Dueling on the water


“Sword: Harpooning Swordfish Off the New England Coast, And Its Demise” by Jack Lynch, illustrations by William Hall, GaelForce Press LLC Providence, R.I., 2012. Hardcover, 178 pp. $15. Available online at Amazon as an e-book and in hardcover at the Museum Vineyard Museum.

Jack Lynch has a thing for fishing in New England, and writing about it. The 30-year Block Island seasonal resident has just released “Sword,” his third book on the subject. Mr. Lynch has produced a fascinating and entertaining account of our Island history and culture. “Sword” is well worth your time.

His book is cast as a novel and it’s a great read for those of us who’ve only heard the stories about the old days of harpoon swordfishing. It’s a reality-based account for those who’ve made a living hunting swordfish in our waters and beyond.

We asked Dan Larsen of Edgartown Seafood to read “Sword” and to share his impressions. Mr. Larsen first fished with his father, Louis Larsen, and later on his own. “It was entertaining. I read it in one sitting, and that doesn’t usually happen. The things he writes about were things that actually happened. The names were different, but I recognized some of the characters.”

Mr. Lynch is an intellectual property attorney by trade, and “Sword” is a well-researched presentation of the glory days in mid-20th century when harpooners took fish one at a time, before long-lining (think 40 miles of baited hooks) replaced the old ways.

This is a good yarn, not a dusty treatise. Mr. Lynch has crafted a clever collage of the real-life adventures and misadventures of swordfishermen and women at sea and dockside. The story is seen through the eyes of third-generation swordfisherman, Gideon McVey, an 18-year old Block Islander. His story begins in 1941 and continues until long-lining all but replaced the lance 50 years later.

Mr. Lynch will discuss the book on May 19 at 5:30 pm at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum in Edgartown.

In the foreword to his book, Mr. Lynch describes these fishermen as “relentless men.” They had to be. People who lived on small islands in those pre-historic days, before even Twitter or Facebook, had few career options available to feed themselves and their families.

“They were long days, looking for swordfish,” Mr. Larsen said. “You know, it was almost addictive. You couldn’t just do it, you had to love it to do it.”

Harpooners used the same method as those used by whalers during the heyday of that industry in the 19th- century, a “technology” that would have been instantly familiar to Native American and Phoenician fishermen a thousand years before that.

They used 30-foot boats without radios. They hunted with harpoons, essentially really long knives, to catch fish that could weigh four or five times what they weighed and which could be twice as tall as they were. The harpooners, called “strikers,” stood on a pulpit jutting out over the bow, directed by “spotters” 30 feet above them in cross-trees affixed to the mast, on to swordfish sunning on the ocean surface a half-mile away.

After the striker harpooned a fish, a line with a buoyant keg was carried away by the swordfish. When the keg stopped moving the fish was presumed done for, and a dory with a crewman was dispatched. The crewman was responsible for retrieving the fish, hauling it into the dory and returning to the boat before the sharks showed up.

As young Gideon learned one day, presumption of death was sometimes premature. Swordfish are vicious fighters and well-chronicled stories abound of “dead” fish attacking dories and ramming their bills through planking and into fishermen.

So harpooning swordfish — a “money fish” — was a high-risk, high-reward business and Block Island was at its apex in the early 20th-century, along with fleets from Pt. Judith and from Menemsha and Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard, as Mr. Lynch describes in detail.

Of course, neither Levantines nor Wampanoags had to deal with German U-boats, which feasted on the swordfish fleet in World Wars I and II. Mr. Lynch researched the subject and found the Germans generally (but not always) allowed the crews to scramble into their dories for a 50-mile row home before their livelihood was cannonaded. “That happened to Bob Jackson out of Edgartown. The sub pulled up next to his boat, told them to get in the dory, then blew up his boat,” Mr. Larsen said.

Twenty-five years earlier in World War I, nine swordfishing vessels were sunk in a single day by German subs, Mr. Lynch reports.

Postwar life was good for swordfishing, however. Radios were installed, refrigeration replaced holds full of ice, and planes that once spotted U-boats now spotted fins for fishermen. Boats got bigger and fishing became a capital-intensive business, state-supported in many countries. And by the late 1960s, long-lining showed the handwriting on the harpooning wall. Some, like the Larsen brothers in Menemsha, made the transition but the industry was withering.

Mr. Lynch also makes a case that the U.S. government has been an unconquerable foe for the fishing industry in the past few decades, with actions that included a false mercury-poisoning scare that banned the sale of swordfish for several years. The mercury scare turned out to be just an “Oops” moment for the feds who only reversed themselves after substantial numbers of fishing boats were dry-docked forever.

Today, Mr. Lynch says, swordfish stocks are rebuilt, higher than necessary for maximum sustainability levels, but few escape modern fishing methods to tempt men hunting with spears.

“I’d make a deal with the devil to do it again — if he trusted me,” Mr. Larsen said.

Author’s Talk with Jack Lynch, 5:30 pm, Tuesday, May 15, Martha’s Vineyard Museum, Edgartown. $8 for members; $12 for non-members. 508-627-4441, frontdesk@mvmuseum.org.