Years later, it was Frank who first tried his hand at commercial fishing for offshore lobsters. Billy, fresh from a tour of duty in Vietnam and working at a local supermarket, was impressed with Frank's big paychecks and soon followed in his friend's footsteps. Through Frank, Billy met Charlie Raymond and became a deckhand on the Fair Wind. Billy made up for his inexperience with his strong back, quick mind, and good work ethic, and he labored on the boat in whatever capacity was needed, from cook to engineer. Unlike some commercial fishermen who blew half their weekly checks the first day they were back in port, Billy saved a good portion of his. It was this maturity and sense of loyalty that caught the eye of Charlie Raymond, and Charlie knew he had just the kind of man he wanted to captain his boat.
Rob Thayer and Dave Berry rounded out the rest of the crew, and all of them had great respect and confidence in Billy as their captain. The four men had formed a tight bond, and they often chose to have dinner together before setting back out to sea. For Rob Thayer, this was his first season aboard the Fair Wind , but after the steep learning curve of the first few weeks, he was now pulling his weight just like the others. Rob and Dave Berry, both in their early twenties, formed a quick friendship. Dave was an experienced deckhand, having worked on the ocean since he was fifteen. He too saved a good deal of his fishing pay and had just bought a new pickup truck, which he paid off in no time. A little of Billy Garnos's sense of responsibility and maturity may have rubbed off on Dave because just before the year-end trip to Georges Bank he treated his mother to lunch and talked with her about investing his money. He also visited his father and indicated that after the trip he'd like to try working in his dad's wholesale fish business with an eye toward becoming a partner someday.
Young, confident, and hardworking, the crew seemingly had their whole lives in front of them.
Now, as the four men ate and talked at the Backside Saloon, they knew the upcoming week at Georges Bank would be a cold one. Late-November temperatures could be expected to hover in the 40s and 50s during the day and drop lower at night. Still, the more important factors were the wind, and whether or not storms were forecast for the region. Whenever Billy learned of an approaching storm before a late-season trip, he'd delay departure until the storm passed. Georges Bank in November could be a very nasty place, and it was not the time of year to take chances.
The next morning, the men met at sunrise and prepared the boat for the final trip, stowing food, bait, and gear. The old fisherman's superstition that it's bad luck to leave on a Friday did not deter the crew and never had. Men like Ernie and Billy felt that if you put stock in superstitions you'd never get any fishing done. The crew of the Fair Wind felt no sense of foreboding that day, no ominous premonitions.
As he'd done the night before, Billy listened to the National Weather Service forecast for Georges Bank. The forecast called for southeast winds of 15 to 25 knots, shifting to northwest at 20 to 30 knots at night, followed by similar conditions for Saturday with some rain and fog. Seas would be three to six feet Friday and five to ten feet on Saturday. The report was quite typical for Georges Bank, and the crew of the Fair Wind had no reason to doubt its accuracy.
One of the key components of forecasting weather at sea is the information obtained from weather buoys. The weather buoys transmit hourly reports on sea- level pressure, air temperature, sea surface temperature, wave height, and the all-important wind speed and direction. On that day, however, the Georges Bank buoy was malfunctioning. And just to the north, the Gulf of Maine buoy was not even afloat, but was on land being repaired. Thus, the weather report was based on incomplete data. The management at the National Weather Service, which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), had known about the situation for months, but they had elected not to alert mariners of the problem.
Billy Garnos, Ernie Hazard, Rob Thayer, and Dave Berry headed out to sea based on what they believed to be the same reliable forecasts they had grown to trust over the years. They looked forward to a smooth trip.
But on that November day, the Fair Wind was on a collision course with a storm that produced waves more monstrous than anything the crew had ever seen.
Fair Wind was well aware that late-season trips to Georges Bank could be dangerous, but they also had great confidence in their boat. The six-year-old, twenty-seven-ton, green and white Fair Wind had proven itself in heavy seas on numerous trips and Billy Garnos remained calm and steady at the wheel when the ocean grew angry. But a solid boat and captain meant nothing in the face of the great storm that was about to hit them. Copyright © 2007 by Michael Tougias