Dory Story.

The Grand Banks fishery.

The North sea fishing disasters.

The open boat problem.

Title picture, print of painting ‘Fog Warning’ by Winslow Homer.

In this post, the last one for now in the Dory series, i’m going to pick up on some of the historical aspects of the sailing and fishing industries ; both from the Grand Banks/Atlantic perspective and closer to home in our own North sea.

In the second post of this series i recounted the story of fisherman Howard Blackburn who, with a fellow crewman in an open fishing Dory, became separated from their parent schooner somewhere out on the Grand Banks off the north-eastern coast of  Newfoundland USA.  What i didn’t take time to explain is that the banks range out to several hundred miles offshore and a are formed by a combination of relatively shallow water over the underwater banks and both warm and cold oceanic currents that create ‘interesting’ maritime conditions….interesting as in fogs and storms !.  Some visitors here many have some vague memory of the book and film ‘The Perfect Storm’, the action of which takes place out on the banks.

By the 19th century the way the Grand Banks were fished is that fast fishing schooners would sail out of ports such as Gloucester, out to the banks, and once out there would deploy a line of Dory’s to do the actual fishing : so what you need to understand is that as a fisherman you’re basically out there, a long way offshore in a small and relatively unstable and fully open small boat.   As i said, both fogs and storms are common out there and even from my own limited experience of sailing past that area, conditions change from quite balmy and gentle in the warm Gulf stream to very cold , foggy and windy in the much colder Labrador current.

As happened to Howard Blackburn and his crewman they became separated from their schooner in fog coupled with a winter storm and Blackburn decided to make the attempt to row for home….that he made it home was extraordinary : it took him 5 days during which time his crewmate died of exposure and he lost all of his fingers and most of his toes to frostbite.   Just to add that when i sailed through the same area in 1989/90 we ran an iceberg watch for a while and i had to treat one of our crew for hypothermia just from a 4 hour watch on deck one night.

While the humble fishing Dory is somewhat romanticised as this excellent all-round sea boat because of the Blackburn story what has to be also remembered is the high loss of life in the Grand Banks fishing fleet and especially among Dory-men.  I have one account in front of me right now from the history of Gloucester just from one year , 1898, when the church there held a service for the 63 fishermen lost that year alone….just let that sink in for a moment….that wasn’t an unusual year !.  In the account i have been studying some 11 of those men were lost in Dory’s* when they either became separated as Blackburn did or where the boats simply capsized : make no mistake, this was a high skill and high risk venture.


The North sea fishery.

Closer to home we have the North sea fishery, now dominated by large and high-tech trawlers but back in the 18th and 19th century was largely fished from small open boats that sailed and rowed out to the fisheries.   The boats of that time were mostly open boats, small enough and light enough to be sailed off a beach, not Dory form but in many ways not so dissimilar for being open boats working in big water offshore : one example being the ‘Scaffie’ ….

From the beginning of the 19th century a class of boat called the Skaffie appeared. These were favoured mainly in the Moray Firth region. The early skaffie boats were small with rounded stems and raked sterns. They were two-masted with a tall dipping lugsail and a mizzen sail. Their short keel gave them good manoeuvrability in good weather, but they tended to be unstable in bad weather. They were usually crewed by around six people. Above all, though, they were light enough to be hauled up on to the beaches. The boats were un-decked and provided no shelter for the crew. Because of the vulnerability of the boats, they stayed only a few miles out to sea in full view of the land. These boats were gradually built bigger and could be around 42 feet (13 m) long, and partially decked. This came about because the harbours that were constructed from the mid to late19th century meant that the boats no longer needed to be beached. Skaffies were not built in any great numbers after 1900.”

In August 1848 some 800 small fishing boats put out to sea from the Moray Firth and were hit by a severe storm, it is known that 124 fishermen were lost in one day and some 100 of the boats swamped, capsized and sank.   Then in 1881 we had the Eyemouth fishing disaster in which 189 fishermen were lost in similar circumstances…that would have been just about the entire adult male population of that village.  Here is the Wiki account of the Moray Firth disaster.

