Mounted near the hipped roof of the now-demolished Moose Lodge in Gloucester was a raised plaster moose who peered with uncertainty down Pleasant Street, to the cold tide beyond. The building, once a formal three-story Georgian similar to the historical society across the street, similar in turn to the one or two other ship owner’s or captain’s houses remaining on the block, had been porched, fenestrated, and gabled into obscurity long before it was entirely drenched in stucco the color of wet sand. A low stone wall divided and protected the Moose from City Hall next door, whose own interior is thickly inscribed with the names of those whose memorials were first written on water. Many walls, many names. In Gloucester, it’s not the Lord who giveth life and then taketh it away, it’s the sea.
We drove up in Jan’s new LandRover, and I was grateful for the cover of darkness as we parked alongside the beat, mostly vinyl-topped, Fairlanes and Mustangs. Still, a luxury SUV was less conspicuous than my bumper-stickered Volvo wagon would have been, bearing slogans such as “Never another battered woman.” This was in the early 90’s, when the offices of HAWC, Help for Abused Women and their Children, were still on Main Street, and where they distributed that sticker with a number to call for help. Because of an island nature that fosters isolation, because of the high rates of alcohol and drug abuse typical of port cities, and because the fishing industry is changing in such a way that people are losing their jobs and identities, Gloucester had long been targeted for prevention. And the community must have been getting very tired of being reminded of that fact. Especially from someone like me, an outsider, who lived well upwind from the old gurry plant*, and whose family has never had to harvest a living, or in consequence, the dead, from the sea.
Gorton’s, three blocks away, was breading fillets that November evening, a smell not nearly as rude as the one that results from converting fish guts into fertilizer, but still, a strong unctuous presence in town. There was no wind to dissipate it either, and since there was no wind, there was fog, which held the odors close to the ground.
Jan was dressed in a business suit and heels because she’d come straight from her office, and I was in a long knit skirt over t-shirt and leggings from yoga class, looking more out of place even than the LandRover as we walked around, and around, the building. We finally found the locked, unlit backdoor, and buzzed to be let in. I didn’t turn the knob fast enough and had to be buzzed again. The Moose couldn’t let just anyone at those 50 cent glasses of beer. The door opened directly into the bar, and I recognized some deeply lined faces through the bank of cigarette smoke, a fog far thicker than the one outside. I waved, and there was an abrupt hush. Eight men, ranging in age from forty to eighty, sat thigh to thigh along the red-padded vinyl bench against the wall like a police line-up. They stared at us, we stared at them, then we all looked at our watches. It was time to go upstairs to the gaming room for the meeting of The International Dory Racing Committee.
We used what must have been the servants stairwell. The old formal entry hall with its wide, sweeping staircase had long since been dismantled to create the single large space on the first floor for video games, snack machines, and darts. As we climbed, single-file, up the cramped, narrow steps I wondered. What was I doing, and why was I doing it?
The day our species slithered out of the water, many millions of years ago, we took the sea along with us in the form of blood. That was one way of explaining the inexplicable, why, after a lifetime of indifference or even occasional animosity towards the sea, not to mention sports, I suddenly wanted a way back in. Not all the way in, however, not immersed. I have a feline’s disgust of actually getting my body wet, and cannot abide extremes of temperature. Gloucester’s water is shy of the warming Gulf Stream, so it is notoriously cold, not to mention famous for the snapping, lurching sea life beneath the surface. I didn’t want to actually meet the finny family we split off from so long ago on that distant muddy shore. My son has an anomaly on his ear, a gill, and that is as close to feeling connected to my origins as I cared to get.
But I was tired of living so near the water and yet so distant from it. I had tried sailing, but there was too much screaming on a sailboat for my taste. I took every raised voice personally, even if it was only to warn me that a boom was swinging towards my temple. And other than those short bursts of excitement, there was never anything to do but sit in the cold shadow of the sail, or administer some small boating procedure incorrectly.
When a dory suddenly fell into my possession, it was as if a bridge appeared to move me from shore to water, only it was my body that miraculously caused the boat to glide on the surface, it was my arms, my back, and my legs that moved the vessel forward. Getting out there was even better than the fantasy. The smell of brine, the subtle differences of temperature pockets on the water, the sound of birds, the plash of oars, all those things had been unimagined. My only concern before had been that of escape, a gentle nothingness, a surfeit of the senses. But instead of an escape, it was an entering, an arrival into a world more complex and changing than anything on land, which became in contrast, once I was on water, as the nothingness.
The dory seemed to solve my multiple problems of exercise, escape, and sea lust, and the best part was, it needed no wind. I hate the wind. It is my least favorite element, and rowing is a sport best done without it. For some of us, it is the only way it can be done. The dory has no keel, which means it sits on the surface of the water, easily buffeted by the slightest breath of the sea, the merest pulse of the tide. It was blowing stink the first time Jan and I took a boat out on our own.
The wind had blown us broadsides towards the looming Americold, a fish freezer plant, through a maze of old jagged pilings, sticking out of the water like rotten teeth. The sun, appropriately enough, went behind a cloud, and a laughing gull passed overhead. The unimaginative profanity that sprung from my mouth must have triggered other f-alliteratives in my mind, because as we were being dashed to our doom, a single sonnet line rose from the murky depths of my brain, Full fathom five thy father lies, and I didn’t even know what a fathom* was. But I did know that if I was thinking of poetry, death could not be far behind.
