Gazela is a barkentine, which has three masts. She is square rigged on the foremast only, the main and mizzens being fore and aft rigged. She was built the shipyard of J. M. Mendes in Setubal, Portugal to fish the Grand Banks off Newfoundland. Her records, as she now stands, date from 1901 but there is good evidence that many of the timbers used in her construction are from the ship Gazella (spelled with two Ls) which was built in 1883. Portugese stone pine is the primary wood used in her hull and decks while the masts and spars are of Douglas fir.
According to tradition, the first Portuguese fisherman arrived on the Banks in 1452, when a ship strayed off course and sighted the land they called Terra Nova. Later it became known as Newfoundland. Gaspar Corte Real is honored as the first Portuguese visitor to that land in 1472. A bronze statue of Corte Real stands in the capital city of St. John’s Newfoundland to commemorate the arrival of Portuguese vessels to the Banks. For two centuries, St. John’s has harbored the Portuguese fleet, and offered a refuge from storms, as well as repairs, recreation, and above all, fish for bait. The favorite fishing area for the fleet was Virgin Rocks on the Banks, less than 150 miles from the city.
A Grand Banks Fisherman
Every spring Gazela would leave Lisbon laden with as many as 35 dories stacked on deck like drinking cups and a crew of 40 men (35 fishermen/sailors, two cooks, two mates and the captain) and a couple of apprentices. Her hold would be full of salt which would be displaced with the fish that were caught (cod, flounder, halibut, haddock and perch) and preserved with that very salt.
The fisherman’s life on the Grand Banks ships was no picnic. They were up at 4 a.m. every day with a hymn of blessing from the watch stander. The men would tumble out of their bunks, fully clothed but for boots and outer clothing. They ate a hasty breakfast of coffee and rolls and then trooped out into the chilly air to be lowered over the side in one of the small dories. Each would get a bucket of bait, usually scraps or junk fish from the previous catch.
Each man also loaded aboard a small wooden box containing his personal belongings – water flask, food (typically bread, cold fish and cheese) knives and sharpening stone, tobacco, a whistle, and most important of all, his compass. The compass belonged to the company but each fisherman was responsible for the compass assigned to him at the beginning of each trip. Preparations for launching took about an hour. The boats were rowed clear of the ship, small sails were set and the men were on their way. They would often travel as far as twenty miles from the ship in their search for fish.
Once the men were to their chosen fishing location they began the laborious task of “shooting” or laying out the longline. First he would set out a marker buoy attached to a small anchor. Then, baiting his hooks as he began to pay out the line, he drifted downwind or with the current. Ultimately he would have upward of a mile of line out. He would then attach the bitter end of the line to his dory anchor, and drop it. His personally marked buoy and his own position served to alert other dorymen so that they would not lay their lines across his and tangle the lines. Next, he rigged a couple of hand or jigger lines and began fishing for some extra cod. This gave him some idea of how the fish were biting, and hence how long to leave the longline down. If no fish were biting, perhaps a three-hour wait was enough. It was usually never more than four hours even if fish were scarce.
If the catch was good enough in a single haul they would travel back to the ship and toss the fish onboard for processing and go out for a second load. No matter what, though, they seldom stayed out for more than four hours at a time. At the end of the day a recall signal was sounded and the boats would all return to the ship to be unloaded, hauled in, cleared of gear and stacked for the night. If the catch was big enough the fishermen would help the crew that had stayed aboard to process the fish before having a late meal and going to bed.