…….”The weather on the afternoon of 18 August was favourable, promising good fishing and, from Wick to Stonehaven, around 800 boats set out to sea to gather the day’s herring catch. By midnight the weather was deteriorating rapidly with strengthening winds and increasingly heavy seas. Many skippers decided to haul their nets and make for shelter. During the following storm, 124 boats were lost, many while trying to enter harbour, and 100 fishermen lost their lives, leaving behind 47 widows and 161 children.

In the aftermath of the storm, the Government appointed Captain John Washington of the Admiralty to conduct an inquiry into the tragedy and make recommendations for safety improvements in the fishing industry. His report, entitled Report on the loss of life, and damage caused to fishing boats on the East Coast of Scotland, in the gale of 19 August 1848, was presented to the House of Commons in 1849. Washington came to two main conclusions: firstly, that the open-hulled design of the fishing boats was deficient, leading to their susceptibility to swamping in heavy seas, and was a significant factor in the tragedy; secondly, that there was a shortage of good quality harbours accessible to fishing vessels in all tidal conditions.”

The open boat/small craft problem.

In the past in this blog i have written posts about a few of the many things that go wrong at sea, from the capsize and sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise to the Lyme bay tragedy and the similar loss of life in the lake Timiskaming/ St Johns school tragedy.

Today i am what ?, a leisure sailor and former professional seafarer who takes an interest in why and how things go wrong at sea, today though i’m planning and preparing to go to sea, maybe, in a small boat much like a Dory while knowing that these are not great sea-boats and certainly not what they are thought of by the many.

I could ‘crack-on’ and get to building a simple and lightweight modern Dory and even find such a boat an enjoyable boat to use in my little cruising area….i could and would apply the same modifications as i would to a canoe for example to deal with the flooding and recovery problem but while still having to acknowledge that the boat is basically unsound for the larger project at hand : taking a small boat ‘offshore’ and even ‘ocean’. For sure that Howard Blackburn did sail a larger Dory across the Atlantic and yes they are much better boats when they are both longer, wider and heavier but….he was a Dory-man and i’m not and frankly i think we know enough today to come up with a better boat for the same job.


My new Facebook multi-adventure group page here :


1.From the Gloucester histories account “Seventy men while engaged in the fisheries from our port have passed away from our midst, 63 during the calendar year 1898 and seven in December of the preceding year, an appalling statement to those who are less familiar with our condition than we are. We calmly say it is a small number, much below the average. We certainly ought to inquire into the causes and seriously to ask, can anything be done to stay this mad rush to death?

… After careful analysis, I find 23 lives lost in two vessels during heavy gales, and nine washed overboard. These were the direct victims of the elements. Eleven were drowned by the capsizing or overloading of their dories, six died on board their vessels or in hospitals, five went astray in their dories, nine were run down by a steamer. Five drowned while fishing on the Lord’s day, two were the victims of Gloucester’s bars, with the harbor mud for their dying pillows. The average age of these men was 35 1/2 years, the oldest being 61, the youngest 21. They leave 19 widows and 35 orphan children. Their nationalities were United States 8, Gloucester 4, Western Islands 1, Germany 2, English 1, Finnish 2, Scandinavians 13, British Provinces 34. These statistics may not by absolutely correct but are the best we can obtain.”


  1. Interesting story, however Newfoundland was part of the British commonwealth back then , never was or will be part of the US, 100 percent proud Canadian province.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have falsely believed that these type of boats are seaworthy mainly through boating magazines romancing about dorys and their traditions.
    Your article has made me think for myself rather than the reminiscences of old men.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. You need to read “August Gales” by Gerald Hallowell. The story of August 1926 and 1927 when much of the Nova Scotia schooner fleet was lost in storms. There is a memorial for the ships and men lost over the years near the fisheries museum in Lunenberg. Entire ships lost with all crew, often all the males in a family. One man, Harris Conrad (who got through it all), was the second owner of a house my wife and I own in NS. We are 4th owners (I think of us as caretakers). Captain Harris (as he was known) used to dock his schooner in front of the house. Back then a dirt path ran between the house and the bayshore, and other schooners were moored in the bay, and the captain’s men used to come to the house, 200 feet from the ocean.

    Liked by 1 person

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