I used my one oar to fend off the pilings, and when that didn’t work, I pushed with my hands, blackening them with creosote. Jan rowed hard, but the oar handles kept getting caught in her jacket pockets, slowing our resistance to the wind and tide. Two old guys had been painting committee dories on shore, and they came running, leaping from docked boat to boat to try to reach us before we slid deeper into the maze. Illogically, even though the worst that could happen was getting snagged between two pilings and banging up the dory, I was still convinced we were going to die.
And why not? It happened all the time in Gloucester. It’s a lucky sailor who gets a land burial. Often they go to their ends with only a seaweed shroud, their names recalled in memoriam on a grieving shore, then inscribed along with the many others on the walls of City Hall.
A few years before, I had served for a time on the board of the fishing schooner Adventure, Gloucester’s own museum/living relic of the past. I did this as a favor for a friend because I had some small skill at fundraising, not for any love of big sailboats, although Adventure is very beautiful under sail, and I appreciate the fine looks of tradition. In those early days of fundraising and canvassing, we uncovered other living relics, some of the old fishermen from the dory days. We thought they’d be thrilled to help in the effort to restore Adventure to her former glory, a reminder of the good old days.
“Scuttle* her,” they said. “Was nothing but misery, those days. Deaths, more deaths. Who needs to be reminded?”
Fishing schooners might be beautiful, but they were deadly. Many dories never made it back to their mother ship, many mother ships never made it back to Gloucester. It was not exercise or escape. It was certainly not any sudden desire to get closer to the water. It was a brutally hard living. Even Spencer Tracy in “Captains Courageous,” with his blackened hair, was not spared a romanticized end, as the mast of the We’re Here snapped off and stove him in. But the old fishermen were wrong about scuttling history. We need to be reminded that schooner fishing was no windjammer cruise, and that the elegant lines of a dory sometimes made for an unintended coffin.
One of the guys yelled out to me to rest my oar in the indentation in the stern, and use it as a rudder – as if I knew how a rudder was used. I looked at the bow, which Jan and I referred to as the stern, and they screamed again “The back of the boat!” I still didn’t know which way to look, but found a rounded-out notch somewhere, and stuck the oar in the water. It immediately gave us some modicum of stability. Soon Jan rowed us to within reach of the guys leaning from a docked boat, and they pulled us back from the pilings of death. It was, however, the wrong side of the float from where we started, so they had to walk us back around with the towline, like a dog.
“Jeez, you gals mighta hurt the dury, messing in them pilings like that,” one of them said.
It felt good to feel stronger, to be able to row farther out every day, for longer times, but there was no dramatic physical change. I did not get buff. I had no articulated muscles. And worse, I had finally committed myself to a legitimate exercise, but instead of losing weight, I gained. I had known that muscle weighed more than fat in theory, but had never imagined how that applied to me, and I was feeling a little bitter.
There was one area of change though, the bustline, due to stronger pectoral muscles. But this benefit was mixed, because sports require sports bras, whose latex has the tensile strength of reinforced concrete which compresses and redistributes the flesh to an even one-half inch across the rib cage, under the armpits and around to the back. The recovery time for things to fluff back up can easily take a day, but then it’s time to put the sports bra back on, starting the compression cycle all over again. So there was no net breast gain.
My husband races a slender knife of a boat called a 210, and it is built for speed — not fishing, not comfort, not pleasure either, unless you find competition pleasing, which he does. My own relationship with competition has always been ambivalent. I came of age during that period of feminism when competition was frowned upon, and there are some who are still holding down that fort. The “women’s way” was cooperation. Watching my own girls grow up on the soccer fields taught me that competition was not necessarily a hostile, aggressive, male reflex. Not always. Sometimes it could be a hostile, aggressive, female reflex. Whatever it was, it seemed simply part of the mixed bag of being human.
Jan and I didn’t even know what we were training for, what the distance of the race was, or what a competitive time to finish might be. We knew nothing except for what we’d seen over the years at Niles Beach, that the dories went out a bit and came back, and looked beautiful. The little information we could scrape up usually came filtered through my husband, who knew a few rowers at the boatyard; bits and pieces of information useless to us, such as the fact that none of them used 9’6″ oars anymore, they used 9’2″ for both stern and bow. It was, we reasoned, because they had gorilla arms. We needed all the reach we could get. We never entered a race that we did not come in dead last.
The atmosphere at the meetings was no longer openly hostile, although we still took the occasional jab with what I considered to be grace. Jan and I have no family names on the walls of City Hall, but I’m not quite sure how many of the other rowers do either. The fishing industry has been dying a slow death for a long time. The face of the International Dory Racing Committee cannot be the same as it was when it began in 1958. Nothing ever is. That original group was united by the fishing industry. Today’s group doesn’t even have gender in common anymore, no single ethnicity or economic level, and few earn their living from the sea these days. But we all came from the sea, we can taste it in our blood, even if we weren’t all born with a gill on the ear.
Even now, when I pull away from the shore, I sometimes see the old me on the beach, the one who had hated the water, looking at the dory, shaking her head, and putting out a cigarette in the sand. But she doesn’t turn away in disgust. In fact, she’s mesmerized by the sight of me bridging the way from solid earth to the unknowable sea, and can only stare in wonder as I raise an oar and disappear into a channel.
 A dehydration plant, where gurry — fish bones, scraps and guts — are dehydrated into fertilizer and pet food. It emitted a noxious odor and has now been moved inland, far from the tourists.
 The measure of the outstretched arms of a man, roughly six feet. From the Old English word to embrace.