Camden, Maine: Down East Books, 2007
320 pages, $22.95
Dry Feet, the Great White Shark and Three-Freeze Cider
Capt. Samuel S. Cottle started his life in 1931, near Point Judith, Rhode Island, the third generation of a fishing family that included the grandfather who named various parts of the surrounding coast — including Galilee and Jerusalem — for identification on nautical charts.
His life was nearly predictable, in that he would become a fisherman like his father and grandfather before him — but no one could have predicted some of the close calls at sea, the fisheries regulations that turned fishing into an entirely different experience than tradition had taught, or the final frightening events that caused this man of the sea to come ashore for good.
Capt. Cottle clearly wrote this memoir of his life at sea to document his family’s history of involvement with a job that is more than a job, before the traditional New England fishing life disappears forever.
He begins with a bang: a Mayday! call to the Coast Guard when the first fishing boat he owned, the 83-foot Roberta Dee, began taking on water south of Martha’s Vineyard in 30 fathoms of water while he was steaming home with a hold full of fish. Naturally, there was a stiff northeast wind accompanied by rough seas and limited visibility.
The crew had been safely rescued moments before, when the engine blew, the boat began sinking rapidly and Capt. Cottle was standing on the flying bridge. Fortunately, the Coast Guard 40-footer was able to run right up the tipped-over deck of the Robert Dee, right up to the flying bridge where Cottle was able to step aboard “without getting my feet wet.”
Good luck stayed with Cottle through many other adventures aboard his own and other vessels at sea. His memoir will appeal to readers who have any interest in commercial fishing, particularly in the older days, recounted by Cottle as a lad working his grandfather’s fish traps.
There’s enough detail included about fishing methods to appease the professional fisherman, and few enough details to keep the average reader interested. He explains the origin of some fishing superstitions and recalls the fanciful tale told by an old Newfoundland fisherman about an at-sea blueberry bush that brought good luck to a schooner fishing trip he made as a young man.
Some of the adventures do not directly involve fishing, but occurred because Cottle spent his youth on a boat or on the docks. He tells an interesting tale of being young during World War II and turning in a couple of men he thinks might be German spies. In another boyhood incident, Cottle has his first encounter with sudden death when he witnesses a 1942 midair collision between two planes and becomes the first to find the bodies of the crew.
Only seven years old when a the Great New England Hurricane of 1938 hit Rhode Island, just before his grandfather, “Cap” Clark, hauled his fish traps for the season, he reports how meteorology was not yet very sophisticated and the early warnings were spotted by the experienced weather-watching fishermen. His grandfather’s house was one of many washed away by the powerful storm, but his relatives survived by managing to keep one short jump ahead of the weather.
Another tale is pieced together from three sources during the same day of incidents, starting in the morning on the beach and ending with him falling into a net full of fish. He gets an unexpected boost when his grandfather is hauling him out of the net. He learns later the boost came from a great white shark, one of a pair that were too close for comfort.
Chapters cover the dragging up of live ordnance, his biggest haul of pogies, the adventures of swordfishing, and the time he was stranded in a dory with a swordfish strapped to it, surrounded by gray sharks. He writes of seasickness, and the sinking of a New Bedford fishing vessel by a Russian boat before the passage of the 200-mile limit.
Some of the disasters are of another type as well-known to many fishermen as storms and sinkings. One chapter concentrates on the drinking of Three-Freeze Cider, replete with dead fruit flies.
His last fishing vessel was built in Maine and Cottle now resides in Albion, Maine, where he works in financial services. At the end of the book he mentions with regret that he had to sell his boat, and that his son could not follow in his footsteps. But his final fishing days were marked by the combination of three incidents of inexplicable sabotage to his boat and a heart attack that sealed his decision to come ashore.