Theatres of Cross: Gloucester

Gloucester, Massachusetts, is home to one of North America’s most prestigious cross races, the Gran Prix of Gloucester, which this year becomes Rapha Super Cross Gloucester. Held over the course of a weekend at the town’s Stage Fort Park, for the other 363 days of the year residents of ‘America’s Oldest Seaport’ pay little attention to cross racing.

For the first of our new series of photo features, Rapha visited Gloucester and discovered a town winning the battle to hold onto its identity and a community that occupies an important place in American fishing – and literary – history.

“A soft fall rain slips down through the trees and the smell of the ocean is so strong that it can almost be licked off the air. Trucks rumble along Rogers Street and men in t-shirts stained with fish blood shout to each other from the decks of boats. Beneath them the ocean swells up against the black pilings and sucks back down to the barnacles. Beer cans and old pieces of styrofoam rise and fall and pools of spilled diesel fuel undulate like huge iridescent jellyfish. The boats rock and creak against their ropes and seagulls complain and hunker down and complain some more.”
– From The Perfect Storm, by Sebastian Junger

The town of Gloucester, Massachusetts, is perhaps best known as the port from which the Andrea Gail, the doomed ‘swordboat’ in Sebastian Junger’s bestseller The Perfect Storm, set sail on its final voyage. It is a town where, more than two decades and one George Clooney blockbuster later, fishermen still head for the Grand Banks, off the coast of Nova Scotia, to do battle with the ocean, and where they still need to venture ever further afield to remain competitive in a globalised fishing industry. The rewards can be great but the price can be high: in its 350-year history more than 10,000 Gloucestermen have been lost to the Atlantic.

The Perfect Storm announced Junger as a literary star, a defining work of adventure-reportage as important to the genre as Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. This corner of Massachusetts already had a literary pedigree, of course, for it was from nearby Nantucket that Herman Melville slipped the mooring ropes and sent Captain Ahab in pursuit of the great whale.

Once, there was barely a family in Gloucester that did not boast a healthy complement of fishermen; now, only 20% of Gloucester residents have a direct connection to the industry. Lobsters have replaced swordfish as the most profitable catch, though offshore fishing remains as dangerous a trade as it does a fickle one; according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the rate of fatalities among fishermen is nearly 50 times the U.S. national average.

Among those waiting for the lobsters when they land in port is Joe Ciaramitaro, a fish dealer who sorts these pincered monsters by hand (the largest lobster ever caught, in 1977, was a 20-pounder landed off Nova Scotia) out of a wooden warehouse on the far side of Gloucester’s docks. Standing at the waterside door you can see the houses of Gloucester’s coastline – wooden and pastel – scattered across the hills. You can also see the buildings of Captain Joe and Sons Wholesale Lobster Co.’s competitors: Cape Seafoods Inc., the North Atlantic Fish Company and Mortillaro’s Lobster Co.

Captain Joe and his cousin run the warehouse although, as the former explains, he isn’t the original Captain Joe but rather his grandson, and thus has no right to the epithet, despite seemingly every soul in Gloucester referring to him as Captain Joe, or simply ‘The Captain’.

Boats leave the harbour before dawn. Once out on the water they lay a line of lobster pots on the seabed, with a buoy at one end to allow the boat to collect them the next day. After collection, the boats head back to the docks, removing the clawed beasts from the cages and cuffing them with elastic bands. When the boats arrive, Joe and his cousin haul barrels of live lobsters into the warehouse and on to the scales, making a note of the weight of the catch. Then they pick the crustaceans out of the barrels, judge their size by eye, and toss each one into corresponding plastic tanks.

In between times, Joe and his cousin spend a large part of their day waiting. Joe sits on the tailgate of his pick-up, away from the constant drone of the pump that oxygenates the tanks. He spends hours like this and, he says, the waiting is what makes the job such a killer.

So he put the time to good use. Back in the dial-up days before the World Wide Web mutated into the all-seeing algorithmic eye of today’s internet, a thread started by Joe on a local-interest message board became so popular that local folk read it in their thousands, contributing stories and images of Gloucester’s fishing past.

Today he manages and edits Good Morning Gloucester, the blog that grew out of that thread, from his smartphone. This site, he explains, is wrapped up in the collapse of the fishing industry. “When I started out here, everyone in Gloucester either worked in the fishing industry or was related to someone in the fishing industry. There was no escaping it, it was our identity.” What followed is a variation on the story of many small fishing towns in America: trawler nets industrialised fishing methods, forcing smaller crews out of business. And so the next generation moved out of the town to find office jobs and further education.

“Lobstering is still very strong,” explains Joe, “partly because the fishing industry has taken a lot of measures over the years to protect stocks, with conservation orders and whatnot. The fishing industry is different because of the technology used to track fish – it’s really industrial, maybe more than people realise. The technology got way out in front of what the seas could sustain.”

“They have nets that can traverse the contours of the ocean so there’s no place for the fish to hide. There used to be tons of guys going out and working the ocean for a catch, and now there’s just a tiny fraction of those guys left.” He points to a stack of lobster pots. “I guess guys who lobster are lucky that lobsters are tough little bastards that know how to hide behind a rock.”

“What you should understand is that it wasn’t so long ago that you could just go out to sea on a boat and work as hard as you wanted to work. Talk about independent spirit, you chose where and when you wanted to go, and who with and for how long. Now you got to get the right permits, and the government controls a lot of stuff… but we still have that spirit.”

A boat pulls up to the warehouse and Joe trots over to the electric winch. Two members of the boat’s three-man crew wear Red Sox jerseys. While he sorts through the lobster, Joe holds one up to the light. It’s limp. Joe gives it a slight shake for signs of life, swishes it around in the water of a tank and then presents it to one of the crew, who does the same over again. When all are convinced that the lobster is dead, it is taken back on to the boat and laid on a bench.

Resuming his position on the tailgate with the sort of stillness only practised by people who have physically demanding jobs, Joe says, “So, yeah, the blog.”

“I found a forum on the internet for people who missed the old Gloucester. Some still lived here, some had moved away. I started the thread [also called Good Morning Gloucester] and I posted a photo from the docks every day, and all these people were so interested in seeing what was happening down on the dock. This was before Facebook, and blogging was still a new thing.”

Joe claims that, today, Good Morning Gloucester outperforms the local newspaper in terms of readership. “This town is beloved. It’s not just a feeder town for Boston, with people hopping on a train and commuting to the city – and there aren’t many other towns around here that can make that boast.”

A drive-by tour of Gloucester takes in the Gorton’s factory, manufacturers of ‘crunchy breaded fish sticks’, the artists’ colony at Rocky Neck, and the self-consciously quaint houses of Landsville and Rockport. The town radiates away from the docks, looking down at its old industry.

“If you grew up here, and you never really went away, you never learn to appreciate everything that we have here, the beaches, the bars, the boating, all this stuff. You go away to college or something, and you’re in this concrete mess someplace else, and you’re like, holy crap, I can’t believe how special that place is.”