Boats & radios: our annual look at innovations that have changed fishing

There’s a grace to the eastern-rigged trawlers and draggers that the boxy stern trawler will never match, but it’s not just for their looks that we’re featuring two rigs.

And although radio frequencies swollen with traffic can be an annoyance, we should bear in mind that they were first installed on boats to facilitate safety.

The draggers operated by Bay State Fishing Co. were called “super” trawlers long before that term became common. The smaller wooden trawler we’ll discuss was designed by one of the foremost designers of that type of boat in New England.

And when fishermen get in trouble, where would they be without the marine radio? In the water?

The super trawlers

In 1905, Boston’s Bay State Fishing Co. built this country’s first steam trawler, the Spray, at the Quincy Fore River Shipbuilding in Quincy, Mass.

The boat’s otter trawl and most of the fishing gear was imported from England, where the design for the Spray originated.

The trawl fishery initially offered a tough learning curve for the Spray’s crew. For a while, every time the trawl was shot, the cod end had to be put in a dory and rowed out until the net was straight–or so the story goes.

Eventually, the people running Bay State (for the most part T Wharf fish dealers and Boston bankers, in the beginning) got their act together and the company was operating 44 steam trawlers by 1920.

In 1936, Bay State let it be known that it was ready to stand on its own with three all-American super trawlers, the Surf, the Storm and the Swell, designed and built at Bath Iron Works in Bath, Maine.

Until then, trawler design in this country owed a lot to English boats, especially those from the North Sea port of Grimsby. “[But] this design ignores precedent, and represents a distinct contribution of American fishing experience to trawler design … ” Atlantic Fisherman said in May 1936, referring to the Bath Iron Works effort. “Bay State’s new trawlers may be the beginning of an ‘American cycle.”

At a total cost of about $500,000, the three boats were billed as the largest trawlers in this country and with more power than any other boats–steam or diesel.

According to Atlantic Fisherman, the 144′ 8 1/2″ x 25′ x 13′ 6″ trawlers were “constructed as to be more easily driven, especially against heavy seas in bad weather and so as not to be ‘down at the nose’ when returning loaded from the banks.”

The hulls were riveted, except forward of the forward fish hold, where they were welded.

Each vessel had as main propulsion a single 6-cylinder McIntosh & Seymour diesel that produced 600 horsepower at 180 rpm, and each was equipped with a four-blade, 86-inch, semi-steel design from Bath Iron Works and built by the Hyde Windlass Co. That slow-turning diesel was supposed to push the Swell, Storm and Surf along at 11 knots. Up on deck, the trawl winches were driven by 85-kW General Electric generators.

Today, people might suppose ground-fishermen of the 1930s were not overly concerned with the quality of their catch. But one of the major improvements of these three boats was their refrigerated fish holds.

Dry, cold air was blown at a regulated rate and temperature through air ducts in the cork insulation on the sides and bottom of the hold. This innovation allowed the boats to sail with only 20 tons of ice for keeping the fish moist, compared with the usual 60 tons,

A special lining made of a laminated layer of carbon steel with a facing of pure nickel helped keep the fish holds sanitary.

According to Bath Iron Works production records, all three boats were delivered between Sept. 5, 1936 and Oct. 18, 1936. The same records say the Swell was discarded in 1947, and the Storm and Surf were scrapped in 1991.

Super in her own way

When Harvey Gamage Shipyard in South Bristol, Maine, launched the Mother Francis in the spring of 1954 for Salvatore Passanisi of Somerville, Mass., the 85-foot trawler was labeled one of the “outstanding vessels” in Boston’s T Wharf fleet.

The 85′ x 19′ 7″ x 9′ 8″, wooden-hulled Mother Francis was called a “‘refinement of previous designs;’ according to National Fisherman’s account in June 1954. Part of the improvement was designing a beamier boat than other draggers of the same length. This made her more seaworthy, created a little more space for the crew and increased the boat’s hold capacity.

The design for the Mother Francis was developed after tank-testing various models. Tank testing a design is a practice that’s hardly done now in this country for commercial fishing boats of this size, but in the 1950s, as a result of international meetings to improve the design and engineering of fishing boats worldwide, there was a lot of interest in tank tests.

The “refinements” mentioned above came out of two of those meetings, which were organized by the U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Organization, one in Paris and the other in Miami.

Though steel had been the building material of choice for large New England trawlers for years, most of the new boats being built at this time were of wood. A steel boat cost about 25 percent more to build and there was a general feeling that a properly designed and built wooden boat was every bit as good as one of steel, said Dwight Simpson, a naval architect in Newton, Mass., who designed the Mother Francis.

