“It’s not fish ye’re buying, it’s men’s lives.” This Sir Walter Scott quotation provided Peter Matthiessen with the title of his book “Men’s Lives, “on the history and decline of the South Fork’s inshore fishery — and about the men whose lives depended on it. The quote has an ominous ring, and I wasn’t surprised that it kept coming to me when I was in Nova Scotia last week.
On Feb. 17, five young men were lost at sea off the south shore of Nova Scotia, some 75 miles southeast of Liverpool during a storm described as fierce. The men, who were from 21 to 33 years old — the captain, actually, the youngest — were from Woods Harbor, a small town, far from any urban center, where the living isn’t easy. Some were married, and some left behind small children.
The fishermen were out in the ocean long-lining for halibut from a 42-foot boat. Other boats in the vicinity were reported to have headed in earlier to avoid the ferocious wind and driving snow. But the Miss Ally crew, according to a witness who knew them well, had trouble with the lights that would have helped them pick up their gear after dark, and the crew decided to wait out the night and retrieve the equipment in the morning. They expected to return to safe harbor the next day, and had been in contact with Canadian joint-rescue services, when an automatic distress signal went out at about 11 p.m.
The boat, it is believed, capsized in high seas. According to volunteer divers from the community who later reached the vessel to conduct their own search, its wheelhouse and living quarters were torn off. It was reported that waves reached as high as 32 feet that night, and that winds were of hurricane force. No bodies had been found as of Tuesday.
A Canadian government official was quoted in a Halifax newspaper commenting that “it would be easy to say fishing boats shouldn’t go fishing in the winter, but that doesn’t make operational sense.” Change the euphemistic word operational to economic, and you’ve got a bit more of the story.
Pictures of the five young Nova Scotians can be found on YouTube, if you search for the words Miss Ally. You can see them holding babies, drinking beer, posing in prom outfits, and clearly loving the freedom of their lives as fishermen (goofing around, dancing on deck, posing with gigantic fish, showing off their muscles).
One video is a slideshow of photos posted to the accompaniment of Billy Joel singing “The Downeaster Alexa” (written, of course, about the dwindling fishing fleet of eastern Long Island). You don’t have to have known the men or their families — or even to know the community — to feel the heartbreak.
Following this story, I found myself reminded last week of a very sad play I read in college, “Riders to the Sea.” Written in 1904 by John Millington Synge, it describes the grief of an Irishwoman whose husband, father-in-law, and five sons have been similarly lost. In the final scene, she makes a famous speech. She says:
“They’re all gone now, and there isn’t anything more the sea can do to me. . . . I’ll have no call now to be up crying and praying when the wind breaks from the south, and you can hear the surf is in the east, and the surf is in the west, making a great stir with the two noises, and they hitting one on the other. I’ll have no call now to be going down and getting Holy Water in the dark nights after Samhain” — that’s a Gaelic festival — “and I won’t care what way the sea is when the other women will be keening.”
A Facebook auction and donations page, titled “The Courageous Crew of Miss Ally,” has been created to help the Miss Ally families financially; the auction will continue through the end of March.