Schooners and Fishing Gear

Gloucester Schooners

Schooners were built around Gloucester, Massachusetts, beginning about 1713. These vessels had large holds for fish and supplies, but they were also designed for speed to reach fishing grounds quickly. With fishing so profitable, owners demanded ever larger and faster vessels.

They got what they wanted—longer, wider hulls to carry more fish and immense amounts of sail to catch more wind. But safety was sacrificed for speed. Many schooners were dangerously top-heavy and prone to capsizing in storms. They were also hazardous for the men who clambered out on the long bowsprit to tend the sails. Schooner bowsprits came to be known as “widow makers.”



Drawing by H. W. Elliott and Capt. J. W. Collins, about 1882

The George’s Bank Cod Fishery

Fishermen using hand-lines stood at the rail of the schooner, each fishing a single line that had a spreader and two hooks. One fishermen is using a gaff to bring in a fish, one is cutting out the cod’s tongue—the method used to keep track of how many fish were caught by each fisherman—and the third is tending his line. George’s Bank fishermen used about 900 feet of line. Hauling in a pair of cod by hand took about thirty minutes.


Fishing schooner Helen B. Thomas

Built by Oxner & Story shipbuilders, Essex, Massachusetts, 1902

Gift of Thomas F. McManus

McManus Knockabouts

Thomas A. McManus, a Boston-born son of Irish immigrants, designed a safer fishing schooner. The hull of his vessel was short and deep, with a rockered keel for stability. McManus made this half model and displayed it for a year in his Boston shop before Capt. William Thomas of Portland, Maine, decided to have a full-sized vessel built to the lines. The Helen B. Thomas was launched in 1902 and was the first of many schooners called “knockabouts” that were built without bowsprits.



This hand-line—a reel with fishing line, a sinker, and hooks—was the type used in the 1880s.

Gift of the U.S. Fish Commission


The Bank Trawl-Line Cod Fishery

In the 1850s fishermen started working from small boats called dories, using long lines baited with many hooks. Fishermen caught significantly more cod working from dories that were carried aboard schooners to the fishing grounds.

Drawing by H. W. Elliott and Capt. J. W. Collins, about 1882

Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Libraries


Fishing schooner Dauntless

Built in Essex, Massachusetts, 1855

Lost at sea, 1870, with 12 men aboard

Transfer from U.S. Fish Commission

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The Dauntless

The fishing schooner Dauntless is shown equipped for dory trawling, with nests of dories stacked amidships. At the fishing grounds, the dories were lowered with two men in each, and the dory mates set their trawl line, which typically had 1,200 to 1,600 baited hooks. To haul in the catch, they had to steer the dory, lift the line into the boat, and remove the fish. The dory mates returned to the schooner to off-load the fish.



Imagine having to bait and fish 1,600 of these on a single fishing line. That was one of the jobs of a dory fisherman, day in and day out, for months at a time.

Gift of Peter Nelson, from the schooner Grace L. Fears


Fish Knife

Gloucester fishermen typically baited their trawl lines with small fish such as menhaden or capelin. They used knives like this to prepare slivers of bait.


Schooner Fredonia

Designed by Edward Burgess

Built by Moses Adams, Essex, Massachusetts, 1889

Transfer from U.S. Fish Commission

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The Schooner Fredonia

The Fredonia’s deep hull, narrow beam, and fine lines represent the pinnacle of design for deepwater fishing schooners. It influenced the design of many other fishing vessels. In December 1896, while fishing on the Grand Banks, the Fredonia was hit by a heavy sea and sank. Two of its 23-man crew perished; the rest were rescued by a passing steamer.


Gift of the U.S. Fish Commission

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Fish Plow with Pewter Inlays

This type of knife, also called a plow, was used to cut the flesh of a fish along the backbone to give it a thicker, fatter appearance that appealed to customers. It was used in the iced fish trade.


Oilskin Hat

Grand Banks fishermen toiled in all kinds of weather. To protect themselves from the icy winds and spray, they wore felt-lined rubber boots and jackets and hats made of oiled canvas. This flannel-lined oilskin hat was new when it was displayed in an exhibit of fishermen’s clothing in London in 1883.


Gift of the U.S. Fish Commission

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The fishermen’s nippers were knit of woolen yarn and stuffed with woolen cloth. Fishermen were able to grasp and hold a fishing line better if they wore woolen nippers on their hands.


Gift of Wilcox, Crittenden & Co.

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Foghorn, 1880s

Getting lost in the fog was a dory man’s nightmare. Dories were equipped with foghorns that the dory mates used to signal their location. In foggy weather, men aboard the schooner would sound a more powerful fog horn operated with a pump or bellows to let the dory men know the vessel’s location.