The 85-footer’s hull was all white oak, including the 10-inch-thick keel, 3 1/2-inch doubled-sawn frames on 18-inch centers, and 2 1/8-inch oak planking. The deck was 2 3/4-inch white pine.

The fish-hold bulkheads were covered with fiberglass, which was not common practice at the time.

The boat is believed to be one of the first boats to carry a Raytheon Mariners Pathfinder model 1500 radar, which, as NF noted, “will enable her to steam to and from the fishing grounds without delay … safe navigation is possible in the thickest weather.”

A Raytheon Model DE-102 echo sounder was also in the pilothouse, but as its presence was otherwise unexamined by the writer, this was likely a more commonplace piece of equipment.

The main engine was a 6-cylinder, model 45 Atlas diesel that put out 300 horsepower at 750 rpm. A Western marine gear with a 2:1 reduction was bolted to the Atlas. It turned a 60″ x 38″, three-blade Columbia prop on a 4 1/2-inch Tobin bronze shaft. That power package pushed the Mother Francis along at better than 9 knots.

A sprocket and chain drive running off the front of the Atlas powered a Hathaway No. 653 trawl winch with 18-inch drums that held 365 fathoms of 3/4-inch Hazard wire rope.

The Mother Francis could carry a crew of 11: two behind the engine room, one in the pilothouse and eight in the fo’c’sle.

On the radio

Back in the 1930s, the schooners Neptune, Lloyd Jack and Jean Blackwood are believed to have been lost in a single winter storm off New England, according to press reports.

The phrase “believed to have been lost,” is used because in those days, unless a disabled boat was located by a passing steamer or by another fishing vessel, there was no way to find out what happened to it once it went over the horizon.

The marine radiotelephone would change that, though slowly. The first ship-to-shore communication was made in 1922 between the S.S. America, 400 miles at sea, and Deal Beach, N.J. This was Morse-code style communication, not voice.

Seven years later high-seas radiotelephone service was instituted, with a range of 1,500 miles.

Prior to World War II, some of the larger company-owned trawlers could send Morse code with a radiotelegraph unit, but the marine radiotelephone didn’t seem to have been a critical component for most wheelhouses.

That probably explains why Atlantic Fisherman in March 1936 played up the rescue of the crew of the Gertrude M. Fauci in a winter gale. “Marine Radiotelephone Saves Captain and Crew of Gertrude M. Fauci as Vessel Sinks,” was the story’s headline.

The Gertrude M. Fauci can be described as a transitional vessel as the fleet moved from sail to power. Launched Nov. 30, 1929, from the A.D. Story boatyard in Essex, Mass., the 100-foot side trawler carried two masts, and the hull had some suggestion of the lines of a sailing schooner, though with a large pilothouse and engine she was obviously a powerboat.

When the Gertrude M. Fauci started taking on water, the captain, Patrick McHugh sent out his message: “WIEP calling WOU … We have sprung a leak.”

As Atlantic Fishermen noted, the broadcast contained “not the dots and dashes of the traditional S.O.S. in telegraph code … Captain McHugh’s own voice was bringing this cryptic message ashore by means of the Western Electric radio-phone equipment on his boat.”

McHugh’s call set in motion a series of events that 10 years earlier it would have been impossible for fishermen to have been a part of.

McHugh’s call went to the marine technical operator of the New England Telephone and Telegraph Co. at Green Harbor near Boston. Once McHugh gave his longitude and latitude, the operator determined no boats with radiotelephones were near the Gertrude M. Fauci, so he transferred the call to the Coast Guard in Boston.

The Coast Guard sent an S.O.S. radiotelegraphy message across that part of the Atlantic, hoping to find a vessel able to aid the trawler. A Coast Guard cutter breaking ice off Cape Cod said it could be there in 24 hours. McHugh replied he didn’t think he could last that long.

McHugh then asked to have the radio beacons at Sable Island and Sambo Lightship turned on and with his radio direction finder (another relatively new piece of wheelhouse electronics) was able to provide a more accurate position.

In the meantime, the Gertrude M. Fauci’s plight was being broadcast over radio stations across the country. That’s how Charles M. Fauci, the boat’s owner heard about it, as he was driving his car to New York. He was in the midst of chartering a seaplane to fly to the trawler when he learned that a boat was standing by to take the crew off the trawler.

The Atlantic Fisherman concluded by saying, “Captain McHugh and all his men … were brought ashore by the Coast Guard cutter Cayuga–thanks largely to the new telephone that goes down to the sea in ships with these stout-hearted New England fishermen.”

About Connie F. Kirkland

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